On Holiness, Sovereignty and Sacrilege
The Israeli-Arab conflict comprises three spheres. The outer sphere, which is widest in scope and therefore most alarming, contains the conflict between Islam and Judaism; the middle sphere contains the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors; and the inner sphere comprises the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The peace process attempted to focus on the volatile core and isolate it from the two outer spheres.
Israel has promoted the process in the belief that the conflict should not turn into a comprehensive religious battle between Judaism and Islam. It had very good reason to believe such a battle was completely uncalled for. Turkey, an Islamic country par excellence, is a true friend to Israel. Israel also has ties with other Muslim countries in the Far East and in Africa.
The conflict with the Arab world, which is the second, more limited sphere, is perceived by Israelis as a border dispute that is gradually unraveling. Peace agreements have been signed between Israel and Egypt and between Israel and Jordan, and intensive talks to resolve the border dispute with Syria commenced, although this process came to a deadlock.
The internal logic of the process is such that it should focus on the most sensitive, existential issue, namely, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since the Oslo Accords were signed, an attempt has been made to tackle the components of this conflict without allowing it to spill over into the irrelevant, much broader outer spheres.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a border dispute. It is a feud over a homeland, over a single piece of land, and the only way to settle it is by compromise. It took years of effort to separate the core conflict from the external, broader spheres, but paradoxically and in complete contradiction with the internal and political logic of the process, just when we reached the last mile, the dispute spread out to encompass the broadest scope possible.
Shifting the focus of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the small, symbolic holy rock of Temple Mount means turning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a religious struggle between Judaism and Islam. Such a clash would send shockwaves through the entire region. Political conflicts over interests such as water, land and refugees may be difficult, but can be resolved through compromise. Land and water can be divided, but can the same be done with symbols?
In the evolving religious debate, both parties are making a similar, baseless argument, linking sanctity and sovereignty. “If the place is holy to us, it is ours,” is the claim made by many rabbis, qadis [Muslim leaders] and politicians, as well as by the average man on the street. The Chief Rabbinate, for example, announced that handing over sovereignty over Temple Mount would constitute desecration of the Jewish people’s holiest of holies, as though sanctity and sovereignty were inseparable by definition. In fact, the relation between holiness and sovereignty is quite the reverse. It is actually places, times and people that cannot be controlled, which become holy.
Halacha instructs believers not to engage in any creation on holy days. This prohibition is the primary marker of holy days. On the Sabbath, man is forbidden to engage in any creative or sovereign activities. It is not manual labor that is barred – religious Jews are allowed to carry heavy objects from one end of the room to the other; but any attempt, as minute as may be, to alter the surroundings, constitutes desecration of the holy day.
On regular days, on the other hand, man is free to govern and control. On regular days man creates and conquers, and on the Sabbath he must treat nature as a gift that must not be tampered with. This perception of holiness, under which sovereignty and sanctity are a contradiction in terms, is evident in all Halachic definitions of sanctity.
This year is a shmita year [every seventh year, in which the land must be left fallow]. Produce from this year may be consumed, but must not be processed. For example, it may not be used to make medicine. Sanctity is that realm that is inaccessible and that cannot be controlled. This is why it is not allowed to use holy sites for any other purpose outside religious practice. One of the manifestations of the holiness of a synagogue is that people are not allowed to use it as a shortcut, as the Mishnah says: “He shall not enter Temple Mount with his cane and his shoes and his money belt and the dust on his feet, and shall not make it into a shortcut”. The essence of holiness as it emerges from the Jewish Halacha is about surrendering power, and it is designed to limit man’s governance and sovereignty.
According to most Halachic scholars, because of the holiness of Temple Mount Jews nowadays are not allowed to enter this site. But then how can one stake a claim to ownership over a place that one is not even allowed to enter? Indeed, during the times of the Second Temple, starting with the Maccabees and through to the zealots, there was always strife surrounding the control of the Temple’s compound. But these conflicts had to do with Judaism’s battle against idolatry and against the Greek and Roman Imperialistic attempts to place statues and icons – forbidden by Jewish Law – in the Temple.
