Friday, July 20, 2012

Sacred Space: Contemplating Colorado, Diablo III and the Destruction of the Temple

Last night’s shooting at a showing of The Dark Knight Rises in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater is obviously shocking and disturbing, and following on the heels of another upsetting article I happened to read yesterday – about an 18-year-old Taiwanese man who was found dead in an Internet café after a 40-hour marathon session playing the game Diablo III – it got me thinking, as I sometimes do, of the culture we have created.

Today is the first day of Av, which begins the countdown to the Ninth of Av, the Jewish fast day commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. I know that for some the practice of mourning and fasting for the destruction of a two-thousand-year-old building seems perhaps meaningless and outdated.

Sometimes in my daily prayers, I too wonder why I am beseeching God to rebuild the Temple. Do I really want to see animal sacrifice reinstated? Mary had a little lamb and then brought it to the Temple Mount for slaughter? Will I look stupid walking through the Mamilla Mall with a ram trailing behind me?  And won’t PETA be all over Israel and the Jews for this? I mean, doesn’t Israel get enough bad publicity without adding dead cows to the picture?

The shooting in the theater and the death of the video game player, events that have occurred as close as they have to the Ninth of Av, are reminding me of what the Temple and its loss really mean. I teach AP Art History, and if you ask any AP Art History teacher (and this should be pretty easy to do since there are about six of us), the idea of Sacred Space is one we return to in the class repeatedly.

I’m constantly asking my students, Do you see how this society created its sacred space? Do you see what was important to these people and how they chose to honor their God or gods by enclosing space in a particular way and with particular materials? How did they view themselves in relation to their Deity and how did they use their space to honor that relationship?

Lord knows, we have many malls in America, many movie theaters, arenas, Internet cafes, fast-food restaurants. We have abundant choices and areas where we can relax, enjoy ourselves, buy what we need and want. But these areas are not sacred. Sacredness comes from carving out a space in the world where people can contemplate quietly what it means to be human. For religious people, a sacred space is a place to honor and thank God and to remember that our role in the world is to improve it.

The shooting and gaming death are the opposite of what should happen in sacred space.

In addition to art history, I also teach English literature, and I spend a lot of time discussing Gothic literature, its pull, its fascination with the culturally transgressive. I even show Batman Begins in some of my classes, discussing its ‘Gothic-ness’ and the role that the twinning of good and evil plays in depicting how easily people can slip from good to bad. Most people know that stories should stay in books and movies, but some do not.

We don’t yet know the motives of the killer in the movie theater, but it seems to me that both he and the gamer in the Internet cafe got lost in stories they could not get out of. One ended up hurting only himself, but the other enacted a sick and twisted tale on others.

As a teacher and lover of the arts, I often ponder, with my students and alone, what role art should play in the world, and it seems to me that art should always make us think. Rihanna came under fire last year for making a video in which she kills a man who has raped her. Her initial response was that she is an artist, and it is not her duty to monitor what children or people view. It’s her job to make art.  

Art often uses violence as an aesthetic tool. Remember Andre Breton’s famous claim in the Second Manifesto of Surrealism that “the simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and tiring blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.” That’s an eerily accurate description of what happened in the Colorado movie theater and what the Diablo III player was busy doing in his game when he forgot to feed himself, sleep and live.

I don’t think it’s art’s role, necessarily, to get you to do the right thing. That’s the job of ethics and morality, and, because I’m an Orthodox Jew, I’d add, religion.

Judaism, like the cultures my students and I study in art history, places a premium value on sacred space. And the tragic events of the past few days – to which I’d add the murder and injury of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria – remind me that no movie theater or Internet café is going to show us how to be moral agents.

The public spaces we have created for ourselves, so abundant in America, the malls and movie theaters, the restaurants and coffee houses, will never teach us that our primary role in the world is to help, not hurt, others. We need more spaces where we can go not to indulge in or plug into dark and deep desires, but where we can find ethical sustenance and food for the soul.

This Ninth of Av, it seems to me meaningful and timely, then, to mourn the loss of the most sacred space that my people once created and to think that rebuilding it might offer the world some of the moral nourishment such a place should supply.


  1. Mazal tov on your new blog! Look forward to reading more. so much to say here, but it will have to wait until next week!

  2. Excellent. Looking forward to reading more cogent, stirring and contemplative pieces.

  3. The fundamental aspect of sacred spaces is that sacred spaces are social spaces. Sacred spaces in every culture and of every dimension are sites where coreligionists can join together in religious rituals, festivals, and general festivities. The two Temples that stood in Jerusalem epitomize the multi-faceted sacred space. The First Temple brought the Israelites together on holidays, both solemn and joyous, and when the nation was gathered in Jerusalem, cultural values were instilled in all those ready to learn. With the construction of the Second Temple, as Rabbi Leibtag explains in his shiur on the Biblical origins of Channukah, the Jews were once again brought together as a cultural body and Jerusalem became the site of a reconstructed sacred space that instilled religious and national values in visitors. From this example, it is evident that sacred spaces are home to much social activity. As social locales, sacred spaces are informal schools. In sacred spaces, morality and social conduct is taught, values are instilled. Sacred spaces and the experiences one links to sacred spaces form one’s social behavior and instill a certain set of values. The role of the sacred space is to teach.
    Art plays an essential role in the establishment of a sacred space. Needless to say, a shopping mall is decorated far differently than a synagogue. The art within a space determines the atmosphere established within that space. In this way, the role of art in a sacred space is to establish the proper atmosphere for the experiential learning that takes place in a sacred space. To illustrate this, cathedrals have awe-inspiring soaring vaults to instill the sense of human nothingness beside God. The art of the construction of the cathedral itself inspires a fundamental religious value—fear of God—and that value gives rise to countless other values taught within the cathedral. The cathedral, however, is a single illustration of the role of art in sacred spaces. Across Europe, the art of cathedrals established the atmosphere necessary for the lessons to take place within the cathedrals. In the East, in India, it was not the art of the cathedral that established the atmosphere necessary for sacred and social teaching, but the radiating temple enclosures and towering gopuras guarding the temple enclosure entrances. Art is essential in the sacred space, and sacred space is essential in every society, including modern society.

  4. According to this article, there are sacred spaces in the United States. According to the article, the sacred spaces are Movie Theaters, Stadiums, Shopping Malls, etc. The deity of those things are consumption and money, as opposed to Churches where the deity is Jesus, Synagogues where the deity is Hashem, Greek Temples where the deity is Athena, Apollo, or Aphrodite and Mosques where the deity is Allah.

    Are these American things different, however; from the Bread and Circus in Ancient Rome?

    Where the Caesars appeased the people and made them happy with gladiator fights. Are boxing matches and sports different from gladiator fights? Are they of the same vein?

    Every society has elements of greed, extravagance, etc. Medieval Europe and Rome was FULL of it. However, that was not the central focus of those societies, at least ostensibly.