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Temple Mount: a house of prayer for all people

The Temple Mount. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The Temple Mount. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Disagreement on the status of the Temple Mount is at the core of the recent wave of violence and terror in the region. This is a religious war, we are told, not merely a political one, and wars in the name of God are far more dangerous than those fought for earthly goals.

One problem with this description is that wars in the name of God are also often motivated or fueled by political causes. More particularly, and with regard to the present conflict, political considerations affect the perceived religious significance of holy sites. This is a central thesis in Ron Hassner’s book “War on Sacred Grounds,” in which he argues that “actors may wish to enhance the salience of sacred sites in order to fulfill political aspirations, mobilize followers, or subvert the secular foundations of a state.”

It is quite obvious that both Muslims and Jews are involved today in such enhancement of the religious significance of the Mount; for both sides it has become much more than a sacred site, much more than a special place of worship and prayer.

Moreover, had it been a purely religious site without political and nationalistic elements attached to it, it would have been much easier to find an arrangement to satisfy the religious needs of both sides. Maybe I shouldn’t speak for the Muslims, but only for the Jews. Imagine then that Israel had full sovereignty over the Temple Mount, that there were no security constraints and that Israel could have things its own way, could run the site in accordance with its Jewish and democratic values. What would this mean in practice?

What is implied by the “democratic” component is obvious. The right to religious freedom, a basic tenet of a democratic society, would imply a strong duty to grant Muslims access to the Mount and the right to pray in the mosques. Needless to say, it would also imply an unequivocal duty to protect the mosques from any attempt to harm them or to interfere in the services conducted in them.

But what about the “Jewish” component in the definition of the State of Israel? The answer is more controversial, but at least in my view, it is compatible with the democratic one. The reason is that there is consensus among Jewish thinkers and rabbis that both Jews and Muslims worship the same God. Had the Muslims been idolaters, there could have been an argument to the effect that no compromise with them is possible, especially not in matters concerning the most sacred site.

But since they are not, there is no barrier—at least no religious barrier—to preventing Jews from welcoming Muslims to share the Temple Mount with them, maybe even to pray together, mentioning their common patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

For readers who find this idea far-fetched and who believe that we Jews are not supposed to share our most sacred place with other religions, I urge them to recall the wonderful words of Isaiah 56, in which he talks about “sons of the stranger, that join themselves to the LORD, to serve him, and to love the name of the LORD, to be his servants.”

Strangers, namely non-Jews, who want to become the servants or slaves of God almost demonstrate the definition of the word “Islam”: submission to God. Isaiah promises these strangers: “I shall bring them to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.”

Note: these strangers are not merely tolerated if they wish to offer their prayers to God in the house of God. According to the prophet, they are actively brought by God to do so and He promises to make them joyful in this experience. The impression is that they are equal partners with the Jews in the service of God in His house.

Not surprisingly, some commentators can’t accept that this prophecy refers to non-Jews; hence they read it as referring to converts (gerim). But this reading is clearly incompatible with the expression “a house of prayer to all people,” that explicitly refers to other people, whereas converts are part of the Jewish collective.

To be sure, the Bible and the Jewish tradition more generally include other, more exclusivist views as well. My aim here was to draw attention to a more inclusive view in the tradition and to argue that this view makes perfect sense once we think of the matter from a purely religious point of view and bracket all national and political considerations. Jews should be happy if people of other religions who believe in the same God join them in prayer and in service, or conduct their own prayers alongside theirs.

To conclude then, at least from the Jewish perspective, it is simply not the case that there can be no peaceful compromise if religion is involved in some conflict. “The holy,” says philosopher Avishai Margalit, “is not negotiable, let alone subject to compromise.” The sons of Jacob and the sons of Ishmael are closer in their religious beliefs than is often thought. It’s time to turn this closeness into a source of inspiration and blessing and to use it as a vehicle for peace and cooperation.

Prof. Daniel Statman is a Shalom Hartman Institute research fellow, a member of the Institute’s iEngage Project, and a member of the Research Team for Applied Military Ethics at the Kogod Research Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought. He is a professor of philosophy at the University of Haifa. 

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