Space and Time in Sacred and Secular Space Vayak’heil: Exodus 35:1 – 38:20

There are four ways in which we can experience space. Two of those ways lift our spirits up. Two depress us, even if one of those two ways hides that depression in a frenzied dance and wild shouts of joy. The first two positive senses of space are sacred and secular respectively, which I have depicted in the last few blogs where the mishkan and the La Patrona Beach Club in San Pancho were discussed. I also discussed negative sacred space in the depiction of the worship of the Golden Calf. It is what is referred to as idolatry. In this review of the various forms of sacred and secular space (and time) in both their positive and negative versions, I begin with the depiction of negative secular space.

Instead of flying through space, one falls through space, this time downwards toward the sea instead of outward towards it. If you are too near the shore, you will plunge down and splatter on the sand just beneath the surface of the water. The most you can hope for is falling far enough out to sea so that you dare not crushed but plunge deep into your own soul and hope you can resurface alive. And the reason you are falling is that you feel the emptiness in yourself rather than listening to the emptiness between the two cherubim. You are in pursuit of more – wealth or fame or both. But you are unhappy. You are empty. There is a void within you. And you feel that void within even though you are surrounded by the greatest glitter. You want to, you need to change; you need to fill the void.  Just as you feel less, just as the less you feel, you want and need more.

The Oscar Award-winning song, “Shallow” from the movie A Star is Born as sung by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper captured that sense of negative secular space.

Shallow

Tell me something, girl
Are you happy in this modern world?
Or do you need more?
Is there something else you’re searching for?

I’m falling
In all the good times I find myself longing
For change
And in the bad times, I fear myself

Tell me something, boy
Aren’t you tired tryin’ to fill that void?
Or do you need more?
Ain’t it hard keeping it so hardcore?

I’m falling
In all the good times I find myself longing
For change
And in the bad times, I fear myself

I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now

In the shallow, shallow
In the shallow, shallow
In the shallow, shallow
We’re far from the shallow now

Oh, ohh
Oh, ohho

Wohhhh!

I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now

In the shallow, shallow
In the shallow, shallow
In the shallow, shallow
We’re far from the shallow now

[The song was written by Lady Gaga with Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando and Andrew Wyatt]

 

Instead of hope or even contentment, the song is an expression of fear. It is a cry from neediness. It is a scream from the emptiness one feels within oneself. It is a longing to fill a void, not to have an external void filled. There is a need for more, but no place for that more to reveal itself.  It is a longing for change in the absence of an agent strong and powerful enough to bring about that change. While needing more and more, one experiences less and less.

Sacred space is empty, but guarded, guarded by winged creatures that can help you soar aloft towards the heaven. Anti-sacred space, negative sacred space, is grounded, filled in and solid. Before that solidity of a Golden Calf, one can experience a Dionysian revel, a frenzied dance of revelry. In secular space such as in the San Pancho La Patrona Beach Club, as opposed to sacred or pseudo-sacred space, the space, as in sacred space, is also empty. The construction allows one to soar skyward, but never towards heaven. The space connects horizontally out to the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean and inward towards the land on which you are standing. And always to expand the focus on the material self, on the body, on its beauty and its possibilities.

That is not true of negative secular space. What we see and hear is a performance, an act, not of love, but of the pretence of love while the lyrics and the melody convey despair and desperation. This love, instead of a promise, is a cry of longing. The best that can come of it is the avoidance of death as the two “fall” together in love, but a love that is as empty as the brilliance of the acting, of the performance. In that sense, this Oscar is a representative of Hollywood in general in its most facile form. For even the movies about race and discrimination, about gay female affection and purported history, mislead. For even The Green Room will likely have very little impact on the quest for social justice, though it does record one tiny step on the way. The mistreatment of asylum seekers and those in prison for smoking weed, an activity now in the process of being legalized, will not be addressed by such films.

