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Interview: The Temple Mount

Hearing the Music of Faith in a Dangerous Holy Place

THE END OF DAYS book cover.The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is the location of the Dome of the Rock, the spot where Muhammad ascended to heaven, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. It also remains, in principle, the most sacred site in Judaism, the place to which Jews have come to worship for centuries. Some Christians predict that it will be the location for rebuilding the Temple. In THE END OF DAYS: FUNDAMENTALISM AND THE STRUGGLE FOR THE TEMPLE MOUNT (The Fress Press), journalist Gershom Gorenberg, a senior editor at THE JERUSALEM REPORT and a contributor to THE NEW REPUBLIC, examines the complicated significance of the world's most sacred piece of real estate. "What happens at that one spot," he writes, "more than anywhere else, quickens expectations of the end in three religions. And at that spot, the danger of provoking catastrophe is greatest." But Gorenberg suggests that catastrophe "isn't where faith has to end up." He spoke with RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY information editor Missy Daniel on December 8 in Washington, D.C.

MISSY DANIEL: Must the impact of religious belief in the Middle East inevitably be dangerous and violent?

GERSHOM GORENBERG: If we were simply prisoners of a historical pattern, then Israel would not have left the Temple Mount (Al-Aqsa) in Palestinian hands after the Six-Day War in 1967. Even though Israel never officially acknowledged what it had done, its actions were a tremendous, encouraging rebellion against history. The historical pattern in Jerusalem for at least three thousand years is that every conqueror has evicted the previous religion, installed its own, and taken that as a sign that it holds the truth. In 1967, the Israelis came in, conquered the city, and proclaimed, "The Temple Mount is in our hands." That became the official de jure position. But the de facto position is that the Muslims continued to control Al-Aqsa, and the two religions prayed side by side.

I recognize that there have been tremendous problems. There have been times when, for security reasons, Israel has restricted access. But the bottom line is that the Israelis said, "We will pray over here, and you will continue to pray here." Two different groups of people can pray to God at the same place that they both consider important, without destroying each other.

In the peace negotiations, one of the huge problems is turning that de facto recognition into something that people are willing to say out loud. It's one thing to do it, but it's a much bigger job to say, "Yes, and I admit that this is the case." Some of the biggest concessions that have to be made in this area are simply what I call "negotiating with yourself" -- accepting that you can continue to live with the concessions you've already made, but have not owned up to. That's true of both Israelis and Palestinians.

Religion is not monolithic, and the ways of looking at a religion are not monolithic; they are incredibly variegated. The whole idea fundamentalists present to us that there is one reading of a text is clearly untenable from the point of view of what a text is. As an Orthodox Jew, I study biblical texts out of a book called a Mikra'ot Gedolot, which means expanded Bible. In the middle of the page is the biblical text. ... There are vowels on the page, but the vowels came later. The vowels themselves and the syntax are a later commentary. Next to the biblical text are two Aramaic translations. Around that is a series of commentaries. On some of them, there are more commentaries. The immediate, graphic picture is that there are multiple meanings in the text. That is a traditional text, not a modern, scientific, scholarly work. The fundamentalist approach (that there is one meaning) is, in a strange way, a modern reactionary trend that seeks to sweep away the vast variety of religious tradition and impose a single reading.

If there are multiple possible readings, then I don't have to "read" the Temple Mount as being literally the place that God must be worshipped. I don't have to read it literally as the proof of the truth of my religion. For that matter, I don't have to believe, as a religious person, that my truth is the only possible truth for understanding God. There is the potential for looking at the place in a different way. I'll go one step further. If there were a de jure solution at the Temple Mount in which each religion and each nation accepted the other's presence, that in itself would be a commentary on the place that said, "Yes, two readings can exist. Two ways of looking at God can exist side by side in the city." And you can throw in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre down the block and say there are three readings or four readings or five readings of who God is that can co-exist at "God's Mount."

I'll give you an example of this in the real world. Pope John Paul II's visit to Jerusalem last spring was a tremendous theological statement of the highest degree. The day before he arrived, there was a demonstration by a small group of far-right Israelis against his visiting Islamic clerics at Al-Aqsa on the Temple Mount. I asked one of them why they were demonstrating against the pope. He said, "I have nothing against the pope. The pope could still come to Jerusalem, convert to Judaism, and offer sacrifices at the Temple. After all, it says in Isaiah, 'My house will be a house of prayer for all nations.'"

The pope paid his visit to the Temple Mount and then a day or two later came to the Western Wall and was greeted by Michael Melchior, an Orthodox rabbi, a very moderate, dovish figure, who is a member of the Israeli cabinet. Rabbi Melchior said, "We can both pray here in our own way. After all, it says in Isaiah, 'My house shall be a house of prayer for all nations.'"

