International scholar offers viewpoints on sacred space

By Linda M. Linonis

1The rabbi provided commentary along with questions in his talk, “Sacred Space and Its Meaning in Interfaith Dialogue.” The lecture reflected the importance of the continuing exchange of ideas among people of different faiths, which helps further understanding. This lecture was the 14th in the annual series.

Goshen-Gottstein, director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute in Jersusalem, is an international scholar and author who draws on his knowledge of Judaism and Christianity.

“The Jewish sense of sacred space is based on absence ... the Christian sense is based on presence,” he said. “Jews are constantly struggling with what was lost. In Christianity, it’s the presence of Christ.

“Judaism has a stronger attachment to particularity and territoriality,” Goshen-Gottstein said. “Christianity has no particular home.”

For both perspectives, “community plays a key role” in sacred spaces, he said. “There’s no such thing as sacred space without community.”

“The Jewish sense of sacred space is derived from God’s presence in the temple and the tabernacle, the moveable structure of sacred space,” he said. “God sanctifies the sacred space.”

Goshen-Gottstein said when he refers to the temple, he means the temple in Jerusalem. {The First Temple of Jerusalem was conceived by King David and constructed by King Solomon about 950 BCE and was destroyed in about 587 BCE. The Second Temple, rebuilt by Jews returning from the Babylon Exile in 517 BCE, was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.}

The speaker also wondered how human beings could understand sacred space and the broader sense of God being everywhere. “It’s uncovering the divine presence everywhere ... in the temple, the city and the land,” he said.

“The temple extends to the city where God dwells. And who lives in the city? People. The bridge between is the house of God and the house of people.”

Goshen-Gottstein said land was the next part of the circle. “Living in the Holy Land, close to God, or having a home of our own ... the land of Israel,” he said.

“What is at the heart of living in the Holy Land? Tension is traced to biblical times and continues to bedevil and inspire,” Goshen-Gottstein said. “Jews’ sacred space was loss ... it was in the abstract when the temple was no more. How do Jews orient themselves to something that doesn’t exist” he asked.

“The most hallowed place is the Western Wall ... the monument to where the temple stood,” he said. “The divine presence left the temple but not the wall.” [The Western Wall in the Old City in Jerusalem is the section of the Western supporting wall of the Temple Mount that has remained intact since the destruction of the Second Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E.]

“The tension of presence and absence ... one can’t always live in a situation of loss. The Jews ... through prayer, hope and aspiration ... went beyond the here and now and coped through the Torah. God’s word is portable,” he said.

“God’s presence goes with us wherever we go,” Goshen-Gottstein said. The institution of the synagogue, the house of gathering for the community, has a sanctity of space from the communal aspect, he said. The synagogue is a small temple.

In Judaism, sacred space extends to Jewish homes. “The Torah is present in every home through books, the scroll at the door, candlelighting, the rituals,” Goshen-Gottstein said.

Switching perspectives, Gosten-Gottstein said, “Christianity transcends particularity.”

And he expressed the idea that “God can’t be contained in a building.” And the thought continues to the idea that “it’s more important to live a Christian life than to worship” in a specific place.

“To a larger extent, Christianity prefers sacred presence over sacred space,” Goshen-Gottstein said. “Christianity actually possesses a stronger sense of sacred space.” Etiquette, how the house of God engages people and how it’s venerated are a part of that, he said.

“Because Christ walked in these places {in the Holy Land}, they are holy,” he said. “To visit the Holy Land is to walk in the footsteps of Christ.”

There is tension between the heavenly and earthly, the rabbi said. “When Christians think of Jerusalem, it’s the heavenly one not the earthly,” he said. “Christianity draws on the memory of the heavenly Jerusalem.”

The Meyer lecture series honors the memory of the late Rabbi Samuel Meyer of Temple El Emeth in Liberty. He and the Rev. George Balasko, pastor of St. Ann Church in East Palestine, co-founded what is now the Jewish-Christian Dialogue and continues to this day.

At the conclusion of the lecture, Fay Meyer, the rabbi’s widow, spoke briefly. “We don’t have to pray the same way to understand each other,” she said, underscoring the importance of continued interfaith interaction.

Rabbi Joel Berman of Ohev Tzedek welcomed the audience. The Rev. Nick Mager of First Presbyterian Church in Youngstown moderated a question-and-answer session.

The program concluded with a three-fold blessing in Hebrew by Rabbi Joseph Schonberger of Temple El Emeth and in English by Father Balasko and Rev. Mr. Mager. From Numbers 6:24-26:

“The Lord bless you and keep you.

The Lord let His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you.

The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace.”

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