Conservative Judaism

Temple Mount wrap up: Where religion, nationalism and politics keep colliding

Temple Mount wrap up: Where religion, nationalism and politics keep colliding

The latest round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict over control of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif appears over. It ended well short of its worst possible outcome, but without any finality — again.

By “worst possible outcome,” I mean a terribly bloody escalation. By “without any finality,” I mean that sooner or later the situation will again heat up because the core of the conflict -- which side has the final word on physical control of the site -- remains unsettled.

But that’s how both sides want it for now -- save for each camp’s most radical elements who would relish an explosive fight to the finish. That’s because neither side's leadership Is capable of making the tough political compromises necessary to really defuse the situation.

So this slow-boiling tribal war over land continues. (Need to catch up with recent events?  If so, read this piece from The Economist, written part way through the episode.)

Religion reporters: Jews this week observed the solemn commemoration of Tisha B’Av, which marks the destructions of the First and Second Jewish temples (plus other Jewish tragedies across history) that stood on the Old City esplanade from which the site takes it Jewish name.

While the commemoration ran from Monday evening to Tuesday evening, it's not too late to tie Tisha B’Av (literally, the ninth day of the Hebrew calendar’s month of Av)  to the current state of affairs. You might want to refer to this handy Religion News Service “‘Splainer."

I'm not qualified to speak definitively about just how the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif dispute breaks down along religious, nationalistic and political lines among ordinary Palestinians and other Muslims that support them -- as opposed to the statements of Palestinian leaders who always stress religious claims in rallying global Muslim support.

Suffice it to say that traditional Islam, far more than do contemporary Christianity or rabbinic Judaism (rabbinic, meaning post-Temple), makes little differentiation between the religious and political realms, and that for many Muslims living under undemocratic governments religion is the only outlet for political expression on any level.

However, I do know enough about the Jewish side to suggest that reporters consider the following.

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Wave of distressing news underscores intersection of issues for American and Israeli Jews

Wave of distressing news underscores intersection of issues for American and Israeli Jews

A Yiddish word came to mind as I mentally organized this post about the Jewish world’s recent run of distressing news. The word is fakakta, which, out of respect for my audience, I'll politely translate as “all messed up.” It was one of my mother’s favorite rebuttals.

Yiddish terms tend to sound humorous when plopped into English conversation. But for Jews such as myself who are deeply connected to the tribe, there’s nothing’s humorous about the current spate of headlines.

They include the religious turmoil between and within Judaism’s traditional and liberal movements -- plus, of course, the deadly violence between Israeli Jews and Palestinians over political control of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif.

One slice of this balagan (a Hebrew-Russian word translated as “chaos”) was recently covered — and admirably so -- by The Atlantic magazine. The piece probed North American Conservative Judaism’s internal and ongoing struggle over the place of non-Jews within in the center-left (doctrinally speaking, that is) movement.

I’ll say more about this below.

The quickly evolving Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif story is, undoubtedly, as much a political issue as it is religion story. I'll give it its own post once the situation solidifies.

For now, suffice it to say that for many Jews and Arabs and Muslims, even for whom the issue is more political than religious, the site is a powerful symbol of their side’s just rights in the entire Israel-Palestine conflict. To underscore just how fixed the sides are in their narratives, you might read this piece from the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and this piece from Al Jazeera.

Then there’s the ongoing conflict between Jewish Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious establishment and Judaism’s more liberal Diaspora movements over prayer space at the Western Wall. I wrote about this a few weeks back, while in Israel.

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Western Wall battle: Viewing Jewish culture wars from a balcony in Israel's Galilee region

Western Wall battle: Viewing Jewish culture wars from a balcony in Israel's Galilee region

The view from my hillside guest house in the northern Israeli village of Amirim -- where I'm writing this post -- takes in the lake known in Hebrew as the Kinneret and in English as the Sea of Galilee. The lake-side city of Tiberias is also visible, as is the militarily strategic high plateau called the Golan Heights.

Errant shells from fighting on the Syrian side of the Golan regularly land across the tense border in Israel, as they have during my stay here. But they’re too far away, perhaps 20 or so miles, to be of immediate concern.

Likewise, the regular threats made by the Iranian-aligned, Lebanese Hezbollah militia to eradicate Israel in a barrage of rockets. Lebanon is just a dozen or so miles due north, but that border is mostly quiet for the moment. So why be concerned now?

What is of immediate concern, however, is the recent flare up over the Israeli government’s decision to rescind an agreement allowing non-Orthodox religious Jews to share prayer space at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site.

The nod to Orthodox political pressure enraged the organized non-Orthodox Jewish establishment. From cries of boycott Israeli leaders to claims that Israel gave U.S. Jews “the finger,” liberal journalistic pundits and organizational leaders alike seemingly competed to express the depth of their outrage and disgust.

(A second decision negating a provision that made conversion to Judaism somewhat easier within Israel was also made, though it's attracted much less attention outside of Israel, where conversion requirements are generally less stringent than they are in Israel.)

Consider all this the Jewish world’s internal culture war -- a struggle between strict adherence to traditional religious practice versus broadening the practice to accommodate contemporary sensibilities.

Ironically, the brouhaha is of little concern to the average Israeli Jew, the majority of whom are by no means strictly Orthodox, if not outright secular (though culturally staunchly Jewish).

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How come Judaism is broken into several different branches?

How come Judaism is broken into several different branches?

MADDIE’S QUESTION:

What caused Judaism to break into branches? Are the branches even seen as a division? Does theology differ among them?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The questioner has “a Christian background" and, thus, is familiar with a religion made up of separate groups. 

Christianity has long been divided into four main families, the so-called “Oriental Orthodox,” the Eastern Orthodox, Catholicism and Protestantism. A fifth family of new, independent churches in the developing world developed in the 20th Century. 

Islam, too, suffered the big breach between Sunni and Shia believers in the first century that continues to be troublesome, and sometimes lethal, today.

By contrast, for much of its history Judaism was essentially one united faith, though naturally it encompassed various movements, tendencies, cultures and local variations.

That began to change with the modern emancipation and assimilation of Jews in Western Europe. A liberal form of the faith developed, especially in Germany, and flourished among 19th Century German immigrants in the United States. Worship was simplified, Hebrew was downplayed in favor of worship in common  languages with Protestant-style sermons, and age-old observances were eliminated or made matters of personal choice.

The resulting liberal branch or denomination eventually known as Reform Judaism centered on three North American institutions, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now Union for Reform Judaism) that 34 synagogues formed in 1873, Hebrew Union College to train rabbis (1875), and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (1890).

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