Tuesday, August 31, 2010

"Here's the Plan," or A Jaunt on the Temple Mount

“She made me do it!” Blaming one’s wife for whatever has happened is the oldest documented excuse known to the human species. So one should be sparing in its usage. In my relationship with my wife, it is usually closer to the truth to say, “She encouraged me to do it!” That is how I wound up on the Temple Mount this past Thursday: out of a clear, blue sky (and there is a lot of that this time of year in The Land), Barbara laid on me that she was planning to go on a tiyul up to what we consider the holiest spot in the world, and wouldn’t I like to join her on this venture?
Up until that moment, I had pretty much decided to keep off the Temple Mount, at least out of respect for the position of many rabbis who oppose the practice at this time – even if that position made absolutely no sense to me. And what would be the point? You have to make special preparations before you go; you get hassled, can even get even arrested, by the Israeli authorities and/or the Muslims if they think you are doing anything wild, like praying, or looking like you’re praying, or possessing any book or object that would assist you in praying. And when all is said and done, what is there to see? All remnants of what was important to us has been destroyed or removed either a long time ago by the Romans or very recently by the Muslims. So what force of logic, nature, or destiny brought me to the site of our holy Temples-past and future? Herein lies the tale.
What initially prompted me to reconsider was Barbara’s retelling of her conversation with N.K., the guide leading the tour. He told her that this was going to be a small group and if she knew of other people who might be interested…… Now N.K does not charge for any of his tiyulim (contributions to the several tzedekah funds he is involved with are of course appreciated), so it wasn’t a matter of how much money he would pocket for his labors. As he put, it’s important that as many Jews as possible visit the Temple Mount, “to show the government that we still care.” Well, if you put it that way… I have long since come to realize how much of what goes on here in The Land is a complicated battle over turf, bragging rights, and religious ideology; and sometimes the value of putting your heinie down somewhere – just because – is enough of a reason for doing something. Plus, I’m just as ornery and cranky as ever; if you tell me that I shouldn’t do something, you had better have a darn good reason – and I’m still waiting for something more cogent than “It’s forbidden because it’s forbidden.”
I have spoken with people here who say that they will not ascend to the Temple Mount because their rabbi forbids it. Fine. I respect their respect for rabbinic authority. But that has nothing to do with my decision. The rules for who may or may not be on Har Habayit and where one may go were pretty well established when there was a Beit Hamikdash, and it’s not clear to me who gets to override those rules just because a Temple is not now available for business and its attendant services have been temporarily discontinued. We also have some ‘heavy hitters’ who do permit this venture on our ‘Yes You May Dream Team.’ Our infield is made up of the great Rabbi Akiva and his three illustrious colleagues, Rabban Gamliel, R. Elazar ben Azariah, and R. Yehoshua, who were there together shortly after the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., checking out the wildlife and speculating about better times ahead. A millennium later (in the year 1165C.E. to be precise), our center fielder, the Rambam, a giant among giants, did his own tour of the area. He is joined in the outfield by the Meiri, roughly his contemporary, who approvingly attests to visits there, and the 16th century Rabbi, David ben Zimra, the Radvaz, whose opinion on the location of the Holy of Holies was uncontested. Our catcher is the former Chief Rabbi Goren, who not only stood on the Temple Mount in 1967, right after the eastern part of Jerusalem was liberated, but held prayer services there with a Torah scroll and a shofar. Our starting pitcher? How about the great halachic decisor Rabbi Moshe Feinstein; while he never make the journey himself, he gave his approval to his son-in-law, Rabbi Tendler, who has made several trips when he has visited The Land. Oh, and R. Tendler will be available to come out of the bullpen. I almost forgot; we’ll need a designated hitter. How about Ovadia of Bartenura, who visited in 1448C.E.?
The manager of the No Team has not yet released his scorecard, so we don’t know for sure who his lineup will be. But I gotta tell you, I like our team’s chances in a seven game series.
But let’s take the opinion of the objecting rabbis at face value. Let’s accept for the moment the idea that we should not go up to the Temple Mount because we do not know the exact location of the Beit Hamikdash and the Holy of Holies, and therefore we run the risk of profaning the holiest spot on earth. OK. So we can’t be there, even though we may have made all the proper preparations and will take all the necessary precautions. But what about the Arab kids up there playing soccer? They get to stay? How does that work out?
