Holy of Holies: Open for Business
How I started getting ready for a real Yom Kippur – in Brazil’s Largest
The Holy of Holies is open for business, in Brazil. I got to go in and verily, it is of Biblical proportions, and worthy of telling. Visiting there, as pilgrim/tourist, I was reminded that sometimes the most intimate can be rediscovered in the most remote, and how holy comes in many, sometimes super and surprising sizes.
There are two holy-of-holies, actually. The first is inside the sacred tent in the temple courtyard, and contains the ark of the covenant. The second, all gold, is tucked deep within the enormous Temple of Solomon itself and it contains the fanciest mikve – ritual bath -I’ve even seen. Built by the The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in the middle of a working class section of Sao Paulo, this largest religious building in South America was inaugurated on July 31st 2014 in the presence of the Brazilian president and the leadership elite.
It so happens that I was invited to teach in Sao Paulo just one week following the temple’s dedication and my generous host, Rabbi Adrian Gottfried of Commuidade Shalom, arranged for us to have a private tour, led by one of the temple leaders, Bishop Miguel Lacerda.
Before going I researched the basics:
The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God is a Neo-Pentecostal church, founded in Brazil in 1977, today serving over 12 million followers worldwide. Despite legal issues, financial allegations and accusations of heresy by other Christian and Evangelical groups, UCKG is growing fast- esp. in Brazil. The church is led by Edir Macedo -a religious leader and businessman – owner and chairman of the second-largest television network in Brazil. The church is part of a global movement that is guided by Prosperity Theology – a modern combination of self empowerment, economic prosperity, and generous donations as spiritual growth. The church is most attractive to lower-working class populations and competes strongly in Brazil with the Catholic – and other – churches. Not everybody is a fan, but this is one of those major religious success stories.
And it shows: The temple literally glows. Pinkish marble everywhere, imported from the holy land, it is built as a replica of what is imagined to be the first Jewish temple in Jerusalem, circa 3,000 years ago, only bigger and modified for modern needs and 11,000 worshippers per service. Since the temple’s dedication in July, they fill it completely at each daily service. An additional daily service is set to start by the end of August to accommodate a total of 20,000 daily devotees 365 days a year.
Bishop Miguel met us in the gilded lobby, after we were escorted from the five-levels-deep parking lot (for 2,000 cars) dug below the temple. In his early 30’s, handsome in a business suit, he spoke really good Hebrew – having just spent a year at the church’s center in Haifa – and wore a black knit skullcap, which he later let us know is a new regulation. The Church instituted skullcaps and prayer shawls for its clergy to mark the dedication of the new temple and its new priestly vestments. Just before leaving Haifa Bishop Miguel bought a few new skullcaps in the market in Jerusalem, probably in the same stall where I got mine. And he does look exactly like a young rabbi. When he’d take the train from Haifa to Tel Aviv, he tells us as we stroll through the garden of gnarled old olive trees (imported from Uruguay), he’d often be asked by religious Jewish men to join the prayer quorum – and he would, answering amen and quietly whispering his own prayers.
The olive garden leads to a dome capped museum that tells the histories of Judaism’s sacred spaces through an audio-visual show and a miniature model of the tabernacle. Israeli music piped in the hallways – Gad Elbaz, Idan Raichel.
Surrounding the tabernacle model – looking exactly like the one I remember from the lobby of my childhood synagogue back in Israel – are golden models of the menorah, ark, altar. On one side, two golden pillars support a hanging red curtain- ripped in half, from the top down. Bishop Miguel explains that this represents the curtain of the Holy of Holies of the Jerusalem Temple at the moment of the crucifixion of Jesus, as is described in the Gospel of Matthew. Other than this dramatic image – this could have been the lobby of any affluent synagogue, or maybe even the HQ of the Jewish guys who want to build the third temple and just launched an online campaign with this very produced and somewhat troubling video.
