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A Person’s Ethical Behavior should Reflect the Tabernacle for God – Pure and Upright: Parashat Teruma

Rabbi Diana Villa
| 12/02/2024

Building the Ark in the Tabernacle (Mishkan) is the focus of this week’s Torah portion – Teruma. Rabbi Diana Villa expounds on rabbinical sources connecting a person’s ethics and behavior, in particular Torah scholars, to the role of the Mishkan in Jewish Life.

Our parashah describes the Tabernacle’s ark, one of its main appurtenances. Besides giving exact measurements, we are told, “You shall cover (the wood) with pure gold from the inside and from the outside.” (Exodus 25:11) A few chapters later (ibid. 37:2) we are informed that Bezalel followed those instructions.

Midrash Tanḥuma (Vayakhel 7) derives the following lesson from this:

“R. Ḥanina of Sepphoris said that Bezalel made three chests for the ark, two of gold and one of wood. He inserted the wooden chest into one golden one, and then the other golden one into the wooden one. After that he covered the edges with gold in order to fulfill what is written: ‘He covered it with pure gold, inside and out.’ (Exod. 37:2)…From here we learn that a scholar’s inside should be as his exterior.”

The Talmud expands on this (Yoma 72b) as Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani said in the name of Rabbi Yonatan that this refers to scholars,who immerse themselves in Torah and have no fear of Heaven,” that is they are hypocritical, outwardly appearing as ethical and secretly acting in a different way.

We are unfortunately familiar with cases in which a scholar’s interior is different from his (or her) exterior. These are people who think that they are righteous if they are strict in ritual areas while being lax when it comes to ethical commandments.

The Talmud strongly condemns unethical behavior by Torah scholars!

In Yoma 86a Rabbi Yannai said, “Any case when one’s friends are embarrassed on account of his reputation, this is a desecration of God’s name.” and Abaye adds, “One who reads Torah, learns Mishnah and serves Torah scholars, but his business practices are not done faithfully, and he does not speak pleasantly with other people, what do people say about him? Woe to so-and-so who studied Torah, woe to his father who taught him Torah, woe to his teacher who taught him Torah. So-and-so who studied Torah, see how destructive are his deeds, and how ugly are his ways.”

In another Talmudic section (Mo’ed Katan 17a) the rabbis express conflicting opinions regarding punishment for such behavior – excommunication or lashes.

In the 12th century, Maimonides ruled that sanctions should be applied only if a scholar misbehaved publicly, and never only on the basis of rumors. His son Rabbi Abraham, thought that sanctions should apply only in cases of promiscuous sexual behavior.

Rabbis in our times do not have the same authority as Talmudic rabbis, but they are our spiritual leaders and are consulted in matters of Jewish law. They should not cause God’s name to be desecrated by sullying Judaism in the eyes of the public. Various rabbinic authorities between the 14th and 20th centuries suggested removing rabbis who had committed severe transgressions from their positions.

Many rabbis in our days belong to rabbinic organizations whose ethical committees suspend or expel rabbis who commit serious offenses. However, in modern society, these rabbis can conduct life cycle events independently. They can also join other organizations or move to another city or country and continue serving as rabbis.

In at least two cases in the 19th and 20th centuries rabbis were ordained conditionally, that is their ordination could be invalidated by their rabbinic seminaries in certain cases.

The Rabbinical Assembly in Israel’s law committee unanimously approved my responsum recommending such a severe sanction by the ordaining institution, especially in cases of sexual impropriety or misuse of communal funds. Such a sanction would invalidate that person’s right to call him or herself a rabbi.

Let us hope that we are not privy to more cases of rabbis whose behavior does not reflect what they represent and that they are all golden inside and outside, just like the ark in the Tabernacle.




(illustration: Tabernacle by Aleksig6 – wikicommons)

Diana Villa lectures at the Schechter Rabbinical School. A native of Argentina, she has degrees in Philosophy, Jewish Philosophy, Psychology and Talmud as well as rabbinic ordination. Rabbi Villa was a researcher at the Center for Women in Jewish Law, where she co-authored two books on halakhic solutions to the agunah problem and responsa on current issues. She represents The Schechter Institute at I.C.A.R. (International Coalition for Agunah Rights), and is a member of the steering committee and the Committee on Jewish Law of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel. She is the proud mother of one daughter and three grandchildren including twin granddaughters.

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