The Book of Exodus ends with the description of the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary. Curiously, the text suggests that with the completion of the construction, Moses himself is now excluded from the precincts of the portable sanctuary, when earlier he had direct access (Exodus 40:35; see 33:9). From this point forward, it is Moses’ brother Aaron and his descendants (the kohanim) who will have sole access to the most sacred site.
This example of shifting access to the Mishkan is but one example of the general dynamic of the processes of access and exclusion in the presence of the holy. Religious systems, ancient as well as modern, define who can and cannot come into contact with “the sacred.”
Judaism evolved from a biblical focus on the sanctuary/Temple as the central site of sacred activity to a rabbinic recognition of the study of text/Torah as the central holy act. With the move from rituals of sacrifice to rituals of study, access to the sacred was separated from the issue of lineage. One did not have to be a kohen or a Levite to study Torah or to become a rabbinic leader. (Until the 20th century, however, one did have to be male, making the move from sacrifice to study only a partial “democratizing” of access to the sacred.)
Modernity, however, challenges ideas of exclusive access, and it is not surprising that those areas of Jewish practice that reflect restrictions or hierarchies have largely been ignored or eliminated by the non-Orthodox streams. Thus, for example, the ritual distinctions between kohen, Levi, and Yisrael no longer function in Reform or Reconstructionist Judaism.
Among the most far-reaching revolutions with regard to access and exclusion is the feminist movement. Jewish feminism began as the argument for “equal access”; Jewish women asked Jewish men (i.e., rabbis) if they also could become rabbis and cantors, if they also could serve as witnesses for Jewish legal procedures, if they also could assume the ritual obligations of daily prayer, tallit, and tefillin.
But as with other movements that begin with efforts at inclusion, the feminist revolution moved to issues of transformation. As access replaced exclusion, Jewish feminism transformed the ways in which we look at, understand, and experience Judaism itself. In this process, old lines of authority also begin to undergo change, as Jewish women no longer needed to ask Jewish men (i.e., rabbis) if they “can” participate in rituals formerly denied to them. A similar dynamic emerged with the inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Jews into the ranks of leadership in the Jewish community, leading to further transformations in Jewish practice, textual interpretation, and ritual.
The concept of boundaries sometimes makes us uncomfortable, because boundaries imply exclusion by denying access. One of the perplexities of opening access to “the holy” is that almost by definition, what is “holy” is distinguished from what is “mundane.” This invites the discussion of how a religious tradition opens access to what is sacred without dissolving the idea of “sacred” altogether.
Moses’s eventual exclusion from the Mishkan itself reminds us that in matters of the sacred, there are no predetermined assurances about who will have access. It does suggest a degree of humility to those who presume to control such access. After all, if even Moses could eventually find the system over which he presided transformed so radically as to exclude him, it remains an open question of who will emerge in the future as custodians of “the holy.”