Dear friends,

I live in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem - a neighborhood where the majority of the residents are Haredim - traditional Orthodox Jews. One evening, a young girl knocked on my door and asked me to sign a petition protesting a proposed plan to build a synagogue in a small local park. I’ve always considered myself somewhat of an environmentalist, but I hesitated to sign. After all, this is Jerusalem, the holy city, and we’re talking about a synagogue. Should not its sanctity take precedence over trees and bushes? I told the girl that I needed to learn more about the issue before I could sign her petition and feeling very pious, I closed the door.

To my surprise, I later discovered that the petition drive was organized by the wife of one of the leading Rabbis of the community! Her campaign was successful; the park was spared. Although those wanting to build the synagogue had offered to create a park in a new area, their opponents did not feel that the offer was realistic. In the end, the proponents of the synagogue were the ones who were forced to find another site.

In conversations with a number of Talmudic scholars, I was told that, according to their understanding of the Halacha (Torah Law), the rights of those using the park took precedence over the rights of those wanting to build the synagogue. The people using the park had already established a claim, and, the park was meeting a vital recreational need - one which contributed to the health and well-being of the residents. The scholars also pointed out that there were other synagogues in Bayit Vegan, and those wanting to be independent of those synagogues had no right to do so at the expense of others.

In fact, one neighbourhood scholar, Rabbi Aryeh Carmell, has written a book about the social and spiritual goals of the Torah’s mitzvos (precepts), in which he discusses the mitzvah to design parks for the urban environment. In this work titled Masterplan, Rabbi Carmell points out that an ancient example of an urban park can be found in the Torah’s command to design open spaces around the cities of the Levites (Numbers 35:2-3). According to the Biblical commentator, Rashi, part of these open spaces were to provide an atmosphere of beauty - a "greenbelt" around the cities - therefore no building was allowed in this designated area, and agricultural activity was also forbidden,. And Maimonides states that these regulations applied not only to the cities belonging to the tribe of Levi, but to all the tribes of Israel. (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee Years, 13:5). Therefore, long before the development of modern parks, the Torah gave city residents access to the natural beauty of the countryside.


Some of these arguments were not new to me, and I wondered why I hesitated to sign that petition. Perhaps it’s because I grew up with the western idea that Judaism is a religion, and therefore its activities are centered in a house of worship. But if we examine the vocabulary of Biblical Hebrew, we will not find a word for religion. The term does not appear in the Torah, because to the Torah everything is religious. To set aside a part of life and call it religion is the very negation of the holistic philosophy of the Torah, since it implies that there is a sphere of human activity from which God is excluded. This idea is expressed in an essay by the late Dayan Dr. I. Grunfeld, a member of the London Rabbinical Court, and a renowned scholar and lawyer:

"...To be religious in the Jewish sense of this word does not mean to primarily pray, although prayer is an essential part of all personal religion. To be religious in the Torah sense means to conceive of all human activities as falling within one scheme... The farmer behind the plough, the workman on the bench, the merchant with his goods and the scholar with his thoughts - they all have an equal opportunity of serving God as much as the priest in the Temple; perhaps even more so. In the conception of the Torah, only spiritual victory which is won in the arena of life is worth achieving; for the highest aim of Jewish teaching is the sanctification of life in all its aspects." (Introduction to Horeb.)

This is not to deny the central role of the temple.We enter the temple to renew the covenant with God, Torah, and each other, yet we leave the temple to apply the covenant to life. Therefore, a city park can also be a scene of Divine service, and in the unique case of Bayit Vegan, the Torah chooses the park over a synagogue. For the Torah is described in the following words: "She is a tree of life" (Proverbs 3:18); thus her mitzvos encompass all areas of our existence.




Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen