Todd Berman

An Open Letter to my Muslim (and Christian and all other) Brothers

“I will bring them to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer; their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices shall be acceptable upon My altar; for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Isaiah 56:7

OK, we can do this. It’s beyond the time. We all serve the same God. In different forms and in different ways, but in the end of the day, He (or She or however you want to refer to the Lord of the Universe) is the same. Our three religions and perhaps a few others see Jerusalem and the Temple Mount as sacred space.

During this month as we approach Yom Kippur whose liturgy focuses on the service in the ancient Temple, Jews throughout the world recite the words of Isaiah quoted above. The prophet, so dear to all of our traditions, tells us that the holy mountain where God’s Temple stood and where both the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque stand today beckons us to join together in peace and prayer. Isaiah is saying, it’s time to grow up and learn to share.

I know sharing is not easy. But biblical tradition promises us that we can learn to do this.

In 1967 some were afraid that the Jewish people returning to its’ homeland and, in the wake of a bloody war, taking possession of the Holy Mountain would do terrible things to the existing structures. Bearing the weight of 2000 years of exile and oppression culminating in Holocaust, let me tell you, it wasn’t easy to resist.  Seeing the destruction the Jordanians had wreaked to our synagogues and cemeteries, there certainly were voices advocating that we erase the non-Jewish shrines. Just as hard as it may be for you to tolerate a Jewish presence on the mountain, it’s hard for those of us seeped in Jewish tradition to ignore interpretations of Jewish law which beg us to act. But unlike the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddha statues of the Bamiyan Valley or the Islamic State’s wanton destruction of every religious object they can get their hands on, all in the name of some perverse form of fundamentalist Islam, we resisted.  Not because the collapsed Arab armies of Jordan and Egypt could have prevented us, but because we knew it was the right thing to do.

We therefore let your buildings stand.

Even after our paratroopers conquered the area and Commander Mordechai Gur cried out – “The Temple Mount is in our hands!” we allowed you to return. Defence Minister Moshe Dayan promised that the Muslim (and Christian) holy places would be protected and that freedom of worship would be enshrined in Israeli policy. Although, Dayan denied us the right to pray on our most sacred site, he gave the keys to the Muslim Waqf. By Israeli law, Christians and Muslims can worship in their shrines and houses of prayer freely, but Jewish citizens of Israel cannot.  Often, as is happening now, even ascending the place where the Jewish Temples once stood leads to riots and harassment.

The police have, once again, been called in to keep the peace. This unfortunate state of affairs has led to severe injuries on both sides and to an escalation of violence across Israel. Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas ungenerously proclaimed, “the Al-Aqsa Mosque is ours. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is ours as well. They have no right to desecrate the mosque with their dirty feet.”  Even the King of Saudi Arabia, a country where Jewish and other non-Muslim houses of worship are banned, audaciously petitioned the president of the United States to prevent Jews from exercising the same rights that Muslims and Christians have.  The absurdity of the situation is breathtaking. If Jews try to pray on the Temple Mount, some Muslims, with backing of their leadership, will violently prevent them.  The police will come and violence will spread. Ultimately this is caused because the State of Israel allows Muslims control over a mutual holy space and denies the basic civil right of freedom of worship to Jews. This has to end.  We all need to learn to share.  If Jews were allowed the same rights as Muslims and could pray on the shared mountain without fear of being attacked, the violence would end and we could change the world.

In one of our holy texts, the Mishna, the rabbis taught, , “man was created as a single being to … bring peace, so that one cannot say to his friend, ‘my father is greater than your father’.” (Sanhedrin 4:5)  We all need learn this lesson more than ever. We need not agree, but we do need to find space for the other to worship God in his or her own way.

So please, let me pray* on my Holy Mountain and may that mountain become a beacon not of violence and hatred but of peace and brotherly love.

Let us all pray and work together so that other words of Isaiah may come true as well. That “[nations] shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (2:4)

(*full disclosure: for Jewish religious reasons, I do not, at this time, want to ascend the Temple mount. But I think other Jews should be allowed to do so.)

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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