THE BLOG
10/23/2015 01:41 pm ET Updated Oct 23, 2016

What Does the Temple Mount Symbolize to Progressive Religion?

ASSOCIATED PRESS

My teacher Emil Fackenheim once challenged me with an idea full of tension. Speaking of Jerusalem as a metaphor in our prayers is all fine and good, until you now have political power over the real Jerusalem. Now what does it means when you say, "Next year in Jerusalem" when Jerusalem's trash needs to be taken out, hospitals need to be built, and taxes have to be collected? What happens when the ideal Yerushelayim Shel Malah - the Heavenly Jerusalem of two centuries of dreams, meets Yerushalayim Shel Matah - the municipality of Jerusalem in real life, where you take the number 9 bus to cross town?

From a Jewish point of view, Zionism is precisely the struggle with this constant and creative tension. Only in the State of Israel do Jews have to struggle with a radically full Jewish life, which includes the Jewish way of having elections, the Jewish way of having an army, and the Jewish way of keeping the streets clean. Diaspora Jews have the luxury of not worrying about those things here. When God tells Abram to "go forth...to the land that I will show you," God wasn't talking about a symbolic land. God was talking about a piece of real estate.

The epicenter of Zionism is Jerusalem, and the center of Jerusalem is the Temple Mount. Even secular Jews revolve around the Temple Mount, even if they never look in its direction. It is not unlike the sun in our solar system that is simply too hot to approach but holds us in its gravitational pull.

As reported in Ha'aretz by Dr. Tomer Persico of the Shalom Hartman Institute, "On June 10, 1967, just three days after Col. Mordechai "Motta" Gur had famously declared, "The Temple Mount is in our hands," Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman said that halakha (traditional religious law) forbade Jews to visit the site. Two weeks later, a leading Sephardi authority, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, stated that even flying over the site was forbidden. On a similar note, the religious affairs minister, Zerah Warhaftig, said that, according to halakha, the Third Temple has to be built by God [and not by human beings]. "This makes me happy," he said, "because we can avoid a conflict with the Muslim religion."

For this reason, the Temple Mount has been under Israeli control but kept as a Muslim holy site. Jews commonly do not go up there. Israelis have kept the peace, so to speak, and the Muslim world has had a great deal of control over its third most important holy site. For decades, this has produced a certain kind of equilibrium.

That equilibrium is being threatened. The first threat is Muslim clerics giving inciteful sermons in the mosques of the Temple Mount to kill Jews. If you thought the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy was big in America, listen to some of the sermons given at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. So long as they just talk, however, the Israelis have refrained from responding and upsetting the balance. Nevertheless, in the past few weeks, the renewal of speeches declaring that the Jews are making war on Al-Aqsa has started this latest round of violence.

Personally, one of my favorite places to go in Jerusalem is the southern steps near the Temple Mount. These are the steps our ancestors climbed in order to bring their sacrifices on the pilgrimage festivals. Because it is under the control of the Israeli Department of Antiquities and not the religious authority, men and women can be together, and families can pray as one. Climbing the stairs and saying a prayer at the Southern Wall is more meaningful to me than the highly politicized Western Wall. However, after 11 am, the Israeli soldiers ask you to leave the southern stairs. They do this because that is when worshippers in the mosque above get out of services, and if they see Jews down below, they will drop rocks on them from the windows. The Israeli soldiers can't go into the mosque without creating an international incident, so the path of least resistance is simply to leave. It is, I guess, a small price to pay to keep the peace.

But the second threat to the current equilibrium is the occasional call from certain religious Jewish Zionist groups that Israel should retake the Temple Mount because it is time to rebuild the Temple. Fueled by messianic dreams, Jewish religious zealots are challenging pragmatic Zionism. The settlement of the West Bank or Judea and Samaria is only one dimension. Eventual re-institution of the animal sacrifices on the Temple Mount is another. In the mind of these ultra-Orthodox Jews, if I may paraphrase, 'If we didn't come to Israel to build the Third Temple and bring about the Messiah, then what are we doing here? The rebuilding of the Temple is the end-goal of not only religious Zionism but all creation.'

Persico claims that pragmatic Zionism has to confront this world-view. In his words: "If, as I believe, Zionism is a true and authentic continuation of the Jewish tradition, it must posit a valid alternative to the narrow interpretation of the Temple as an altar around which a family dynasty of priests revolved. Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, spoke of a modern temple as a kind of philanthropic international institution. However, we also need to consider a religious - and interreligious - center that will be responsive to the religious elements of the messianic vision. In fact, the myth itself allows us to propose this: "for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples," as Isaiah [56:7] prophesies."

The United Nations, which includes antisemitic delegations, is currently presuming to debate how the Temple Mount should be run. If the UN, the Al-Aqsa Muslim clerics, and the ultra-Orthodox Jews all have dreams of what the Temple Mount should be like, then the progressive Jewish religious community ought to have some informed thoughts on the matter and share a vision as well.

For those of us who believe in a Zionism committed not only to Israel's security but also eventual coexistence, we need to reinterpret and give a forward-looking understanding of the meaning of the Temple Mount and Jerusalem as a whole. If it only means the place where we will eventually reestablish animal sacrifice after we expel the idolaters, then there is no hope for peace. If we can somehow create a new-old story of the Temple being a house of prayer for all peoples, in the vein of Isaiah, then we can articulate a dream that might eventually be shared by Israel's neighbors. Perhaps we should focus on the Even HaShetiyah - the Foundation Stone - that lies at the center of the Temple Mount where the Holy of Holies used to be, the rock upon which Jewish oral history tells us the world and Adam was created as a more universal symbol.

In a progressive Jewish vision, what should Jerusalem look like? How does that translate into a political reality? And what does the Beit Hamikdash, the focal point that is the Holy Temple with the Foundation Stone, mean to us religiously? We need to articulate a vision as did the prophets of old and lend that to the conversation. Practically, it will give a response for peace-loving Zionists to give to the more radical elements in our midst.

Every ultra-Orthodox version of religion has their mythological dreams. For Jews, it is the rebuilding of the Temple, the resurrection of the dead, and a Jewish priest-king called the Messiah. For Christians, it is the second coming of Christ. For Muslims, it is a new Islamic caliphate. Progressive religion's task is to come up with more universal, less tribalistic dreams that sees all people made in God's image. We strive for transcendence and the primacy of ethics. For us, "love your neighbor as yourself" does not mean "love your fellow tribe-member as yourself" but to be ethically obligated to the Other, whoever that may be. We want to respect tradition, boundaries and identity but also have a more inclusive, peaceful big picture.

Let us keep our dream alive, not only of a Promised Land, but perhaps also of a Promised World.