Our hosts are not interested in rebuilding the third temple in Jerusalem. But they are ardent Zionists and super pro Israel. A large Israeli flag is prominent among the flags of the world that are waving in the main courtyard, and just days before my visit, as the war in Gaza was intensifying, Bishop Miguel and his colleagues delivered this incredible prayer for the peace of Israel. It’s really worth watching.
Ten thousand pilgrims join church leaders each year on missions to the Holy Land. And for all those who can’t afford the real thing they’ve built this local option.
We are led to the live size model of the tabernacle in the yard – complete with sand floors, a vast altar, golden lamp and colorful faux-goatskin curtains. The buildings of Sao Paulo peek over the fence and the bishop explains that in a few weeks the fences will be covered with gigantic posters of the Sinai desert, to complete the effect. A guide dressed as a high priest, full on get-up and beautiful blue eyes, leads a small group of pilgrims ahead of us. Bishop Miguel will introduce him later as Alex, one of the pastors. They all take turns dressing as High Priests and leading the tours.
But are these tours for tourists – or prayer walks for pilgrims? clearly both. The lines blur and as Bishop Miguel opens the curtain to the tabernacle’s Holy of Holies, reality seems blurred a bit as well. ‘This is not just a model of the Mishkan”, he explains, “this is just a reminder of how the sacred systems work in our own lives and bodies. We are invited to take the risk and enter the holy – even the holy of holies – so that we can really change our lives.’
He picks up an unlit incense burner and shakes it in from of the ark of the covenant that fills the space of the Holy of Holies chamber, cherubim facing each other above it, shining in gold. “this is how the high priest would fill the chamber with smoke on Yom Kippur,” he explains, “and today we get to be the high priest and enter our own atonement.”
Inside the sanctuary itself, 10,000 seats await the worshippers who are beginning to line up in the courtyard for the 5pm service. Hundreds of ushers, dressed in biblical-looking tunics take their places inside. They are Levites – volunteers, most of them former addicts who have found salvation through the church and take shifts in guiding others through the process. Twelve shining stones line the front of the stage, corresponding to the gems of the priestly breastplate. A wide slot at the top of each stone is intended for the wishes and prayers that worshippers may insert themselves. A semi transparent curtain dominates the stage, behind it one can barely make out the second Holy of Holies – two giant cherubim. “Want to go inside?” Bishop Miguel asks us, pointing beyond the curtain. We go up a flight of stairs and then down into a gorgeous, gold tiles little pool. This is the mikveh – a ritual pool, not yet activated, that will enable the really dedicated pilgrims to enter, dunk, and be reborn.
“So what’s the secret of success?” I ask our charismatic guide as we exit the sanctuary. He looks me right in the eye and answers: “God. We give people real feelings, a power to hold on to, a way to change their lives.” I’m not quoting him precisely, and it’s too bad I didn’t record what he said. But something in how he spoke, the conviction, passion and simplicity – felt very sincere, and very compelling. There are plenty of reasons for cynical criticism and doubt about religions in general and about this sort of evangelical devotion- and I’m willing to be told otherwise – but Bishop Miguel’s faith and commitment felt very real, moving, and hard to deny.
We didn’t get to talk about gays and abortions and what happens when things go bad and addiction returns and prosperity crumbles. Leave it to next time. It’s an honor to be a guest at another’s sacred sanctuary, respecting what is in common to our soul work. The important differences can perhaps be discussed when friendships flower.
It’s hard to argue with success. Back home in the US my fellow Jews are busy lamenting the demise of the synagogue, yet here, like in many other mega churches around the world, lines around the block sing different hymns of religious yearning, generous tithing and back again for more.
There’s something to learn here, of simplicity and sincerity.
As we stood in the courtyard in front of the massive gates of the temple, I saw a young man, in his late teens, simply dressed in shorts and t-shirt, holding a shopping bag with a soccer ball, kneel on the temple steps. He was weeping, holding in his other hand the printed paper that held his entrance to the daily service, taking turns at kissing the paper and the steps. Then he joined the excited crowd of thousands that shuffled in perfect order towards the gates that led to God.