For all these years, we were helpless (an understatement!) to prevent the ongoing destruction and desecration of this sacred spot; but now, it’s “in our hands,” and, in theory, we can do whatever we want. I don’t see or hear anybody, not rabbis of the National Religious camp or the Hareidim, clamoring to close down the Temple Mount so that the entire area will remain undisturbed until we once again have a High Priest and a sense of certainty as to what’s what and where’s where. Declare the whole area off limits and keep the invading hordes from trampling through it: “Construction Zone; No Trespassing. Future Home of the Bessie and Morris Cohen (Third) Beit Hamikdash. Work To Begin Upon the Arrival of the Moshiach, May It Be Speedily in Our Day, Amen.” Practically speaking, this may not be such a good idea, and don’t put me down as recommending it. But you get the point. As they used to say (although not in The Bronx), what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. I can’t say that I understand the logic here. Imagine a street with fifty cars double-parked, and a cop comes along and the only one he gives a ticket to is – his wife. And he wonders why traffic doesn’t get any better? We are in theory ‘in charge,’ and all we’re doing is policing ourselves, and then only some of ourselves. Everyone else can park wherever they choose. As for other objections, let me deal with them as I continue this saga.

Barbara had already been in contact with a rabbi here in Ma’ale Adumim who moonlights as a librarian, someone with ‘Har Habayit experience,’ for information and advice on this project. He e-mailed me some material including “Guide to Ascending the Temple Mount for Men, Written by the rabbis of the ‘El Har Hamor’ Association in collaboration with HaRav Dov Lior.”, which includes copious information and very detailed instructions on appropriate preparation, going to a mikveh, etc., all of which I carefully perused before making a final decision. I knew that I was not supposed to wear leather shoes, a la Yom Kippur, and that I need to go to a ritual bath, but where would I find one for men around here? (Understand that my time in a mikveh is roughly equivalent to the lifespan of a canary in a Chinese coal mine.) No worries (or something to that effect), said the rabbi/librarian, there is one in Mitzpeh Nevo, the religious area. Just show up there – and he told me where it was – with seven shekels in coin of the realm and a towel, and you’re in. The best time to dunk yourself is right before the excursion, but just to play it safe, I got on the bus (it would be at least a half an hour walk in the hot sun) the day before. What I found out was, you can get into this self-service mikveh with your seven shekels between the hours of 4AM and 6:30AM. After that, you need seven shekels in coins of the realm PLUS a key-chain sized transponder – which you can purchase from a gentleman named Shelly for an undisclosed fee. I just want to go up to the Temple Mount tomorrow; I’m not planning on making this activity my life’s work; i.e., I wasn’t going to add anything to my keychain. I could somehow arrange to get to the bottom of Mitzpeh Nevo before sunrise the next day – a dubious proposition at best – or find an alternate plan. What to do? Speak with my mentor, Nachum, whose face lit up when I mentioned our planned venture. Turns out that every time one of their kids gets married off, they make it a family outing to go to the Temple Mount. Why don’t you go to the men’s mikveh in the Old City? Because I don’t know where that is. I will tell you where it is, which he proceeded to do. And so, at approximately 6:45 on D-Day, I could be found wandering through alleyways a few blocks from the Hurvah plaza in the Jewish Quarter (for those of you who know the area), looking for the place. Fortunately, there are people up and about at that hour in the Old City, and I found a nice man who showed me the way – to a doorway which I had passed twice without realizing that it was the place (there is no sign saying “This way to the men’s mikveh.”) Imagine a tiny locker-room area (minus the gym or the athletic field) next to another room with showers and two little pools filled with hot water. And a bunch of strange dudes who, for some reason, feel the need to immerse themselves at seven o’clock in the morning. Nachum was correct though : the place was clean, although a note for the future: bring toilet paper and soap. I said that the preparations wouldn’t be all that easy!
A quick search for a cup of tea, and then over to the main entrance to the Kotel plaza to meet Barbara and a friend and to rendezvous with the group and N.K., our fearless leader (We would recognize him in the white cap; actually it was off-white, but I’m willing to cut him a little slack). Why the white cap? We’re trying to be inconspicuous.