Instead, these movies look backwards and bear the strong imprint of nostalgia. Bohemian Rhapsody, the celebration of the band, “Queen” and its lead, Freddie Mercury, is certainly a loud salute to pleasure, to engagement in and with the frenzied voices in celebrity worship, but this filling of the void with admittedly a very inventive revolutionary sound, has no boundaries, no guardians of the spirit, no cherubim, and the life of desperation spirals out of control crashing into the sea, but not the shallow waters. There is resurrection, as is often the case in romantic love, but there is no redemption. Just the further pretence that celebrations of sound in Live Aid can change the world simply because the reunion of Queen was so triumphal, an evocation of one the greatest performances in rock history that can so easily make us forget that it is just a performance.  It will serve to inspire dreamers but not, in the end, those working hard to create a better world. Distractions, however entertaining, belong to idolatry, to negative sacred rather than positive sacred space. The fact that such performances live as examples outside the boundaries of the secular world does not change their character or the structures of this world.

Racial discrimination is structural. Gender discrimination is structural. They are about privilege and unwarranted formal authority. They are about power. They are about excessive private wealth indifferent to community benefit or the well-being of this planet.

What the Soviet regime did through a command economy, portraying the world as a golden calf when it was just a stolid idol of gold, America does through a consumer economy that exalts the wonderment of negative secular rather than negative sacred space. Soviet forced collectivization displaced and sacrificed millions who were starved or executed. American individualized voluntary displacement leads into an imaginative fantasy of negative secular space at a cost of lives self-destroyed in the pursuit of fantasies. In the end, negative spaces, whether sacred or secular, are always black holes that implode. They exist only for the moment and do not connect the past to the future, which is the task of positive secular and sacred space.

That is why it is important that secular space be democratized as much as possible, that as many people as possible be given the opportunity to enter a world of true beauty that gives proper consideration to the health and wealth of the material world. And that is why sacred space must be guarded and provided an opportunity to speak to us out of the vacancy to signal the direction of revelation, of the future, of how the sacred will reveal itself.

This will not happen if the sacred declares war on the secular world, if the ultra-religious world represses the personality of a gifted child whose primary interest may be aesthetic pleasures rather than ethical norms. Whether Solomon Maimon, the 18th century Lithuanian Jewish aesthete, or Isaac Mizrahi, an escapee from aesthetic repression in the last two decades of the twentieth century and the first two decades of this century, it is important to recognize that God loves beauty as well as Truth and Justice. Isaac Mizrahi’s father believed that drawing and art were a waste of time. (See his memoir, I.M.) The only thing of importance was study of the Talmud.

This week’s portion is a testament to the falseness of such a position. In fact, the Israelites spend six days a week in dedication to their artisanal crafts to create such beauty, both in the secular and the sacred realm, while only dedicating one day exclusively to the sacred realm, shabat. The object was not to turn all seven days of the week into a sacred regime. God Himself worked on the material world for six days and declared that making the material world was good.

Aesthetics without the rule of law and social justice will end up in empty negative secularism. The rule of law, especially without the pursuit of social justice, but divorced from aesthetics, will end up in idolatry, in the worship of the sacred that is negativity. And both that aesthetics and ethics must be constructed on the solid ground of truth. Chapter 35 of Exodus begins:

א  וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה, אֶת-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם:  אֵלֶּה, הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר-צִוָּה יְהוָה, לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָם. 1 And Moses assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel, and said unto them: ‘These are the words which the LORD hath commanded, that ye should do them.
ב  שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, תֵּעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי יִהְיֶה לָכֶם קֹדֶשׁ שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן, לַיהוָה; כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה בוֹ מְלָאכָה, יוּמָת. 2 Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of solemn rest to the LORD; whosoever doeth any work therein shall be put to death.
ג  לֹא-תְבַעֲרוּ אֵשׁ, בְּכֹל מֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם, בְּיוֹם, הַשַּׁבָּת.  {פ} 3 Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day.’

Everyone was addressed, not just the priestly and warrior and legal elites. God commands everyone to work six days, to work productively, to work aesthetically in accordance with His examples and instructions. We should and must have a secular life of physical and aesthetic pleasure. But to enrich that pleasure, to ensure that pleasure serves a higher purpose, we must rest and reflect. Shabat must be a holy day, a sacred day, a day of rest from such work when we quiet the fires of our passions in favour of trying to listen and hear the voice that may speak between the cherubim guardians, not from their mouths, but from the open space between.

If you do not do this, you shall surely die, either via romantic self-destruction or in the false revelry before a Golden Calf made by some collectivity in substitute for God or as a claim to be the exclusive representative of God.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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