Instructions for crafting a place for God to dwell include a pair of hammered-work creatures, with upward spreading wings, facing one another above the cover of the Ark. Between the two sculptured figures is where God promises to meet Moses to deliver further Revelation (Exodus 25:10-22, in parashat Terumah: Ex 25:1-27:19). The imagery is intriguing, if disconcerting: too close to forbidden graven images, too similar to idols of neighboring ancient cultures, and, ultimately, too erotic for prime time. But I’ve I recently learned some new perspectives on the hammered-work creatures and, more generally, the way religious imagery can work for us or not.
Vocabulary and History
The Hebrew term “כְּרֻבִ֖ים (keruvim)” is rendered in transliteration, “cherubim,” by “Old  JPS” and “New  JPS” translations, perhaps following the King James Version (1611). Disappointingly, the only variation among the 26 translations at Bible Hub is one “cherubims” and one “cherubs.”
Fox (Schocken, 1995) uses “winged-sphinxes,” saying “cherubim” is “too reminiscent of chubby-cheeked baby angels in Western art.”
Alter goes with “cherubim,” adding these notes:
The cherubim, a common feature of ancient Near Eastern mythology, are not to be confused with the round-cheeked darlings of Renaissance iconography. The root of the term either means “hybrid” or, by an inversion of consonants, “mount,” “steed”…(at Genesis 3:24).
These are fearsome winged beasts (compare the Egyptian sphinx) that figure in poetry as God’s celestial steed and that here serve as His terrestrial throne (at Exodus 25:18)
— Alter (Norton, 2004)
I didn’t find a lot of fresh insight on the relevant passages at LOLcat Bible, but I do really like “wingCatz.” (Too cutesy? Consider the union B. Talmud Yoma 54a tells us was part of festival proceedings; see below.)
My Jewish Learning’s background entry, reprinted from Rabbi Louis Jacobs’ reference work, sums up Jewish response across the ages, calling the imagery a “source of puzzlement and embarrassment,” on the one hand, and then declaring: “There is not much interest in the cherubim in Jewish thought….there is no reference to the cherubim anywhere in the liturgy.”
wingCatz in Liturgy
The term “cherubim” may not appear directly in the liturgy, but we do recite Ps. 99:5 (as well as 99:9) at the start of every Torah service: “Exalt the LORD our God and bow to His footstool; he is holy.” (Sacks Koren translation)
רוֹמְמוּ, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ, וְהִשְׁתַּחֲווּ, לַהֲדֹם רַגְלָיו: קָדוֹשׁ הוּא.
The opening verse of this psalm explicitly mentions cherubim, and the Torah Service as a whole is understood as a reenactment of Sinai and desert trek. (See, e.g., “From Study of Scripture to a Reenactment of Sinai” and “Torah Service as a Reenactment of Sinai.”) God’s “footstool” is both the earth and the Ark cover of Exodus 25. So the reference to wingCatz seems hard to miss.
Moreover, piyutim [religious poetry], apparently once intended for synagogue worship, include erotic images exegetically linked to the cherubim via Song of Songs. Song of Songs, itself recited in synagogue during Passover, while never mentioning “cherubim” outright, has long been interpreted in ways that include Tabernacle imagery as an expression of love between God and Israel.
wingCatz in Talmud and Piyut
Jacobs’ article mentions “a curious Talmudic legend,” which is found in B. Talmud Yoma 54a: “Rav Ketina said: When the Jewish people would ascend for one of the pilgrimage Festivals, the priests would roll up the curtain for them and show them the cherubs, which were clinging to one another [‘as if in sexual congress,’ Jacobs explains] and say to them: See how you are beloved before God, like the love of a male and female.” (Steinsaltz translation)
Just prior to this, we read: “The staves of the Ark pushed and protruded and stuck out against the curtain toward the outside, and appeared like the two breasts of a woman pushing against her clothes. As it is stated: ‘My beloved is to me like a bundle of myrrh, that lies between my breasts’ (Song 1:13). For this reason the Ark of the Covenant, where the Divine Presence rests, is positioned so that its staves protrude through the curtain, like the breasts of a woman.” (also Steinsaltz Yoma 54a)
These teachings help set the scene for Solomon ibn Gabirol’s “The Gate Long Shut.” This piyut incorporates Song of Songs 1:13 and works from a similar erotic view of the God-Israel relationship as suggested in the Yoma texts:
The gate long shut —
Get up and throw it wide;
The stag [gazelle] long fled—
Send him to my side.
When one day you come
To lie between my breasts,
That day your scent
Will cling to me like wine.”
