Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Holiness in the Living Room: The Creation of a Holy-Shrine

It is the last place in the world you’d expect to find holiness: in the living room of octogenarian Moroccan immigrants to Israel, on the ground floor of an enormous concrete communist-style apartment complex. True, it is in the city of Tsfat, which became holy in the 16th century thanks to its resident Kabbalists and the Talmudic Rabbis purported to be buried in its environs – but it is not in the mystical old city. Located in the charmless, modern part of town built hastily in the 1950’s and 60’s to house the many immigrants from North Africa: Shikun Canaan, it is called.
Avraham Ben Hayyim in his home in Tsfat
And yet it is here that the holy-man miracle-maker, Rabbi David uMoshe, decided to relocate, in 1973. Mind you, he’s been dead for some 300 years. But in 1973 he appeared in a dream to Avraham ben Hayim, a forestry worker who grew up near David uMoshe’s shrine in Morocco’s Atlas mountains. “I’ve decided to move to your house” said the deceased Tzaddik in Ben Hayim’s dream. Following a series of such dreams, Ben Hayyim erected a small shrine in his living room in honor of Rabbi David uMoshe’s relocation. Since then, it has become a popular – if bizzare – pilgrimage site for hundreds who seek blessings, miracles and a shot of holiness in their lives.
I think of Rabbi David uMoshe whenever the Torah portion of Teruma rolls around. Teruma is the opening scene of the last act of the book of Shemot, which focuses on the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), that mobile Holy-Shrine that the Israelites erect in the desert and that represents God’s dwelling place among. The very existence of the Mishkan is a cause for vehement debate among latter commentators: Did God intend for the Israelites to create such a shrine with its sacrificial work from the very beginning, or is it only a response to the Israelites human weaknesses (be it the sin of the Golden Calf, their need for a concrete religious worship, or simply their immersion in the religious language of the time, which called for temples and sacrifices). There are various hints in the text that wink this way or that, but the most ambiguous line appears in the opening of our portion:

ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם  (שמות כה:ח)
Let them make me a Holy-Shrine, and I shall dwell among them. (Exodus 25:8)

The desire for a God that dwells among us, in the midst of the people, is a unique take on the idea of Holiness. On one hand Holiness is to represent the “Wholly Other”, in Rudolph Otto’s terms, and indeed no one is to enter the Holy-Shrine without permission or cleansing, on pain of death. On the other hand, Holiness dwells in the midst of the people, and it is constructed from the donations of the people (the Teruma = donation). This dance between “Wholly Other” – transcendent, emanating from above – and “Dwell Among” –emanating from within – is one of the paradoxes that makes holiness so fascinating, and so powerful. It also opens up the question: is this a human-induced holiness or a divinely-proscribed one?
It is this same tension that one can find in the Shrine of Rabbi David uMoshe. On the one hand, it is a response to the very human needs of a dislocated individual: Like many immigrants to Israel, Ben Hayim expected the “Holy Land”, only to find a harsh, unredeemed secular environment. Prof. Yoram Bilu of Hebrew U, who has written extensively on such sites, suggests that perhaps that is why in the very midst of the holy sites of Tsfat, Ben Hayim harkened back to the familiar power of his Moroccan miracle-man, and why his site became so popular in the following decades. But on the other hand, the site is a testament to the fickle (divine?) nature of Holiness: once a Holy-Shrine has been erected, something transcendent does seem to “dwell among them”. For the “true believer”, is there a difference between the Kotel and the Ben Hayim living room?

For some the “House of Rabbi David uMoshe” is a holy site, for others idolatry and superstition at its worst. As a religious person, I vote for the latter (and yes, very different from the Kotel), but as an observer of the phenomena, I find it to be deliciously ridiculous, an oh-so-human reminder of our own ridiculous behaviors, and the way a search for “holiness”, “transcendence” or (a more secular) “meaning” permeates our lives, demanding to be found in the most unexpected places. Perhaps the most apt interpretation of the verse above doesn’t relate to “place” at all, rather to people:
The verse doesn’t read “and I shall dwell among it” but rather “dwell among them”, signifying that divine presence rests in the Holy-Shrine not on account of the Holy-Shrine itself, but account of the people, for they are the dwelling place of God. (Zedah laDerekh)
לא אמר ושכנתי בתוכו אלא "בתוכם" להורות שאין השכינה שורה במקדש מחמת המקדש כי אם מחמת ישראל, כי היכל ה' המה. (צידה לדרך על אתר)

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Bronfman Fellowships | Teruma 2012 | Text and the City