A wonderful student, let’s call him Josh, who has spent the last year studying here in Jerusalem at the Conservative Yeshiva came to see me this week. He was puzzled by something that had just happened to him.
The Yeshiva davens weekly at the new Azrat Yisrael, the egalitarian area of the Western Wall (Kotel). This area has been set aside for liberal Jews in order to prevent their being violently attacked by Orthodox Jews in the main Kotel plaza. After our beautiful davening, Josh had decided to end his year with a trip to the Temple Mount, Har-HaBayit, the most holy site in Judaism. Anyone who is prepared to queue up for hours in the boiling sun can visit the Temple Mount. He dutifully queued up, and when passing through the heavy security at the entrance he was prepared to hand over the religious items that he had been using that morning for our services; he knew he could not take up his tefillin, his siddur or his large tallit.
What started to provoke his ire was the guards’ insistence that he also hand over his tallit katan, invisible under his clothes, and his kippah, hidden under his cap. Jews can enter the Temple Mount but only denuded of any Jewish symbols, overt or hidden, and it is utterly and expressly forbidden for Jews to pray on the Mount. He felt, and was disturbed by, unusual stirrings of Jewish nationalist indignation. Whilst on the Mount these feeling grew; Josh was unsettled by an unexpectedly virulent desire for Jewish domination.
I imagine we are all too familiar with video clips of confrontations on the Mount between extremist Jews and Muslims, who on a good day only cast hate-filled words at each other. These people are primitive-particularists, divided by language, history and religion but fully united by a common vision of domination, uniqueness and ultimate victory. Both sides bask in religion-fuelled fantasies of cultural supremacy. I recoil from their fear, their anger, their blinkered ignorant naiveté, their lack of capacity for communication beyond the zero-sum casting of clichés and aspersions.
So for a fleeting moment Josh was rattled by feeling a bit like one of them. Now I, as his teacher, am upset too! Had he spent too long in Israel? Can Western pluralism rub off if you spend too long outside its influence? Can you absorb the prevailing ignorance, anger, fear and intolerance by osmosis from the Israeli air? Was, God forbid, his learning at the Yeshiva to blame?
Let’s put it another way. How can we immunise ourselves culturally from a simple historical reading of this week’s parasha with its repeated motifs of dispossession, violence and supremacy (Devarim 7:13-26, 9:1-5, 11:22-25)? Here in Israel there is a devastating correlation between Jewish observance/literacy and primitive-particularism. The more observant you are, the greater your chances of being opposed to accommodation with the Palestinians. Is it surprising that the more connected you are to violent, nationalist, supremacist texts the more likely you are to be violent, nationalist and supremacist? What might it do to us when we read these texts over and over in shul? Is there a way on both sides for us to create peace-intoxicated communities of religious literacy, commitment and pathos? There is so much work to do!
I am a fully committed Jew who strives as a religious imperative to live at peace with his neighbours. I too would love for Jews to be able to pray on the Temple Mount. I pray for a day when sophisticated Muslims will welcome their sophisticated Jewish brothers and sisters onto the Mount to pray together to our Creator for peace and tranquillity, and when the idolatry of primitive-particularism will have passed away from the world.
Rabbi Joel Levy is director of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem and Rabbi of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue.