As Our Campuses Burn: Sacred and Profane Spaces

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, May 10, 2024 / 2 Iyar 5784

Summary: While the mechanisms and rituals of a particular religion are distinct, they speak of deeper, universal human impulses that get enacted even by avowed atheists. Today’s Oasis Song explores how the campus protests possess a quasi-religious ritualistic aspect that is overlooked by both the protesters and those who are called to end them. It is my hope that this unique lens can deepen our understanding of what we are witnessing.

Reading Time: Eight minutes

What a few weeks it has been! Fields of tents, broken windows, paint splattered walls, peaceful protests, violent riots, political speech, and violent hate-speech. It is safe to say that our national attention has been fixated on Columbia, NYU, Yale, Arizona State, USC, Cal Poly Humboldt, and a dozen more schools. Here in Portland, the PSU library was occupied, windows were smashed, walls were tagged, and classes were cancelled.

What does it all mean? Is this a tremendous moment of solidarity with the Palestinian people? A volcanic eruption of antisemitism? A melting pot for every conceivable societal grievance, in which justice has finally found its voice—or is this the moment when the full meaning of intersectionality is on display in a superheated collision of social unrest that seems more concerned with destruction than salvation?

There is an unexpected Jewish lens through which we can view this American civil unrest by bringing our focus to a discussion of sacred space; much of the book of Leviticus is concerned with the ancient Tabernacle, which is the first formalized example of a human-built makom kadosh—a holy space—in the Torah.

Before the Israelites constructed the ancient Tent of Meeting, our ancestors encountered sacred space almost by happenstance. Jacob, fleeing from Beersheba to Haran after stealing his brother’s birthright, sleeps on the steppes of a mountain. There he has a dream of a ladder on which angels ascend and descend. When he awakens, he declares “God was in this place, and I did not know it.” He renames the place Beth-El, the House of God.

Similarly, Moses also encounters the Burning Bush by happenstance. Once he realizes it is sacred ground, he removes his sandals and receives his divine commission to free the Jews from their bondage in Egypt. After escaping Egypt, the people gather at Mt. Sinai, receiving instructions on how to purify themselves and not to approach too close to the mountain.

Each of these divine encounters is powerful and formative. Simultaneously, the sacrality of each of these places seems to exist independently of people. Jacob, Moses, and the Jewish people discover hallowed ground, but they do not create it.

This changes after Sinai, when the Israelites undertake a national building project of enduring significance with the creation of the Ohel Mo’ed, the ancient Tent of Meeting, or Tabernacle, where human and divine realms meet. This was a remarkable spiritual innovation. It is one thing to encounter a place of deep mystical feeling while out in nature; it is quite another to believe that people can construct a portal where God and humanity can dwell together, bringing the invisible, mythic realm of kedushah, or holiness, into our tangible world.

Yet every church, mosque, synagogue, Buddhist shrine, or Hindu temple accepts this premise. We can consecrate the secular and profane, transforming it and setting it aside. What seems essential, however, is that all participants in that space agree on its function. It is when there is disagreement about the sacred nature of a space that things break down. As a simple example, our community struggles when young children are present, moving and making noise. Some see this as an essential introduction to holy space that our kids will only appreciate by using it this way; others find this behavior, while age-appropriate, harms what they understand as appropriate for sanctity.

This is not an issue about children alone, however. In the second verse of last week’s Torah reading, Parashat Acharei Mot, we read:

“God said to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover.” (The Contemporary Torah)

God’s instructions appear because two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, did not treat the Tabernacle in the societally agreed manner. They made an offering of strange fire and were destroyed by divine fire. We might dismiss this story as supernatural storytelling as God does not seem to rain down fire on those who transgress sacred space in our world.

There is another way to view this as a psychologically astute description of how humans create shared sacred space. To make this concrete, most of us have attended b’nei mitzvah ceremonies where our collective intentions create a palpable sense of occasion. Similarly, our collective work at Neila at the end of Yom Kippur fills our Main Sanctuary with a sense of divinity and holiness. These transformations only happen because communally we have reached a consensus.