— ibn Gabirol, Shaar Asher Nisgar (full lyrics in Hebrew and English translation as well as numerous musical links)
wingCatz At Work, or Not
In his book on medieval Hebrew religious poetry, Raymond Scheindlin writes about “Shaar Asher Nisgar“:
The beloved’s breasts in this verse [verse 2] were traditionally understood to represent two golden cherubim that stood on the ark in the Holy of Holies or the two poles by which that ark was carried in the desert and which remained with it in the Temple. They are thus a synecdoche for the site of revelation, understood as the intimate rendezvous of Israel and God.
— Scheindlin, The Gazelle: Medieval Hebrew Poems on God, Israel, and the Soul
(full citation, more info in link above)
When, some time back, I first encountered Scheindlin’s explication of this poem, my eyes glazed over, and I confess thinking: “well, that’s about as inspiring as an Artscroll translation of the Song of Songs.” I wondered how it was that ibn Gabirol is called the greatest poet of his age, maybe of any….
But then my study partner and I spent some months with Scheindlin’s book. Meanwhile, with all the talk about Robert Alter’s newly released Tanakh translation, I became obsessed with the NYT Sunday Magazine story about his dislike for the word “lodge” (for the Hebrew “yalin“) in the King James version of Song 1:13 — see, e.g., “Spend the Night.” Scheindlin renders the same Hebrew root as “lie between” in “Shaar Asher Nisgar” (above). I slowly developed an inkling that I’d been missing the point of “Shaar Asher Nisgar” and in the use, more generally, of cherubim as a metaphor.
wingCatz and “the Leap”
In a class offered by the Rumi Center for Spirituality and the Arts, poet/teacher Baraka Blue was explaining how poetry cannot offer an experience but only describe something else and hope the reader can “make the leap” for themselves. (I’m sure he was much more eloquent than that, but that’s the gist — or what I took away, anyhow.) Nothing groundbreaking on its own. But…
…in the same way that a student of George Ballanchine’s once told my ballet class how he would say, “your toes are always pointed, when your foot is off the floor.” She’d been hearing it for years and thinking, basically, “well, duh!” And then, one day, working at the barre, she suddenly thought, and felt in her body: “Oh! I see: Your toes are always pointed, when your foot is off the floor!”…
…I suddenly realized: Oh! I see: Cherubim, or carrying poles, as breasts is meant to suggest an experience by describing one thing in the hope that the reader can “make the leap” to something else.
But too many attempts to explain the wonder and tenderness and power and fearsomeness out of the wingCatz nearly destroyed the power of what was once a working metaphor. Too many instructions to “move along, nothing to see here” — as Rabbi Louis Jacobs and so many others encouraged over the centuries — worked to assign the wingCatz to the realm of specialists, when they were once intended for the masses. Ages of misogyny and insistence on heteronormative pictures of “love” and “beloved” did their damage as well. But the wingCatz can still help us “make the leap” to an understanding of Revelation as an intimate act.
Next up: another Talmudic story involving the “intimate rendezvous of Israel and God” between the wingCatz and what happened when the relationship grew (c)older.
Meanwhile, in the spirit of Adar joy, consider checking out the Drisha Institute’s program on “Songs of My Beloved,” intended to help in preparing for Passover, and the many musical versions of ibn Gabirol’s piyut. Here’s the link again: Shaar Asher Nisgar
the cherubim will shield the cover. (25:19)
“their faces each one to the other” [וּפְנֵיהֶ֖ם אִ֣ישׁ אֶל־אָחִ֑יו]
and turned toward the cover. (25:20)
I will meet with you, there [וְנוֹעַדְתִּי לְךָ, שָׁם],
speak with you [וְדִבַּרְתִּי אִתְּךָ]
from above the cover [מֵעַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת],
from between the two sculptured beings [מִבֵּין שְׁנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים]
that are on top of the Ark of the Pact [אֲשֶׁר עַל-אֲרוֹן הָעֵדֻת]
all that I will command you [אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוֶּה אוֹתְךָ]
The whole matter of the cherubim was a source of puzzlement and embarrassment to the Jewish teachers….
Except in the kabbalah, there is not much interest in the cherubim in Jewish thought. It is perhaps significant in this connection that while the liturgy contains references to other forms of angels, the ophanim and seraphim, for example, there is no reference to the cherubim anywhere in the liturgy.
— My Jewish Learning article on cherubim, originally from Rabbi Louis Jacobs (1920-2006), The Jewish religion: a companion (Oxford, 1995), reprinted throughout My Jewish Learning
“While the King was yet at Sinai my malodorous deed gave forth its scent as my Golden Calf defiled the covenant. But my Beloved responded with a bundle of myrrh — the fragrant atonement of erecting a Tabernacle where His Presence would dwell amid the Holy Ark’s staves.”
— Song 1:12-13 as translated for Artscroll Chumash