Bishop Miguel and I exchange emails and make plans to get in touch via skype – he is eager to start studying Talmud and I offer to help. He then escorts us back to the parking lot, all the way to our car, and waits until we drive to the exit to point us in the right direction and greet us farewell one more time. A model of perfect hospitality.
Back in the car, driving through Sao Paolo’s dense traffic, Rabbi Gottfried and I debrief. We are both moved and impressed by our host’s zeal and passion and blown away by the sheer scale of the operation he and his peers are handling. We don’t think he was trying to proselytize – but he definitely did a fantastic job of ‘selling’ us a very well defined vision. Would we feel comfortable attending an actual service? Maybe – if only out of curiosity and respect. Rabbi Gottfried, who attended the temple’s dedication ceremony as one of the representatives of the Jewish community, describes the mass singing – including HaTikva, and a 90 min. long sermon from one of the reformed addicts, as a testimony to the power of God. Also – rows of ushers – Levites in robes – carrying credit card machines for super quick and easy donation with credit cards, presented to the worshippers as they walk away from the altar in the main temple, having just their deposited their wishes into the sacred slots. Prosperity Theology in action.
If only we could fundraise as effectively and right during shabbat services – we sigh and smile at each other, leaving the temple behind as the sun sets, heading back to our respective congregational duties.
Ten days later, back in NYC, in the middle of congregational duties, I review the photos from the temple tour, and remember what it felt like to enter the holy of holies.
Weird, and wonderful, and almost wrong.
Walking the biblical-accurate length of the tabernacle courtyard, opening the curtain, and stepping across a threshold of mythic reality into the most sacred semitic chamber, in the middle of Brazil, was very weird and also full of wonder.
It was like walking into a familiar painting that comes alive in 3D. In the world of ‘make believe’ that is religious theater and dramatic dogma – this made up mishkan, fabricated theme park of faith, triggers something powerful, or at least it did for me. I was touched by the efforts, the care, the attention to detail, the mere aesthetics that did what art does best – fill the soul with multi sensory expressions. Despite the cynic’s voice and the rational rage – these guys created a sacred experience.
But it felt almost wrong precisely because of how expressive it all was: Because as it turns out I actually prefer the notion of the most holy as entirely an idea.
Through my Jewish eyes, the Temple and the Holy of Holies are abstract notions, the memories of actual architectural relics that have morphed into metaphors for the sacred center within. And that’s enough.
Walking through this Pentecostal version of the holy house felt sort of wrong to me not because it may be idolatry driven but because it reduced the drama of a dream into human size reality that felt less ‘real’ precisely because of just how physical it was.
I honor the truth and the path of Bishop Miguel and his many minyons, am impressed and inspired by the lavish simulations – but for me, and for the style of spiritual work and community building that I am busy co-creating with my fellow congregants at Lab/Shul NYC – it’s less about nostalgia or the icons of the gilded past and more about the simple needs for functional soulful here and now.
So here, and now, we are, just two days before the last month of the Jewish year begins, and with it a 40-day-long journey into the Holy of Holies of Yom Kippur.
Mystical Jewish traditions trace the ancient pilgrimage routes to the Jerusalem Temple and map them not in space, but in time.
On Yom Kippur , our shrine of self reflection, we chant aloud the verses from Leviticus that describe in vivid detail the atonement worship in the Temple, including what the priests wore and how the highest among them entered, only once a year, the holiest spot of all. These days that holy hotspot is marked on our calendars and in our hearts.
For 40 high and holy days into a new year, we are invited to focus on what our holy truths are, our wrongs and aspirations, what we need to honor, fix and change. We walk towards the temple of our soul, each day another step towards the self, towards the life more honest, happy, sacred.
Obrigado. I am so glad to have visited a holy shrine in a faraway city, only to remember that it’s here all along, the holiest of holies, so simply in my heart.