Jewish Journal


September 5, 2012

The serious side of High Holy Days seating


The philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel emphasized time rather than space as the major category of significance in Judaism. The first divine hallowing in creation was the seventh day, the Sabbath, not any place or thing. When the child asked Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, “Where is God?” he answered, “Whenever you let Him in.” Not “where” but “when,” and not place but time is the locus of godliness. 

But masses of people seem to distrust this spiritual notion of holiness. More time is spent on securing good seats in the sanctuary before Rosh Hashanah than in the preparation of the heart. More energy and passion are spent at board meetings over the allocation of tickets than over any theological issue. The board is sensitive to the “territorial imperative” that grips grown men and women. Reassign the location of a seat and temple membership itself is at stake. 

There is a mystique about where we sit that no single rational explanation can properly fathom. It’s not a matter of seeing or hearing the pulpit celebrants better. It’s not a matter of sitting beneath the air-conditioning vent or under a poorly lit lighting fixture. There’s something magical about where we sit, and especially about changing the seats from last year to this coming one. As the Hebraic proverb has it, meshaneh makom, meshaneh mazal — change the place, change the fortune. 

The disputes over the allocation of seats reached the point that the board members brought the issue to the rabbi. Half-jokingly, they asked him to resolve the raging debates regarding the place distribution of seating. It was a she’elah (inquiry) he had not prepared for but which he knew had deeper roots than psychology or sociology. The issue, in the last analysis, was theological. And the rabbi was the best person to deal with it, for he was above such pettiness. Besides which, his own seat was cushioned, as close to the Ark of Holiness as could be, facing the eastern wall. What is involved here is a theology of space, a struggle between pagan and Judaic attitudes. 

In archaic, pagan religions, there is a phenomenon of “sacred space.” There is a central place where communication can take place between the cosmic planes of heaven and earth. There are places on earth that are closer to divinity than others. Recall the Ziggurats, the towers of Babel, cosmic structures seven stories high, representing the seven planets, which the priests ascended in order to reach the summit of the universe. There is a place where the gods sit. But these are pagan notions of archaic religion. 

For Judaism, God has no such celestial geography, and we recall the awesome fall of those who sought to build the Tower of Babel. Solomon is embarrassed about building the House of God. He senses the crudeness of closeting God in the building space. “Will God indeed dwell on earth? Behold, the heavens cannot contain Thee — how much less the house that I have built?” (I Kings 8:27). 

Where indeed does God reside, or in the language of Hebraic liturgy, “Where is the place of His glory?” The answer is immediate and unequivocal. His glory fills the world. To look for God in a particular place is to commit the spiritual fallacy of simple location. As the rabbis declared, “God is the place of the world, not the world God’s place.” On Sukkot, the lulav is not pointed to any location at the mention of God’s name. It is not only rude to point; toward God it is downright blasphemous.

We Jews don’t ascend to the heights to find God. When the psalmist asks rhetorically, “Who ascends into the mountain of the Lord?” he answers, “He who hath clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully” (Psalms 24:3-4). The place of God is even within, between us. 

“Place” is a visual metaphor, not to be taken literally when applied to God. Godliness is in relationship, not in Row A. God is in morality, not in geography. Is that not what Isaiah declared in the name of God? “Where is the house that ye build unto Me? Where is the place of My rest?” God does not respond to the best tickets in the house, but “to the poor and broken-hearted who is concerned about My word” (Isaiah 66:1-2). 

The issue of seats may well be more important than we have suspected. The preoccupation with seats may reveal a perverse theology, a greater attachment to external, material places than to internal, spiritual experiences. To be nearer to sanctity can never he a matter of place. “The idol is near and yet far. God is far and yet near. For a man enters a synagogue and stands behind a pillar, and prays in a whisper — and God hears his prayer. So it is with all of His creatures. Can there be a nearer God than this? He is as near to His creatures as the ear is to the mouth” (Yerushalmi Berachot 9:1). 

It is a revolutionary idea in the history of religion to find God not in statues, shrines, palaces of marble and stone but in the human spirit. God said to Moses, “In every place where you find a trace of the feet of man, there am I before you.” God is where men and women are in need. God places Himself in the footprints of men and women, not upon the isolated mountain. 

There are fears about limiting God to place, and not simply because it seems to reduce the dignity and power of God. The deification of place leads to dangerous idolatry. The rabbinic imagination in the midrash suggests that the murder of Abel came about because he and his brother Cain both argued that the sanctuary of God should be built on their own exclusive property. Together they owned the earth, but each wanted God’s lodging to be in his own jurisdiction. In our times, the controversy over the place of the temple has led to the bombing of the holy places and threats of jihad. It should remind us that not places, but lives are holy. 

So, what had begun as a half-serious question developed into an earnest answer. What began as a question of seats ended in a question about self. Does the place confer real status upon me? Is location the validation of my significance? Is the best seat in the sanctuary up in front? Is the synagogue theater? Is the bimah the stage? Is the writing in the Book of Life the inscription on the ticket? Is the answer to spirituality space? 

“Master of the Universe — where will I find you, and where will I not find you? ... In heaven, Thou art on earth, Thou art wherever I turn, wherever I stir Thou, Thou, Thou.”

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, one of the best-known pulpit rabbis in America, has been a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom (vbs.org), a Conservative congregation in Encino, since 1970.

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