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. Ive always considered myself somewhat of an environmentalist,
but I hesitated to sign. After all, this is Jerusalem, the holy city, and were
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
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 Torahs 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 Torahs 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 its 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
"...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.