A friend back in The States had sent me a well-written article by the son of other friends about his “’Legal’ Trip To Har Ha-Bayit.” His leader had a very different approach from ours (and I’m not suggesting that either one is more valid), one more confrontational. This rabbi knew where one could pray secretly without getting caught, and he encouraged the young man, a Cohen, to recite the priestly blessing when they were as close as possible to where the Holy of Holies had been. This was not what N.K. had in mind. What he wants to do is to create a steady, but growing, stream of Jews of all factions and persuasions – properly prepared, of course – going up to the Temple Mount just to be there, to bear witness to our right to be there; and the cumulative effect of that will be (in theory) greater than the pious prayers of a handful of our most worthy brethren . His experience from over a hundred similar excursions was that if you look like you just came from your caravan on some remote hilltop in the Judean Hills, you will definitely be stopped, first by the Israeli security people, and your ID scrutinized very carefully. Assuming they let you through, the Arab security people on top will take over and dog you every step of the way. We saw such a group, and we witnessed the difference in the treatment we received. Our group (baseball caps, tzitzit tucked in, cameras in hand, just an ordinary bunch of tourists with no particular agenda) assembled at the separate entrance, all the way to the right at the main plaza. We went through the security, essentially the same as the regular check to get to the Kotel, without any trouble. Nobody stopped any of us, nobody asked for any ID; unless the x-ray machines would pick it up, nobody searched us for contraband like prayer books or the like. We walked up the new temporary ramp, the one whose planned replacement a few years ago caused such a ruckus, and there we were, on top of the Temple Mount, possible the most contested piece of property in the world, at 8AM, which, even during Ramadan, was pretty much deserted.
Perhaps at this point I should clear up a common misconception, that the terms ‘Har Habayit’ and ‘Temple Mount’ mean the same thing. As any number of people have pointed out to me, Har Habayit refers to the har, the hilltop on which the First Temple and then the Second Temple were built. During the reign of Herod ‘The Great,’ right before the beginning of the Common Era, the area around the Temple was doubled in size by building huge retaining walls – the Kotel being part of the western one – and filling in the area to create an enormous plaza, roughly thirty five acres, which I believe is the equivalent of thirty or thirty two American football fields. The Beit Hamikdash now became only a small part of the total area, most of which was used to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who came to bring sacrifices on the three yearly festivals. It is this enlarged area, Har Habayit and what Herod added, that now constitutes the Temple Mount.
There are those who insist that insofar as we cannot be certain exactly where the Beit Hamikdash was, and consequently we cannot be certain where the Holy of Holies was, we have no business taking the chance of violating the area’s sanctity. As one person I heard said in rebuttal, we may not know exactly where it was, but we certainly do know where it wasn’t: the area that Herod added on. That’s where we, and anybody else who is careful, walked – around the periphery. I had imagined that we would be, in effect, hugging the outer walls. In fact, there are paved paths, and one can easily circumnavigate the area counter-clockwise as we did; or if you feel like being contrary, you can do it clock-wise instead as one small group we met up with was doing (for the same reason as it is a custom to sit in a different seat in shul when you are in mourning.)
The first thing that you notice, once you have gotten over the “Oh my Gosh, I’m actually standing on top of the Temple Mount, I can’t believe this is happening” feeling and you begin to get your bearings, once you’ve been introduced to the cast of characters lurking around: a few well armed Israeli soldiers – who I’m sure were hoping that nothing ‘exciting’ happened while they were on duty, several members of the Israeli security police, and most important, the Muslim guards in their unofficial uniforms, blue shirts and dark pants, the guys who really run the show and whom you have to keep your eye out for – as they are doing to you; as I said, the first thing you notice once all that happens and you start to look around, is how enormous this place is and that it looks nothing like a place where our holy Temples once stood. Right by the southern wall, on your right, is the Al-Aqsa Mosque; don’t even try to get too close because you’ll be shooed away in an instant. Between that and the Dome of the Rock, all the way to your left is a rather spacious plaza in which there were maybe in total a dozen Muslim men engrossed in prayer. There were a couple of guys taking out plastic chairs from the Al-Aqsa to this plaza; why our guide couldn’t imagine because the Muslims prostrate themselves on their prayer rugs when they ‘daven.’ Once you walk past the mosque, you see on your right a collection of column fragments, ruins from Herod’s temple. I’m not sure whether they were there all the time, or whether they were part of the recent Arab excavation, their effort to obliterate as much as possible any and all traces of a Jewish presence on the Temple Mount.
At this point, the ‘game’ became obvious. The Muslim Thought Police were not going to follow us too closely; they had no reason too. But quietly, discretely, they were everywhere. Our guide had a lot to say – sometimes a little too much, a common fault among guides who do know more about a place than they can possibly share. Every time we lingered a tad too long in one spot, one of them would mosey over to where we were standing to make sure we weren’t doing something subversive.
If you keep going, you’re right next to another large plaza, presently covered with an enormous green tarpaulin, a giant size version of what we have on our merpeset, most likely there for Ramadan. This is the area where the kids usually congregate to play soccer. From there, you head north, then west, and then south, and you will have circled the Temple Mount. You will also have gone completely around the Dome of the Rock, an enormous, imposing structure. You can walk up the stairs close to the entrance, but there’s no way you can get inside. Actually, this is just as well because, even though this is now a Muslim shrine, only the Kohen Gadol (ours, not theirs) should be walking around inside, and only on Yom Kippur because this is where the Beit Hamikdash once stood, and this is where the Holy of Holies was located. To quote from the ‘El Har HaMor’ Association, “The central and most established position of both halachic authorities and archaeologists identify the stone under the Dome of the Rock as Even HaShtiah (the Foundation Stone) under which the Kodesh Kodashim was built. This is the position of the Radvaz and quoted by later halachic authorities.”
There is an enormous amount of written material documenting the assertion that the Holy of Holies remains under this Muslim building, from the testimony of the twelfth century C.E. traveler Benjamin of Tudela, to obscure material in the Cairo geniza (a burial place for holy material that is physically unfit for use), to non-Jewish sources. You can find references to this material in several websites. But, you know something: if you just stood on the Temple Mount (or looked carefully at an aerial photo) and noticed where the Dome is and then looked at any of the replications of Herod’s Temple, you might figure out this connection all by yourself. Their similarity of location relative to the four retaining walls sort of hits you in the face.. And why should that come as any surprise? By all accounts, the Muslims intended to build the Dome on the same site as the Temple; and when the Dome was built around the year 700 C.E., there was a lot more physical evidence and a lot more of a tradition where the Temple stood than there is now. But then was then, and now is now. Thirteen hundred years ago, the Muslims were eager to exploit the connection to our holy Temple; today, their authorities are just as determined to prove that we were never, ever, there. So there is the irony, funny and sad at the same time. All this talk about the Kodesh Kodeshim and how we might desecrate it. You can’t get near it. You would have to create a scene from an action movie: a SWAT team parachutes down onto the Temple Mount, sprays some debilitating gas to immobilize the Muslims, breaks open the imposing entrance to the Dome, and scatters through the whole building, concentrating on the central area where a piece of bedrock is exposed. But in real life, the chances in today’s political climate of a Jew planting his brogans on this hallowed spot is probably less than being hit by lightning or winning the Jackpot lottery. The Muslims? That’s a different story. They walk through there every day, and there are few of us who seem to mind this intrusion.
One more point. I recently read a statement by a prominent local rabbi which I found rather problematic. His argument against ascending the Temple Mount, beside the fact that it’s forbidden because Rabbinic authorities forbid it (except for those who don’t!), was that we are not ready to build the Third Beit Hamikdash. Personally, I have nothing against straw men; Indeed, I have fond memories of Ray Bolger in The Wizard of Oz. But there is a limit to their value, especially in an argument. Esteemed rabbi, you know full well that there is no connection, none, less than none, even more less than none, between Jewish people walking where we have an halachic right to be and an actual attempt, tools in hand, to start the building process as part of the Final Redemption – of course, first knocking down whatever structures are in the way. There are probably more people wandering around the area near the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, thinking they are the Messiah, than there are having delusions of building the Temple in the next week and a half (we are not discussing the possibility that the building may miraculously descend from on high – our Heavenly Father having given up all hope that we will ever get our act together.) So what’s up with this not-to-be-taken-seriously line of reasoning?
Our tiyul was at an end, about two and a half hours after we began. Rather than return the way we had come, using the ramp in the Kotel plaza, we exited by one of the many side entrances (you can go out, but you can’t get back in – unless you’re an Arab kid with a soccer ball). There’s no ramp to go down because here the ground is level; the Turks long ago built up the surrounding area so that it would be as high as the Temple Mount. Our group walked through a part of the Arab shuk, and Barbara, our friend, and I wended our way back to the Jewish quarter, right near where I had begun the morning with a dunking, for some bagels with tuna fish and iced coffee. From there, Barbara left for her Thursday morning packing, and I left for Mahane Yehuda. Shabbat would be coming, and we sure as shooting were planning on eating. That would give me enough time to go home, take my nap, and be ready that evening for the Beer Festival. (Remember the Beer Festival???!!!)
