Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

Space: The Final Frontier or My Creative Solution for the Kotel

The urgent problems at Judaism's most sacred site might best be solved by a choreographer
Batsheva Dance Company

This week’s parasha, Va-Yakhel, deals with two completely different kinds of activities: the management of Time and the organization of Space. The account of how the Mishkan was actually built opens (Exodus 35:1) precisely as the instructions for building it closed (Exodus 31:12) — with the command to keep Shabbat. Space and Time. Time and Space.

With regard to managing time, we are given very little to go on; keeping Shabbat boils down to rest and no work. When it comes to organizing space, by contrast, nothing is left to chance; every possible detail about constructing the Mishkan is covered. More than that, it is specified the entire project must be undertaken and overseen by experts: ‘Let, then, Bezalel and Oholiab and all the skilled persons whom the LORD has endowed with skill and ability to perform expertly all the tasks connected with the work of the sanctuary carry out all that the LORD has commanded (Exodus 36:1).

Some people are natural time managers, some are born with the disposition to organize space, and some have an innate talent for both. What’s clear, though, is that each skill requires, to a greater or lesser degree, training and experience.

Religious priorities and historical circumstances have given the Jewish people practically unlimited opportunities to practice their time management skills : ‘These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the LORD, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions’ (Leviticus 23:2). Shabbat and the Festivals can be celebrated and observed in every corner of the Diaspora, and then there are the daily prayers to organize: Shacharit, Mincha, Ma’ariv, Shacharit, Mincha, Ma’ariv…

But space is a very different matter. Many Diaspora Jewish communities were unable, or chose not to, build elaborate synagogues. With some important exceptions, those who did often built derivative mediocrities or worse. And needless to say the architects, construction workers and craftsmen themselves tended not to be Jewish.

This lack of experience with space may help to explain the difficulty that many Jews have in figuring out how they fit into it. For each of the few examples I’m about to give from my daily life in Jerusalem, there are a thousand others waiting in the wings. And that’s just my daily life.

Yesterday morning I was in a cab on a small street off Emek Refaim on my way to the gym. (Yes, I know it’s strange to take a cab to do exercise…) A driver pulled out of a parking space near the post office. Once his car was positioned diagonally across the road, blocking all traffic, he got out (leaving his door wide open) and started to walk away. Car horns blared. The driver reluctantly got back behind the wheel and pulled over to the side — just far enough for other cars to squeeze past him if they really tried. He was probably a perfectly nice and, in other respects, considerate guy. He just couldn’t assess his position in space.

On my way to get that cab, I walked on a short, dead-end street — Rehov Hananya — that opens out into a small area for parking and turning around. Since there’s a clinic on the street, the parking spaces are in high demand. On weekday mornings, it reminds me of a puzzle game my sons had when they were young: ‘Rush Hour.’ It was not their thing, as I recall, but would that the drivers in our neighborhood were even a fraction as committed to solving real life gridlocks.

Last week, I was walking on Emek Refaim. Ahead of me, three or four older Americans were deeply engaged in conversation — in the middle of the pavement. One of them was facing in my direction and must have seen me coming; another glanced towards me, and even made eye contact. But although it was obvious that I wouldn’t be able to get by unless they moved, they stayed exactly where they were, forcing me to step into the road. Pavement-blocking is not gender, age, ethnic or country of origin specific. Very nice people do it here. I’ll probably start doing it myself soon. Perhaps I already have …

I became much more sensitive to our problems in this country with space after a week in Sierra Leone last August — just when the country was finally declared Ebola free. I was visiting my son in Freetown, the capital city. In Freetown, streets are like rivers. In the rainy season, they flow with water at the drop of a hat. Throughout the year, they flow with throngs of beautiful men, women and children dodging rocks, pot-holes, puddles (inexplicably, their shoes always look immaculate), cars, and of course each other. I never once saw someone bump into a fellow pedestrian. Never! How is that possible? It could be connected to the huge loads that many Sierra Leoneans carry on their heads. You’d think twice about bumping into someone if it led to a close encounter with a bucket of raw fish or a tray of forty eggs.

IMG_3731Clearly, though, the fish and eggs are not the whole story. Sierra Leoneans are as effortlessly aware of precisely how they fit into the space around them as we in Israel seem willfully oblivious. But what has all this got to do with the Kotel, you may be wondering?

The current level of discourse about the organization of the Kotel is shameful and humiliating. If the Temple was destroyed, as the Rabbis say, because of ‘baseless hatred’ among Jews, we should probably start worrying seriously about the wall that is the Temple’s holiest remnant.

The rabbis and others fighting over how and where to divide the Kotel; and who can use it, where, when and how, are world experts in Time management. They do it every day, and they’ve been doing it for over two thousand years. But beyond checking the eruv — a very particular form of spatial organization that doesn’t readily transfer to other realms — what do they know about space?

Therein lies a problem, I think. The attempts of the Rabbanut and the other factions trying to organize the Kotel have brought us closer to the undignified chaos of ‘Rush Hour’ on Rehov Hananya than to anything approaching an appropriate way to think about Judaism’s most sacred space. But what’s the solution?

Last night at the Jerusalem Theater, I had the glimmer of an idea. My husband and I were there to watch ‘Mr Gaga’ — a documentary about Ohad Naharin, the director of Batsheva, Israel’s premiere contemporary dance ensemble — followed by a performance of ‘Three‘, a piece from Batsheva’s repertory. Towards the end of the performance, there was a breath-taking, awe-inspiring moment. All the dancers were on stage, leaping and falling with the controlled abandon we’d seen so much of in the documentary. Suddenly, the lights dimmed, and their movements became fluid, smooth, coherent and integrated. I felt as if I was watching the creation of the world.

Batsheva Dance Company

Something tells me that he wouldn’t agree, but surely — I thought — here’s where we should be looking for a solution to the urgent problem of the Kotel. We should turn, not to rabbis whose lives are structured by sacred time — crucial and beautiful as that is — and know nothing of space, but to a dancer, choreographer and director extraordinaire who has dedicated his life — most of it in Israel — and his extraordinary ‘skill and ability’ to demonstrating, in the most powerful way I can imagine, what it really means to move, to exist, in space. You probably think I’m joking, but I’m deadly serious.

About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.