Fashioning the sacred

This past summer I was fortunate to travel to Israel and in particular Jerusalem where I studied at the Shalom Hartman Institute. I remain grateful for my congregation’s recognition of how important it is for its rabbi to renew his learning. During the course of my two weeks I had occasion to visit the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Al-Aqsa Mosque. In fact I visited them all in one morning, one right after the other. I continue to reflect on that morning’s visits.

First a bit of history and context. Al-Aqsa Mosque is the silver domed mosque that sits next to the golden domed Dome of the Rock. It figures prominently in virtually every photograph of Jerusalem’s Old City. According to Muslim tradition it is the place where Ishmael was nearly sacrificed by Abraham and to where Mohammed was transported from Mecca on the night journey. In the early days of Mohammed’s life his followers directed their prayers toward Jerusalem. This mosque is therefore the third holiest site in Islam, after Mecca and Medina. This is not meant of course as a discourse on the history of Islam. Instead I wish to convey what I experienced when visiting this site.

It is a vast and expansive complex. When first ascending to this plaza one is stunned by its size. The geometric designs on the outside of the Dome of the Rock are breathtaking. And yet our experience was less than uplifting. Few Jewish tourists are allowed up to the complex and so this was a unique opportunity. First of all it is built on the ruins of the Second Temple and so observant Jews will not go there, and discourage other Jews from going there, for fear that they may tread on what was once the Holy of Holies. There are signs warning people of this danger. Given that there have been a number of riots there, sometimes instigated by Jews who see not this danger but an opportunity and therefore surreptitiously try to pray there, we were forced to wait in an hour-long security line. Any Jewish ritual object, most especially a Bible or prayerbook, a tallis or kippah, was confiscated by the Israeli security personnel. I am embarrassed to say that I became so frustrated waiting that I almost got into a fight with an observant Jew who was allowed to cut the line. Muslims would see the offering of any Jewish prayers on this complex an act of sacrilege. The police of course only wish to prevent such riots, but the irony of Israeli security searching for siddurim gives one pause.

Once we finally entered, and after getting one last lecture from an Israeli police officer, we entered the gate and received another lecture from the Muslim authorities. The young teenage girls who we accompanied (we were visiting with a youth group trip led by my brother, Rabbi Michael Moskowitz) were examined to see if their clothing was modest enough. A number were told by this middle-aged man to cover their ankles and shoulders. To my mind they were all dressed appropriately. No one was trying to get away with anything despite the fact that they were teenagers and on most occasions that is a teenager’s primary goal. Everyone wanted to behave respectfully. No one of course commented on my attire. It was an uncomfortable few minutes. After walking around the grounds we sat down in a circle to discuss the experience. A few of the students lay down on their backs, exhausted by Jerusalem’s excessive heat. A guard shouted at us in Hebrew, “Makom kadosh! This is a holy place. Sit up.” I do get where he was coming from. I might say the same thing to students who would lie down on their backs in the synagogue’s sanctuary, but then again they did this unintentionally and in what appeared like any tree lined outdoor plaza.

Everyone seemed to be looking for the next slight or offense. In the city that is claimed by Judaism, Christianity and Islam all appeared on guard against the other. All seemed to be waiting for someone else to show disrespect. The police just wanted to keep the peace. The religious authorities appeared to expect others to disrespect their holy site. We just wanted to look and explore.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was different. Again some history. This church is built on the site where Jesus was crucified and around the tomb where he was buried and from where Christians believe he was resurrected. Unlike the Al-Aqsa Mosque no one authority controls the church. There is a carefully orchestrated division between different Christian sects. In fact there is so much tension between these groups that a Muslim family holds the key to the front door since no one group trusts the other. Over the years there have been fights between these rival Christian groups. In one instance a brawl broke out between monks because one moved his chair out of the heat but out of his sect’s designated space. Over the past several years the church has been painstakingly renovated. In fact Israeli authorities had to pressure the squabbling Christian groups to get these repairs underway. Israel feared that the tomb would collapse if the arguments and disagreements about the project were allowed to continue.

