The portable cathedral

Today I read an interpretation of the Jewish Sabbath, and a reason for its great importance in the culture, an interpretation that made more sense than any explanation I had ever heard. The gist of it was as follows.

The Jewish people have lived with uncertainty since the destruction of the second temple, around two thousand years ago. There has never been a time when they have been completely secure. As we have seen just from the last century, even the most culturally accepting host culture could turn, in a few years, into something quite the opposite.

Unlike many religious groups, for the last two millenia the Jewish people have not had their cathedral. No Notre Dame, no St. Peter’s, no Anghor Wat, Canterbury Cathedral, Mahabodhi or Great Mosque.

So, it is posited, they built a cathedral not of space but of time. A day of the week, one of every seven, that belongs not to the world but to the spirit. A temple can be defaced, torn down or set on fire, its rubble and ashes strewn over the uncaring countryside.

But a day of the week cannot be destroyed. It is a portable cathedral, packed in one’s bag when fleeing the Pogrom, carried in the heart like a secret, indestructable and serene, ready to serve as a place of worship anywhere in the world.

Thus we may see the brilliance of this cultural adaptation to adversity. So long as a single breath is drawn by those who wish to worship within its walls, so stands the Sabbath.

2 thoughts on “The portable cathedral”

  1. This is the one of the most eloquent, thoughtful ways of conceiving of Shabbath that I have heard in a while. Of course, the concept existed before the building of the temple: even before, perhaps, the Tabernacle in the desert (if you take Exodus literally).
    But, once these and other national institutions were destroyed – the Three Pilgrimages (Passover, “Weeks”, and “Booths”) couldn’t really occur without a place to hold a pilgrimage to – from a societal, cultural, and national unity standpoint Shabbath would become that much more important.

    Also: in removing intrinsic holiness from any fixed place in the world – the Western Wall != the Holy of Holies, people – it sort of democratizes the system. The pilgrimages Jews make to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, strictly from a religious standpoint, don’t make quite that much sense. It’s not like God lives in Jerusalem and praying at the Wall is like ringing up the Red Line to Moscow – at least, not any more. One may [i]feel[/i] (does forum markup work here?) closer to God, but this is because of the national/cultural/religious importance it used to have, not because of anything intrinsic to the place. The upshot of this is that you are effectively “carrying God with you wherever you go”. Intensity of prayer becomes more important than where you are praying, or who you are. It doesn’t even need to be a holiday, necessarily – though obviously, the communal aspect of having a Temple is mirrored in the meals and services of Shabbath far more than it is in everyday prayer, even the communal kind.

    This is part of the reason why I don’t mourn the Temple as much as I should – though were there a Temple, I would be one of its priests.

    I’m curious- where did you read this?

  2. I was a guest at a bar mitzvah. Yesterday the reading was Exodus 35:2, the portion where Moses tells the people to rest on the Sabbath. Then he launches into an insanely detailed description of how the Temple should be built, down to the curtains and tassels.

    I was reading a commentary during the service which pointed out that most of the literature which focuses on honoring the Sabbath is found not in the Torah, but rather in Rabbinical writings from the centuries following the Temple’s destruction. The commentary made the point that the rabbis were fashioning the Sabbath itself to serve as a kind of Temple – an indestructable one.

    I found it to be a very beautiful thought, and the image of a “portable cathedral” came to my mind.

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