Let me be clear.
I am as sad as anyone could possibly be about the recent fire at Notre Dame.
I understand, as well as anyone could, its significance to Catholics and the people of France.
I appreciate, as well as most people, its architecture, beauty, and the irreplaceable nature of its art.
I get it.
So, please do not think me insensitive, nor an uncultured Philistine, if I go on a mini-rant.
As reported in JTA:
Two Jewish billionaires have pledged a total of $122 million toward the restoration of Paris’ Notre Dame cathedral, which was ravaged in a fire.
Lily Safra, a Brazilian philanthropist, said she would give $22 million to fund the restoration efforts of the iconic church, which was badly damaged Monday, Correio 24 Horas reported. And Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, the French owner of L’Oreal, pledged another $100 million, according to CBS.
The donations account for about 17 percent of the $700 million collected so far for the restoration.
I understand the massive financial resources that will be necessary to restore Notre Dame. Many people would be surprised to learn that no, there was no insurance.
I am not getting snarky about those who choose to give to this worthy cause.
I know that it is always tempting to say: “Instead of giving to A, why not to B?”
I likewise know that it is laudable to want to give money, instead and/or additionally, to the black churches that were torched in Louisiana.
My focus here is simply on Ms. Safra and Ms. Meyers’ outsized largesse.
First, Lily Safra.
The Safras are one of the most prominent Jewish families in the world. She has had an unusually rich and tragic life. She has been generous beyond imagination — most notably, to Foster’s Centre for Brain Studies, at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Second, Ms. Meyers. Another interesting life. Her grandfather collaborated with the Nazis. She married Jean-Pierre Meyers, whose grandfather was a rabbi, murdered in Auschwitz. They are raising their children as Jewish. She happens to be the richest woman in the world, worth $49.3 billion.
I find myself returning to Abraham Joshua Heschel.
He was critical of the idea of holy places. He preferred the idea of holy time. Shabbat over cathedrals.
In fact, he famously said that Shabbat is the Jewish cathedral in time.
I find myself mourning the loss of sanctity in the Jewish world today:
- The sanctity of time. Shabbat and festivals are woefully underappreciated.
- The sanctity of learning. Learning — not grades. Jewish learning that connects you to Judaism, and that might even make your life better. Jewish education and youth programs are woefully under-funded.
- And yes, the sanctity of places. To be blunt: too many Jewish sacred spaces — I am talking about synagogues — are going under, or are merging — simply because of demographics and economics.
I remember having the same reaction when I saw the movie The Monuments Men. It is about a group of Allied soldiers who endeavor to save great works of art that were endangered by the Nazis.
The men were heroic.
They would have been more heroic if they had expended just a fraction of that energy — on, say, saving a few Jewish children.
Let’s go back to Ms. Safra.
Granted: the Safras have given so much to the Jewish world.
But think of all those other dimensions of holiness.
- Imagine a Jewish world in which every Jewish family could afford festive dinners.
- Imagine: free Jewish education for every Jewish child. Imagine: free Jewish camping for every child. Imagine raising the salaries of Jewish educators so as to make it a truly attractive profession.
- Imagine: a Jewish world where every synagogue can stay open and vibrant.
I am saying this: at a time when the cathedrals of Jewish learning and community are themselves in metaphorical flames, I can figure out a way for Ms. Safra to spend her money.
How about just the Jews of France?
You know how many attacks against Jewish targets there have been lately?
Think of how much security you can buy with that kind of money.
Forget the Jews for a moment. You know what other kind of sanctity is under threat?
The sanctity of human life.
Refugees. Poverty. Illiteracy. And…
Just think of what that $22 million could have done.
Not for cathedrals — as much as I love Notre Dame.
But, for human cathedrals.
To places where the holy also abides.
On this holiest of weekends for Jews and Christians, let us remember to feed our sense of the sacred.