You do not sense these tensions in the church. There, no one interfered with the many different ways pilgrims prayed. Some took pictures. Some marveled at the artwork. Others posed for selfies. Many fell on their hands and knees to kiss the stone on which Jesus’ disciples placed his body. They placed trinkets on the stone. People were clearly overcome by emotion. There were many tears and many more songs and prayers. All sorts of languages and accents could be heard. I found myself marveling at their religiosity. I also found myself admiring their freedoms. No one policed behaviors. No one shouted that something was inappropriate. No one said, “Stop doing that! This is a holy place.” It was a welcome relief following my visit to Al-Aqsa.

Then again my experience at the Western Wall was quite different than the Church and far more similar to what I had earlier experienced at the Mosque. My wife Susie ventured to the smaller women’s section and I walked to the expansive men’s section. A woman examined Susie to make sure she was dressed properly. A few women were hastily covered in shmatas if their shoulders were uncovered; they received lectures if they wore shorts. Again some points of history. The Western Wall, called the Kotel in Hebrew, is a remnant of the Second Temple. This Temple, as well as the First, was destroyed by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago in 70 C.E. This Temple was the only place we then gathered to pray and offer sacrifices. Until Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War Jews could not worship at the Wall. And while the Kotel was not a significant part of the ancient Temple structure it was the only place we could touch and it was therefore considered the Jewish people’s holiest site. Unfortunately soon after the Six Day War control of the Wall was given to the Ultra-Orthodox authorities. Over the years it has increasingly become a place where only Jewish prayer deemed acceptable to these authorities is permitted and where stricter and stricter codes of modesty are demanded of women visitors.

This was not always the case. In the forty years I have been visiting the Kotel, although men and women were always separated, it was not always so strict. Over the years the women’s section has grown smaller and the modesty police, if I can call them that, have grown more forceful. I only recently discovered that Susie had no idea the men’s section actually extends out of view, into the shade, and into some secluded caverns. I must confess. This belated realization on my part was extraordinarily male centered.

It was not supposed to be this way. Prior to the division of Jerusalem between Jordan and Israel, and in the pre-State years, the Western Wall plaza was not separated into men’s and women’s sections. After the 1967 war control was given to the Ultra-Orthodox rabbinate. We had thought that things were going to change. Last year a compromise was brokered and an egalitarian prayer space was supposed to be built adjacent to the women’s section. A makeshift egalitarian prayer space exists but you have to know how to find the entrance. The intention was that there would be one security entrance and then people could choose at which section they wished to pray. The rabbinate feared that affirming such Jewish choices was tantamount to legitimizing the Reform and Conservative movements. Natan Sharansky, the great Soviet Jewish dissident, captured our feelings when he said, “The Kotel belongs to the entire Jewish people.” The Ultra-Orthodox threatened to unravel the governing coalition and so Prime Minister Netanyahu caved. He reneged on this historic compromise.

I fear that Netanyahu has written off the majority of American Jews. He dismisses Reform and Conservative, and some Orthodox, Jews. He sees the majority of our community as overly liberal and naïve. Furthermore he remained conspicuously silent in the face of the Nazi antisemitism we witnessed in Charlottesville. The vision of Zionism that I cherish is one that imagines a partnership between Jews living in the diaspora and those in Israel. It is not supposed to be only about a partnership between those Jews who share one’s political inclinations. This summer I felt abandoned by the prime minister who expects our unwavering support in Israel’s struggle against its enemies and who rightfully raises alarms about Arab antisemitism but who left us alone when we required a loud and clear voice to speak out in our defense against Nazi antisemitism.

It is a betrayal of Zionism to write off the majority of diaspora Jews, who wish to have a say in what kind of state Israel will be and who rightfully want to pray at Judaism’s holiest site just as they pray in their home congregations.   Israel is not just about security. It is also supposed to enrich our Jewish lives and strengthen our faith. It is supposed to be a place that all Jews share, that Jews throughout the world look to for guidance and inspiration.

That morning created a crisis of faith. I had spent the morning in my favorite city, visiting the greatest sites of the three Western religions, and had come away feeling ostracized and attacked. The most positive experience was at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and not my Western Wall. In the end all these places seemed more about power and control rather than faith. It was as if everyone was screaming, “It’s mine and not yours.” I have been pondering that experience for some time now and have been trying to unpack its meaning during these past months.

I wonder if we gain more religiosity, and strengthen our faith, when we give up that control. We spend so much time fighting over whose house it is that we lose sight of the lofty purpose of these places. Faith is supposed to be about the recognition that this world belongs to God and not me, or you, or them. If we adopt this attitude perhaps we might find greater room for faith and belief.

