Notes From the Sacred Space Symposium at BYU: Richard A. Cohen, “Place, Sacred Space, and Utopia”

By June 3, 2009

Richard A. Cohen, Professor of Philosophy, and Director of the Institute of Jewish Thought and Heritage, University of Buffalo (SUNY) presented a paper a the Sacred Space Symposium on “Place, Sacred Space, and Utopia”. The session was chaired by Ralph Hancock, Associate Professor of Political Science, BYU.  Dr. Cohen argued, in essence, that there is no sacred space in Judaism and even the most publicly sacred place in Judaism, the temple, is a testament to the placelessness of holiness in Judaism. My notes are not to be seen as a word for word transcript. I have made additions and rewordings for clarity and I missed plenty.  Here it is:

There’s another Jew speaking in the afternoon, I assure you we probably won’t agree with each other, but I’m speaking first and what I’m speaking is right [Laughter]. My thesis is, exaggerated, that there is no sacred space in Judaism. This is too bold; there is sacred space, or special places, synagogues, the ark where torah scrolls are held, etc.  What I want to say then, is that what seems like sacred spaced is actually in Judaism akin to the absence of the notion of utopia or nonplace.  Sacred space in Judaism is not about a place but a disruption of place, a disruption of the present that we understand in the notion of Utopia or the Messianic.  Let it be said, by Utopia, I do not mean the pejorative given by Marx-that of an impossible other world, but in the positive sense, that of an envisioned future, not yet present except as an experimental exception. By utopia I mean something more specific: Messianic, the transcendent transcending where nothing is spatial, a future invisible, above the present. There is an ethical obligation that exceeds the present.

Sacred space in Judaism is this ethical disruption and excess. Sacred space in Judaism is not a place or finding ones place, participating in the whole, being at home, but displacement, dislocation, humility before the infinite.

There is choseness, covenant, the sacred space is election, events, intensifications of moral imperatives. This stands in contrast to the sacred space and hallowed grounds of the iconic in orthodox Christianity.

Judaism is metaphysical without being sublime. More precisely, it would be the sublimity of metaphysics itself, the better than being.  Such would be the glory of the infinite, to feed the hungry, shelter the exposed, to protect the weak.

At the [LDS] humanitarian center [in Salt Lake City, which I toured], there is a citation by Joseph Smith from the Times and Seasons. A religious man is to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to provide for the widow, to dry the tear of the orphan, comfort the afflicted in this church or any church, wherever he finds them…to do good to all men.  A Jew can say that too.  We are also all embracing, imperialistic, and claim all that is true! [Referring back to Givens’ earlier characterization of Mormons as imperialistic, all embracing, and claiming all that is true] [laughter].

Is this true of Judaism or is it just that I want it to be true?  The test case would have to be the most holy place in Judaism, are they places or displacements.  In Jewish history, there are two places that are most holy, in the public communal sphere, the temple at Jerusalem, and the private familial sphere.  One the most public and the other the most private, both hidden from public views.

The temple, the inner sanctum, The Holy of Holies of the first temple. The temple, the House of God, is called in Hebrew “The House of Holiness” or The Holy House. It served as center of Jewish worship, daily ritual sacrifice offered for nearly 1000 years during the period of Jewish sovereignty. How can it be said that it is not sacred space? To make matters worse for myself, the temple stands at the center of a hierarchy of the holy. The outermost sphere of the sacred geography, the least holy space is all that stands outside of Israel. Either you’re in the land or out of the land. But when you get in the land, the geography continues. The holiest place is Jerusalem, The holiest place there is the Temple Mount.  The most holy place beyond that is/was the outer court. Even more the inner court, even more holy, the inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies.  How can I say there is no sacred space in Judaism? To make matters even worse for myself, upon the completion of the construction, no one, not even Jews or Priests were allowed in the Holy of Holies with the exception of the High Priest who would only enter 1 day a year.  As part of a long set of rituals, the high priest would briefly enter this room to pronounce the holiest name of God unpronounceable anywhere else. Jews have lost this name, that is how secret it was. And he preformed rites of atonement for the people. If he weren’t holy, he’d die. This is why priests tied a rope to his robe so that if he should die in the process, his body could be pulled out.  Just as the land of Israel spat out the Canaanites, so to the holy of holies would not tolerate any lesser holiness than that of the most pure high priest. Certainly then the holy of holies gives every appearance of being sacred space.  We, Jews, Christians, Muslims, know that the second commandment forbids idolatry. It was somewhat scandalous in the ancient world that in the holy of holies there were no icons or representation of the one god in the Jewish temple. Such emptiness was unheard of in the ancient world. A spiritual affront. This empty space of utmost holiness raised the fundamental question, what would be the meaning or efficacy of a god that does not appear?  What height is an empty room? When pagan nations conquered Israel, they placed idols in the holy of holies, this was the height of blasphemy

The very existence of the temple or any sacred space represented a danger to the Jewish and monotheistic notion of holiness. They understood that the transcendence of the absolute god of the Hebrews could not be contained in any structure.  God’s omnipresence transcends all presence and is perfected in one of the names for him- ha macomb, the place.

