Read more of Kim Lawton's interview September 20, 2005 with Professor Vanessa Ochs, Director of Jewish Studies at the University of Virginia:
On one hand, when you see a sacred object that's been destroyed, it could potentially give you the experience of God's absence. It's one thing that a home is destroyed, but if a Torah scroll is threatened or destroyed, or a crucifix or a Bible, it might lead you to think, where is God now? On the other hand, when you see one of these sacred objects that has been rescued or that wasn't destroyed, it can give you the feeling of divine presence. It can point to the possibility of order in the world, a sense that God is there, a sense that your faith is there and that it will continue for you. It's a poignant symbol that faith survives.
I've heard many a story of someone finding a Bible, or the story of Torah scrolls being rescued, and when you hear those stories, they so restore your hope that you'll be able to go on. They so restore your sense that we can move on from here and be sustained in the same ways that we've been sustained in the past.
Throughout Jewish history, protecting a Torah scroll has been the equivalent of protecting the Jewish people, protecting the Jewish soul. Of course, if there were a person who was endangered, you would immediately rush to rescue the person first. But when life has been saved, the Torah scroll becomes a symbol of all of history, of all of Jewish peoplehood, all of the Jewish faith. When you can hold that Torah scroll in your hands again and rescue it, it is a sign that the wholeness has been restored.
Here in Charlottesville, once we assimilated the news about the hurricane and engaged in helping however we could, in the Jewish community we began to think, well, what about the Torah scrolls? In some ways it was an afterthought, but when we heard that the Torah scrolls were okay, that they had been rescued and saved, that assured us, even those of us who were far away, of a sense that things would go on, that our values were still in place, and that humanity would continue.
One might think that an object is just a prop used by people in religions. You believe in God, so you need a Bible to hold. You believe in observing the Sabbath, so you need candles. There is certainly truth to that. However, religious objects have great power. They can serve as spiritual agents that give us our sense of religious identity, that move us to act in holy and ethical ways, that tell us who we are as people of faith communities. These objects are not just our tools; they direct us, and when we have the objects with us again, we can be moved by their power.
If you ask the leaders of any faith tradition, most will rank the holiness of particular objects belonging to that faith. However, if you ask the people of those faith traditions, often idiosyncratic objects become the holiest ones. I know in my family there is a yarmulke, a skullcap of my grandfather. It is just a piece of velvet, but my mother holds on to that yarmulke as a sign not only of her father's memory, but of his presence and ability to intervene with God on behalf of the family, a sign of my grandfather's ability to protect, alongside God. There is no rabbi who would say this yarmulke is Judaism's most sacred object. However, I would say for my mother it is, and I think this is the case in all faith traditions -- that for individuals, particular objects will hold great holiness even when the leaders of the faith community might not understand them quite that way.
Rosary beads for a Catholic worshiper may not just be tools in prayer. Those particular rosary beads may be a sign of the love of the person who gave them -- the teachings of a teacher, the piety of a priest or a nun. Perhaps that rosary ... that someone owns now will become a set of rosary beads they pass on to a child or grandchild. There is a sense of biography and movement and history across generations in any object.