Sunday, April 25, 2010

Har HaBayit

Today, I had an aliyah (an ascent, from the Hebrew root 0-l-h, to ascend). Jews normally use this word to mean one of two things: saying the blessing over a section of Torah reading, or immigrating to Israel. I'm using it, for the first time, in the original sense, which is to ascend onto Har HaBayit (literally the Mountain of the House, normally called the Temple Mount in English) in Jerusalem.

If you thought the (Kotel) Western Wall was complicated, try Har HaBayit. It is venerated by Jews (as the location of the 1st and 2nd Temples), Christians (as near the Last Supper, Crucifixion and the Resurrection), and Muslims (as where Mohammad ascended to heaven). To this day, Jews from all over the world pray facing Har HaBayit, and many Muslims regularly pray in the Mosque there, as the holiest site after Mecca and Medina.

Its history is even more complicated, with Muslims building a mosque (Al Aksa) and a shrine (the Dome of the Rock) there and Crusaders digging under it in search of the lost Ark of the Covenant. After the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, the site along with the entire Old City passed under Jordanian control. It was only with Israel's victory in the Six Day War in 1967 that control falling into Jewish hands, after a 2000 year lapse.

The current state of affairs is very touchy at best. Jews (including outwardly religious Jews) are allowed up Har HaBayit, but are not allowed to pray. One man was even arrested last December for allegedly doing so. There are other stories about rabbis being allowed to pray in special circumstances, but holding any kind of regular Jewish services up there is completely impossible. It is still too fresh in everyone's mind when Ariel Sharon (before becoming Prime Minister) callously ascended to Har HaBayit with his entire security detail, providing one of the sparks for the 2nd Intifada.

So how does a religious Jew go about an aliyah? First of all, he or she must be as ritually pure as one can be in a post-Temple world. For men this is easy - go to the mikvah that morning before you go up, I used one at Ohel Shimon Yeshiva, near Rachel Imenu and Hizkiyahu HaMelech. If you go make sure to bring seven shekels in exact change.

For women, it gets more complicated. In short, women should not be in niddah (menstruating), or have engaged in (heterosexual) intercourse in the previous 72 hours. (This requirement should probably also apply to men with respect to homosexual intercourse.) Then women should also go to a mikvah (which can be somewhat difficult for unmarried women in Jerusalem).

The entrance is next to the south entrace to the Kotel plaza, near Zion gate. It opens around 7:30 AM, except for Fridays and Muslim holidays. The security allegedly checks for any Jewish ritual objects (bibles, prayer books, tallit, tefillin) and from what others have told me from their experience makes you leave them there. They did not ask me for any identification.

Ha HaBayit itself is gigantic. Much, much larger than I ever could have imagined. It is also very quiet and peaceful, which only adds to the enormous reverence of the space.

I wasn't quite sure where I was allowed to go as a religious Jew. The concern is that one should not enter the area that was once the Holy of Holies in the Temple, or be near the Ark of the Covenant. However, since Har HaBayit was significantly expanded in the Second Temple period, the South section (where the entrance is, near Al Aksa Mosque) is certainly safe for Jews who follow the purity precautions mentioned above.

Eventually, I saw three observant Jews on a tour. I followed them, figuring that they would know where not to go. Up until this point, I had been wearing a baseball cap over my kippah, and had tucked in my tzizit, so that the police wouldn't profile me as a potential agitator. Once I was with other religious Jews, though, (who were already being followed around by the police), I figured I could express my religion.

We ended up walking all of the way around Har HaBayit, only avoiding the raised platform that the Dome of the Rock is on. (This is apparently what it looks like inside.) Despite the regulations, these men quietly said Pslams, which were traditionally recited by pilgrims as they approached the Temple. Since the guards could not hear them, they certainly did not bother any Muslims praying on Har HaBayit.

We exited Har HaBayit on the Western side, though what was called "Chain Gate". This let us out right onto Rehov HaShelshelet (the Chain Street), in the Arab shuk. I had been here several times on my way to the Kotel, but normally would turn right 20 feet before this point to go down the stairs to the Kotel. I never knew what was beyond that point, and also never realized that the bottom of the shuk was the same level at Har HaBayit. Nor did I realize that, since the shuk slopes down when coming from Jaffa Gate, that Jaffa Gate is actually higher than Har HaBayit. I had only seen Har HaBayit from the Kotel and from Robinson's Arch, where one is looking up 50+ feet at it.

