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Newsletter 6: Beauty and Religion


Dear friends and family,

One of the postcard sellers at the Mosque of Omar whispered in my ear that from the 1st of March we'll be able to enter the sacred shrine again. It's been closed for about 6 years now, since Ariel Sharon entered it in October 2000.

This was good news. It might be a sign of improved relations between Jews and Arabs. Once again we'll be able to admire the architectural beauty of this ancient holy place, one of the best examples of the cultural heritage of Islam.

Arousing religious fervor through architecture and other forms of art is as old as history itself. Just think of the tower of Babel (Gen.10:4), the Parthenon in Athens etc.

Judaism, unlike Islam and most other religions, prohibits this. Remember that God destroyed the Tower of Babel and don't forget the second commandment. (Lev 26:1, Ex 20:4, Deut 4:16, 23, 25 and more)

Synagogues aren't grand and artistically beautiful so that we'll be inspired to worship God. Worshiping God is a simple matter of humility and doesn't require a structure. Remember the prayer of the Psalmist: "I call unto you from the depths O Lord."

This brings us to the question whether the Jewish dream, very common today, of rebuilding the ancient Temple is in tune with Judaism.

Wouldn't a simple synagogue standing on the Temple Mount, next to the Moslem Mosque, be more in tune with Judaism than a grandeous Temple taking the place of the Mosque?

I found proof that such a plan exists in an agreement, signed in 1969, between the Moslems and Jews, that a synagogue may be built on the Temple Mount.

I'm sure that this would satisfy many Jews and would go a long way to cooling off the friction between the Jews and the Moslems over who is the rightful heir to the holy mountain.

Other religions have a great variety of objects of material culture. Art, music, poetry, literature, sculpture and architecture are all used to inspire religious sentiment.

Visiting the holy places of the different religions in the Old City one becomes very much aware of this. Take, for example, the Wailing Wall, on the one hand, and the St. Anne Church, on the other.

The St. Anne Church was built in Crusader times in such an architecturally skillful way that hymns sung there reverberate over and over again, the sound bouncing from one cavernous part of the church to another. The music ascends to heaven and takes our souls with it.

The soul is also uplifted at the Wailing Wall, but not by the sounds of the music or the magnificence of the architecture. The architecture is simple and pragmatic and there is no beautiful music.

The gabble of sounds that strike your ears at the Wailing Wall won't inspire you if you don't have an inner awareness that those sounds are actually the divine words of the Book of Psalms and that the place where you are standing is the heart of the Jewish Nation. Where it was born and where it faced its tragic destruction and dispersal to evey country in the world.

In art galleries throughout the world we see beautiful artistic creations all created to inspire religious fervor. Everywhere there are religious buildings and religious music.

Many religious Jews stay away from art and culture as a precaution against being religiously aroused by the art instead of by the introspective understanding of the word of God.

Religion and culture go together for everybody except the religious Jews.

In the Opera the other night I saw one or two religious Jews in the audience. You could tell because they wore the Kipa. These are known as modern Jews who follow in the footsteps of Moses Mendelson and combine a love of the arts with religious observance.

Unfortunately they are very much in the minority of religious Jews but they are following in the spirit of the great Rabbis of Mishna, the Jewish law book compiled after the destruction of the Temple.

One of the best examples of the love of art of these great rabbis is the ancient town of Tsipori in the Galilee. Here the synagogues are decorated with beautiful, colorful mosaics depicting signs of the zodiac and the binding of Isaac.

This is in contrast to the strict enforcing of the 2nd commandment in the 2nd Temple period when the Jews were fighting against Roman domination.

At Massada you can clearly see how the Sicarim deliberately destroyed beautiful Herodian mosaics. For example in the Western Palace, you can see a feeding trough for animals built on top of a mosaic floor.

The Jews are clearly divided in their interpretation of the Biblical prohibition of making graven images. One group sides with the rabbis of Tsipori and favours the arts and culture while the other group follows the way of the Sicarim, struggling against art and culture as a contravention of the 2nd commandment.

In Judaism there is a clear separation between material culture and religion. Art and culture may not be used to induce religious fervor. Religious fervor must come from study and inner examination of our soul and our deeds, not from a beautiful piece of music or a beautiful statue or painting or architectural beauty.

On the other hand Judaism requires man to make his world beautiful just as God made His world beautiful but he must be very distinctly aware that the beauty he creates is not to be worshipped or used to promote worship even if it is God to be worshipped.

Wishing you a great no news day

Yours truly

Leon Gork

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