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Rabbi Bradley Hirschfield, an Orthodox rabbi and vice president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, answers questions about what Jewish law and tradition have to say about issues arising from the Israeli government's military and civilian withdrawal from the Gaza Strip after 38 years of occupation. For Part II of the interview, click here.

How do you desacralize or de-Judaize a Jewish place if you are leaving it forever?

We talk about a Jewish place. I don't know if you mean in the widest sense, in regard to the entire territory of Gaza itself. There is nothing sacred about a town whose population is exclusively Jewish. The category that we're dealing with, of land itself, whether or not a Jew lives here, for many Jews, is Jewish land. And specific institutions, such as graves and synagogues. Towns that are marked by exclusively Jewish populations are no more sacred than towns in which a single Jew resides among thousands of non-Jews. Sacredness does not come from the number of Jews living in a place. That sounds perilously racist and happily does not appear anywhere in Jewish tradition.

How do you desacralize a synagogue? Are there required methods?

There are rituals that are recited, and they differ from community to community. The central issues that are usually in play are the removal of the Ark and the Torah scrolls, and oftentimes the reader's table, which in traditional terms is called the "bimah." Now we think of a bimah as a big stage, but really what it was was the table or stand from which the services were led and the Torah was read. Those-the symbolic foci of synagogue practice-are removed and carried out with the community.

To talk about desacralizing the building-there are in different communities, both Ashkenazic and Sephardic, a variety of recitations that are made as gestures of departure from the place. I think one of the things that's really interesting is what does it mean to "desacralize" a place. In America, so often, as Jews moved from place to place, old synagogues became new churches. I don't think of that as "desacralization." I think of that as new sacralization.

It's not desecration?

There are people who would argue that it is. You could talk with rabbis who would tell you that to sell a synagogue, certainly to a Catholic church, is highly problematic, because there are people who believe that Catholic churches, because of the imagistic nature of Catholic worship, actually border on places of idolatry. For me, that's not true, and for many, many Jews, going all the way back to Menachem Hameiri in the 15th century, that has not been true.

It's especially not true when dealing with Muslims. Because their tradition is as sharply monotheistic and de-imagistic as Jewish tradition is. In fact, the transfer of a synagogue into a mosque would be an easier halakhic move than the transfer of a synagogue into a church. Though in each case, what the community would really need to ask is not how do we desacralize this place, but how do we take the symbols of sacredness that are most unique to us and relocate them to a place that is comfortable for us, while leaving the space available for new forms of sacred practice.

For me, what desacralization would be, would be that where synagogues have stood in Gaza would become centers for the promotion of hatred and bomb-making. But I can think of nothing more sacred than for a mosque to occupy the space where a synagogue was, and be one of those rare mosques where peace was taught, one of those mosques where the full dignity of Jews and Christians was taught alongside the dignity of Muslims. One of those mosques where Palestinian nationalism did not come at the expense of Jewish nationalism. That would be a remarkable transition to make, and one fully consistent with Halakha [Jewish law], as I said, given the nature of Muslim worship.

So it wouldn't be a problem for Muslims to occupy a synagogue which contained artistic renderings of the Star of David?

There's no problem. They aren't icons for us. Holiness does not attach to them the way they do [to images] in the Eastern Orthodox Church. They are symbols, not icons, the primary difference being a symbol conveys a message and the message is holy. An icon itself is holy. So the things [in Judaism] that come closest to icons would be the Torah scroll itself, the Ark, the table from which it's read, and perhaps the eternal light [that hangs outside the Ark in synagogues].

Regarding homes, most of the houses in the Jewish settlements probably have mezuzot [boxes containing a parchment scroll with passages from Deuteronomy] on the doorways, as prescribed by Jewish law. When Jews move out, is it necessary to remove the mezuzot?

Yes, traditionally, one removes the mezuzot if the home is to be occupied by a non-Jew, and leaves the mezuzot if the house is to be occupied by a Jew.

Must Jewish cemeteries be moved?
Read more on page 2 >>


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