Sermon: The Mishkan – Not so weird after all

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 21 February 2015

I’m a bit weird.  It’s true.
I know I am.

And most of you are a bit weird, too.

Now, I’m not trying to be rude, I promise.
I’m just describing us as some sociologists or psychologists would.

Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich (compared to the rest of the world, if not to each other) Democratic.
W – E – I – R – D: Weird

It is a term that is applied particularly to the educated middle classes of Western countries – especially in America.  And it is an increasingly important concept in sociology, psychology, and even in moral philosophy. It is an idea that I came across in one of the many books which were sat in a metaphorical pile on my kindle waiting to be read during my sabbatical; a wonderful book called The Righteous Mind by an American cultural psychologist called Jonathan Haidt.

Weird people, it turns out, think differently to the rest of the world.  If you ask people to write twenty statements starting “I am”, the weirder you are, the more likely you are to list things specifically about yourself – your personal characteristics – “I am outgoing, I am thoughtful, I am a football lover”;
Those from a less weird culture are more likely to say: I am a husband, a son, a friend and so on – to identify themselves by their relationships – their families, their social networks, their employment.

This goes deeper than just different ways of self-describing.  In psychological testing looking at visual perception, those from wealthy, highly educated, Western cultures are better at remembering or identifying shapes as absolutes – their size, for example
– while those from non-weird cultures are more inclined to see shapes as they are positioned relative to other objects – to see the relationships between things.

From the perspective of the researcher, the important thing about the weird phenomenon is that it skews psychological testing – much of which is done using students, in primarily American universities, who, it turns out, are the most WEIRD, and therefore the least representative when it comes to how most of the world thinks.

But when you know about it, the ‘Weird’ phenomenon also provides an insight into many features of modern life – it speaks to features of our national politics, the modern Western approach to religion – it helps to explain the misunderstanding and mistranslation of ideas and ideals between different cultures.  The characteristics and values of WEIRD societies, which are found in parts of the world that experienced what we call ‘enlightenment’ and ‘enlightenment thinking’, remain uncommon elsewhere.

This also applies to our approach to ethics and to the public good.
Being weird is associated with an Ethic of autonomy – one which brings some wonderful things – a belief in equality and human rights, for example – but an ethic of autonomy is primarily concerned with freedom, personal welfare, absence of harm, and not with other ideals such as duty, responsibility to others, our relationships with one another.

So the concept of weird came to mind over the last couple of weeks when the issue of tax avoidance came to prominence in the news.  Tax avoidance of the sort that came to light over the last couple of weeks is not morally problematic in a weird world – if it’s not illegal, if it does not explicitly cause harm to another person, then it is a matter for the individual –what matters is personal benefit, personal freedom, to the exclusion of concepts of the common good.


Now I say we’re a bit weird – because Judaism – while certainly weird in many, wonderful ways, is an antidote to many of the harsher features of this world view.  Judaism is based around an ethic of community – the Jewish emphasis is on family, on community, on mitzvah – on duty.

And this is an idea that is expressed incredibly powerfully in the building of the mishkan, from which Josh read instructions this morning.  Put aside the strangeness of all the detail for a moment, put aside the oddity of building a house for a God who is self expressly not limited to dwelling in a house.  What you have is a model of engagement and values that is utterly different to that found in many aspects of modern society.

This was a communal act, a shared endeavour through which the people created a communal space – owned by the community, for the community.
And because the mishkan was to serve the entire community, the entire community were to be asked to contribute, in an extraordinary act of free giving.  Each gave as an individual, but also as part of community.  There was no sense in which the contribution was grudging.  Rather, the whole community gave and gave willingly.

We will read in a few weeks (when the actual building is described) that the people had to be told to stop bringing contributions because they had brought more than was needed.  According to one Midrash, All that was necessary for the building of the tabernacle was brought in the short space of “two morning hours”.

And all gave irrespective of their standing within society.  There is another, rather entertaining midrash that says that the princes of the tribes – the aristocracy, and wealthy of the day – they delayed somewhat and only in the end did they realise they had to get involved.  But, ultimately, even though they could have chosen to free-ride on the people, they did not.

Underlying the building is a very different concept of ownership to that found in weird societies.  In a weird world, what I have is mine – I earned it, I have the right to do with it as I wish.  According to a poll in America last year, only 1 in 3 of Americans believed that the moral duty to contribute to public services was stronger than the right to keep the money one earns. In the world of the mishkan, what I have brings responsibility, in part because we recognise that our ownership of property is conditional – dependent on our relationships, on the efforts of others, on our place in society.

To the rabbis, the act of giving is not one of personal choice, but of duty.  The Hebrew word used for the gifts given by the Israelites, the name of this weeks sidra – is Terumah.  From the same Hebrew root (reish vav mem) as words like ramah and marom which both mean height.  – Through the act of giving we raise up not only those to whom we give, but also ourselves, and the whole society in which we live.  And underlying that is a view of the world which does not only see each of us as an individual, but as a set of relationships.


In truth, the building of the mishkan is an odd piece of text.  Pages of detail, unfair to impose on a thirteen year old.  But the wider project it represents was very special indeed.
If you sit on a Bet Din, interviewing candidates for conversion, one of the things that they will often cite as special about Judaism, about what we have, is the quality of being in relationship with one another – the importance of family, of community, of a sense of obligation that extends beyond myself to those around me.  I used to think it was quite a trite thing to say.  But actually it is the most important thing of all, and it is the thing that modern society lacks.
The building of the mishkan represents that set of values, that sense of relationship – it speaks of an alternative to a prevailing, individualised culture concerned primarily with the self.

To put it another way, the mishkan may be very odd, but it also tells us something important, something that all of us in this society need to remember – it tells us that we should try to be a bit less WEIRD.