Why city skylines lack splendid synagogues
Judaism has found sanctity not in space, but in time. Our cathedrals are not buildings, but moments.
Special to The Seattle Times
Faith & Values
Let’s go soaring together, shall we? Let’s soar across the world, over great cities, and over distant, exotic lands. Maybe, as we look across the Earth from up there, we’ll see human accomplishment in all its full, wondrous glory.
Heading east over our own country, we see gleaming metropolises, their glass and steel spires reaching toward the heavens. We see faces of national leaders carved into a mountainside, lakes where once there was land, and rivers held up and pushed over to make them do what we want. Over the ocean, there are giant ships crossing the watery expanse with speed that would have been unfathomable just a century ago.
Reaching Europe, we see other large cities. Over some, glass and steel skyscrapers tower; over others, we see forests of high-reaching steeples — splendid, strong and almost timeless. Modern and medieval cities are actually quite similar to one another.
As we fly farther east, we see ornate minarets, sturdy onion-shaped domes and massive statues of the gods. We see fields and orchards, herds and flocks, factories and mines, highways of all widths, and homes of all sizes.
The world beneath us is not only the work of God, but of humans, too — a vast mural showing vivid images of what we cherish most.
Finally, we reach a place considered sacred by more than half of the world’s population — Jerusalem. To Jews it is Yerushalayim, the City of Peace. To Arabs, it is Al-Quds, the Holy Place. To Christians, it is a place of suffering and boundless hope. On many medieval maps, Jerusalem is at the center of the world.
The first building we notice there is the Dome of the Rock, its golden roof glimmering over the spot from which Mohammed is said to have ascended to heaven. Judaism teaches this was also the location of the innermost sanctum of Jerusalem’s ancient Temple.
Around the city we see church steeples. To the west are the neighborhoods, offices and shopping centers of modern Jerusalem.
And that’s when we realize that something is missing. Where are the Jewish buildings? We’ve seen magnificent edifices and astounding technological achievements on our flight — mosques, cathedrals and shrines. But none of the memorable buildings have been distinctly Jewish. Even here in Jerusalem, the older buildings we notice are Islamic and Christian; the newer ones look downright American.
In fact, compared with other religions, Judaism has very little distinctive architecture. Yes the ancient Temple was pretty glorious, but it was last destroyed in the year 70. Its western wall is all that’s left of it now, and even though Jews have prayed there for centuries, they’re drawn to it far more by history, memory and hope than by its physical appearance.
Since the Temple was destroyed, Judaism has found sanctity not in space, but in time. Our cathedrals are not buildings, but moments. Jews recite certain prayers at sunrise, others at sunset, and still others at mealtimes, bedtime and study time. We rejoice at births, Bat Mitzvahs, weddings and funerals. Each week, we celebrate the Sabbath, a day theologian and philosopher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel referred to as “a palace in time.”
To see Jewish sanctity, then, we’d need to take a longer flight. We’d need to hover, watch and wait. Eventually, we’d see parents at their sons’ Bar Mitzvahs. We’d see families reciting blessings over Sabbath candles; we’d see communities listening to the piercing sound of the shofar (ram’s horn) as they welcome each New Year.
And at every one of those moments — somewhere — tears would flow, because for Jews, these are the times when heaven and earth touch.
Palaces in time are more portable than palaces in space — maybe that’s why they’ve worked so well for us wandering Jews. We enter them wherever we open our hearts or extend our hands to others. We don’t see these palaces, we live them.
And every once in a while, their spires reach all the way to heaven.
Rabbi Mark S. Glickman leads Congregation Kol Shalom on Bainbridge Island and Congregation Kol Ami in Woodinville. Readers may send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
About Rabbi Mark Glickman
Rabbi Mark S. Glickman leads Congregation Kol Shalom on Bainbridge Island and Congregation Kol Ami in Woodinville.