“The world’s most contested religious site.”
So says the New York Times about the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, claimed as a sacred portal between heaven and earth by both Jews and Muslims. Jews say it is the site of the Temple where the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies to meet the Divine presence. Muslims say that here the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven to speak with God.
Currently the site is controlled by an Islamic charitable trust. Jews may visit, though few do. Rabbinic authorities worry visitors might accidentally trespass on the Holy of Holies. Non-Muslim visitors to the Mount are forbidden to pray there. Several activist Jewish groups contest the law. When tensions rise, as they did last week, violence and tragedy rise too.
About a year ago, amid earlier stories of tension, my husband Charles and I wondered: is the Temple Mount a place of historic resonance, strengthened by cultural stories? Or is it also a mystical place that calls people to deep connection?
We were Israel-bound, so we planned to visit.
Early on our chosen morning, we set out on foot for Jerusalem’s Old City, entering at Jaffa Gate. We paused by the information booth. The booth was not yet open but a map was posted. Unfortunately, the section that says, “You are here” was rubbed out.
We approached a police officer. “How do we get to the Kotel (Western Wall)?” we asked, knowing that the Temple Mount entrance was there. “It’s closed now,” he said. We knew he was joking—the wall is open 24/7—but we did not laugh.
At the Kotel Plaza, the normally overcrowded women’s section was empty. So, I asked Charles for five minutes. As I ran in, my right hand ripped a corner off a notebook page. My left hand fumbled for a pen. I scrawled a very short prayer to press between the stones: “?”
Just past the plaza, a long line of people stood by a weathered wooden bridge leading upwards and into a wall. “Announcement and warning! Entering the Temple Mount is a violation of Torah law,” proclaimed one sign. “No religious artifacts or symbols allowed,” proclaimed another. Conveniently, a locker with no lock stood waiting to hold anything deemed inappropriate by the guards.
At the metal detector, the security guard checked our American passports. “Yoush?” he asked. Perhaps he was making conversation; perhaps he was asking, “Are you Jewish?”
We had read about the site’s hours in advance: the Temple Mount is open to visitors four hours a day, ending at 10:00 am. At exactly 10:00 am, guards outside let the last visitors in. And exactly at 10:00 am, guards inside ask all visitors to leave.
That day, Charles and I were the last two people allowed to enter.
We crossed the wooden bridge, walked through a narrow indoor gate and WOW!
Everything opened onto a hidden expanse: a huge open-air park with two mosques, an olive grove, paved walkways, and broad steps. We glimpsed the splendor of the original Temple. We felt the holiness vibe; a funnel of light flowed down from heaven. We merged into the sky.
The magic lasted about 90 seconds.
A man waved his walkie-talkie at us. In heavily accented English, he said, “You have to leave.” He said it again and again, as if it were the only English phrase he knew. No one could argue with him; his only response was, “You have to leave.”
People paused by the gate. A few left, but most lingered. A feral cat hopped out of the wall.
We joined a Spanish-speaking tour group that seemed to have permission to stay. With them, we meandered respectfully along the courtyard’s back wall to another gate. No one wanted to leave. Everyone lingered.
“Exit!” said the guide, in Spanish. “It’s time!”
Through and just outside the gate’s narrow tunnel, the guide paused his group, describing Jewish-Muslim tensions on the Temple Mount. We walked through the circle of people; out to Via Dolorosa; then we took a right, a left, a right.
And found ourselves completely lost in the Old City streets. Sunlight did not reach these cobblestone alleys, but local shoppers did—seeking socks, phones, toasters, and conservative Muslim-style dresses, in bright colors with fashionable details. Deep in this maze, we were the only tourists.
Suddenly, we grasped the magic of the Temple Mount from below. Out of a crowded, dark web of city life, eleven hidden gates open onto the mountain’s light. The Temple Mount is a numinous place. One ascends through the fabric of every day life to a different consciousness, to the spacious possibility of divine-human encounter.
Back home, we prayed:
May Jerusalem’s factions find a way of multicultural co-existence. It could be one shared answer for all, or a compromise that makes space in different ways, and at different times, for different claims.
May this holy space not be seen as a symbol for all political tension. Rather, may it be known as a place charged with spiritual energy; one that calls out to seekers, and is big enough to welcome all who come in good faith.
