I’ll soon be on my way to the Sinai, Jerusalem, and Safed—my first trip to these “holy” places. And so I find myself wondering about holiness and space. For I am of two (at least) minds about holiness and place. I reject the assignment of permanent holiness to any place on earth, or in the heavens or anywhere within the creation for that matter. But I also recognize that some places on earth carry palpable memories of encounters with God, the Holy One.
Rabid monotheist that I am, I resist any and all permanent identification of holiness with a particular place. It is encounters with the God who can be contained nowhere, who can surprise us anywhere that give us a sense of holiness, the sense that we have gone beyond our ordinary experience. What was holy about that rock where Ya’akov lay his head was his dream experience of the nearness of heaven and earth, which announced his imminent meeting with the face of God as forgiveness in Esau. What was holy about that ground Moshe stood on was his encounter with the divine presence, I Will Be Who I will Be, in that little bush. The holiness was not in the rock or the bush, but—as Martin Buber might say—in that extraordinary I-Thou “betweenness” that occurred there, a holiness to be remembered in story, not visited as a monument erected on that very spot.
When King Solomon dedicated the temple in Jerusalem, he is recorded as saying:
But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You; much less this temple that I have erected. And You shall turn toward Your servant's prayer and to his supplication, O Lord my God: to hearken to the song and to the prayer that Your servant is praying before You today.That Your eyes may be open toward this house night and day, toward the place which You said, 'My Name will be there;' to listen to the prayer that Your servant will pray toward this place. And You shall listen to the supplication of Your servant and of Your people Israel that they will pray toward this place; and You shall hear in heaven, Your abode, and You shall hear and forgive. (I Kings 8: 27-30).
It was not the temple as a holy place Solomon was after, it seems, but the temple as an invitation to prayer, the encounter between God and human beings, in which one can meet the One and experience the forgiving face of God turned toward them. That meeting was the holiness Solomon wanted to make available, a meeting that would transform lives. God would not, could not dwell in that magnificent space. Human beings might, however, remember there that the Holy One of Israel dwelt in the midst of Israel whenever and wherever Israel acted as they were created to be, in the image of God, justly and with lovingkindness. It also seems to me that in hoping that Israel would pray toward “this place,” Solomon was asking not that the people limit God and holiness to that impressive and luxurious space, but that they keep their hearts turned toward HaMakom, God the Place, to live always as if standing before the face of God, the center and circumference of the world, wherever they were.
When we fight over owning “our” holy places, what are we fighting over? Emptiness—and not in the good sense of spiritual emptiness as openness to the One. Why are we not fighting to hallow the world by inviting God into our lives were on earth with acts of mercy and justice?
In the weeks to come, I will return to my second point--those palpable memories of encounters with the Holy One that seem to linger in certain places. I don’t know how my views on holy ground, places, and land will change in the coming weeks as I experience the Sinai, Jerusalem, and Safed, but I am sure they will.