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Brad Hirschfield

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Why It Matters Where You Pray

Posted: 07/29/11 01:00 PM ET

Where, if as 90 percent of Americans do, do you pray? Is prayer restricted to specific sacred locations, or can one pray anywhere? Could it be that anywhere one prays becomes a sacred space by virtue of having offered a prayer in that space?

The image of men at prayer on the rooftop of a parking garage, and an accompanying article in lohud.com, a publication devoted to covering life in New York's Lower Hudson Valley, brought these and other questions to mind.

In addition to the spiritual questions raised above, what about the fact that this outdoor synagogue on the second floor of parking garage in the Sloatsburg rest area of Interstate 87 was created by New York State's Thruway Authority? Does that raise church-state issue for anyone? It doesn't for me, and not only because I am a traditional Jew who has prayed in that very space from time to time.

This prayer area is a perfect of example of religion-state cooperation, and one that not only presents no legal problems, but one which sends very positive messages about how religion should be used by those who choose to do so. For starters, the prayer space was constructed because otherwise oblivious individuals were endangering themselves, their children (according to the article from lohud.com) and other drivers by simply parking on the shoulder and conducting their services there.

Now that they have a safe alternative, not only can safety laws be fully enforced, the message has been sent: One's need to pray cannot be an excuse for dangerous behavior; freedom of religious expression does not equal unlimited license to do as one pleases. For that lesson alone, the whole project is worth it.

In addition, the space is not reserved for any one religious group in particular. In fact, there is something quite powerful, in terms of the public good, about having a prayer place which is used by multiple faiths, and known to be used as such by the religiously diverse groups who pray there.

We share a world, and often local communities, so the notion that we can even share a place of prayer might make some positive impact on the ability to share the other two. It's not a given, to be sure. But at the very least, the shared space creates experiences of diversity, which most of those using the space would not otherwise have, and that cannot be a bad thing. All of which brings us back to my initial, more spiritually oriented questions.

While every tradition I know of has notions of sacred space limited to the faithful, and imagines that in those locations only can certain rituals be performed, the rooftop of the parking garage at the Sloatsburg stop on the New York State Thruway reminds us that there is also another kind of sacred space that may be at least as sacred: one whose sacredness is not limited to any one group and one which is sacred when it is used for sacred practice. After that, it can go back to "normal."

The sacredness of the Sloatsburg garage is not zero-sum sacredness. It's a sacredness that puts people and their actions ahead of spaces defined by ideology or history alone. It's a sacredness that reminds us why the word synagogue in Greek and beit knesset in Hebrew were chosen by Jews many centuries ago. Both words mean place of gathering and community.

Wherever the community gathers will by definition be sacred, as long as they are there. In a world where so much blood is shed fighting over the narrow form of sacredness, it's a great thing of which to be reminded. Where is sacred space to be found? Wherever our hearts and our deeds allow it to be.

 

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