Wednesday, 25 Mar 2015

Written by Robyn Ashworth-Steen

Tzav – a sacred business

Shoes and socks off. 

Cold marble underfoot. 

Head covered. 

Smells of spice and incense. 

Intense sun. 

Noise from everywhere – people, animals, chanting, children crying and laughing, the splashing of water. 

Reflections of gold in the water. 

Exquisite carvings on the Temple. 

A slow walk uphill to the Temple. 

A walk, clockwise, around the Temple. 

Movement – prostration, hands together, sitting in silence.

Back in the sun.

A slow walk back to a meal with friends, strangers and religious gurus.

This is a short description of a visit I made last week to a Sikh Temple in Delhi – Gurdwara Bhangra Sahib.  It was a intensely moving and spiritual visit.  With every step the physical rituals ensured that we did not forget this was a sacred space.  Things slowed down and it felt possible to connect with something bigger than myself.

The grandeur and ritual I found in India would have been familiar to our ancient ancestors, the Israelites.  After experiencing the prayer and space in this Sikh Temple I began to understood why the Israelites’ grief over the destructions of the Temples was quite so intense.  They had lost a direct and physical path to the divine. The physical and the spiritual were as one. 

My initial thoughts were ones of self-pity.  Why don’t we have religious experiences like this in Progressive Judaism in the UK?  We have tefillin, kippot and tallitot but we do not all wear them and how many of us can say that when we enter the sanctuary we are aware that we are in a sacred space? I am definitely not advocating a return to the Temple in Jerusalem – as a somewhat militant vegetarian I cannot imagine that the bloody sacrifice of animals would bring me closer to the divine.  I also do not want to return to a Judaism that is owned by a priestly, hereditary class which excludes many.  But I do bemoan the lack of true sacred space within our community. 

The physical and the spiritual are closely related.  It could be argued that our practice of Judaism is largely cerebral – we listen to texts, we study texts, we argue over texts, principles…well anything really!  We seek knowledge, the acquisition of language, skills in service leading.  How much do we connect with our bodies and the material world around us? Without the sacrifices, as outlined in Tzav, our parashah this week – what is our way in?

The rabbis, after the destruction of the Second Temple, were faced with this exact challenge.  If God’s home, the Temple no longer existed, how could we encounter the divine?  Could we still be a spiritual people without the Temple?  They came up with a radical solution – the divine can be encountered anywhere – God was no longer tied to the Temple.  And with this innovative theology the practice of Judaism changed.  The way we access the divine shifted from sacrifices to our daily acts. 

Rabbi Lionel Blue in his remarkable book, ‘To Heaven with Scribes and Pharisees’ helps us to understand that Judaism isn’t a theology but ‘a task, an activity, and work is the key to it’.  In fact the physical is at the heart of Judaism – our daily tasks, eating, making blessings, giving charity, working ethically is how we can get closer to the divine.  Rabbi Blue states, ‘One commandment follows anther (there are no less than 613), and religion means, in the first instance, doing them, not contemplating them or praying them, or bowing down in front of them, or philosophising about them, or kissing them’. With his typical humour Rabbi Blue says rather than God being our father he is really our employer. And the importance of making our acts sacred is that as we do holy work, the holiness rubs off on us and makes us holy too. ‘We work in the world outside us and also in the other very real world that lies within us’.

Our challenge is to not only ensure we have sacred spaces in our synagogues but also in our daily lives. Judaism provides us with the tools – we just have to use them.
Robyn Ashworth-Steen
Student Rabbi Leo Baeck College

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.