As soon as we exited, the three man began dancing and singing "Yibaneh HaMikdash" (He will build the Temple), a popular song that I knew well and had danced and sung to many times on Jewish holidays as part of the normal liturgy. I stopped to think. This was a much more direct application of this than I was use to, and was now directly contrary to Islam, since actually rebuilding the Temple would require tearing down (or at least moving) the Dome of the Rock. I ended up joining the men dancing and singing briefly, since I think that my metaphorical understanding of that song was still true, and that if I would happily sing it back in the United States, how could I not in the Old City in Jerusalem?

Throughout the day, though, I have been struggling with the notion of the Temple. It is ubiquitous in Jewish liturgy, a significant portion of the weekly Torah readings, and a major focus of everyday study of ancient Jewish laws and customs. Furthermore, as a meat-eater (though one who constantly attempts to limit his meat intake), I have no fundamental problem with ritual animal sacrifice (since I all of the meat I eat has been ritually slaughtered). Furthermore, I would hope that animals that are to be ritually offered to God in a Temple are actually better treated than the animals that I eat now.

That said, I don't think I can truly wrap my head around demolishing one of the holiest spots in Islam to rebuild our Temple. That would put us clearly in the camp of the Romans (who destroyed the 2nd Temple) and the Taliban (who destroyed numerous priceless Buddhist holy sites in Afghanistan).

So what do we do? Change the liturgy? That would be a colossal sea change for observant Judaism, which in many ways is still ritually living in a world that assumes that our nearly 2000 year post-Temple period is temporary. To accept that the Temple will never be rebuilt would truly be the end of Judaism as we know it, almost on par with the destruction of the Temple. Our holidays would change. Our connection to Israel would change. I don't think we're ready for that, or will ever be.

So, I leave Har HaBayit conflicted. In Bethlehem last Friday, I said that Israel would never relinquish the Old City. It would give up the entire Galilee first. After visiting Har HaBayit I'm more sure of that than ever. Where to go from here though, I don't know.


Last Friday, I went to Bethlehem for the afternoon.

Bethlehem is Area A, which means that it is mostly under Palestinian control and so is closed to Israelis without military permission. (A helpful mnemonic is "A is for Arafat.") As an American, though, I was free to enter.

Getting there from my apartment in Baka in Jerusalem is actually exceptionally easy. One can catch the Arab bus #124 from the stop on Derech Hevron, just south of Yehuda Street. Make sure to flag down the bus to ensure it stops. (And, throughout this whole trip, I was advised not to wear outward signs of being Jewish, including a kippa or untucked tzitzit. A baseball cap was fine, though I of course looked like a tourist.)

The bus then drops off at the pedestrian checkpoint. Entering Bethlehem is easy for an American: just show your passport and Israeli visa (e.g. the stamp you got at the airport, either in your passport or on an attached piece of paper). You don't even have to go through a metal detector. On the other side of the checkpoint, you can get a taxi to the Nativity Church and other tourist sites. Locals pay 10 shekels (~$3) - tourists might have to pay 15 but shouldn't pay more. Whole trip door to door took 30 minutes.

The Nativity Church is across from a large Mosque, and adjacent to the Bethlehem Peace Center. I was there around midday on a Friday, and so much of the square was turned into a giant outdoor (men's) mosque, with a loudspeaker broadcasting what I was told was the midday prayer. It was a fascinating site to behold, since observant Jews don't use electricity on the Sabbath and so can't experience any kind of amplified outdoor space like this.

The Nativity Church was the site of a siege during the 2nd Intifada, with Palestinian militants attempting to take refuge there. I remember reading about the events as it happened, but it was good to refresh my memory.

The picture below shows both a mosque and a church right next to each other, showing the dual heritage in Bethlehem.

I spent most of the afternoon with a friend of a friend of mine, talking about his perspective on current events in the region. This contact was a Palestinian Christian, who had spent a good part of his youth in Saudi Arabia, as his father had a job there. Since he wasn't Muslim, he was not allowed to attend the regular schools, and instead had to attend an American school. (As a silver lining, he now speaks near-perfect American English. So good that I was always a bit surprised when he would speak native Palestinian Arabic.)

His family was kicked out of Saudi Arabia along with the rest of the Christians. I can only imagine what it must have been like as a Palestinian to be kicked out your temporary home, back to the West Bank.

He made numerous fascinating comments during our conversation. I will paraphrase several of the most salient points he made, based on my memory:

"Palestinians today are 60/40 happy/unhappy economically, but 40/60 happy/unhappy psychologically."

"Things are good now, but they were much better in '99-early '00. I remember being able to ride my bike to Tel Aviv to the beach in early 2000 before the intifada."

"Things could snap and get really bad again."

"Now I would need a work permit to enter Jerusalem. Though, most years, around Christmas and Easter, Palestinian Christians are given temporary permits."

