Parashat Achrei Mot / פרשת אחרי מות

Ha’aretz‘s cartoonist summarizes a substantial slice of what concerns us this week. He depicts one variety of religious Jews wanting to perform a sacrifice on the Temple Mount, and another Jew, unkempt and secular, walking his dog in the opposite direction.

The Jew leading a young goat in the direction of the Temple Mount is neither ultra-Orthodox nor typically Orthodox. He’s part of a fringe hard to describe other than with the word “nutty,” seeking to perform what neither the ultra-Orthodox nor Orthodox establishment accepts, i.e., an animal sacrifice on the Temple Mount, sure to cause the shedding of a greater quantity of human blood. The young man we’ve seen on the news with a goat in his arms (resembling the red head in the cartoon), after being stopped by the police, associates with one of the tiny groups of fanatics with a mission to reestablish ancient rites of Judaism along with the construction of a Temple, with who cares what it does to Muslim holy sites and the prospect of religious war. Presumably they expect the help of the Almighty, with better results than when He/She/It was most recently tested in Europe.

Pesach, and the equally long holiday of Succoth are flash points of Jewish-Muslim bloodshed. The Hebrew Bible commands Jews to visit Jerusalem at those times for the purpose of sacrificing animals or birds on the Temple altar. It was a time of high tension in ancient as well as modern times, as Jesus found to his misery or glory, depending on interpretation. Upsetting the tables of money changers became a symbol of Christian anti-Semitism focused on Jews’ concern for money. At the time, however, it was an essential part of the ritual in allowing Jews coming from all parts of the world to use the money they brought with them to buy what they provided to the priests for sacrifice.image

 

There hasn’t been a Temple or an altar for two millennia, and most Jews accept realities. But these holidays are a time for Jewish and Muslim extremists to encounter one another, and do their best to involve others in their mischief.

We can argue till the cows are ready for sacrifice if Israeli officials did the right thing in 1967 when they conceded control of the Temple Mount to Muslim religious authorities. It became one of several Israeli gestures not reciprocated, but it has become a norm whose violation would be dangerous.

Jordan considers itself the guardian of Muslim sites in Jerusalem, and has expressed itself against both Jews who cause problems for Muslims on the Temple Mount, as well as Israeli police that enter the Mount and deal with Muslim and Jewish troublemakers. According to the Jordanians, both actions are violations of international law.

That allegation about international law is a matter of some dispute. However, it is convenient to allow Jordanian authorities to express themselves, and view it as part of the noisy lip service that typifies what worthies of the world say about this place. The Bard would speak once again about sound and fury, and go on to other matters.

Another way that Jewish extremists exploit the holiday season for their purposes appears in efforts of non-Orthodox women to perform rituals that the Orthodox forbid them, and to do them alongside the Western Wall.

Israeli courts have adjudicated both the rights of Jews to the Temple Mount and the rights of women to do what they want where they want to do it. The law in both cases is muddied by pragmatic efforts to avoid rioting (among Jews) or bloodshed (involving Muslims).

Some months ago government officials claimed to reach a compromise with non-Orthodox Jews about extending the area of the Western Wall, and allowing non-Orthodox rituals there. However, it has left the headlines, seemingly stymied by Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, as well as by Palestinians who raise hell about any Jewish construction near al Aqsa.

Non-Orthodox Jews object to the use of “extremists” for the Women of the Wall, but in this place the adjective is appropriate. Non-Orthodox women, intense about their right to pray as they wish and where they wish, are numerically insignificant in the Israeli population, and likely enough to cause trouble for the police to act against them.

Israel Radio broadcast on Monday of this week an interview with a former Chief Rabbi who praised the record and functions of women in Jewish history, but proclaimed that it was forbidden for them to raise their hands in the manner of the priestly blessing, read from the Torah, or pray alongside men at the Western Wall.

We also heard from angry non-Orthodox women. Freedom of expression exists here, but freedom nowhere is absolute.

There are differences in the problems caused by the extremists. Jews wanting to take over the Temple Mount from Muslims, or even to pray on the Temple Mount may cause Muslim and Jewish blood to flow. Women wanting to pray as men do at the Western Wall are only liable to cause Jews to curse one another, or perhaps–at the extreme–engage in the low level violence of pushing, shoving, and ineffectual hitting.

It’s not only during the holidays that the Temple Mount in capable of provoking Jewish-Muslim violence.

Prior to Succoth in 1996, Prime Minister Netanyahu authorized the opening of a recently cleared ancient tunnel. It provoked several days of rioting by Muslims claiming that it threatened al Aqsa Mosque, with the result of some 16 Israeli and 60 Palestinian deaths.

Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in September, 2000 helped to spark the Second Intifada. It claimed 1,100 Israeli and 4,700 Palestinian deaths before it petered out in 2005.

Palestinians’ claim that the visits of Israeli politicians to the Temple Mount threatened Islam, provided one impetus for the most recent wave of violence that has caused the deaths of 34 Israeli and 200 Palestinian/Israeli Arabs.

There are wars of religion not too far from here so far racketing up millions of casualties and many more refugees.

Israel’s secular plurality will rely on our largely (but not entirely) Jewish police and army to keep us safe from both domestic and foreign extremists.

Going back to the cartoon in Ha’aretz, what’s missing is how most Israeli Jews celebrate the middle days of Pesach. The radio provides periodic announcements of traffic jams on the way to beaches and forest parks, announcements of which facilities are already filled and accepting no additional visitors, and a daily tally of casualties from traffic or other holiday mishaps.

In the Jewish country as elsewhere, drive carefully is an appropriate accompaniment to wishing one another a pleasant holiday.

Reprinted with author’s permission from The Jerusalem Post