Do you see the two readings of that verse? The first person meant, "You can accept my truth, and then although you'll be from a different nation, you can pray here." The second person stands at the holy site right now, not messianically, not millennially, and says, "Right now, this can be a house of prayer for all nations because you, John Paul, will go up to the Western Wall and offer your Catholic prayer, and I, your Jewish host, will offer my Jewish prayer. Both of those things are possible at this spot."

DANIEL: Is any sort of compromise possible?

Author Gershom Gorenberg.GORENBERG: I do not expect the extremists to evaporate. When I talk about compromise, I am not talking about a total resolution of conflict in which the extremists on both sides suddenly lay down their swords and shields and embrace. The political and religious atmosphere has a huge effect on a wide swath of society. Before 1967, there were religious Zionists, Orthodox Zionists, who regarded the State of Israel as the beginning of the final redemption, a sign that God was fulfilling his prophecy to Israel and bringing the Jews back to the land. This was not considered a historical event, but a meta-historical event, literally the beginning of the end. The main rabbi who presented that point of view was a marginal figure. He had his little Talmudic seminary on the edge of Jerusalem, with a few hundred dedicated students. They did not determine the mood of religious Zionism. After the 1967 war, the conquest of the West Bank and the Temple Mount was portrayed, even to the most secular mind, as miraculous. When the war began, Israelis expected to be destroyed. The top brass knew better, but, of course, they hadn't revealed their plans. People were expecting a second Holocaust. The parks were being prepared to serve as graveyards. People were standing in bomb shelters ... All of a sudden the news comes that we've defeated the entire Arab world. We've conquered all this land. The Temple Mount is in our hands. That's an apocalyptic moment. You don't have to think of yourself as a religious person to have a sense of the miraculous in that situation. On top of that, things that symbolize redemption were now in our hands. For most of the country, that was a moment of exultation. It was symbolically understood. But in the religious Zionist community there was a wave of messianic exultation. The same people who had been marginal beforehand became the mainstream over the next ten years.

Today, I look at the moderate figures -- Rabbi Melchior, or Rabbi David Hartman, who has a little institute in Jerusalem with a few hundred students -- and I say that if the political circumstance can change, if compromise can be made, if messianism gets its come-uppance and people realize that we're not headed for the end of days, but for living uncomfortably but practically, side by side with other people, then the ones who have been promoting religious coexistence all these years could become the mainstream. Will the most extreme of the radicals follow? Absolutely not. They'll be terribly frustrated. Some of them, I fear, will try to use violent means to upset the new balance. But a wide portion of the population, naturally affected by a change in direction, will look for new teachers who can make sense out of the new circumstances.

DANIEL: Isn't a preoccupation with the end of history and the end of time important to many religious faiths?

GORENBERG: It's an integral part of religion. It's an integral part of the symbolism, certainly, of all three faiths, often repressed, to the extent that, again and again, you'll hear people from the mainstream of established religion say, "That's not part of my religion!" And yet, it's there. It's subliminal. There are things that remain latent in a culture, generation after generation, and then circumstances bring them out. Millennialism, belief in the end, is often like that.

I refuse to take a hard line on this. I understand that there are very positive sparks in the millennialist approach: There is a demand to see the world as having meaning; to see God as being just; to see that this world is not what it should be. A religious person who accepts as normal a situation where poor people stand at freeway on-ramps asking for money has abdicated religiously. When somebody comes along and says, "This is not what God's world should be," we should see that as positive. When somebody says, "I want to change that world so it will be more like what God wants," that's also positive. But when somebody expects that the world can be transformed completely, be completely what God wants it to be, then they are making several mistakes. The first is that they are going to be disappointed. The second is that they are really talking about eliminating free choice, because part of the reason that our world isn't the way it's supposed to be is that human beings have the choice to do bad things. There is a very close connection between millennialism and totalitarianism, because the millennialist essentially wants a world in which everybody believes and acts "like I think is right." Inside of this glorious dream is often a greater evil.

Rabbi Shmuel Reiner said to me about the Temple: "I have to recognize that there are things that are worth wanting that I can't have." That's the key to understanding millennialism. Who would want this perfected world? When you think you've gotten it, it's already not it.

DANIEL: You retell a wonderful story in THE END OF DAYS about the Jewish mystical tradition known as Hasidism. A man sees Hasidic Jews dancing in a house, but he doesn't hear the singing going on inside, and so he thinks from their movements that they must be mad or ill. "If you don't hear the music of faith," you write, "you'll see the dance as disease." Is deafness to "the music of faith" one of the problems with Middle East politics?