"To fly anywhere, we have to cross into Jordon and use the airport in Aman. We can't go to Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv. It's not really a problem though, because most Palestinians have Jordanian citizenship or passports in one form or another."

"I only visit my parents to the north every few months, since I have to cross checkpoints between Palestinian villages, and it takes forever."

"With former President Bush, at least we knew where he stood. We have no idea where President Obama stands. One minute he's for halting building all settlements, the next excluding the Jerusalem, the next he's just proposing it."

"I once spoke to a settler who was saying that Palestinians are all taught in school how to build bombs and that we're supposed to continue the Holocaust. I explained to her that that's simply not true of my education, and that I learned about the Holocaust in history class like everyone else in the world."

"The Palestinians voted for Hamas because Fatah was very corrupt, and Hamas said it was against their religion to be corrupt."

"Fayyad would be great if he could speak for all of the Palestinians, the way that Arafat could. Abbas only speaks for Fatah, which gives him limited influence."

"1948 was an ethnic cleansing. And it is still going on in Jerusalem."

"Israel isn't going anywhere. We should go back to the '67 borders, and have a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, including all of the Old City in Jerusalem."

"There are many Christians here. Most people think Arab Christians are only in Lebanon, but we have lots here. We even brew our own beer in Taybeh. And it's really good."

My host insisted on treating me to my beer and Baba Ghanoush, given the Palestinian tradition of hospitality.

Going home took a bit longer, since the checkpoint is much more strict. There are bag scanners and metal detectors, but unlike in airport security, there is a kiosk door that only lets in one person at a time. The metal detectors are also much stronger, since my belt and shoes each set them off, despite that neither does in American airports. The line for checking documents also bunch up, with the same person doing both ways.

Regardless of the hassle, the return trip probably took 40-45 minutes.

I'll be heading back to Bethlehem next week to meet with an organization that does non violent protest. Should be interesting.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Israel at 62

Today is Yom Haatzmaut (Independence Day) in Israel. While it shares many similarities with Independence Day in the US (July 4), including warm weather, BBQs, flags, fireworks, and a general day off, it has many differences.

Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) - is the day before Independence Day, and actually includes the country remembering its lost (as opposed to the US where the vast majority of citizens simply treat it as a vacation day). In the US, even now, many of US in certain socioeconomic spheres know only a handful of people who served in the military. Here, the vast majority of people served in the military, and those who didn't and don't even live here know dozens of people who did.

Israeli Independence Day is also different because it has a religious component. For most Jews, today's morning service were expanded, making them more like other post-Torah holidays, such as Hanukah. The idea is that in 1948 God really did intervene and save a ragtag, underarmed band of Jews, many of them Holocaust survivors, from the surrounding Arab armies. This was a miracle on the level of the Maccabee's victory in 165 BCE, and should be celebrated as such.

Despite this celebration, Israel is still a land of contradictions. Many parts are fervently secular (with Jews who have never set foot in a synagogue) yet others are fervently religious, almost theocratic. Its people are warm and hospitable yet often impatient and loud. It is full of Hebrew, the language of the commandments, prophets, rabbis, and commentators, yet also full of natively spoken English. It is democratic, yet it differentiates among fundamental characteristics of its citizens, with different laws applying to citizens based on their religion

It is also a land that needs to think past tomorrow. Israel has been scarred by Palestinian terrorism for decades and is obfuscated by their intransigence at negotiations, most specifically in 2000 at Camp David. A large portion of the society wants a second disengagement, this time from the West Bank, yet it is all too aware that its last two wars (in Lebanon and Gaza) have have fought to protect its civilians from enemies that have filled the vacuum left by its withdrawals.

And then there is the anti-Obama rhetoric. President Obama is so reviled here that he should consider running for Prime Minister. The fact that the blank check that former President Bush extended is no longer good has incensed Israels. General Petraeus' comment that “The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests....Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of US partnerships with governments and peoples in the [Middle East] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world” became construed as "Obama blames American deaths in Iraq on the Jews."

Many of these individuals were not particularly large fans of the President to begin with, either because of the color of his skin or because they have been Giuliani Republicans for years. Nevertheless, is entirely overlooked here that Obama has not proposed cutting a cent of foreign aid, or removing the exemption that allows American citizens to serve in the Israeli Army and not lose their citizenship for joining a foreign military, or reducing any of the intelligence sharing, or diminishing in any way the trade and economic cooperation between the two countries.

