Yesterday I went through the Lion’s gate for the first time. This is the place that 47 years ago Motta Gur, commander of the paratroopers, penetrated the Old City on the way to reclaiming Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount. According to the Bible, King David purchased the land of the Temple Mount from Aravnah the Jebusite for 50 Silver Shekels (II Samuel 24). Later the Rabbis of the Midrash claimed that because of this purchase, the gentiles should fully recognise Jewish ownership of this real estate.
One of the great ironies of Jewish history is that the legitimacy of the Jewish presence and sovereignty on the Temple Mount is a matter of great controversy with our non-Jewish neighbors. Just this morning Israeli soldiers were attacked at the Mughrabi gate, the only entrance in which Jews are allowed access to the Temple Mt. area. Also, Palestinian activist and politician Hanan Ashrawi recently decried plans to open up a second entrance for Jewish access to the mount despite the fact that Moslems have nearly a dozen access points to visit their holy sites there.
The antagonism against Jewish presence on the Temple mount is at odds with Talmudic traditions regarding the role of the Temple in Rabbinic thought. The Talmudic sages taught that the 70 bulls offered on the holiday of Succot in the Temple were on behalf of the 70 nations of the world. Rabbi Yochanan in the Talmud laments, “Woe unto the nations of the earth for they do not realise what they have lost. When the Temple stood the alter would atone for them, and now what will atone for them?” The Midrash goes even further suggesting that had the gentiles realised how beneficial the Temple was for them, they would have surrounded it with troops to protect it.
All these traditions and texts were on my mind as I encountered the palpable tension near the Temple mount on my visit to the Old City yesterday. Out of concern for disturbances during the Moslem Holiday, the IDF had limited access to Arabs to the Mount. Understandably some of the Moslem community was disturbed by these restrictions. One man cursed me and wished the Jewish people an awful holiday of Succot. I saw a soldier limping out of the old city leaning on the shoulders of two comrades at his sides. I presume he was injured in a scuffle.
Soon after I entered the Lion’s gate with the group I was with, we turned into the corridor of the Greek Orthodox Church commemorating the birth of Mary. We were there both to visit this historic site (our group was part of a tour guiding class), and for pragmatic reasons. Our group leader had heard of some disturbances further into the city, and had called the police to confirm that all was safe. We were waiting in the corridor until we got the OK to proceed. While we were waiting, an Arab man, presumably a caretaker of the church turned to me and suggested we be careful on our visit in the city today. He mentioned the disturbances, and sheepishly said that sometimes Jews and Moslems don’t get along. He continued telling me that he was an Arab and a Christian, but that first of all we are all human beings. He wanted us to be safe. I was truly moved by his concern. I shared with him the Rabbinic teaching that Adam was created alone to teach us that we all share a common patriarchy.
As I left the church I felt the same feelings that our sages expected of the gentiles towards out Temple — appreciation for the concern of a stranger for my welfare. I realised that this man had embodied the message of our sages about the role of sacred space. The Jewish Temple was a place where concern for all humanity was expressed. Religion’s ultimate purpose is the welfare of humanity. As we enter the holiday of Succot in which our ancestors made offerings on behalf of all of humanity, may we remember this fundamental message. May we be blessed to live in a time where temples, churches, mosques, and synagogues are all dedicated to the betterment of humanity.