by  Rabbis Evan J. Krame & David Evan Markus

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright famously said, “I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.”  Construction trades tend more to concern gutters and girders than God, but Wright proclaims his connection with divinity, constructed in and through nature.  This week’s Torah portion (Ki Tisa) agrees, and offers us key reminders about how we can build Jewish lives meaningfully. 

Detailing plans for the Tent of Meeting, last week’s Torah portion laid out in exquisite detail the structure, fixtures, vessels and ritual objects that are to be crafted with great flourishes and artistry.  The purpose was to build a physical place to remind that God, ever the Creator and Redeemer, will meet with the people and dwell among them.  The “amen” to the blueprints wasn’t to stand back and admire: rather, the people – all the people – contributed raw materials. Now Torah appoints Betzalel – essentially the Frank Lloyd Wright to build the Tent of Meeting in all its enumerated splendor (Ex. 31:1-11– and Torah’s next instruction is to honor Shabbat, to stop building one day each week so that we can know holiness through God (Ex. 31-13-14).  The work of our hands may be divinely inspired (Ps. 90:17), but we build holiness not for the sake of an actual place but to immerse ourselves in relationship with the power and splendor we call God.

In that spirit, it’s no surprise that some of us more deeply experience spirituality outdoors in nature than indoors in houses of worship.  Mountains, oceans, dazzling sunsets and star-studded skies evoke wonder, awe and transcendence.  Despite Torah’s detailed instructions to build a house of God, we still seek temples of sky and cathedrals of towering trees – which is why Frank Lloyd Wright’s most well-known structures seamlessly glide between the human and natural, open to vistas and seeming to leap out of landscapes.  What’s more, Judaism’s holiest temple isn’t a place of space at all but rather, as Abraham Joshua Heschel famously taught, a “palace in time” we call Shabbat – a day of grandeur designed precisely not to build anything at all.

The ancient Tent of Meeting is long past into history, but places to meet holiness still abound.  They are our physical prayer spaces, our synagogues of sky, our temples of tall trees, and our Shabbat palaces in time.  Whenever and wherever we give our heart to build awareness of wonder, awe and transcendence (in Hebrew, “build” and “meditate” share a common root), there God dwells among us.  There we can build a Jewish life dynamic as any Frank Lloyd Wright’s design, timeless as the mountains, deep as the oceans.  What a mobile spiritual gift we inherit, capable of being sparked anew anytime and anywhere we join together for that purpose.

by Rabbi David Evan Markus

Ask 100 American Jews where they feel most Jewish, and three answers are most likely to emerge: synagogue, home, and Israel.  Synagogue is a communal space for ritual expression of Jewish identity.  Home is a private space that we sometimes open for others to join our celebrations of Jewish space and time.  Israel is an ancestral portal for collective history, yearning and building a dynamic society unique on earth.  All of these make sense.  But our Jewish sense of place can (and must) be more than synagogue, home and Israel.  That’s part of what The Jewish Studio is about, and here’s why.

Except for the most traditional Jewish neighborhoods, the modern ethic of separating the spiritual and secular tends to divide space into the publicly Jewish and everything else.  Spaces that aren’t overtly Jewish (e.g. synagogue, Jewish Community Center, kosher restaurant, mikveh) thus become secular, implying “not Jewish” – but it wasn’t always so.  Medieval courts and public courtyards once were centers of Jewish culture and commerce.  The Haskalah (European Jewish Enlightenment) of the 18th and 19th centuries flourished in heady salons where thinkers, movers and shakers mingled as if at a combination cocktail party and “open mike” night.  Bakeries across the Pale of Settlement were places to plug into the latest news (and famously confuse one family’s cholent pot for another).

Jewish sense of place used to be flexible and porous, not rigidly separated between overtly Jewish and everything else.  Flexibility and porousness are exactly Jewish tradition: we’ve made a Jewish sense of place wherever we’ve gone, wherever we’ve gathered together to do Jewish.  If so, then we can ask: where can we make today’s equivalents of history’s courtyards, salons and bakeries?  Why not also parks, museums, culture clubs, test kitchens, beaches and studios? How exciting to project a Jewish sense of place as open as our imagination and as close as the local farm stand.  How vital, vibrant and real our Jewishness could be.

Stay tuned.