It’s Israel week on the Rabbis Without Borders blog. My colleagues Ben Greenberg and Alana Suskin discussed debates among university Hillel organizations about inviting anti-Israel speakers. Just before that, our blog featured the words of a young Canadian in Israel re-thinking his own views.
Of course, we don’t have to be registered university students to explore multiple perspectives and begin a dialogue that leads to deep rethinking. We can begin with the simplest of tools, actually: a traditional Jewish text and a commitment to asking questions.
The Siddur includes many prayers that refer to the land of Israel; here I will highlight just one. This short paragraph is found, in slightly different forms, in the prayer books of every Jewish movement, towards the end of every Amidah prayer, whether weekday, Shabbat, or holiday. The theme of the paragraph, worshiping God who dwells in Zion, was set by the year 200 C.E.; the precise wording has changed along with Jewish circumstances and philosophies. Below are two different modern versions, in English translation.
Accept the prayer of Your people Israel as lovingly as it is offered. Restore worship to Your sanctuary. May the worship of Your people Israel always be acceptable to You. May we witness Your merciful return to Zion. Praised are You, Lord who restores his Presence to Zion (Siddur Sim Shalom, 1985, Conservative movement).
Take pleasure, GRACIOUS ONE, our God, in Israel your people; lovingly accept their fervent prayer. May Israel’s worship always be acceptable to you. And may our eyes behold your homecoming, with merciful intent, to Zion. Blessed are you, THE FAITHFUL ONE, who brings your presence home to Zion (Siddur Kol Haneshamah, 1999, Reconstructionist movement).
The Conservative wording asks that worship be restored to the Temple sanctuary; the Reconstructionist version asks that worship be acceptable wherever it is offered. Modern Judaism teaches that God is everywhere, and thus people can pray everywhere. So is there or is there not something special about worship in Jerusalem?
What is your experience? Have you been moved to pray in unique or passionate ways while visiting Israel? Does thinking about Israel intensify your prayers for peace and justice? Do you believe that putting a written prayer into the Kotel sends it straight to God? One of my relatives insists that the Kotel is an idol; how would you respond to him? Do you know where the Holy of Holies is said to have been? Do you agree with the recommendation of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate to avoid the site? Do you know about recent Jewish-Muslim tensions on the Temple Mount? If you were a responsible government official, how might you mediate?
The Conservative version hopes that we may “witness” God’s “merciful return” to Zion (a historic name for Jerusalem); the Reconstructionist one asks that “our eyes may behold” God’s “homecoming, with merciful intent.” Both “witness” and “behold” refer to the same Hebrew word, v’techezena. In Biblical Hebrew, its root chazon, typically refers to a prophetic vision. Does the prayer ask that we literally see the return, or that we gain a clear vision of what a compassionate return would look like?
How would a compassionate return look? Like the vision of Ezekiel, where no foreigners would enter, and only priests of one of Aaron’s many lineages could be certified to serve? Like the vision of Isaiah, where a new line of priests, representing multicultural Judaism, would be created? Or like the vision of Zechariah, where the renewed Temple would host annual interfaith Sukkot services?
Both the Conservative and Reconstructionist versions hope for the return of God’s shechinah, which they translate as “presence.” What sort of shechinah would you like to see return? Shechinah as understood in early rabbinic literature: the presence that originally accompanied the Israelite camp in their 40 years of wilderness wandering, a presence strengthened by correct ritual and ethical behavior, that also accompanied the Jews during exile to Babylonia? Would a return of this presence require that all Jews make aliyah and turn their backs on the creative diversity of the diaspora? Would its return depend on Israeli Jews practicing mitzvot, including compassion for the strangers among them? How would such compassion respond to Palestinian proposals for a right of return?
Or would you like to see the return of the Shechinah as described in the mystical work Zohar, one of ten cosmic energies that make up the Godhead; specifically, a feminine motherly energy who feeds all creatures, and without whose embrace God is unbalanced? Would the return of this Schechinah include widespread respect for the practice of gender-egalitarian Judaism, even at the Kotel plaza?
Is your head spinning yet, or is it just beginning to clear? Read the text, consider the questions, and click on the links. Recognize the political pointers in the Siddur. Use them to help you clarify your own commitments and actions. Remember that every prayer is also a prayer for understanding.
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An abridged version of this post appears on OnSophiaStreet.