The President is pushing the Israelis to start acting like adults. Is the blanket building freeze a blunt instrument? Yes. Are there reasonable situations where some of the settlements in the West Bank (the Gush, Maale Adumin, Ariel) will likely remain part of Israel? Yes. Will Jerusalem almost certainly remain a unified city? Yes. Is Israeli being asked to do more than any other country in recent history that won territory in defensive wars? Yes. But, should Israel begin to do whatever it can to create a viable, contiguous block of Palestinian territory in the West Bank, including adjusting its financial incentives and subsidies? Yes.

Israel cannot continue the current situation. Consider what happens if it does: The Palestinians areas in the West Bank will continue to be more and more densely populated. The international community will continue to turn away from Israel and not give it the benefit of the doubt. And this great Jewish state, vital for the worldwide existence of the Jewish people, will be left with more settlers to forcefully relocate and an even more radicalized, frustrated Palestinian population.

This only gets harder from here. Israel is nearly a senior citizen. It's time to think seriously about creating a legacy that will last, and not just provide for tomorrow's breakfast.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Women of the Wall

Today, for the second time, I proudly prayed with Women of the Wall, from behind a mechitza (a semi-transparent wall that separates men and women in Orthodox synagogues).

Women of the Wall pray at the Kotel (Western Wall), the holiest accessible prayer site for Jews once a month on Rosh Hodesh, the first day of the new month, and one of the most joyous non-Shabbat/holiday services. These women wear traditional Jewish ritual items, such as a tallit (prayer shawl with specially tied fringes). Over the past few decades, they have been harassed, taunted, arrested, interrogated, and sued, all only for peaceably assembling and expressing their religion. Recently, larger and larger groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews have gathered to attempt to disrupt their prayer.

(The other time I was there was a few weeks ago during one of the intermediate days of the holiday of Passover, and since it was a one-off meeting, no one seemed to notice what was going on or bother to protest. This is a case-in-point that the actual prayer is almost completely non disruptive and therefore not actually a threat to anyone.)

The space in front of the Kotel is organized with adjacent men's and women's sections with a mechitza between the sections perpendicular to the Kotel itself, and a mechitza parallel to the Kotel at the back of each section. I was with about a dozen men behind the mechitza at the back of the women's section, as close as possible to the about 70 women in front of the mechitza at the back of the women's section. There were also a handful of men across the mechitza in the men's section.

Today, there were multiple police officers on the outside of both mechitzot, near where each group of men stood. This police officers did their job perfectly, turning away any men attempting to harass the women, such as by throwing chairs (which happened one month ago).

At one point, one ultra-Orthodox older man on the men's section began screaming at a police office, about how they did not respect Jewish law and tradition. A younger ultra-Orthodox man came over and persuaded him to stop yelling, asking him to come with them toward a larger group. It was then that I noticed what was happening on the men's side. Before this point there was the general commotion of a weekday morning with Torah reading at the Kotel (generally Mondays and Thursdays) which normally includes Bar Mitzvahs of both Israelis and those that come from abroad. But at this point, something different was happening.

In our morning service, we were up to Hallel. This is special part of services added on the happiest days of the year: on holidays (Passover, Sukkot, Shavuot, Chanukah) and on Rosh Hodesh. It consists of the most jubilant parts of the book of Psalms. As we began this, the ultra-Orthodox men (there were probably now more than 50 of them) began also reciting from the book of Pslams. They however, were not singing Hallel. There were wailing the saddest parts of the book, normally reserved for times of intense mourning and hardship. It was as if they were begging God to forgive them for being near this spectacle.

As they began to sing louder, so did we. I could hear the women singing in front of me, and joined them as loudly as I could. I've never been that afraid while praying before. I kept saying to myself, "Look forward toward the Kotel and keep praying. You are here to worship God on Rosh Hodesh. What you are doing is normal and regular, albeit in an exceptionally special place."

This incredible contrast, between the our joyous Pslams of Hallel and the ultra-Orthodox men's wailing Pslams of mourning, reminded me of the verse in Deuteronomy 30:19:

הַעִידֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם אֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת הָאָרֶץ הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ

"Today, before heaven and earth, my witnesses for you, I give you live and death, blessing and curse; choose life that you and your offspring will live."

Unlike the ultra-Orthodox men there this morning, we chose life. We chose to sing and praise God on 1st of the month in the way that our ancestors have for many generations. I have asked myself why I, as man, needed to be there today. My answer was simple: How could I not be there? How could I justify to my children and grandchildren that when women went to the Kotel to pray and were harassed I did not go in solidarity with them? How could I justify it to my God?

After the services at the Kotel, one of the older women approached me and said that today was the first time when she could hear male voices behind her singing along with them, and how wonderful that was. I thanked her, but said that the honor of being there with them was all mine.