Friday, February 04, 2022

Nothing is Sacred Anymore


The erection of the tabernacle and the Sacred vessels, as in Exodus 40:17–19;
from the 1728 Figures de la Bible
Holiness is found when the divine interrupts the mundane. In the Tanakh, God Himself will sanctify a place or a time. Shabbat is sanctified by God and made holy. At the burning bush, God tells Moshe to remove his shoes because he is standing on holy ground. When the Torah is given at Sinai, God declares the entire mountain as sacred space. Holiness is what occurs when God’s presence alters ordinary reality. Many rabbis take this idea a step further and see holy places and times as having supernatural qualities. The Shabbat gives its adherents an additional soul, and the land of Israel influences prophets and wise men to hear the word of God. To encounter something holy is to leave the ordinary and enter a portal into a divine realm.

Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik offers a very different understanding of holiness. He explains, “Holiness is created by man, by flesh and blood,” and sharply criticizes those who see holiness as supernatural, saying that view smacks of “fetishism.” He explained in a lecture that “Holiness is not a supernatural designation that descends from heaven to earth, becoming attached to a certain object. Things do not become sanctified of their own accord. … Holiness is a human creation.” Rav ​Soloveitchik notes that the land of Israel needed to be sanctified by conquest and settlement. The Temple was only declared holy after an elaborate ritual. Sacrifices are made holy by a verbal declaration. The Jewish calendar is fixed by the declarations of the court; even the High Holy Days depend on the court’s declaration of the New Moon. Holiness is not when God intrudes into our lives; instead, it is created by man, who seeks to draw God down to earth. The Rav’s definition of holiness is ​human centered.

This human-centered view of holiness became more significant after the destruction of the Second Temple. The Temple was the national center of worship, a place of awe and trembling; the Mishnah relates that ten miracles occurred in the Temple every day. After the destruction of the Temple, the challenge the rabbis faced was how to fill the spiritual vacuum.

One replacement for the Temple was the synagogue. Prayers replaced the Temple service, and the timing of our morning and afternoon prayers correspond to when the daily Korban Tamid sacrifices were offered. The synagogue is a “mikdash me’at” (Ezekiel 11:16), a miniature Temple, a local sanctuary created to fill the void left by the Temple.

Synagogues are a dramatic act of reimagination, and the inspiration for the institution of synagogue derives from our parsha. The Mishkan was a traveling sanctuary, taken from place to place; and in exile the Temple would be replaced by miniature sanctuaries, which the Jews would create as they traveled from country to country. Even without the Temple, the Jews would commune with God; they would invite Him to join them in synagogues small and large, in every corner of the world.

More remarkable is how the Jewish home became a replacement for the Temple. This process had actually begun before the destruction, with the Chanukah Menorah, which introduced an aspect of the Temple service into every home. And after the destruction, every home became a house of God. One brings God into the home when inviting guests to their table; as the Talmud says, “When the Temple still stood, the altar atoned for Israel. Now that it is destroyed, a person’s table atones for him.” One brings God into the home when sharing words of Torah at a meal; the Mishnah says: “Three who have eaten together and shared words of Torah, it is as if they had eaten at God’s table.” Multiple rituals related to our daily and Shabbat meals are reminders of the Temple service: washing hands for bread, adding salt, and leaving candlesticks on the table. Some are even meticulous to have 12 miniature loaves for the Shabbat meal, just like the 12 loaves placed on the table in the Temple.

After the destruction, the Jews made their homes and their synagogues enclaves of holiness; wherever they wandered, they never left God behind. At least until now.

I find it difficult to preach about holiness because the concept is increasingly foreign. ​First, we live in a secular age which doesn’t understand holiness. But even for those who still live religious lives, the commitment necessary for holiness is lacking. Rav Solovetichik is correct that holiness is created by man; and that is ​a challenge. Holiness cannot be a hobby, the domain of dilettantes; it requires dedication.

Today, the great concern of synagogues is that their congregants won’t return; perhaps the disruptions caused by the coronavirus will lead to a great synagogue resignation. The question on everyone’s mind is: After lounging on the couch Shabbat after Shabbat, will people once again get up, get dressed, and go to synagogue? Behind these worries is the unspoken assumption that people’s commitment was already lacking before the coronavirus struck. The call of our Parsha is: “And they shall make a Sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them.” Unfortunately, no one has the time for sanctuaries anymore. What’s there left to preach?

Last October, I had the opportunity to view a truly holy object. I was invited by Nishmat to a viewing of the Luzzatto High Holiday Mahzor at Sotheby’s; we were guided by Sharon Liberman Mintz, Sotheby’s Senior Consultant for Judaica, who gave a presentation on its production, ​text, and history. This Mahzor is unique, an imposing codex that dates to the late 13th century, that is in excellent condition and almost completely intact. At auction, it far exceeded the asking price, and sold for $8.3 million. Writing and illuminating this beautiful Mahzor was clearly a great effort, with a talented scribe painstakingly writing and illustrating the text on parchment, and other artisans adding in special illustrations, including some in gold and silver leaf.

What moved me most were the Mahzor's travels. It was taken from Bavaria not long after being commissioned, as the Jewish community fled in wake of the Rintfleisch​ massacres and brought to Alsace. It was taken from Alsace after the community fled in wake of Black Death massacres and brought to Lake Constance. It was taken from Lake Constance after a blood libel and brought to Northern Italy. (It was later bought by the great scholar Samuel David Luzzatto for his library, whose estate sold it to the library of the Alliance Israélite Universelle; the Alliance was the seller at auction.) In the darkest moments of persecution, the Jews still held tight to this Mahzor.I

Being able to spend time with this remarkable Mahzor was a transformative experience. It is not just an artifact; it tells the story of a people often uprooted and homeless, who still were able to make room for God. The dedication the Mahzor represents is the very definition of what holiness means.

And that dedication is only possible if people can get ​off their couch.

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