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Friday, December 31, 2010

Ancient Ruins, The Temple Mount, and Kibush

In the ancient world it was not uncommon to find ruins being used as sacred space or as memorials to the past. Ruins were common features in the landscape and were often connected to historical events. For example, Isocrates (436-338 BCE), an Attic Orator, commended the Ionians for not rebuilding temples destroyed by the Persians. Temples were supposed to be left undisturbed in war, so their destruction was particularly offensive. The Ionians
"Invoked the wrath of Heaven upon any who should disturb the ruins or should desire to restore their shrines as they were of old; and they did this, not because they lacked the means to rebuilt them, but in order that there might be left a memorial to future generations of the impiety of the barbarians, and that none might put their trust in men who do not scruple to commit such sins against our holy temples." (Panegyricus (4) 156)
A similar notion can be found in the work of another Attic Orator, Lycurgus, (396-323 BCE) who recorded an oath taken before battle: "I will not rebuild a single one of the shrines which the barbarians have burnt and razed by will allow them to remain for future generations as a memorial of the barbarians' impiety." (Against Leocrates, 1.81) Ruins were seen as powerful reminders of past events.

In other places we find evidence that people would gaze at ruins as a way of contemplating the nature of life or as a way of communing with the past. Julius Caesar is said to have "Walked around what had once been Troy, now only a name, and looked for traces of the great wall," and others, such as Alexander the Great and Xerxes, and Constantine are also said to have gone to visit the ruins of Troy. Cicero had a similar reaction to the ruins of Corinth (Disputations XXII). Historically, there are many examples of ruin appreciation. 

In the ancient Israelite world, similar notions existed. Ruins frequently appear in prophecies of destruction, as lasting memorials to sin. This is true both of the cities of "others" as well as Israelite cities. Jerusalem, for example, will be:
"A desolation and a reproach among the nations that are round about thee, in the sight of all that pass by. So it shall be a reproach and a taunt, an instruction and an astonishment to the nations that are round about thee, when I shall execute judgment in anger and in fury and in furious rebukes." (Ezekiel 5:13-15) 
 It is important to acknowledge this when considering the most famous of all Jewish ruins, the ruins of the Temple in Jerusalem. A continuous chain of testimonies exists from the time of destruction of the Temple in 70 CE until today, showing how Jews have, for millenia, directed their prayers toward the ruins of the Temple. From an early date this was the accepted direction of prayer. Prof. Lee Levine, in his 700+ page tome, The Ancient Synagogue, writes that
"Synagogues were almost universally oriented toward Jerusalem. This custom, based perhaps on several scriptural references, was widely accepted throughout the Jewish world." He goes on to list examples: "The Dura Europos and Gerasa synagogues faced west; Apamea south; Delos, Priene, Aegina, Stobi, Sardis, Ostia and Naro east or southeast. Moreover, this was the norm in Roman Palestine as well. Galilean synagogues faced south, those in the southern part of the country north, and those in the southern Shephela northeast."(326-7)
The destruction of the Temple, the rise of prayer in synagogues, and the development of the prayer liturgy were all related to one another, and Levine writes that
"the memories of the Temple and Jerusalem, together with the introduction into the synagogue liturgy of expressions of hope to return and rebuilt the Temple and city, were undoubtedly additional forces that helped to forge a distinct and significant synagogue orientation."
Facing the Temple during prayer was thus seen as a way by which synagogue service could supplant the Temple as the central institution in post-70 CE Judaism.

In addition to synagogue orientation, ruins were seen by Judaism as a way of repenting for sin. Interestingly, we find evidence of this both in Jewish and in Christian sources, as both religions viewed the ruined Temple as a sign of God's displeasure with the Jews. Jerome writes in his commentary to Zephaniah that Jews would gather in the ruins to mourn the Temple's destruction:
"You can see with your own eyes a piteous crowd gathering of the day that Jerusalem was captured and destroyed by the Romans. Woebegone women stand with old men who appear weighed down with years. Bodies and clothes demonstrate the wrath of God. This mob of wretches congregates and groans over the ruins of their temple..." (In Sophoniam 1.15-16)
Similar testimonies to this type of mourning are given by the Bordeaux Pilgrim (333 CE) and by Eusebius in Demonstratio Evangelico (VIII.9-15) In Rabbinic Literature of Late Antiquity we find a similar way of relating to the ruins of Jerusalem. One is supposed to tear ones clothes upon seeing both the ruins of Jerusalem and the ruins of the Temple, and specific verses are given for reciting on the occasion. (B. Moed Katan 26a) A famous story relates the reaction of a group of rabbis, including Rabbi Akiva, upon seeing the ruins. (B. Makkot 24a-b) We also have a Roman account of the ruins of Jerusalem: Josephus records that the ruins were left on purpose "to show later generations what a proud and mighty city had been humbled by the gallant sons of Rome."

