Monday, November 24, 2014

Boycott the Kotel


I am calling on people to boycott the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. I do so reluctantly, with both sadness and trepidation, since this spot has had and continues to have a powerful hold on the religious imagination of peoples of all faiths. Not only do many of us recall our first visit, but who can forget the visit of Pope John Paul II? Yet I think it is worthwhile to be realistic about what this spot actually represents, and as extremists on both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian divide continue to turn this sacred space into a venue for holy war, I would suggest that we refuse to play any role in that horror.

Full text:

Like most people who have been to the Wailing Wall, the Western Wall, the Kotel, I remember my first visit. I suppose I was appropriately awestruck. It is, after all, quite massive. Not exactly the Grand Canyon, but similar. I was about three months shy of my 18th birthday. I put on tefillin, “phylacteries,” as they’re called in English: little prayer boxes attached to straps that get wrapped around the arm and forehead. It was the first time since my Bar Mitzvah. It was awkward, unfamiliar, something of a let-down, a peak experience that wasn’t.

I’ve had other visits to the Kotel. The last time I was at the main plaza was in 2006. By that time, I was experienced, knowledgeable, adept at the art of Jewish prayer. So in the midst of my fervent swaying, rocking davenen (praying), along comes this black-hatted youngster, who taps me on the shoulder looking for a “donation” for his “Yeshivah.” Yeah, right! Then there was the phlegmatic old Hasid who set about adjusting my shel rosh, the phylactery wrapped around my forehead. It was apparently not properly situated right between my eyes to his satisfaction. I guess he figured he was just helpin’ me out. I swore it would be my last visit.

Then in 2007, I discovered the Masorti Kotel, a section of the western wall of the Temple Mount south of the Main Plaza that had been established as a worship site for more liberal, egalitarian Jews. I was there for Tisha B’Av the commemoration of the destruction of the two Jewish temples: one by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and the second by the Romans in the year 70. At the foot of the wall lay a number of huge boulders. They sat atop an ancient Roman pavement and were identified as boulders that the defenders had heaved onto the Roman soldiers besieging the Temple. It was an inspiring moment. No schnorring (begging); no phlegm; just an encounter with divinity, community, history and tradition.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been back to Israel since then. Yet, the next time I go, which I hope will be soon, I plan on boycotting the Kotel. I do this reluctantly, but I have decided that it is an important statement to make in opposition to the attempt by extremists on both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian divide to turn what is recognized as sacred space into a stage for the enactment of a holy war. If you don’t think this is a holy war, watch this video posted by Likud MK Moshe Feiglin, a member of the governing coalition in Israel, on his Facebook page ( Feiglin is quoted as saying that when he is prime minister, there will be no Waqf (Muslim religious authority) on the Temple Mount, a scenario that would, at best, abrogate the Israel/Jordan peace treaty. I refuse to play my role as an extra in this unfolding horror.

Why don’t we try a bit of realism, a bit of pragmatism in this matter? Let’s begin with the wall itself. It’s a wall, for goodness sakes!! No, it’s not the remains of the Jewish Temple. It’s a portion of a retaining wall, much of which was built in the first century BCE by King Herod, a brutal tyrant appointed by the Roman occupiers, who wanted to impress his Roman buddies and attempt to placate his hostile people by rebuilding the Temple and expanding the sacred area that surrounded it. Now let’s look at the ancient Temple itself. All ancient peoples had Temples. They were considered by ancient peoples to represent the axis mundi, the center of the cosmos, the place where the gods dwelt, the nexus of heaven and earth. Ancient peoples would celebrate their communion with the divine mainly by slaughtering animals as temple offerings to the gods, though some of the offerings were of a vegetarian variety.

In the Jewish Temple, as we’re told in the Book of Leviticus, the celebrants were enjoined from eating blood, so all of the blood of the animal was used in the ceremony, mainly by pouring it on the altar. Portions of some of these sacrificial animals were eaten by the celebrants. Other portions were given to the priests and their helpers, the Levites, while some portions and sometimes whole animals were offered on the altar of burnt offerings as a “pleasant aroma for God.” We’re told in the Book of I Kings that when King Solomon built the Temple, “the entire assembly of Israel that had gathered about him were before the ark, sacrificing so many sheep and cattle that they could not be recorded or counted” (I Kings 8:5)

The truth is, most of the Hebrew prophets had at best an ambivalent attitude toward the Temple. Jeremiah, who was himself a priest, declared in God’s name, “For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Jeremiah 7:22). Jeremiah insisted on other covenantal requirements, like “do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place” (Jeremiah 7:5) He correctly predicted the Temple’s destruction by the Babylonians, but never mentions a rebuilding.

I understand that when we approach the Kotel, we’re to contemplate its sanctity as the axis mundi, that sacred space that facilitates connection to the divine. I acknowledge the power of history and tradition that permeate this place. But the next time you go there, maybe you can think about this. Think about the sweat and tears of the slave and corvee laborers who were conscripted into the building of these temples. Think about all of the blood that must have poured out of it, as countless animals were slaughtered and bled. Listen for the sounds of the cries of those animals as they were slaughtered in their hundreds and thousands. Think of the stench as these thousands of carcasses waited to be flayed, butchered and cooked.

While you’re thinking those lovely thoughts, consider that our understanding of the divine and our relationship to God has evolved after 2,000 years; that God is omnipresent; that every spot can be an axis mundi; that “God is near to all who call upon God, to all who call upon God truly and faithfully” (Psalm 145:18/Ashrei).” And think about this. Two Jewish temples were destroyed. There are no more temples. Perhaps God is trying to tell us something.

I would urge you to find connection to God anywhere and everywhere, and to keep yourself, body and soul, away from the holy war that the extremists are planning for this spot. Boycott the holy war. Boycott the Kotel!

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