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Many decades ago, the Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “What we are all more or less lacking at this moment is a new definition of holiness.” Today, many of us feel we need a new definition of holiness. The life of the faithful has been upended for months. Holiness feels far away.

The Jewish High Holidays will soon be upon us. The shofar is blown daily at my synagogue, as is traditional during the Hebrew month leading up to Rosh Hashana. The plaintive sound reminds us to reflect. But this year, the rabbi has placed a blue surgical mask atop the twisted ram’s horn. The mask prevents droplets from spreading, turning a mitzva—a small act of goodness—into something dark and menacing. 

For months, my synagogue was closed. The holiness of that space was locked away. Then slowly, with abundant caution and restrictions, prayer in community returned with satellite backyard minyanim. Outdoor services were sparse. They were shortened to leave time for multiple groups to pray in turn and to accommodate the punishing Washington heat. 

People wore masks and sat on metal chairs far apart from one another; it was hard to see a smile beneath a mask six feet away. Announcements at the conclusion of the service were kept to a bare minimum. Members of the congregation were advised not to congregate. I finished outdoor services covered in perspiration and bug bites, tired from wearing a mask for an hour and a half or more. It was not what I’d call a religious experience. Where is the holiness in prayer wrapped in layers of inconvenience and distraction? 

Finally my synagogue opened its doors, and I went for the first time to Shabbat services in the actual building. As the sun set on Friday, I walked to the red sign indicating where I was allowed to sit. I had brought my own prayerbook (to avoid using those on shelves once shared by hundreds of people in that other, former life). I looked up at the Ark holding the Torah in the front of the room and immediately burst into tears. I cried through the entire service. My daughter whispered to me to stop blowing my nose, lest a fellow worshipper suspect me of having COVID. 

I couldn’t help it. I missed being there. The synagogue is my spiritual center. And while I continue to pray, I feel physically and metaphysically separated from the space that was once so integral to my pre-coronavirus life. A sanctuary that can hold over four hundred people holds only thirty or so now. I hadn’t seen the people in the room for so many months that I had trouble remembering names. 

Seeing the distance among us both saddens me and reminds me of a Jewish legal principle. According to Jewish law, people should be given four cubits of personal space when they pray, a way, in the midst of community, to honor individualism and the private yearnings of the soul. A cubit, an ancient measure, is approximately eighteen inches. In other words, people are supposed to give one another six feet of personal space to pray with intention. It’s spiritual social distancing, conceived two thousand years before COVID. But now that I finally had my private space in the pews, I didn’t want it.

According to Jewish law, when giving a blessing before a king or someone particularly wise, you should be four cubits away from that person. If you’re farther away than that, then you’re not really in that person’s presence. Four cubits is the minimum you must distance yourself from a malodorous object to pray, and is the minimum proximity allowed between a person who is excommunicated and everyone else. It is also the space you are “allotted” when you are buried. In the Hebrew Encyclopedia Talmudit—a multi-volume compendium of Jewish law—there are pages devoted to other examples. 

The notion of four cubits of personal space is based on a talmudic debate between two second-century scholars on the meaning of the biblical expression “Remain every person in his place” (Exodus 16:29). Scholars agree that this means restricting one’s movement to an area equal to one’s size. Rabbi Meir believes that a person is typically three cubits in height and needs an additional cubit to spread arms and feet in multiple directions. Rabbi Judah is slightly more generous about space. In the Talmud’s language, he has an expansive cubit. 

What these sages were trying to establish is a literal measurement for personal space, not to ensure distance but to validate presence. When people live in close proximity to one another in community, each member needs some space to call his or her own, to feel truly human. To create communities of compassion, we need to be physically close to one another, see one another, live together with our vulnerabilities exposed. To create communities of meaning, we also need to protect one another’s privacy. Four cubits represents metaphorically this nexus of self and other. But if there is too much space between us for too long, we begin to disconnect from others and the institutions that keep us whole. 

Many rabbis worry that all of these months away from physical houses of worship has encouraged detachment from the synagogue and religious life. Yet sacred space is even more important now that personal space is all we have, now that a few rooms and a screen serves as office, school, and community center. To create a setting for mindfulness, one rabbi I know advised his congregants to designate holy space in their homes for prayer and study. Another shared that for Yom Kippur he is opening his synagogue for fifteen-minute family visits to the Ark, with five-minute interludes to help people reattach themselves to their house of worship. 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel observed that the Bible’s first mention of holiness refers to the sanctifying of time, not space: “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” Nothing else in the created universe of Genesis is accorded holiness. Time rather than space is declared sacred first. This suggests that holiness is never tied solely to an altar, temple, or location. Spirituality must be more durable. One Talmudic statement declares that when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, all God had in this world was four cubits of Jewish law. In other words, God’s presence was felt when people studied Jewish texts together. 

Our working definition of holiness must include a new understanding of holy space, at least for the time being. It will not be easy to re-enter our houses of worship under current conditions. I cried in my synagogue that Sabbath evening, not only out of love for that space but also over the sanctuary’s new emptiness. It was then that I had to remind myself of six other words uttered by Rabbi Heschel: “Prayer begins at the edge of emptiness.”

Erica Brown is an associate professor at The George Washington University and author of The Book of Esther: Power, Fate and Fragility in Exile.

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