Monday, August 22, 2011

Holy Land Journal: Onto the Temple Mount and into a police station

JERUSALEM – It was a day when we witnessed the three Abraham religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – in all of its splendor and contrast, richness and contradictions. And all of this religious fervor took place within a few yards of each other at the Temple Mount of Jerusalem.

The day ended with me sitting in an Israeli police station, an experience reminding me that that Jerusalem is not immune from ordinary crime.

We began our day at the Temple Mount; the massive stone remains of the “Second Temple” built by King Solomon and rebuilt by King Herod the Great. The Temple was burned and torn down after the Jewish revolt of 60 A.D. The mount was abandoned until the rise of Islam and the construction of the gold-plated “Dome of the Rock” atop of the remains of the Temple.

For centuries, Jews have worshipped at the base of the Western Wall, or “Wailing Wall,” while Muslims have built mosques on top of the Temple Mount. Although the Temple plays a prominent role in the story of Jesus, oddly Christians never built anything on the Temple Mount even when they controlled it in the Middle Ages. Just outside the Temple gates is a Medieval Crusader church next to the pools of Bethesda where Jesus came to heal the sick.

As we approached the Temple Mount, we joined Jews, Muslims and Christians all jostling to get access to their corner of this sacred space. We flowed along with throngs.

We started in the Jewish section. On Mondays and Thursdays, Jews are allowed to hold bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs near the Western Wall. With permission of an American family, we joined their Bat Mitzvah for their daughter. The rabbi told the bat mitzvah, in English, “Take this ritual, take this confidence, and continue to live as a Jew in America.”

We then went to the Western Wall itself – the Wailing Wall – with men going to one side and women to another. I donned a kippa (one I brought with me), and went down to touch the wall. I expected the area near the wall would be solemn but the atmosphere was like a festival. Soldiers posed for pictures at the Wall, while others rocked in prayer facing the wall.

Next we ascended to the top of the Temple Mount, walking over a bridge that crosses over the Western Wall enclosure.

Atop the Temple Mount was breathtaking. It is a huge expanse of stone, with the stunning gold “Dome of the Rock” that encloses the rock outcropping where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac (or Ismaal, as the Muslims would maintain). Women in full burkas walked past, while others took off their shoes to go inside. We did not go inside.

We walked across the Mount to an exit leading to the Crusader Church at the pools of Bethesda. They were a place where in the time of Jesus, people who were sick went hoping to find healing in pools fed by natural springs.

As one of our guides explained, the religious authorities were not serving those who went to the pools; they were considered unclean and not allowed to go inside the Temple. Religion had failed them, and so they went to the pools hoping for healing. The pools were the closest to a secular place there would be in ancient Jerusalem. And it was there that Jesus went to find them.

Lori and Anne on steps
Jesus would have walked
to go up to the Temple
We went inside the simple stone church and sang a hymn, and then departed for lunch.

Was I inspired by all of this variety of religious expression? I am not sure. I felt a great sadness that all of these great religions must carve out their own spaces, walled off with fences, bridges and metal detectors. How can God really be pleased with any of this? Yet, I also felt awed by the rich breadth of religious expression. I looked on as outsider, not really connected to any of this, but grateful for the friendly smiles and the human yearning that there must be more to life than what we see now.

Our afternoon was spent walking around the bazaars and shops of the Old City. We saw jewelry and Bedouin tapestries, and the biggest assortment of spices, candies, fruits and breads I have ever seen in my life. Alas, in all of the jostling, an aggressive young man hawking postcards managed to steal our newest camera from Lori (the photos here were taken with an older spare camera I’ve been carrying).

I went with one of the St. George’s staff people to an Israeli police station to report the theft. It was a stark neon-lit building and, let us just say, chaotic. I am thankful that all we lost was a camera, and we are going to take a break and rest at St. George’s on Tuesday.


John Leech said...

A Testing of Hearts by Donald Nicholl (London: Darton, Longman and Todd) gives some still-relevant reflections on the many religious traditions and peoples of the holy land ... from his time as rector of Tantur ecumenical institute, and his writings for The Tablet.

Peter Carey+ said...

Beautiful; thank you for including us on your journey, and on your thoughts on this pilgrimage. Wonderful photos, some nice reflections.

Peace to you, and to Jerusalem!

Peter Carey+

Janice Dean said...

So sorry to hear about the camera. Thanks for sharing these photos, though. The one at the Wailing Wall made me think, "Wow, those soldiers look SO young." How sad.

Elaine said...

It is news to me that Abraham was in Jerusalem. His home was Ur. The binding of Isaac could not have been the binding of Ishmael, as the child and slave mother Hagar had been banished by Abraham under Sarah's orders. Having a hard time connecting this outcropping in Jerusalem geographically as the place where god tested Abraham by telling him to kill his son.

The Rev. James Richardson said...

There is a terrific book by a Jewish author, Bruce Feiler, "Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths," where he explains very well the myths and legends of Abraham and how each of the Abrahamic religions -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- has a different take on this. It is very readable and I highly recommend you read it before you dig in too hard on your opinion. Thanks for posting.

Elaine said...

I love Bruce Feiler's' work and have "Walking the Bible." Will check on this new one. The tomb of Rebekah, just a generation after Abraham, is in Israel territory, too (ransacked, of course). But the binding of Isaac, which is read every Jewish New Year, is to me one of the lowest moments in the entire Torah. We'll tauwlk. Hope your house is OK from the Mistake Quake (wrong coast) and that you're enjoying your time in the Land of Israel as much as I did when I was there on kibbutz and discovering cousins. xoxo, elaine