GORENBERG: It's the tragedy of the peace process from day one -- that people have been tone-deaf to the other person's story and often tone-deaf to the story of more religious people on their own side. The Palestinians have completely refused to absorb how important certain religious symbols are to the Jews, to take them seriously, to accept the fact that the same place can be holy to both Islam and Judaism: If it's holy to Islam, it couldn't be holy to Judaism.

I understand all the reasons for that, but simply as a negotiating strategy it was a terrible mistake, because it increased the interest in that very place on the other side. The more you say, "It's only mine," the more the other person tends to say, "It's only mine." That's part of what has happened in the last two months. In my opinion, Yasser Arafat invited Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount by insisting that the Jews had no connection to the Temple Mount. It just invited a right-wing Israeli figure to come and say, "I spit at you." The Israelis are aware that Al-Aqsa is an Islamic site, but I don't think they ever fully grasped the depth of the thing. And they consistently ignored the religious problem on their own side. Oslo was a theological crisis among the right-wing settlers, the people who believe that Israel is the beginning of our redemption, that we are in the process of redemption, and that this is a divine drama, not only a historical drama. Oslo was the equivalent, in the political realm, of the Adventists standing on the hilltop in 1844 and Jesus not coming down. History had absolutely failed to behave in the way that prophecy said it was supposed to.

People do intense things in those times -- not all of them, but some of them. There is evidence that Baruch Goldstein committed the 1994 massacre in Hebron as a frustrated messianist, trying to get redemption back on track. Certainly, people near to him interpreted it in that manner. But Israeli secular authorities refused to see it coming. Even afterward, they viewed Goldstein as being crazy rather than trying to understand the ideology behind him. So they left themselves less prepared for the next tragedy, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Meanwhile, Islamic fundamentalists were also engaging in violence against this travesty. In a bizarre case of interreligious influence, they adopted the method of suicide attacks on civilians that Goldstein had pioneered. The first big suicide bombing by Hamas came at the end of the forty-day mourning period after Goldstein's massacre.

Ignoring religious extremism in the Middle East when making a treaty; not attempting to reach out to these groups; not taking the proper security measures on the other end to find people to talk to them and explain that it's okay; to offer explanations within their theological framework that will help them make sense of this, so they can go on living without being violent; and then being prepared for the violent ones -- instead of doing that, the ears were closed. Goldstein in Hebron, the Hamas attacks, the Rabin assassination -- those are some of the things that shattered the trust and created the beginning of the end of the Oslo process. It's a record of not fully hearing what symbols mean to other people. When you hear those things, you can say, "Look, those people are fundamentalists, they are extremists. I don't agree with them." But those are the strategic facts in Jerusalem. If millions of people believe this spot to be holy, I can say, "That's not my religion. I believe that God can be prayed to anywhere." But as a political fact, I have to take into account that those beliefs are there and that they motivate people. I can't ignore them.

DANIEL: So then what exactly is a holy place, a sacred space?

GORENBERG: There are many different approaches to it. In a more liberal religious mind, it can simply be a symbol. I can recognize that my people have always prayed at this place, so I am connecting to my past by praying at the same place they have. The medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides' view of the Temple was that God didn't want sacrifices, but the people were used to them. That's the only way they knew how to worship. They had come out of Egypt, and they only knew sacrifices. So God said, "I'll let you do it, but only at one place." The Temple replaced the holy places as the restriction of a kind of religion that Maimonides didn't regard highly. Then there are people who believe there is some sort of essential luminous power to the particular place, that God hears you better at this place. Then there are more extreme views. One member of the Jewish underground said to me, "There's a spiritual power that flows from the Temple Mount. The Palestinians are strong, and we are weak because they have it now." I consider that to be turning God into some sort of machine that you can manipulate. It's an anti-monotheistic view. But that range of views exists. That's part of the issue. External circumstances influence how people interpret their faith and how much emphasis they put on it.

Soon after the Six-Day War, a prominent Israeli religious philosopher and scientist, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, stopped visiting the Western Wall (which is called, in Hebrew, the kotel). He said, "It's become the disco-sell." He was a real iconoclast, totally against any hint of something pagan slipping its way into monotheistic religion. He considered the worship of the place itself to be a violation of monotheism. There is a part of me that agrees with him, but the other part of me says, "That may be true, but we have to recognize, and even use, the power that the place has for other people."

DANIEL: What about the concept of declaring "divine sovereignty" over the holy sites?

