Published at 12:02AM, June 28 2014
We tend to think of mysticism as remote and other-worldly, the preserve of a spiritual elite. A mystical approach sometimes may have practical benefits and it may even prove helpful in the context of the Middle East.
At the epicentre of the conflict between Arabs and Jews is the city of Jerusalem and within it there is potentially no greater flashpoint than the Temple Mount. On Judaism’s holiest site once stood the First and Second Temples, destroyed respectively by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and Romans in 70 CE. However, for Muslims, it is Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, location of the golden Dome of the Rock, dating from the late-7th century, which marks the place of the Prophet Muhammad’s night ascent to heaven, and the silver-domed Al-Aqsa Mosque.
When, 2,500 years ago, Jewish exiles returned from Persia to Jerusalem, they set about building the Second Temple. Orthodox Jews believe that the Temple will one day be restored, as the prophets of the Bible foretold. Yet, despite the return of Jewish sovereignty with the new state of Israel, there has been no move to rebuild it. Mainstream rabbinic opinion has even prohibited Jews from visiting the mount less they stray on to sacred ground in a state of ritual impurity. Providentially, one might say, the Third Temple has been indefinitely deferred.
However, activists are getting itchy feet. Some Israeli politicians want to introduce a bill to enshrine the right of Jews to pray there.
On the other side, there is a trend within Palestinian and wider Islamic circles to deny the Jewish significance of the mount by referring to an “alleged Temple” — in contrast to a booklet published in the 1920s by the Muslim authorities in Jerusalem which said that its status as the site of Solomon’s Temple was “beyond dispute”.
The consequences of a fight for control of the site hardly bear thinking about. However, maybe we can take a cue from the mystical tradition, which goes back to the prophet Ezekiel. His biblical book opens with the revelation of a moveable throne bearing the divine presence, transported by four-faced angelic creatures.
The vision harks back to the two cherubs that sat atop the most intimate place in the Temple — the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies, which the High Priest entered once a year to invoke the otherwise ineffable Divine Name. Ezekiel, a priest writing after the destruction of the First Temple, poetically reconstructed the Temple as a place of the mind. The Israeli scholar Rachel Elior says his vision of “the Chariot-Throne eternalises the destroyed earthly Temple through a visionary metamorphosis of its component parts”.
Ezekiel’s vision laid the foundations of a mysticism which continued after the destruction of the Second Temple. The arcane symbolism may now concern mainly kabbalists and scholars. However, the creative idea still has force — transmuting a physical building into an object of spiritual contemplation.
The Temple was seen as the place where heaven touched earth, a representation of sacred order and harmony. In the prophetic mind, it became the centre of Judaism’s highest ideals. Envisioning the rebuilt Temple, Isaiah wrote, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (56:7): the restoration of Zion is coupled with his most famous prophesy, of nations beating “their swords into ploughshares” (4:2).
These ancient dreams can point a way forward: to make Jerusalem known as a place of interreligious understanding rather than rivalry. Whenever Jews, Christians and Muslims meet in the spirit of reconciliation, a stone of the Temple is, symbolically, relaid. We may have territorial claims we do not want to relinquish, but we do not need to press them. As for building the Third Temple, that can be left safely to the Messiah.
Simon Rocker is a journalist with the Jewish Chronicle