So far we have seen evidence that the reason Jews face the ruins of the Temple when praying is primarily about history, repentance, and as a unifying factor. This is typical of ancient ruin usage, in line with the other Greek and Roman sources quoted above. We have also seen that it is something that has been going on for thousands of years. My father prays this way in North America. My grandfather prayed this way before 1948. My great-grandfather in the Ukraine prayed this way. 

Based on this analysis, I find it particularly offensive and misleading that a professor would equate praying toward the ruins of the Temple with the act of "kibush", the term used by liberal Israelis to refer to the aggressive attempt of Israel to conquer local Arabs and evict them from their land. This was recently claimed by a guest speaker in our studio, who pointed to the large window in the synagogue in Hebrew University of Mount Scopus as an act of kibush. Upon further questioning, she elaborated and explained that any prayer by Jews toward the Temple Mount (which incidentally, she claimed, has no connection to the Temple) is kibush. Anachronistic as this is, (as praying toward the Temple Mount predates Israel, the Hebrew University, and the religion of Islam), I think it is based on a profound misunderstanding of religious Judaism and prayer.

In the Amidah prayer, said three times a day, there is the following blessing:

"And to Jerusalem Your city, may You return in compassion, and may You rest within it, as You have spoken. May You rebuild it soon in our days as an eternal structure, and may you speedily establish the throne of David within it. Blessed are You, God, the Builder of Jerusalem." Rabbinic Judaism certainly harbors the hope that one day the Temple will be rebuilt. However, this is no way equates praying toward the ruins of the Temple with the physical action of going and rebuilding the Temple.

Praying in the direction of the ruins of the Temple does not mean that Jews are going to rise up, storm the Dome of the Rock, destroy the mosque and rebuild the temple. I do hope that one day the Temple is rebuilt, and I believe that this will happen one day; I can ask God to rebuild the Temple, and face the ruins of the Temple while doing so; but this in no way means that I plan on going and rebuilding it myself. If, as a non-religious person, you believe that prayer has no effect on the world, then I've done absolutely nothing, and it would be hard to describe this as a physical act of "kibush". If you do believe in prayer, and for some reason my prayer is powerful enough to influence God, and He chooses to rebuild the Temple, then it's hard to argue that God is wrong or that I am somehow guilty for influencing God. Prayer for the rebuilding of the Temple represents a spiritual goal, but is not a call to arms. Facing the Temple Mount in prayer reminds Jews of their roots, of all that unifies us as a people, of our spiritual goals and of our impiety. It is emphatically NOT kibush. 
Accepting this is one of the only ways that peace is possible. Muslims want to worship on al-Haram al-Sharif. Many religious Jews would like for there to be a Temple on the Temple Mount, and may hope that one day in the future, God will intervene and allow this to happen. For now, I - and pretty much all Jews worldwide - do nothing except pray for this to happen. In the meantime, the Temple Mount today is one of the few places in Israel that does not abide by The Protection of Holy Places Law, as Jews are not allowed to pray there. This is what we call "agreeing to disagree" and it's an important part of peaceful coexistence.

In the last century, there have been a handful of attempts by crazed individuals to blow up stuff on the Temple Mount. I think that these events, along with a general ignorance of religion and an utter failure to understand that religion is nuanced and that religious Jews are not about to storm the Temple Mount and rebuild the Temple. Praying in the direction of the ruins of the Temple is no more "kibush" than an Arab keeping the keys to his old house in Jaffo.


  1. I couldn't agree more. The more I think about it the more offensive the guest lecturer's statements seem. Very well written.

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