Cherubs Remind Us Of God Without Limits
Exodus 25:1 27:19;
I Kings 5:26-6:13.
very February, Americans
send out cards with little
winged kids and big red
Valentine's Day, though generally
regarded by the Jewish community as a
celebration "not ours," has a Jewish
We call these winged creatures
"cherubs" in English — a word direct
from the Hebrew cheruv, described sev-
eral times in Hebrew scriptures as a
winged attendant of the Divine. But
the cheruvim of Torah look and act
nothing like the Cupid-cherub that's a
symbol of love.
When God closes Eden to Adam
and Eve, God places "Cheruvim at the
east of the Garden of Eden and the
ever-turning flaming sword, to guard
the way of the tree of life ( Genesis
3:24)." Creatures that were part
human, part beast and part bird would
Joseph Klein is rabbi of Temple
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guard the entrance to temples and wor-
Moses to receive instructions.
Rashbam (of 12th-century France)
A similar protecting role to what we
thought them very different from the
read in this week's portion, where God
"sphinx-like" guardians of other ancient
instructs the Israelites to "make two
Near-East cultures, recalling the words
cherubim of gold, of hammered work,
of the Talmud that they had faces like
at the two ends of the cover [of the
children (ke-rabbiya). Rashbam's com-
Ark]." The cherubim are to
ment that because they are so
have their wings spread out
close to God (the Hebrew
above, shielding the cover.
word for "close" is keruv), they
And there, we're told,
represent the purity and good-
between the two cherubim,
ness of young children, may
God meets us.
be the connecting link
What are we doing with
between the scary cheruv of
statues, graven images, in our
Torah and the cutesy cherub
early Israelite religion? And
why were they in the most
Most insightful, however, is
sanctified of places, sitting on
the remark of Hizkuni (of
RABBI J OSEPH 13th-century France) that the
top of the Ark of the
Covenant, right in the center
reason the cheruvim are per-
of the Holy of Holies? Didn't
missible is that they are not
the Ten Commandments
worship objects, but rather
prohibit fashioning images of
symbolize God's invisible glo-
anything in the heavens or on earth?
rious throne. The cheruvim, supporting
The placement and significance of
an invisible throne, remind us that if
the cherubim troubled our medieval
we cannot see the throne itself, how
sages as well. Rashi (of 11th-century
much less can we envision the God
France) explained that "a voice descend-
whose presence fills it. The physical
ed from the heavens between the cheru-
image of the cheruvim, then, draws our
bim, and from there issued and was
attention to the impossibility of an
heard by Moses in the Tent of
image for God.
Meeting." Thus for Rashi, these statues-
It seems appropriate that for ancient
images were not "holy" in and of them-
Israel, the cheruvim would come to
selves, but were merely a locus for
symbolize the Divine Presence.
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Characterized by their mobility, having
wings, and with the combined features
of different, disparate creatures — they
were altogether unnatural beings. Since
God moves where and how we cannot,
since God is nothing like anything we
know, the cheruvim are apt symbols for
the Divine. Because God is ain sof
"without limit," we need tangible
reminders that God is with us, and
within us. As the winged other-worldly
cheruvim of Scripture did that for our
ancestors, why not let our modern,
Western, cherubic winged-archer Cupid
do the same for us today? Where
indeed is God, if not in the love-struck
Though we cannot weigh, measure
or in any way quantify "love" — still
we know it is real, that it lives within
us, that it gives our lives value and
meaning. What better locus for the
What symbols or figures from
our modern culture might some-
day be reworked as "Jewish"?
What other metaphors do we use
to point us toward God's pres-
ence in our world?
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