Jews are known more for holy time than holy space — for sanctifying moments and building what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called palaces in time The Torah, though, is very concerned with holy space, and the Land of Israel and the Temple in Jerusalem are the primary focus of the Torah’s laws and narratives.
What are generally understood as holy sites today — places of historical or communal significance where grand or gruesome things happened, or places of natural wonder where we stand in awe and recognize God’s handiwork — are not what are understood as sacred sites in the Torah.
Rather, in the Torah, holy sites are portals that welcome God’s presence into the world and that allow humans to engage and appeal to God. They are places in which individuals not only recognize God’s presence but also feel God’s presence. They are places saturated with God. Patriarch Jacob may express this best. Waking up from his dream in which a ladder connects heaven to earth, Jacob says: “Indeed, God is in this place, and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16). Jacob knows he has stumbled upon a gateway to heaven.
Similarly, Moses finds himself on holy ground in the third chapter of the Book of Exodus. While herding sheep, Moses turns to see a burning bush that is not destroyed. Though curious, he does not recognize that he is standing on holy ground (אדמת-קדש). God must tell him.
The experiences of Jacob and Moses suggest that humans mark holy spaces rather than make them. In these stories, it is God who breaks through to saturate and sanctify space. Humans simply respond. But another paradigm exists in which humans break through to God and God responds. Released from the ark after the flood, Noah, of his own volition, builds an altar and offers sacrifices to God. Responding to the sweet smells, God vows never again to doom the Earth and its creatures, and then blesses Noah and his children. In Genesis 12, following God’s command, Abraham heads to the land of Canaan. He arrives at Ai, builds an altar, and boldly calls to God to invoke God’s presence. And Exodus 19:3 suggests that Moses climbs Mount Sinai to meet God before God calls to him.
These stories reveal that humans can open the portal to God and sanctify space. This paradigm appeals to me for two reasons. First, it empowers humans and suggests that we can mark and construct holy spaces. Holiness is not necessarily an integral component of a place. Knowing this enables humans to transform any place into sacred space by welcoming the Divine.
I’m also drawn to this paradigm because it conveys the notion that holy space is where God’s presence is both recognized and felt. Contemporary Jews are often more comfortable recognizing God than feeling God. This certainly is true for me. I easily marvel at the natural world’s design that attests to the supernatural. And yet I want a holy place to be more than a marvel. I want it to be a place of communion where I both recognize and feel God’s presence.
In Torah, there are portals that allow God and humans to commune. Sometimes, God opens the door for humans. Other times, humans open the door for God.
This story "Open Doors and Holy Space" was written by Amy Kalmanofsky.
Rabbi Amy Kalmanofsky, PhD, is the dean of List College at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Blanche and Romie Shapiro Associate Professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary.