Along the Tracks

Friday, August 29, 2003

Sacred ground

I have to admit, I’m not sure how I feel about Israel once again allowing tourists onto the plaza above the Western Wall - inside the walls of the Second Temple. The site, today dominated by the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, is controlled by Israel but remains a focus of Islamic devotion, the third holiest site in Islam.

While I understand Israel’s expressed reasoning - by denying entry to tourists, what was meant to be a temporary halt until emotions eased after the beginning of the Intefadah was solidifying into a “status quo” which would be harder to break later - I’m not sure that the government’s decision is right, speaking religiously. Religious interpretation is key here - Israel is, after all, a Jewish State.

The Bible clearly states that the Temple site is sacred, and no form of impurity can be brought to the location. In particular, impurity from contact with the dead is a very real (religious) concern. According to the Law of Moses (Torah), contact with dead bodies causes an impurity that does not diminish across time and even generations. That impurity can only be removed through the ritual use of ashes from the red heifer, which is to be sacrificed in a rededication ceremony for the Temple. Since no red heifer has been sacrificed in 2,000 years, that key requirement for entry onto holy ground has not been met.

And so, according to Mosaic Law, any person entering the Temple grounds is defiling the holy site. For Muslims, this is not an issue, since they believe their law transcends that delivered to Moses. Christians generally believe that Christ’s death and resurrection completed the Law and its past requirements no longer apply to the faithful - particularly the ritual portions. That’s why circumcision is not required to become a Christian (for most sects, anyway). This is still a matter of interpretation, though, and many Christian groups believe both in the Temple site’s holiness and the need to rebuild the Temple as part of their eschatology - their understanding of how the “end times” will be fulfilled.

Practicing Jews also have questions of interpretation. Some believe only certain portions of the site remain holy until a new Temple is built. Some refuse to ascend beyond the walls to avoid corrupting the site. Others place the Temple in a more historical context, and believe its destruction by the Romans in 70 A.D. ended - or at least suspended - the site’s focus of Divine presence on earth. Thus it is available for the pious to visit until if and when a new Temple is dedicated. Many believe that new Temple will be built by God himself, not human hands, and so find the ideological battle over the site misguided at best.

What do I believe? God delivered the Law to Moses to guide his people, Israel, across all time as a “priestly nation.” Practicing Jews remain a part of that permanent promise. However, I am in no position to interpret the Law as it relates to a site unused for a Jewish Temple in nearly 2,000 years. The faithful must do what they believe is right.

For me, I do hope to visit the Western Wall some day. I will not ascend over the Wall to the plaza. Part of my faith in God involves the permanence of his precepts and his promise. I am not Jewish; through Christ I was given the opportunity to commune with God anytime, anywhere, and was granted salvation as a free gift. Nevertheless, in God’s permanent Law to the Jews, he commanded that no one ritually impure enter the Temple. I will respect that command.

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