Christians consider Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher sacred. It is there that they believe Jesus was crucified, buried and later resurrected from the dead. And yet the many denominations that comprise Christianity do not always agree about how this place is to be revered. 150 years ago a compromise was enacted detailing when the Orthodox, Coptic, Ethiopian and Catholic churches in particular are allowed to perform their rituals. A schedule is followed. By and large this has ensured peace in this holy place.
This was not always the case. On a hot summer day in 2002 a Coptic monk moved his chair out of the scorching sun and into the shade. Rival monks accused him of breaking this compromise and disrespecting their faith. A fight ensued. Eleven monks were taken to the hospital. And when I visited the church a few days ago, the church appeared a freer place of worship than either the Dome of the Rock or our sacred Western Wall.
At the church no one interfered with the many different ways pilgrims prayed. Some took pictures. Some marveled at the artwork. Others posed for selfies. Many fell on their hands and knees to kiss the stone on which Jesus’ disciples placed his body. People were clearly overcome by emotion. There were many tears and many more songs and prayers. I found myself marveling at their religiosity.
I also found myself admiring their freedoms. No one policed behaviors. No one shouted that something was inappropriate. No one said, “Stop doing that! This is a holy place.”
Before walking up to Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, from which Muslims believe Mohammed ascended to heaven and Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Ishmael, my bag was thoroughly searched. We were not allowed to take any Jewish religious objects, such as a tallis or prayerbook, up to the mount. Apparently it is feared that we might then recite a Jewish prayer on the mount. It is, by the way, Israeli security officials who enforce this ban.
Once we entered the large plaza Muslim officials approached our group to explain that this is a holy site and what were allowed to do and not to do. They examined the women in our group. Some were told that they were not appropriately dressed. They were given specific directions about how better to respect this sacred place. Some were handed scarves to cover their shoulders. I asked if I could enter the Dome of the Rock, as I had done many years before, but was told, “It is only for Muslims.”
Is it the worry about provocations that makes my entry now forbidden? Perhaps. Certainly after the first and second intifadas there is justified concern about what might lead to another outbreak of violence. Then again non-Muslims are forbidden from entering the holy city of Mecca. Let’s be honest, there is a growing trend among the faithful that the other, the non-Muslim, the non-Jew, the non-Christian, somehow diminishes the sanctity of a holy place. Even the term “non” is the attempt to draw a sacred circle around oneself by drawing others outside. Only those who are inside the circle are holy, or chosen. I reject this tendency.
The Western Wall is little different. I can walk up to these sacred stones wearing shorts and a T-Shirt. Women, on the other hand, must be sure their shoulders are covered and their skirts an appropriate length. If not they are given schmattas to cover themselves. Women must pray in the women’s section. I can roam the much larger men’s section and search its broad length for a private place to pray. (And I found one such spot to offer the prayers requested of me.)
I am not however free to lead a Reform service for the men and women of my congregation at the main Western Wall plaza.
And so this summer I found myself envying my Christian brethren.
Apparently the situation I admired was not always the case. In the 12th century Saladin, then the ruler of Jerusalem gave the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher’s front doors to a local Muslim family. The Joudeh family continues to hold these keys to this very day. And that might be the secret to the freedom I so desire.
It is entrusted to another.
Muslims are the religious authorities for the Dome of the Rock. The ultra-Orthodox control the Western Wall.
Perhaps if we want to restore freedoms to our own faith we need to trust someone else with the keys.
Don’t get me wrong. I do not mean to suggest that we should give up political sovereignty over Jerusalem. What I do mean to say is that spiritual truths are gained and religious experiences heightened when we don’t worry about who is in control, when don’t say so much, “I am in charge and you’re not. You can do this and you can’t do that.” If we are true to our faith we should say, “This house belongs to God alone.”
Doors to our faith might be opened by giving the keys to someone else.