Consider and Converse: A Guide to Makom Kadosh

Artwork by David Wander
Artwork by David Wander

Consider and Converse: A Guide to makom kadosh/sacred space


Sh’ma Now curates conversations on a single theme rooted in Jewish tradition and the contemporary moment. At the heart of this issue of Sh’ma Now is the Jewish sensibility of makom kadosh/sacred space. I was drawn to this topic for two very specific reasons. Since reading — decades ago — Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book, The Sabbath, I have been intrigued with the idea that “Judaism is a religion of time…” When I edited a volume on Rosh Chodesh, the holiday marking the New Moon, in the 1990s, I was brought again deeply into the realm of Jewish time. But the Torah also tells us about significant places — for example the spot where Jacob dreamt of a ladder to heaven and, of course, all of the writing about the Land of Israel. I’m generally quite intrigued by these Jewish contradictions — what can we tease out and how do we understand this ambiguity? The second reason I’ve been so drawn to the theme of makom kadosh is because of the question: What makes a space holy? Is a place sacred because of its location — as designated in the Torah — or because of what happens there — such as a synagogue or mikvah — or because of what we do to make it holy: for example, providing safe and friendly sanctuary to asylum seekers?

Sh’ma Now has never viewed learning or “meaning-making” as solely an individual activity. That’s why we have included this guide, which is specifically designed to help you to consider the idea of going forth independently or with others, formally and informally.

#How to Begin

This guide offers a variety of suggestions, including activities and prompts for individual contemplation and informal or structured conversations. We suggest that you use this guide to share reflections and thoughts over a Shabbat meal, or, for those who are more adventurous, to lead a planned, structured conversation, inviting a small group of friends and family to your home or to a coffee shop. If you would like more information about ways in which this journal can be used, please contact Susan Berrin, Sh’ma Now editor-in-chief. You can also print out a PDF file of the entire issue.

#Guidelines for Discussion

If you wish to hold a structured conversation, the following guidelines may help you to create a space that allows for honest personal exploration through sharing:

  • Create a sense of shared purpose that can foster the kind of internal reflection that happens through group conversation.
  • Remind participants of simple ground rules for conversations. For example: Avoid commenting on and critiquing each other’s comments. Make room for everyone to speak. Step into or away from the conversation appropriately. No one participant should dominate the conversation. Let silence sit, allowing participants to gather their thoughts.
  • For each of the questions below, we recommend that you print out the article in question, or provide the link to it, and we ask that you take a moment to read it in print or on screen, before the conversation begins.
  • Allow people a few minutes to absorb the article, perhaps even to read it a second time, before moving into the discussion.

Interpretive Questionscan focus the reader on the ideas in the articles.

  • Rabbi Amy Kalmanofsky, dean of List College and the Blanche and Romie Shapiro Associate Professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary, writes that holy places in the Torah “are portals that welcome God’s presence into the world and that allow humans to engage and appeal to God.” For example, Jacob’s ladder or the encounter Moses has with the burning bush that is not consumed. She goes on to problematize this idea, to give humans agency in creating sacred space: “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.” How do you think about sacred space? Is it created by humans or divined by God? What are the ramifications of that difference? How would you describe the manifestations of Jewish sacred space?
  • Rabbi Susan Silverman, founder of Second Nurture: Every Child Deserves a Family and author of a memoir, Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World, writes that one of God’s many names is”Makom” or “Place_.“God is also called _”Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh,” “I Will Be What I Will Be,” which shows that God is always-in-process, evolving. What is the relationship between a God that evolves and a God whose name is “Place”? Susan goes on to write: “Holiness is not stagnant. Nor is it ossified in stone.” Personally, Susan feels that the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, felt more sacred as a symbol when it was out of reach — before 1967 when it became part of Jerusalem — when “it made us all partners with God in imagining possibility.” What is the connection between sacred space and having agency and partnering with God? How do you understand the sacredness of the Kotel — is it sacred as a national symbol of the Jewish people? Does it remain a sacred place even given the violence in its plaza over the rights of women to pray in a quorum?
  • Marc Zvi Brettler, a Bible scholar and professor of Jewish Studies at Duke University, demonstrates just how complex the idea of “makom kadosh” is. He examines whether holiness is intrinsic to the Land of Israel or whether it is associated with special divine presence that can be found outside Jerusalem and Israel. He shows that in most biblical references, “it was crucial to worship God in the Land of Israel.” He then says, “But for (almost) every biblical tradition, we find a counter-tradition.” Is sacred space a place that is created by holy acts or is it divinely established? Marc makes a point, quoting the prophet Ezekiel, that the divine presence followed the Jewish people into exile in Babylonia. Does it change matters if Jews now have a sovereign nation in the Land of Israel?

