Sukkot Sermon 2016 – Space and Time, North Western Reform Synagogue

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 19 October 2016

So many people thought it would never work.  Creating a Jewish centre that was not a Synagogue, in a place where the parking is awful, which would mix all the denominations of Judaism and those who have no affiliation, which would be an identifiable Jewish space visible to all from a main road, which would have great sharing kitchens and dance studios as well as lecture rooms, with a cinema and a restaurant, which was comfortable to be in.  Why would the Jews of London want that?

But the nay sayers were wrong and since JW3, the first Jewish Community Centre of its type opened in October 2013 more than 200,000 people have gone through its doors every year.

JW3’s openness and sense of a gathering space has meant that whole new ways of Jewish life have been developing there, a place for the Jewish community to host political debate, classes which bring together people from the whole mid right to far left of the Jewish spectrum, even skating for Jews.

My most satisfying sense when I teach at JW3 is of the encounters that happen that would never happen without this space.  For example when teaching Kavannah Yoga at JW3 with Maxine Levy last Sukkot there we were basing a session on the Lulav and its physicality with an enthusiastic class, we could be seen by children playing in the open courtyard of the centre.  They pressed their faces against the window of the glass fronted studio – we let them in of course and a number of Jewish children who had never experienced the meaning or symbols of Sukkot had the chance to do so with a Rabbi and many other Jews.

It’s the excellent space that does it, well designed and thought through, with top quality teaching facilities, a location that works, with much thought given to the areas where people just spend time with each other, from the comfortable entrance lobby to the restaurant, courtyard and café.  These make going to JW3 an event in itself.

But surely this shouldn’t work or at least the space shouldn’t matter.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s 1951 classic work “The Sabbath – Its meaning for modern man” was absolutely clear in its assertion that Judaism was perhaps uniquely a religion of time and not of physical space.  Our architecture Heschel wrote is built of the Shabbat, the yearly cycle of the festivals, the Lunar Months, the Sabbatical year every seven years where traditionally the land was given rest and the Jubilee every fifty years where traditionally all property returned to its original owners.

Every shabbat, as we make our kiddush we sing aloud that we and God together have made a portion of time holy.   It is important to remember that the extended Kiddush that we sing on Shabbat Evening is not for the wine.  We already covered that with the blessing which ends B’rey Pri hagophen.  Our Kiddush is specifically directed at expressing the holiness of the Shabbat itself.  It ends with the Hatimah or closing line, Baruch Atah Adonai M’kadesh Ha Shabbat.  We praise you Eternal One who makes the Shabbat holy.

Down the centuries Jews could take their holy times, their Shabbat, their cycle of festivals, with them wherever they went.  In the worst times for our people, when Synagogues were burnt down and our books were destroyed, we still had our holy times to support and refresh us.

As Heschel wrote ” Monuments of stone are destined to disappear from the moment that they are built; days of spirit never pass away”.  (The Shabbat p98)

Heschel’s insights seem as fresh today as they were when they were first written.  A Jew need not visit a cathedral to feel holiness – just bring a few people together and pray with kavannah, true intention, and it is there with you.  Just find a person to study with for a time and our Talmud says that God’s presence will be with you (Talmud Berachot 6a).    But the ideas in ‘The Sabbath’ can be overstated.

We have to remember where Heschel was coming from – he was one of the Rabbis trained in the Hochschle fur die Wissenschaft des Judentems, the Reform Rabbinic academy in Berlin which had been destroyed by the Nazis.  He witnessed the wholesale destruction of Jewish space on Kristallnacht and then throughout the Second World War, which ended just five years before The Sabbath was published.  No wonder it was time that focussed his spiritual energy – Jewish space had all but been destroyed.

The beauty of Heschel’s insight has permeated Judaism today.   It means that we don’t worry too much about the buildings we worship in and learn in and meet in.  Surely any space will do for holiness in time.  It doesn’t matter if the building is not particularly welcoming, nor well-maintained, nor accessible, nor safe.  It need not be beautiful nor well equipped nor with a feeling of holiness in its spaces.    But when we think like that we are wrong.

Heschel also knew that Jewish space mattered.   You could do without it but your Judaism would necessarily be attenuated.  He wrote “Spiritual life begins to decay when we fail to sense the grandeur of what is eternal in time. Our intention here is not to deprecate the world of space. To disparage space and the blessing of things of space, is to disparage the works of creation, the works which God beheld and saw “it was good.” The world cannot be seen exclusively sub specie temporis. Time and space are interrelated. To overlook either of them is to be partially blind. What we plead against is man’s unconditional surrender to space, his enslavement to things. We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things.” (The Sabbath)

Jewish time and Jewish space need to work in harmony – just like we cannot do without the interrelation of the Jewish festivals which are cyclical and the Jewish life cycle which is progressive, we cannot build a great Judaism without the interrelation of Jewish time, which is intangible, and Jewish space, which is utterly tangible.

In a Synagogue the two meet – beautiful time is where we meet people and we meet God, beautiful space is a space where people want to be and where you can find gathering spaces and quiet spaces of contemplation to meet God.  Sanctified time can be that spent in a beautiful sanctuary whichever choice of worship service you make.   A true Beit Knesset, a house of meeting, the primary Hebrew name for the Synagogue, is a place where there are great spaces to meet, comfortable and welcoming, including and pleasant where generations mix and you meet people you didn’t know as well as those you do. The space for a Kehillah Kedoshah, a holy community is one where all is so accessible that no person is barred access through their physical abilities and where the open atmosphere and ease of finding your way around draws people in.

That is what the new Alyth building project, “Build With Us” is all about – making the Alyth building look a good place to be throughout the building, a parallel sanctuary to host our parallel services with parallel beauty and parallel comfort, a downstairs open meeting space, a good place to sit and talk and be with others and places too to gather for a meal or for learning or just being.  A whole building accessible to all, not only the downstairs, library and youth hall.  Great space for our coming generation and ourselves to discover and meet God and each other in holy time.  Where we can pray together, learn together, live together, act together.  Where we can hear everything that is said and sung, cook together in a fit for purpose kitchen, see everything that is done, get to every place where it is happening and not got boiled to a frazzle in the summer!

On Sukkot we celebrate how easy it is to create a holy space when we make it together. We will experience this when we go out to our Sukkah, made by more than a hundred people of all ages yesterday morning.  On Sukkot we hear the Haftarah which talks about the holy space that Solomon was able to dedicate to God in the Temple in Jerusalem.   This Synagogue is our diaspora Jerusalem.  Please let us build together and make the Alyth of the future with at least the ambition that went into JW3 so that here at Alyth we have the best Jewish space as a community speedily in our days – or at least by 2019!