Muslims, on the other hand, are also forbidden to make icons, and – following Maimonides’ definition – are completely monotheistic. There is no doubt that the immense efforts invested by both Jews and Muslims alike in order to have their national flags atop the Mount are tantamount to placing an icon in the Temple and to turning the holy site to a battlefield in a war between the nations. Muslims and Jews who worship the same God have turned his temple, Temple Mount, into a Moloch-like site of human sacrifice. People who call themselves servants of the Lord and who appropriate the holy traditions of both sides, are willing to sacrifice the entire younger generation for the sole purpose of controlling the holy site. “God in heaven shall laugh, he shall mock them,” was said of those people exactly. Bloodshed at holy sites is not a new concept. Sanctity has always been a magnet to defilement.
The Tosefta in the Yoma tractate tells of an incident that occurred shortly before the Second Temple was destroyed …While competing for the right to work at the Temple, one hot-headed priest slew another at the holy site itself. Rabbi Tsadok, who was present at the site, talked to the people and compared between that incident and the story of egla arufa [the method of communal atonement performed when
a murdered body was found out in the fields] in the Book of Deuteronomy. In this biblical story, the body of a murdered man is found outside the town. The elders of the nearby town, responsible for the safety of that passerby, are to bring a calf and propitiate their sin while saying: “Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it.” However, Rabbi Tsadok asks, since the murder took place within the Temple itself, what should the calf be used to atone for – the Temple or the hall that is near the site of the murder? Rabbi Tsadok’s listeners burst out crying because they realized how severe his rebuke is. Atonement is possible when the purity of holiness is maintained, but when the Temple itself is desecrated and defiled by the murder, how can atonement be possible?
The story does not end with Rabbi Tsadok’s earth-shattering reproach. While Rabbi Tsadok and the people mourn the murder that took place at the holy site, the father of the slain priest arrives in haste and sighs with relief: “My son is still alive and the knife is not impure.” The knife with which the priest killed his colleague was one of the tools used in the Temple, and it is a law that the presence of the dead makes tools impure. Unlike Rabbi Tsadok, the priest’s father is not concerned that the Temple might be defiled by the act of murder, neither is he fearful for his son’s life – his only concern is with the purity of the knife, the same knife used to take his son’s life. According to the father, as long as the son is dying but not dead yet, the knife that is stuck in his body can be saved from defilement. To the storyteller, this behavior of the father of the murdered priest is not unusual. With intense criticism and bitterness he uses the father’s response to illustrate the cultural situation on the eve of the Second Temple’s destruction: “This story shows that the people of Israel viewed the impurity of a knife more seriously than they did bloodshed.” This piercing observation of the atmosphere of the days before the fall of the Second Temple may actually be the most insightful explanation of the Temple’s ruin and the demise of Jewish society in that era.
Since quite a lot of blood has been shed on Temple Mount in recent months and since the parties are willing to turn the Mount into a Moloch sacrificial site for the youths of Israel and Palestine, the story in the Tosefta can be attributed to contemporary Jewish and Muslim spiritual leadership just as well. Those who demand ownership over holiness and want to reside in the house of the Lord for the rest of their days must know that divine spirit has abandoned the place once before because of bloodshed. In all probability, God has already moved house.
In order to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some hard yet legitimate political questions must be answered. Do the Palestinians want peace or not? What are Israel’s security needs and how can they be reconciled with the Palestinians need for a dignified solution that will give them sovereign territory? Can a Jewish democratic State be sustained under the present demographic conditions without having to divide the land?
Jewish affiliation to Temple Mount also pertains to the sensitive question of Palestinian recognition of the Jewish people’s national and historic right to its homeland and to allowing Jews access – in practice and not only in principle – to the holy sites. These debates are important. But anyone who upholds that the question of sovereignty is part and parcel of these legitimate issues is doing nothing short of desecrating holiness.