Reflective Questionscan help one to integrate the ideas in these articles with one’s own sense of self.

  • Rabbi Shai Held, president and dean at Hadar, a pluralistic learning community in New York and author of Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence, writes that the biblical story of Creation “culminates in God’s sanctification not of the earth as a whole or of any parcel thereof, but rather of the seventh day. As Heschel notes in The Sabbath, the word kadosh (holy) is introduced for the first time to describe time rather than space.” And yet, Shai points out, “It is extremely hard to reconcile Heschel’s claim with the rest of the Torah. At the very core of God’s covenant with Abraham is the promise of land (for example, Genesis 15:18-21). Much of the Torah, in fact, is focused on the people’s journey toward the land and God’s revelation of laws to govern their life in that land.” How do you reconcile this paradox? Is Judaism a religion that privileges time over place—or place over time? How do you integrate Jewish thought on time into your life? Jewish thought about sacred space?
  • In NiSh’ma, our simulated Talmud page, three commentators —asylum seekers and their caregivers — examine a verse from the Book of Exodus where God asks the Israelites to create holy ground that God might live among the desert wanderers. Dafna Lichtman, director of the Garden Library, a community center and library in Tel Aviv meeting the needs of Sudanese and Eritrean refugees, writes that “Sanctuary is therefore found among people. God knows that physical structures are not what sustains holy work; humans make holy work happen.” Her thought — that “place” is made holy by human work — is echoed by Togod Omer, a Sudanese refugee and asylum seeker and Liz Jacobs, a nurse and activist who has sheltered and given sanctuary to Jalilah Nansamba, a 25-year-old Ugandan refugee. What forms of sanctuary do you imagine the Jewish community could offer refugees and asylum seekers today? How do you understand the current immigration issue in the U.S. through the lens of Jewish history? Does your family have stories about finding shelter or giving shelter to those in need?

Call to Action – Helping Refugees and Asylum Seekers

  • JFCS East Bay provides professional assistance to immigrants and refugees applying for a range of immigration legal services. The Jewish Family & Children Services’ resettlement program serves refugees from around the world, particularly focusing on those who have experienced persecution based on their religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
  • HIASstands for a world in which refugees find welcome, safety, and freedom. HIAS rescues people whose lives are in danger for being who they are by protecting the most vulnerable refugees, helping them build new lives and reuniting them with their families in safety and freedom.
  • The Garden Library - The Garden Library was established upon the belief that culture and education are basic human rights that bridge differences between communities and individuals and can affect lasting social change. The mission of the Garden Library is to promote the human rights of the members of the asylum-seeker, refugee, and foreign communities through sport, art, cultural, and educational activities. To this end, the Garden Library sponsors a range of programs aimed at equipping these individuals with tools and skills to enhance their opportunities in the job market, enhance their understanding of Israeli society, and enlarge their capacities to advocate for their rights.
  • T’ruah – the rabbinic call for human rights: T’ruah works as part of an interfaith network to mobilize synagogues and other communities to protect those facing deportation or other immigration challenges. By becoming “mikdash” or sanctuary synagogues, communities pledge to take concrete actions, which may include legal support, housing, financial help, and other assistance for the sojourners in our midst. **If your congregation is interested in becoming a sanctuary community or in learning more, please contact T’ruah’s Director of Organizing Rabbi Salem Pearce.
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Consider and Converse: A Guide to Makom Kadosh

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