The weekly Torah episode is T’eruma – Hebrew for ‘The Donation’ – in which fundraising is born, blueprints are drawn, and the first Jewish synagogue comes into being, detail by detailed detail, down to the hem of the priestly gowns. If you are not interested in interior design, the next few Torah portions are a challenge as they basically describe the erection of the Mishkan – Hebrew for ‘Tabernacle’, the mobile dwelling home for the Divine, down to the last crimson stitch, golden bolt and donor listing. But there’s more here than meets the eye. Modern synagogues may look nothing like this biblical ancestor but many of the basic patterns that constitute the symbols, symmetry, and mystery of sacred Jewish architecture at this time, owe their origin to this desert tent, covered with goat skins. And one of the elements that link the modern temple to the original Mishkan is the often overlooked, lovingly mocked, and secretly feared perennial pillar of religious society: the Sisterhood.
Women’s wisdom, artistry, and generosity are mentioned several times in the description of the Tabernacle, but it is ultimately an all male operation run by a hierarchy of the sons of Levi. Or is it? One verse in this week’s episode presents a literal ‘cover up’ of one interesting detail of the holy tent, revealing a glimpse into the repressed origins of the sisterhood societies. The verse describes the walls of the tent, billowing curtains of purple and blue linen:
The five curtains shall be coupled together one to another; and other five curtains shall be coupled one to another. (Exodus 26:3 King James Bible)
Some translators substitute ‘curtains’ for ‘cloths’, ‘drapes’ or ‘tapestries’, and they also differ on the word ‘coupled’ – often preferring ‘joined’.
But we find it very curious that none of the known translators into English (or Aramaic) pick on the real translation challenge in this verse – the unusual Hebrew words that can only be literally translated as; ‘ And the five curtains will link together, ‘AS A WOMAN TO HER SISTER.’
That’s right – the original sisterhood – and no credit due. The image is startling – the walls of the home for the Shekina – Hebrew for ‘The Divine Presence’, is depicted in the image of the protective feminine: sister holding sister.
Perhaps this is an instance where there are shadings of words in the original that just will not come into English, challenging the translators to render the intimate and erotic sense of these seemingly dry details of construction.
The translation of the sister-eros into a mere mechanical joining of the curtains raises an even larger issue. What other traces of the divine feminine are hidden in the furniture and furnishings of the original Hebrew home for Divine Love?
Behind these curtains, we suspect, more surprises await in the following chapters. It’s always in the small print and where you are least expected. Stay tuned.