Our forefather Jacob had a similar crisis, granted it was brought on by the fact that he stole his brother Esau’s birthright and was now on the run, and alone in the desert. He stopped to rest and fell asleep. He had a dream in which he envisioned a ladder reaching to heaven with angels going up and down. He awoke and exclaimed: “Yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh v’anochi lo yadati—surely God is in this place and I did not know it.” (Genesis 28) And then he said, “Mah norah hamakom hazeh—how awesome is this place.” He then goes on to name this non-descript place in the desert with what has become the most common name for synagogues, Beit El, or in English, Beth El—the house of God. I have always found that story to be the most remarkable of all our tales. We no longer know of course where this place is. And so this place is any place. If the house of God can be in the desert then it can be anywhere. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel affirmed this idea when he said, “Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.”

Judaism rejects the elevation of one place over another. We can do this Jewish thing anywhere. We can find God everywhere. In fact our homes, the places where we spend the majority of our days and nights, are called a mikdash maat, a small sanctuary. It is there that we gather for the holiest of experiences—eating! I already can’t wait until Break Fast. The tradition does indeed see our table as an altar. In fact it comes to replace the sacrificial altar of the ancient Temple. We find God anywhere. We find God everywhere—even and especially at the dining room table.

That Jerusalem morning was rescued one week later in another land. On our way home we stopped in Amsterdam. No, it was not rescued in a coffee house. We visited the Anne Frank House. Never have I seen or experienced such an open city—and all those bicycles. And never have I seen such a thing. People from all over the world waited for hours to get into the Anne Frank House. This house is the most popular attraction in all of Holland, surpassing even the Van Gogh Museum. People waited patiently in the rain in order to visit the house where Anne and her family hid for little over two years from the Nazis. Unlike the noise and tumult, and shouts and screams of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Al-Aqsa Mosque or the Western Wall, there was measured quiet. We walked step by step through the factory and house now converted into a museum. No one cut the line. People waited if the person in front of them paused longer in front of a picture. No one lost their temper if someone spent ten minutes transfixed by the words inscribed on the museum’s wall.

There were no signs demanding respect. There were no instructions telling people what to wear and what not to wear. Everyone knew that this place is holy. Their silence suggested a shared respect and reverence. The world knows this little girl’s name. The Holocaust survivor and author Primo Levi remarked: “One single Anne Frank moves us more than the countless others who suffered just as she did, but whose faces have remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is better that way; if we were capable of taking in all the suffering of all those people, we would not be able to live.”

We walked passed the heavy bookcase that hid the stairs to the family’s hiding place, the secret annex. We slowly ascended the narrow and steep staircase. There were no more windows. We could no longer see the streets and the canals, still enveloped by a morning rain. I thought of all the times I complained about the weather, of all the mornings I looked out of my bedroom window and cursed the rain, or the snow. For two years, that would have been the most remarkable of privileges. What a gift to look out of a window and behold the sky, and its clouds. What a blessing to even curse the rain. Eight people lived cramped in this small attic. Only one survived the war.

I still cannot get over the fact that this little girl’s memory has so captured the devotion of millions and millions of people, that people from every corner of the world pilgrimage to this place, and wait in line as if they are visiting the Holy of Holies. I still cannot get over the fact that I felt a greater sense of spirituality there than all the times I have visited the place our tradition tells us where the Holy of Holies once stood.  On this Yom Kippur evening I confess I am still struggling to find the words for how and why I was so moved. I suspect it was the moment I peered out of the window the last time before going through the bookcase and walking up the stairs to the secret annex, that last momentary glimpse of the sky felt like the eternity I can only imagine Anne felt for two years.

Why was this place holier than all our holy places? It is because it belonged to no one. And it therefore belongs to everyone.

That may in fact be the secret to making a place holy. It might be as simple as letting go. It might be as obvious as looking up at the sky and saying, Mah norah mamakom hazeh—how awesome is this place. And this place is indeed none other than the abode of God.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Moskowitz is the rabbi of Congregation L'Dor V'Dor, a community serving Long Island's North Shore. He began his rabbinical career in 1991 at the 92nd Street Y in New York. He travels every summer to Jerusalem to learn at the Shalom Hartman Institute where he is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow. Rabbi Moskowitz is married to Rabbi Susie Moskowitz and is the father of Shira and Ari.
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