‘Build Me a Sanctuary’

We still don’t like to talk about it much. The idea of Jewish domestic violence makes most of us nervous. Whenever I mention it to my congregation, people seem to furtively look around as if I am revealing a family secret and one of the neighbors might be listening at the door.

According to the Jewish Family Violence Project, one of the unfortunate byproducts of our near complete integration into American life is that we have pretty much become just like everyone else when it comes to the dark side of society. Social traumas that used to be unheard of (or at least not talked about) in the Jewish community — such as alcoholism, divorce and domestic violence — are now all too commonplace.

Every single week, Jewish women manage to find the courage to dial the 1-800 number of an abuse hot line, take themselves to the emergency rooms of our local hospitals, and move out of their unsafe homes and into emergency violence-free shelters for victims of abuse. It isn’t a pretty picture, but it’s a real one.

I still recall how surprised I was when my Yom Kippur sermon on Jewish domestic violence a number of years ago evoked a stronger emotional response from my congregation than perhaps any other sermon I had ever delivered. I received calls and requests for copies of that sermon for months afterward. I even had several women who called to tell me that, merely by my willingness to talk about Jewish domestic violence so openly in public on the holiest day of the Jewish year, they found the courage to leave abusive relationships.

I thought of this sad reality this week as I contemplated the Torah portion. One phrase in particular jumped out at me. I was startled at first by my own mental association, since the phrase itself has traditionally had nothing to do with issues of the body and everything to do with matters of the spirit. But then I realized how natural the connection to domestic violence really is.

“Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). It is a powerful statement of how our ancestors understood their own ability to invoke God’s presence through the building of a sacred space within which God might dwell. These very words are emblazoned on the cornerstone of my own synagogue in Pacific Palisades.

And, yet, as I read the text this week, I couldn’t help but think of a different kind of sanctuary, and a different spiritual need. Too many women of all religious persuasions are desperately in need of a sanctuary that will shield them from the predators of their lives — usually current or former husbands or boyfriends. Too many women and girls of all ages search in vain for a spiritual community that will validate that what they say, and what they do, and who they are matters.

The Kotzker Rebbe, in an oft-quoted rabbinic turn of phrase, was once asked, “Where does God dwell?” He answered, “Wherever you let God in.” But the clever retort falls flat when you think of the thousands of women who are so victimized, degraded and consistently told they are worthless, that they must cling tightly to the last shreds of self-respect just to hold themselves together. They have no room to discover even their own souls, let alone to “let God in.”

“Let them build me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them,” says the Torah.

It tells us “among them” and not “in it,” as we might have expected, so that we can learn that finding God has nothing to do with sacred places, beautiful cathedrals, inspirational sanctuaries. God isn’t in the places where we dwell. Either God is found among us, or nowhere. That is the real challenge of the Torah this week.

Steven Carr Reuben is senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel, the Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades.