Torah Portion: Who are the Cherubim (Kerubim) or the winged statutes atop the Holy Ark?

Anna Batler blogs about faith and feminism at http://sotah.net/.  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Anna Batler.

I look for cracks, moments when the normative tradition allows in its midst a weed. The Cherubim are a crack in the normative tradition.  A pair of cherubim, with faces and wings, adorned the Ark of the Covenant – either atop the ark or standing in front of the ark, covering the ark with their golden wings.

And he [Bazelel] made two cherubim of gold: of beaten work made he them, at the two   ends of the ark-cover: one cherub at the one end, and one cherub at the other end; of          one piece with the ark-cover made he the cherubim at the two ends thereof. And          the       cherubim spread out their wings on high, screening the ark-cover with their wings, with   their faces one to another; toward the ark-cover were the faces of the cherubim.  Exodus 37:7-9.

And in the Sanctuary he [King Solomon] made two cherubim of olive-wood, each ten       cubits high. And five cubits was the one wing of the cherub, and five cubits the other           wing of the cherub; from the uttermost part of the one wing unto the uttermost part of the   other were ten             cubits. And the other cherub was ten cubits; both the cherubim were of      one measure and one form. The height of the one cherub was ten cubits, and so was it of          the other cherub. And he set the cherubim within the inner house; and the wings of the     cherubim were stretched forth, so that the wing of the one touched the one wall, and the      wing of the other cherub touched the other wall; and their wings touched one another in          the midst of the house. And he overlaid the cherubim with gold. I Kings 6: 23-28.

And,

The wings of these cherubim spread themselves forth twenty cubits; and they stood on     their feet, and their faces were inward.  II Chronicles 3:13

Making images of the Divine is forbidden.  This one of the Ten Commandments and a central tenant of Jewish tradition, it is against this backdrop that that golden calf becomes a terrible sin.  And yet the Cherubim stand in this most sacred space, the place from where God speaks.

And there I will meet with thee, and I will speak with thee from above the ark-cover,        from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things            which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel. Exodus 25:22.

According to one opinion in the Talmud, the Cherubim faced each other when the Jews were obeying God, and faced away when the Jews were disobedient. Baba Betra 99a.  Yet, the text is clear that the Cherubim faced each other – why then is Talmud discussing their positioning?  Perhaps the Talmud is looking for an explanation for their existence, keenly aware that there is little explanation for such creatures in the Jewish tradition, and even a bit embarrassed by their presence. The Talmud, expresses its embarrassment by describing what the other thought of our Cherubim.

When the heathens entered the Temple and saw the Cherubim whose bodies were  intertwisted with one another, they carried them out and said: These Israelites, whose blessing is a blessing, and whose curse is a curse, occupy themselves with such things!  And immediately they despised them, as it is said: All that honored her, despised her, because they have seen her nakedness.

The Cherubim are our nakedness; a vulnerable moment – a moment that questions the very foundation of normative Judaism, where God has no face and no name; a crack in the holy of holies.  Perhaps, the sacred demands inconsistency and ambiguity even if might embarrass.