Rav Soloveitchik and Social Issues: Mishkan, Kotel and self sacrifice

Juxtaposing a pluralistic prayer area at the Kotel will in effect constitute an ongoing ‘referendum’ –traditional, rabbinic Judaism versus pluralistic Judaism- whose results will be, I am sure, sanctifying (the rabbinic understanding) of G-d’s name.

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen,

Chaim C. Cohen
Chaim C. Cohen

The holiness of self sacrifice

Rav Soloveitchik teaches that holiness is an entity that is primarily a human construct, created by the self sacrifice of man in the context of his relationship with G-d and His Torah. In contrast to most rabbinic teachers, the Rav does not understand holiness to be derived from a metaphysical, spiritual realm. This article explains how the Rav understands the holiness emanating from the people of Israel’s construction of the Mishkan (tabernacle) in our current Torah readings. It concludes by using the Rav’s teachings to more fully understand the spiritual role of the Kotel (Western Wall) in modern Jewish life, and the implications of these teaching for understanding the government’s decision to establish a Kotel praying area that does not conform to rabbinic law.

Self sacrifice as the main building block of holiness

In most of his writings the Rav takes traditional, metaphysical, rabbinic concepts (such as holiness-kedushah) and tries to non-apologetically explain them in psychological, sociological and philosophical terms. He believes that in this way he makes them more readily accessible to modern man.

Simply stated,the Rav explains,  man ‘creates holiness’ to the extent that he sacrifices his self-centered emotions and material possessions, and he redirects/re-channels them to build a very deep, meaningful relationship with G-d. The foremost example is Abraham’s redirecting (sacrificing) his emotions of parenthood in order to deepen his relationship with G-d at the Akeida on Mr. Moriah (the future Temple site). It is  Abraham’s very high degree of self sacrifice that bestows holiness on the Temple Mount.

The Rav thus writes, “Why is there a difference between the halakhic status (holiness) of Mt. Moriah (the Temple Mount) and Mt. Sinai?....Israel did not participate in the giving of the Torah (its role was highly passive)….thus none of its (Mt. Sinai’s) holiness endures….(At Mt. Moriah) Abraham prepared an altar ….and placed his son upon it as a sacrifice. Abraham thus became a partner in the endowment of  the holiness permeating the Temple Mount.”

Man’s self sacrifice is an essential theme in the Rav’s discussion of the building of the Mishkan-tabernacle. The mishkan, he argues, is the result of the mutual sacrifice of both G-d and man. The Rav writes, “Man is basically a homeless being….he is (existentially) exposed. He is subject to the vicissitudes of life, subject to nature (indifferent and often hostile) and subject to an inscrutable future. There is only one house where man gains security: in the abode of G-d….For G-d to descend from infinity, into a Mishkan built by man was a sacrificial act on His part. This act of self contraction was a sacrifice. He was willing to make such a sacrifice, but only if the people wanted a Mishkan, and were willing to contribute (self sacrifice-give terumah) in order to build it.”

The Rav explains that we find this element of self sacrifice in the bringing of  korbanot (sacrifices) to the Temple. The korbanot imply that man is offering up an animal when spiritually he should be offering up himself. In this sense the ‘korban’ in Hebrew implies a drawing closeness to G-d.

The Temple- a rendezvous between G-d and Israel

In summary, the Mishkan is the meeting place, the spiritual-existential rendezvous, between G-d and Israel. Each side mutually constricts itself so as to make such an ‘impossible’ meeting possible. Man constricts himself. He sacrifices his ego and self centeredness. G-d constricts himself. He sacrifices his infinity and eternity. The Rav beautifully outlines the dynamics of our meeting G-d in the Mishkan when he writes, “Judaism gave the world the secret of tzimtzum-contraction (self sacrifice) of the infinite (G-d) within the finite (the Mishkan), the transcendent within the concrete, the supernal within the empirical, and the Divine within the realm of reality”

Self sacrifice at our Kotel

As it was in the Mishkan, so is it (almost) at our Kotel today. The Rav writes, that also today, when the Jew sacrifices and puts aside his ego, and turns with all his being to yearn, search, and seek an encounter with G-d, G-d awaits him and joyfully accepts him. And this happens every day, every hour, at the Kotel. The G-d yearning Jew is there at winter’s coldest night, and summer noon’s hottest day. The G-d searching Jew is there praying before the sunrise, and after midnight. The Kotel is never empty of Jews pouring out their souls to our loving G-d.

Hundreds of thousand books of psalms are said at the Kotel every year. The sincere tears shed at the Kotel could raise the level of our Kinneret. And the Kotel is also where every type of Jew, from all over the world, comes at the time of individual and family happiness to recognize and renew his historic, eternal bond with the Jewish people. And finally, the Kotel is where we recognize, mourn and celebrate the physical and spiritual bravery of our nation’s defenders.

The Kotel has become the most popular, accessible, universal and meaningful place where the Jew has a rendezvous (encounter) with his G-d, as in the times of the Mishkan.

A prayer ‘referendum’ that will sanctify G-d’s name

I do not intend to comment on the legitimacy or wisdom of establishing a formal area of prayer for those Jews who want to pray and talk to G-d in a manner not sanctioned by rabbinic religious law, such as men and women praying together, and using nontraditional texts, music and ritual objects. I believe that many Jews will use this new prayer area, and will have meaningful Jewish spiritual experiences. They will celebrate an ongoing connection to the Jewish tradition and people.

However, if at end of the first year of the pluralistic prayer area, we could compare the depth and the breadth of the Jewish/spiritual experience of our historic Kotel with that of the pluralistic are, I am certain that the Jewish people will ‘vote with their feet’. Most Jews, of all stripes, will come, at the critical experiential moments of their life, to meet with G-d at the traditional, rabbinic Kotel.

Juxtaposing a pluralistic prayer area alongside the Kotel will in effect constitute an ongoing ‘referendum’ –traditional, rabbinic Judaism versus pluralistic Judaism- whose results will be, I am sure,  a referendum sanctifying (the rabbinic understanding) of G-d’s name.

I humbly believe that G-d will find sincere and meaningful the prayers of the Jews at the pluralistic setting. However, sociologically, a Jew approaching our traditional Kotel, will hear in his heart the tremendous years of ‘boundless spiritual self sacrifice’ that Jews have offered up at the Kotel. Jews of all stripes will ‘magnetically’ gravitate and be pulled to the traditional Kotel, and not desert it for the pluralistic alternative. The  prayers of Jewish self sacrifice that have accumulated over two thousand years at the Kotel will call out, beckon, welcome and accompany all Jews who feel that  they have to now  talk to G-d. As in an algebraic equation, two thousand years of Jewish self sacrifice will add ‘spiritual power’ to their prayers.

I respect the worries and concerns of our rabbinic leaders concerning the establishment of a pluralistic prayer area. But I truly believe that our traditional Kotel is not the least worried. It knows it has been spiritually constructed from two thousand years of unassailable Jewish self sacrifice, as Rav Soloveitchik teaches us. The traditional Kotel has no worries that it will win hands down the referendum sanctifying G-ds name with the pluralistic alternative.