Far from being an unambiguously sacred space, the holy of holies, is a concession of Israel’s spiritual failures. In one sense, it’s obvious. It’s a place for sacrifice, atonement. Looking to the origin of the temple, they understood that the human need for sacred space came in from the Jews’ greatest spiritual failure, the golden calf.  We all remember the image, Moses coming to smash the tablets upon seeing worship. It was at transformative event in Jewish history, thousands of idolatrous Jews slaughtered, Levi appointed to be priestly tribe, Aaron appointed to be priests.  The entire incident of the golden calf is strange, remarkable, disturbing, questionable.  We have to ask, and the rabbis did ask, why did the Israelites who had just agreed to the revelation at Mt. Sinai, why did they immediately create and worship an idol? It makes no sense.  The rabbis had an interesting answer. The motive was good, after the rev. they wanted to worship god, but what did they know of divine worship? They only knew what others did. What was revealed was too new, too different for the limited understanding of the newly chosen children of Israel. It was only after the debacle of the golden calf that god provided a sacred space, indulging his children. They would have to learn proper worship over time. In fact, the two processes were one and the same. Worship would be a lesson in becoming free.  The golden calf is followed by detailed plans for the construction of the ark of the covenant and the tabernacle.  To grasp the continuity of the tabernacle to the temple, what was in the holy of holies in the temple? No idol, nevertheless not entirely empty, it contained the  ark of the covenant from the tabernacle.  Including the ring holes and poles. In the innermost heart of the massive temple, is a portable tabernacle.  What we find inside the massive structure is a…holiness attached to mobility. It is outside of Israel in exile that they become deceived and attached to the soil.  Even in Israel, if attached to the land, they are outside of Israel. The permanent portability of the ark indicates an ambivalence to sacred space, the primacy of a religious ethical mission that has no place and does not seek a place, a mission that is alienated, in which the human is not a loss or deficiency, but an assignation, a vocation, the uniqueness of the human to be created in the likeness of an invisible god.

The primacy of a nomadic spirituality that cannot be bound to place.

The ark of the covenant is within the holy of holies, but what is in it? Words. Just words.  The second tablets of the ten commandments.  It is all learning, all moral teaching, every nuance and detail, the call to moral justice.  A sharp reader familiar with the Talmud, would interject that, how can you be saying that? If you look at the Talmud, the largest subset of rules has to do with agriculture, tithing, first fruits, harvest festivals, etc, how can you say there is no attachment to the land? We must then ask if these commandments are laid out because they are rooted in the soil or to ensure that they do not become rooted in the soil, so they do not become like animals, or just basking in the sun in their land.

To find a safe harbor, escape the troubles of the world, as if a plant, immobile, unmoved, oblivious to the world, this is how the usurpation of the whole world began-to say “this is my place”.  The Jews are not to be come mineral, vegetable, or animal. The land was not theirs, it was God’s, they are commanded to be human and responsible for all mankind, holiness bound to no place, higher than all galaxies, nature, etc.  It is the holiness of the good above being.

The Jews wanted a king to be like other nations, desiring a king and a temple. God does give them a temple and a king, but like the king, the temple must be different, not a place of self congratulation, but of renewal. Jewish spirituality, rituals, texts, etc. a bulwark of ethical imperatives to trump power in the places where power is likely to deceive.

The rabbis teach there will be a third temple. Not a concession of spiritual weakness, but a temple that serves all nations, just as the kingship of the Jews, begun as a concession, the king messiah will reign. The Jews will be sovereign and safe in Israel, and peace will rule.  All nations will recognize the morality and justice of the one invisible god. And without giving up their singular identities, all religions will obey the path of morality and justice and come to worship the one god.

Both Ruth and Abraham go into permanent exile to go to a promised land they have never seen before. They go not to establish roots but to a land of promised blessings, promises of a utopia of peace. Not a Holiday Inn, but  a daily struggle to improve the world, guided by the vision of a utopia that the Jews live once every seven days.

So the most sacred public place is a testimony to utopia, not of another world, but the imperative to improve the world, make it more just.  Such is the holiness of the holy of holies, idolatry is always a matter of place. The romantic and false nostalgia of rootedness, my country, my religion, according to the rabbis, was the real sin of Sodom and Gomorra, it was inhospitality to strangers. Abraham stood for the opposite, hospitality to all, his tent was open to all.  Holiness has no location, it occurs where kindness and justice are rendered.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I think if I had to choose one talk, this would be my favorite.

    Comment by mmiles — June 4, 2009 @ 12:50 am


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