Houses of Prayer

Posted on July 20, 2010 in Default

A post for Tisha B’Av from Stephen Handley:

On the Fast of Tammuz, I went into my local Jewish bookshop. My eye fell on Karen Armstrong’s history of Jerusalem, and despite that fact that I was looking for a book on something quite different, something told me I had to buy it, so I did. Now the Nine Days are upon us, I am thinking about Jerusalem, and the Temple, and just what a house of prayer for all peoples could possibly be like: see Isaiah 56,7. This is part of the Haftorah for Mincha on all fast days.

As I know of nobody who is working to bring this promise into reality, I googled “house of prayer for all nations”. Almost all of what came up were evangelical Christian websites, who of course will believe that Christianity is the only way to God, so that’s a non starter. Breslov came up once, as did some crazy American follower of Herbert W. Armstrong (if you haven’t heard of him, don’t worry: you’ve not missed much) who took a Bible to the Dome of the Rock and seems upset at being asked to leave, and a short video from the Temple Institute.

The Temple Institute video says that we, the Jewish community, have been saddled (their word) by the Almighty with the duty to reconstruct the Temple. All of us are responsible to fulfil that duty. Furthermore, the Temple is, or will be, our exclusive property: God did not promise us a house of prayer for all religions, or for all pancakes (again, their word). Any idea that we would even consider sharing the Temple premises with anyone else is wishy-washy nonsense.

The Temple Institute may not believe that Judaism is the only way to God, but they seem to imply that Jewish worship is the only valid way to serve God, which as far as I am concerned is the same idea dressed in different clothes.

But if some ghastly miracle, or act of terrorism, occurred, and the Dome of the Rock disappeared into thin air, and we were granted permission to build the Temple tomorrow, I think you can guess what would happen. For those that can’t: the majority of those of us who consider ourselves Jewish, including Liberal, Reform, and unaffiliated, don’t actually want the Temple to be rebuilt at all. Of those who do, many would not agree that we should sacrifice animals. Others are prepared to have some of the Biblical offerings, but not all of them. Among those who would bring back all the Biblical offerings, there is considerable difference of opinion on how these offerings would work. Our track record on cross-communal religious organisation would lead me to believe that we would get a deeply divided and contentious place of worship. Most of the people of the world would not want to go near it.

Or are we better than the Christian denominations in charge of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, who disagree so strongly about who can have access to it, and when, that they have to employ a Muslim family as the official keyholders?

If the Temple was destroyed because of unconditional hatred, and will be brought back only when unconditional love prevails, then under current conditions we will never get it back for our own exclusive use. What we have to do is to make common cause with those in the world who would agree to share Jerusalem without fighting over it. This has been done in the past. Karen Armstrong makes the point in her book that, all things being equal, those who have been willing to allow other people to have a portion in the Holy City have, in general, kept hold of it for the longest.

Unconditional love is not found within any one religious belief system. It can be found in a few individuals in every belief system. It only needs for such individuals to get together and start to work. Perhaps you have personal knowledge of some individuals who are currently thinking through the idea of a place of worship in which everyone can participate. In which case, let’s meet, and we can begin to pool our ideas.

It would not concern me in the slightest what sort of worship may go on in such a place, as long as those involved do not try to argue that theirs is the only way to God, and as long as nobody is actually worshipping an idol. We would almost certainly have to have a building with no figurative images at all: no crucifixes, statues, icons, or anything else of that kind. We would also not be able to have any symbols of the Twelve Tribes, or of the Tree of Life, and there wouldn’t be any lions or representations of the Ten Commandments on the ark: that might be a culture shock to some of us.

It reminds me of a story I once heard of a dialogue between a Rabbi and a Buddhist monk. The Rabbi challenged the monk over the statues and shrines in the monastery. Were they not idolatrous?

“Not at all,” said the monk. “They are only symbols to help us think of that which is beyond us.” With that, he threw a small clay figurine of the Buddha onto the ground, breaking it into pieces.

“And I doubt that you would do that to your Sefer Torah,” continued the monk.