GORENBERG: I actually think it has brilliant potential, because the real problem is sovereignty. If you settle that issue, then you can start dealing with whose policeman is going to stand where. We can say we'll separate things. God is sovereign, and we've agreed that God has assigned the Israeli policeman to be here and the Palestinian policeman to be there. But sovereignty means who owns it. And if you say God owns it, you can believe that the God who owns it is best referred to by the name Allah. And I can believe that the God who owns it is best referred to as Elohim. (Besides, those are cognate words in Arabic and Hebrew, so we're really on close ground.) And if somebody else wants to believe that the God who owns it is best named Jehovah, that's fine. But none of us has to insist that our truth has been denied by the fact that the other guy owns it, because you're saying God owns it, and I don't own God.

DANIEL: Is divine sovereignty still a viable idea?

GORENBERG: I think everything is still in flux. With diplomacy, you see ideas get tossed out, apparently forgotten about, and then brought back up. Of the many ways of putting off the issue [of the holy places], I find this one is the most entrancing. But it does put off the issue. The point is, I want to put off the issue to the end of time. The other suggestion I've heard made is to take the issue of sovereignty over the Temple Mount, hand it to a committee, and make it very clear that the committee is never expected to reach a decision. But the committee will meet -- for ten minutes on the fifth Thursday of even-numbered months in leap years, but only if there is a blue moon out the night before! We also suggest that if any member of the committee dies, they not be replaced. But the committee will exist as an institution. It will be an excellent symbol for the state of religion in this world.

Jerusalem may exist only because it is a holy space. There is reasonable evidence to come to the conclusion that the only reason there is a city there is because it started as a sacred place. The strategic facts in Jerusalem are myth. The things that matter most, that determine human behavior, that have the most effect on the future of the city, are the beliefs people hold about it. Whether or not you agree with those beliefs, you need to make an effort to understand them and respect them as what is affecting the circumstances. No embassy would locate itself in China without finding a translator to Chinese. To engage in the process of diplomacy in the Middle East, you need a translator to the sacred, and you need to make a very good effort to hear what that translator says. You need to involve people with religious understanding in the discussions.

People have to stop psychologizing religion out of existence. There is a tendency in the secular mind that the stronger the religious feeling, the more necessary to treat it as craziness and, therefore, a psychiatric problem. The major problem of most of the extremists I've met was the curse of the consistency of their thought. The intellectual power that allows them to be totally logical and totally consistent made them both intellectually charismatic and tremendously dangerous. I'm saying it's necessary to try to understand who they are and how they work. But that's not relegating them to the psychiatric ward.

In the Branch Davidian standoff at Waco, one of the FBI agents referred to David Koresh as speaking "Bible babble." Well, you can't do that. David Koresh was speaking another language. It was your duty as a negotiator to learn his language, to translate your demands into his language, so you could speak to him. It's true, because he was a fanatic, that he wasn't going to learn your language. But the government had more responsibility than he did. The government is bearing a greater weight of responsibility for public safety and human life than he is. You can't say, "Well, he's not learning our language, so we're not going to learn his language."

DANIEL: What will it take for religions not to undermine the possibility of peace in Jerusalem?

GORENBERG: In order to bring out the more positive aspects of religions, you need to reduce the sense that they are in political contest with each other. The more one is grabbing, the more the other's instinct is to grab; conflict is stressed, and the extreme element is stressed. But in the end, I do think there are people capable of seeing that we share a place that has tremendous significance to the human race, and that if we can learn better to live with each other there, that will say something for the rest of humanity. If Jews and Muslims and Christians, after all the centuries of fighting over Jerusalem, can find a way to live there, then I can't imagine that wouldn't project outward into relations elsewhere. That is one reason the pope's visit was so important. It was a positive use of symbolic power. I don't know what his particular conception of holy space is. I'm sure it's different from mine. But what he did do by coming to Jerusalem was use the symbolic power of Jerusalem toward reconciliation instead of conflict. It can be done. When Rabbi Melchior said to him, "My house will be a house of prayer for all people," that was using the symbolic power of the biblical verse and of the place toward living together, instead of living at each other's throats.

Right before Camp David, Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel (who is, relatively speaking, the most moderate guy to hold the post in many years), wrote a letter to an interfaith meeting of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. He said that he could see the status quo continuing -- that is to say, the Muslim administration of the Temple Mount, and then he added, "which others call Al-Aqsa." To me, that was probably the most important sentence in the letter. He was saying, "I recognize that somebody else has a different way of calling this place holy. We can live together at this place. Sacred space should not be the cause of bloodshed."

There are voices willing to say this. We have to try to create the circumstances in which they will be heard. Anybody who has those opinions has to speak out as loudly as possible, take the brick bats that will be tossed at them, and insist that religion doesn't have to be Hamas, with its bombs or other bloody scenes, but that it has the potential to be something else.

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