Thin Places

Rabbi Alon C Ferency
October 7, 2013
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In general, I follow Rabbi Isaac’s doctrine that “God is the dwelling-place of God’s world, but God’s world is not God’s [sole] dwelling-place.”  Effectively, I hold to a panentheistic conception of holiness: God is immanent in all things, and God transcends them; or, as McCartney might have said, God is “Here, There and Everywhere.”  But at no point does this indicate that God should be more present in some places, or less present in others.  Logically, scientifically, and theologically, no place should be over-dense with matter, energy, or godliness.  Yet, the feeling persists that there are special places.  Perhaps I should be unsurprised, since Mircea Eliade notes, “Some parts of space of qualitatively different from others.”

For that matter, why should some places feel holier than others? For me, many of these spaces are in Israel.  Would it be the same if I were not a Jew? Am I conditioned and primed to experience the Land of Israel this way, or is there something endemically holy about the air of Jerusalem’s hills? I can not say.  Furthermore, why are there so many signal moments of my life that occur at the Kotel (Western Wall)? I can still remember the rainbow that appeared over the Kotel on the last day of my high school semester in Israel, drifting up like a promise through rain and tears.

It was at the selfsame Temple Mount that I addressed God when my first colleague died.  Joel Shickman, my seminary classmate, was an optimist, blessed with natural serenity, “harmonious and well balanced from the outset.” (William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Chapter 8) Even in his hospital bed, withered by Leukemia, Joel recognized his place in God’s world.  Before his strength failed, he made time to play guitar and sing.  He was a marvelous musician, and very fond of Rabbi Akiva’s maxim, “Sing each day, sing every day.”  Joel was 37, with a gentle wife and three young boys.  What could I possibly say to God when he died?

Quite a lot, in fact.  The Wednesday night after I heard of Joel’s death, American friends and colleagues visited us in Jerusalem. They invited my wife and me to a tour of the tunnels under the Temple Mount.  By taking the tunnel tour, one may reach as close as ritually possible to the Holy of Holies.  After I waited for our tour group to pass, I stood in that spot and I spoke to God. With silent screams, I poured out my rage, punching the retaining wall, shaking, shivering.  At last, alone with those stones, I felt God there in a way that no human being can be with me when I am angry.  I was pounding God’s chest, and God was holding me ever more tightly, even as I wanted to hurt God.  I told God that God did an awful job.  God took my anger and said that I was right to be angry.  With each scream and accusation, I knew that God was saying, “You are right.  I am sorry.  I feel degraded by it.”  God cannot change what happened nor explain it to me, but God knows my pain and feels the same.

Is it truly possible that there are portals through which we may access the Divine?! The Celts describe these as Thin Places, regions in which the membrane between the material world and the spirit is stretched taut.  “They are locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or, as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever.” (Here) Would that I were more often at the liminal space between Heaven and Earth, not merely the Kotel but anywhere, and all the it took was my openness to the experience.  Unfortunately, I am a cynic and a skeptic.  And perhaps it’s merely my doubt that prevents me from recognizing more Thin Places.

I close with a thought from Robert Diggs, whom Staten Islanders know as The RZA: “I like to say that a man should put himself in heaven at once. Don’t wait till you die to go to heaven; live heaven on earth. You could be in a small apartment inside a project. If you have the right mentality, that project could be a paradise for you. But it’s the mentality that we carry with ourselves everyday that makes our surroundings uglier than what they are.”

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Rabbi Alon C Ferency pursued Israeli-Palestinian economic integration in the 1990’s at Harvard University. After a bicycle trip from Seattle to Boston, he entered the Peace Corps in Cameroon as a Community Health organizer. Then, he worked in the music industry, before receiving a Master’s Degree in Informal Jewish Education from J.T.S., and rabbinical ordination from the Ziegler School in 2010. Today, Alon is the rabbi of Heska Amuna Synagogue in Knoxville, Tennessee. There, he serves as a board member of the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking, and served on the Community Health Council, Together! Healthy Knox, and the ethics committee of the University of Tennessee Medical Center. He is also a regular contributor to Conservative Judaism quarterly, and an alumnus of Leadership Knoxville and the Tikvah Fellowship. His sermons are available at heskaamuna.org/sermons.html; and, you may follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/EclecticCleric) and Twitter (@EclecticCleric).

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