The Torah and Making Sacred Spaces

What are we doing when we build and cherish churches, synagogues, and mosques of whatever size and grandeur today?
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Making Sacred Spaces

By Arnold M. Eisen

Chancellor, The Jewish Theological Seminary

The elevation of New York's Archbishop Timothy Dolan to the position of cardinal on February 18--with appropriate pomp on the world stage of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome--occurred shortly before observant Jews were impelled to reflection on the nature and aesthetics of sacred space by the weekly cycle of Torah readings. For the Israelites in the wilderness (unlike later Temple builders in Jerusalem), sacred space was a fairly humble affair; the plan for the Tabernacle prized order, color, and adornment, but the point was a portable structure that could easily be assembled and disassembled during the Israelites' journey through the wilderness. The very modesty of the project put the question of purpose front and center. What were the Israelites of old hoping to accomplish when they built their Tabernacle? What was God trying to achieve in ordering them to do so? What are we doing when we build and cherish churches, synagogues, and mosques of whatever size and grandeur today?

Two major hints to the Torah's intentions come at the very start of the reading Terumah. The title itself, which means "contribution," signals the first point: God commands that the Israelites' build a Tabernacle and--the paradox is obvious--that contributions to it be voluntary. Every man and woman "whose heart is moved to give" shall bring the skills, equipment, or materials with which he or she is blessed. Weavers will weave tapestries for hanging, carpenters will cut boards for the side walls, priests will use anointing oil and wear garments adorned with precious stones.

The Torah seems to understand that--especially after the awesome events at Sinai, much of which were only witnessed from afar by the Israelites rather than participated in up close--the people had a felt need for active involvement in the service of the God Who had recently liberated them from slavery. Indeed, one suspects, if they had received the order to construct the sanctuary sooner, idolatrous worship of the Golden Calf might never have taken place. Their God, they knew, is Lord of Heaven and Earth, beyond representation in any sculpted or painted image. Yet this God had redeemed them and revealed Torah to them. They needed to worship God, serve God, and feel God's presence among them.

That is the second point made at the start of Terumah: God does not promise to dwell in the sanctuary the Israelites will construct at God's command but, thanks to their building of it, God will dwell b'tokham, "in them" or "among them." The Torah is never given to long theological exposition. It does not spell out the meaning of these crucial words. We cannot miss their import, however. God cannot be captured in idols of wood or stone and cannot be said to reside inside any physical structure. God is everywhere, but must somehow also be here, really here, especially here where we are, if we are to feel connected to God. The sense of divine presence is enhanced to the degree that the "dwelling place" (literal meaning of Mishkan or Tabernacle) we build for God elicits our highest effort and meets the highest standard of beauty, dignity, and sanctity that we are conceive.

My colleague Benjamin Sommer, an eminent Bible scholar, makes the point that in other ancient Near Eastern religions, the gods themselves were said to construct their dwelling places on earth. How could mere mortal hands sully divine precincts or imagine divine tastes? The Torah gives God the role of architect and interior designer for the wilderness Tabernacle but also gives precious space for human creativity and artistry. More than manual laborers are needed for the project, God tells Moses. Craftsmen possessing wisdom, skill, and knowledge are required.

This combination of divine direction and human agency is paradigmatic for the fulfillment of the Covenant made at Sinai. God guides the people through the wilderness with fire and cloud, yet they need to do the walking themselves, led by scouts who know how to navigate the desert terrain. God gives general principles and quite specific laws to the human beings charged with carrying out the Covenant, but even the most specific laws--let alone the ethical principles--must be interpreted and reinterpreted by human judges and lawmakers before they can be acted upon and enforced.

Why (or if) God "needs" or "wants" worship is a mystery on which many thousands of theological tomes have been written over the centuries. Why we human beings need worship is clearer if also complex. Made aware of God's Presence in the world, religious individuals crave access to that Presence. Faced with so much that is low and despicable in our surroundings (and sometimes in ourselves), we need reminders of that which is Highest and Good, and of our ability to do good and rise higher. Confronted repeatedly by frailty, isolation, mortality, and error, we find strength and solace in community and the achievement that community makes possible. The building and maintenance of community depends for its vitality and direction on what the religious thinker Martin Buber called a "Living Center." Building and maintaining the Tabernacle in the center of their camp in the wilderness, outer precincts separated from inner precincts, a Holy of Holies at its center, the Israelites not only made space for God in their encampment but came together as a community. We do the same today in and through our sacred spaces.

I was reminded, as I watched the proceedings at the Vatican, of a scene I witnessed whenever I visited my father at his synagogue in Philadelphia. Attendance at Saturday morning services had long since shrunk to several dozen. Services had migrated from the main sanctuary to the much smaller chapel. The average age of the worshippers present seemed to be well past 70, if not 80. But every week without fail, just before removing the Torah scroll from the ark for the chanting of that week's portion, several men and women lined up at the rear of the chapel, prayer books open in their hands, and solemnly walked down the center aisle to the front of the chapel as the congregation sang the hymn "Ein Kamokha" (There is None Like You). This was no grand cathedral, and it lacked the power of many a Jewish ritual I had witnessed in settings far grander and more beautiful. But measured by the divine scales of infinity and presence laid out for God and for us in Parashat Terumah, it was exactly right.

Religious folk like me need our sacred spaces, as we set about adding sanctity to private and public life. We need to exercise creativity in the service of our Creator. We derive great satisfaction from bringing gifts--freely and in love--that we know have been commanded.

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