What makes a Jewish space holy?


Judaism, philosopher and rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, emphasizes holiness in time. While that might work well for philosophers, Jews over the centuries have worked hard to make spaces holy as well. 

They started back in the TANAKH,  with multiple references to special places. The work reached its height in the Second Temple, in Jerusalem, but continued in the synagogues built soon after its destruction. Even as the rabbis shifted holiness toward time (and deeds), efforts to make spaces holy influenced the building of synagogues and other structures for centuries to come.

Understanding those efforts is the topic of the next course in “Delve Deeper: A Program of Intensive Jewish Study.” Sponsored by Temple Emanu-El, along with Congregation Beth Sholom, both in Providence, and Temple Sinai, in Cranston, the program recently finished its chronological survey of Jewish history. It is now moving on to thematic courses, and the next one is “Sacred Spaces in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.”

Joan Branham, an art history professor at Providence College, is teaching the class. She is the chairwoman of the board of trustees of the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, in Jerusalem, and has written a great deal about sacred spaces,  from ancient times up to present-day re-creations of the Second Temple.

With its focus on art and architecture, the classes will be highly visual.  The curriculum also includes readings on historical and religious background, as well as theories of holiness. 

While centered on Jewish sacred spaces, the course will also look at parallel developments in Christian churches and Muslim mosques.

“Sacred Spaces in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam” runs for 11 weeks on Thursdays, Jan. 16 to April 2, from 7 to 9 p.m., at Temple Emanu-El, 99 Taft Ave., Providence.  The course is open to anyone, regardless of religious affiliation.  The cost is $250; full and partial scholarships are available. 

JOHN LANDRY lives in Providence, where he serves on Temple Emanu-El’s adult education committee.

Temple Emanu-El, education, interfaith