Nadav and Abihu broke the social contract in which we have a shared assumption about the holiness of a space and, therefore, what behavior is acceptable in that space. Their death, while supernatural, highlights what anthropologists have discovered across all cultures. Sacred space is powerful, and when we break the rules surrounding its use, danger ensues and must be snuffed out.

The same is true for profane spaces. They also have implicit rules for appropriate behavior. If ten of us were to walk into a 24-hour gym and conduct a Torah service without buy-in from the gym members, it probably would not go well. We would likely be asked to leave.

Returning to the college protests sweeping the nation, their legitimacy or illegitimacy depends on the perspectives by which we view them. If we view this as a free speech issue, it is easy to support the students’ right to protest. Those who view the protests as a holy cry for justice, support the protests. If we focus on how the protests readily utilize hate speech and antisemitic tropes while destroying public property, then the protests must be stopped, as they no longer are about free speech or justice. When private universities, which have no obligatory mandate to support free speech on private property, can’t perform their mission of a safe learning environment, then the protests must be ended. Each of these perspectives contains elements of truth, even as they obscure the fullness of what is occurring across our nation.

By incorporating a discussion of sacred space, we are able to discern some additional elements. First, we see that protestors often view their actions as holy and their encampments as sanctified spaces. To them, any intrusion by police or administrators into their “sacred” spaces is a violation. We don’t need to agree with their self-assessment that their encampments have transformed the secular space of a college into a makom kadosh, into hallowed ground, but we should recognize it. To them, any intrusion by police or administrators into their “sacred” spaces is an illegitimate violation that dismantles their rituals of transcendence. Even their destruction of property can be considered legitimate from this viewpoint because destruction has often been a theatrical element of sacred rituals—the sacrifices Aaron brought, after all, were completely immolated on the altar. The destruction, defacing, and so forth, are the necessary offerings required to achieve their goals of purifying the world of injustice, at least in the mythic realm of ritual and theurgy.

Here is the catch. When humans consecrate hallowed ground, there is always an implicit social contract and agreement. The entire Israelite nation built the Tabernacle together. When Solomon constructed the Second Temple, it depended on the agreement of the entire nation to work together on the project. Some of the great cathedrals of Europe took over a century to erect. A super majority of the society was on board with the project.

However, without societal consensus on the sacredness of these spaces, the conflict remains unresolved. This lack of agreement leads to confusion. Are these rituals of protest occurring within a zone of holiness, or are these arenas dedicated to darker impulses? Does a university quad always retain its secular nature, dedicated to higher education? The confusion we see flows out of this lack of societal consensus.

Throughout human history, when a society conflates or confuses the sacred and the profane, they lose both. A dark, shadowy alternate reality arises in which violence is justified in the name of holiness. Tragedy is often the result. The Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001 exemplifies this, as do the chaotic scenes on our campuses.

In response to this, a society must unequivocally delineate the nature of a space as sacred or profane. This is what the police and the National Guard have been tasked with. Yet the social wound caused by this confusion remains in need of tending.

Here too, the purpose of the Mishkan, or Tabernacle, can prove useful for us today. It was there that our ancestors took stock of their individual and collective failures by offering sacrifices. In Parashat Acharei Mot, for example, we encounter the heart of the Yom Kippur ritual, which explains the anthropological mechanisms of the ancient sacrificial system.

What is this ritual and what can it teach us today? Before Aaron could bring the animal sacrifice, he went through an introspective process to acknowledge personal and societal wrongdoing. This process entails regret for past behavior as well as a commitment to change. Contained in this process are the seeds for a more cohesive society.

America needs its own Yom Kippur ritual, in which people recognize that they are responsible for their actions, and don’t attempt to justify their bad actions. Often, people and societies must first ingest the medicine of painful consequences as a necessary piece of maturation. If we are lucky, we learn early from our mistakes. But when we don’t, life has a way of confronting us with an ever more painful set of consequences until we finally do learn.

During this time of social unrest that often turns violent and nasty, let us pray that we learn quickly, reduce suffering, and strive to live with greater compassion. As with the spirit of Yom Kippur, this can only occur through an introspective process by which we come to take responsibility for our actions and recognize our role in today’s social disintegration.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav D

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