So you might be inclined to ask, “OK, Fred, now that you did it, what do you think you accomplished – besides being able to get some good photographs and having something to write about?” Great question. This is the answer from the El Har Hamor Association, the umbrella group of Israeli rabbis who encourage visiting the Temple Mount, “The police have attested that having significant numbers of Jews visiting Har HaBayit has enabled them to have a strong presence there and prevent damage (such as resulted from the construction of a huge underground mosque during the years when Jews were banned from the Mount) and control outbreaks of Arab violence. Our physical presence is a claim, before Heaven and earth, of our unique relationship to this hallowed site.” I rest my case (and then I rested my body).
Postscript One: While we were walking on the Temple Mount, or better still, OUR Temple Mount with the oh-so-grudging approval of the local Muslim authorities, back in the Big Apple, there is a controversy over the advisability of building a mosque in the shadow of the WTC site. I am not going to opine (at least here) on whether or not it should be built, but I have fairly good idea what would happen if the shoe were on the other foot.
Postscript Two: Our friend Jeff, ever on the alert, sent me a link to a clip from a NYC TV station. Our mutual old stomping grounds, Teaneck, NJ, with its large Orthodox Jewish population, has a Muslim mayor. (The voters elect a City Council, who in turn votes for a semi-ceremonial mayor) So the TV station sent its crew across the Hudson to highlight a town in which everyone ‘gets along,’ and why can’t everybody else do the same? I recognized the streets and the storefronts, even some of the people who were interviewed. And I recognized the central thesis, that there is no Muslim or Jewish or Mormon way of collecting garbage, which is a spin-off from there is no Democratic or Republican way of doing the same. Point conceded. However, it is very easy to ‘get along’ PROVIDED that there is no bone of contention, no sticking point, or, to put it as plainly as possible, nothing remotely worth disagreeing about. Milton Votee Park has no special signficance for any group or faction, so there is no need, reason, or provocation for a holy war. It gets trickier to ‘get along’ when there is a dispute over something of relative importance, let alone when there is a site which two sides covet more than life itself.
Postscript Three: The Beer Festival (at last!) Not like the wine festival of two weeks before, at which we wandered around the garden at the Israel Museum, sipping free samples of local offerings out of crystal goblets. Here the customers bought their beer, served generally in plastic cups, and walked around the huge parking lot of the old train station, drinking as much as they could consume. Much more proletarian. The idea was for me to hook up with my friend Ian and his boss, Ken. I assumed that Ken was a good guy, but I didn’t know anything about him except that, like Ian, he was employed by the American government in the design and construction of their new consulate in Jerusalem. From the get-go, Ken pulled out his wallet and insisted on paying for several rounds (I made no attempt to match the two of them; I probably consumed one third of what they did). In general, I am reluctant to discuss religion or politics with people I don’t know because you don’t know what kind of a hornets’ nest you’re getting yourself into; but as the three of us began to converse – standing in the middle of the parking lot, with no place to lean our elbows – first about our families, and then about the world in general, It began to dawn on me that Ian’s boss is more right-wing than just about anyone I know. Ken gets posted all over the world. He was probably a philo-Semite before, but after his last assignment…..in Saudi Arabia, of all places, that really clinched it. Israel, where you can have a beer festival, seemed like Gan Eden with an unlimited supply of suds. But there are things that Ken doesn’t understand. I began talking about the events of the day and our journey up to the Temple Mount. That’s the problem, Ken opined. We (referring to the Christian world in general, of which he is a non-believing member) have our spot; they (referring to the Islamic world) have their spot. You guys (those of us of the Hebraic persuasion) don’t have your spot. You gotta get your spot. You guys are wimps. Here’s the plan. First thing you have to do is take back Gaza. Then you go and tell Abbas that this is your land and there isn’t anything to negotiate. He asked us how he would do as head of our negotiating team. My suspicion is that he would be a lot more resolute than the team we have now; unfortunately, there would be a few obstacles in his way, some due to his status and some because of our incoherency as a people. But, you have to admit, the man has a plan.

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