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Perspectives from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism

An introduction to Jewish Spirituality by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner



  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

JUDAISM Christianity | Islam
What places are important for the religion?
by Howard Greenstein

In Jewish eyes, the Bible emphasizes time much more than space. It sees the world in the dimension of time. It values generations and events much more than countries or things. It assigns higher priority to history than to geography. Appreciating the Bible requires an awareness that time is at least as important to the meaning of life as is space. Time contains a significance and sovereignty of its own.

Curiously enough, in biblical Hebrew there is no equivalent for the word thing. In later Hebrew the word davar came to denote “thing,” because there was no better choice for the purpose, but in the Bible its meaning most often refers to message, report, tidings, advice, request, promise decision, sentence, theme, story, saying, utterance, business, occupation, act, good deed or a host of countless other meanings, but never does it mean “thing.” The Bible seems to imply that reality is not a matter of “thing-ness.”

All holidays and festivals in Judaism celebrate special times, not places or things. Rosh Hashanah is a reminder of creation and the beginning of time, and Yom Kippur is a time for repentance. Even though the major festivals originally were all harvest celebrations, they all came to commemorate historical events in time—Passover, the exodus form Egypt, Shavuot, the revelation at Sinai, and Sukkot, the wandering of Israel in the wilderness. For Judaism these unique events in time were spiritually far more important than the repetitive cycles in nature, however necessary they were to sustain physical life in the world.

Judaism, therefore, as Abraham Joshua Heschel once noted, “is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time.” No two moments are ever the same. Every passing hour is uniquely precious, special and memorable.

To be sure, the practice of this reverence for special times required physical places. In earliest times it was probably the Temple at Jerusalem which served that purpose. Even there, however, the place was important only because of the occasions it hosted, especially the plea of the High Priest in the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctuary, on the Day of Atonement. The sages taught, however, that what mattered most was not even the observance of Yom Kippur, but the day itself, the actual time, which together with human repentance, atones for all transgressions.

Today in Israel the most sacred place is probably the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the only remaining portion of the ancient wall that surrounded the outermost courtyard of the Temple. Even here, however, what renders this space most holy is not its physical structure, but the faith it symbolizes. It is essentially a repository of precious memories of all the time that has transpired from antiquity to the present day.

No synagogue is sacred because of its physical space. Strictly speaking, there is no such notion in Judaism as “God’s house.” The location does not matter. Any space can be holy. All that is required for any place to become a synagogue is the presence of a minyan, the minimal numerical requirement for a worship service (ten men in Orthodoxy, men and/or women in Reform and often in Conservative Judaism).

Rabbinic texts stipulate a synagogue should be clean and beautiful, but that condition is more a preference than a necessity. A synagogue may be little more than a bare room, and no less holy because of its starkness or austerity. This flexibility follows from the Jewish teaching that if God is presents everywhere, people may worship God in any place wherever they may be.

The synagogue, however, serves not just as a place of worship. It is also a “house of study,” a school for learning and teaching Judaism for both children and adults alike. In addition, it functions as a “house of the people,” a setting where Jews may gather together and strengthen each other in matters of Jewish observance and cultural activities. In short, what sanctifies any space as a synagogue is a matter of what happens there, not where or what it is.

In similar fashion, Judaism attaches special sanctity to the Jewish home as well. Again, however, what makes that place so special is not the physical space, but the values and ideals it embodies and signifies.

In Heschel’s words, to understand the meaning of holiness in Judaism, “The sanctity of time came first, the sanctity of man came second, and the sanctity of space last.” (The Sabbath, p.10)

Copyright ©2006 Howard Greenstein

Howard R. Greenstein serves as Rabbi of the Jewish congregation of Marco Island, Florida. He has previously served congregations in Florida, Ohio, and Massachusetts. Greenstein has been a Lecturer at the University of Florida, University of North Florida, and Jacksonville University. He is the author of Judaism: An Eternal Covenant (1983) and Turning Point: Zionism and Reform Judaism (1981).

Excerpts from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for purchase in December 2006.


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