Tuesday, July 22, 2008

My Dome Dream, Denied

Personally, I blame Kierkegaard.

He’s the one responsible for my little obsession with the Dome of the Rock.

The background: I’ve never been a very religious person. But my religious skepticism was at a high point in college. At that point, I’d gone through all the motions of a kid’s traditional Catholic religious education and determined the moment that I was confirmed at the ripe age of 13 that I had had enough. I went on to spend part of high school reading Tolstoy’s essays trashing organized religion, which had somehow found their way into my ignorant hands (not to mention a mind so limited that it enabled me to conveniently overlook Tolstoy’s broader point that Christian spirituality is the goal of an individual’s existence). Bottom line: like most teenagers, I thought I knew a lot, but in reality knew little.

Then in college I signed up for a class on the Philosophy of Religion, for reasons having mostly to do with the reputation of the professor. The class was totally different from anything I’d taken before. Up until then, I had thrived on the hyperlogical parsing of my philosophy classes (Metaphysics: “If you eat a bowl of Corn Flakes in the morning, are you the same person you were when you got out of bed an hour earlier? OK, now what if you eat a bowl of Corn Flakes, then cut your toenails? Are you still the same person?”) and hyperanalytic examination of English lit (how many different possible meanings can the presence of a snake in a poem have?)

But Philosophy of Religion was about the big, sweeping thinkers, people who were intensely involved in explaining matters of the soul and the meaning of life: Buber, Bertrand Russell, etc. And so I came to read “Fear and Trembling,” Soren Kierkegaard’s essay on faith, told through the story of Abraham and Isaac. (Briefly, God asks Abraham to kill his beloved son, Isaac. Abraham, without questioning God’s directive, thoroughly prepares to do the awful deed. At the last second, God stays Abraham’s knife, sparing Isaac.)

Kierkegaard’s interpretation of this story is gripping. He describes the story as the ultimate expression of faith in God. God asks Abraham to make a terrible sacrifice, to commit an unthinkable act. Abraham submits to God’s will because his faith in God is complete. He is prepared to give God whatever he asks, no matter how dear. Kierkegaard retells the story to repudiate people who rely excessively on reason, dismissing passion out of hand. People like me.

Frankly, the whole thing shook me up a bit. Here was Kierkegaard, illustrating the beauty and intelligence of faith with one of the most compelling stories of the Old Testament. The story did not turn me into a believer (nor did it transform Kierkegaard, who criticizes himself for not sharing Abraham’s faith), but it did give me newfound respect for the faithful. And it seared the story of Abraham and Issac into my mind, where it has remained for the past 20 years. I could never have made the choice that Abraham did, to sacrifice my own child because God asked me to. But like Kierkegaard, my own lack of faith only increased my awe of Abraham.

So all this made the Dome of the Rock my must-see site in Israel this summer. The Dome is the Muslim shrine on Temple Mount in Jerusalem that contains the rock that Muslims, Jews and Christians all believe to be the site on which Abraham prepared to slay his son (though important elements of the Muslim version differ from the version accepted by Jews and Christians). Muslims also believe the rock to be the site on which Mohammad took his famous “night journey,” traveling from Arabia to Jerusalem before glimpsing heaven. I’d initially read that access to the Dome had been closed to non-Muslims, but heard through the tourist grapevine that the restrictions had been lifted: if I went early in the day, I would get in along with the other non-Muslims.

So I awakened my family early one Sunday morning, ate a quick breakfast, and headed out. As we walked, my feet began to feel quick and light. I was, I realized, excited – and just not everyday excited. It was the kind of excitement I usually reserve for things that are for me important spiritual moments, like seeing U2 in concert. I started to walk more quickly, navigating the Old City and then the security surrounding the Western Wall and the Temple Mount.

We reached the Temple Mount and stood looking at the outside of the Dome of the Rock. The shrine’s exterior was spectacular. Its golden dome gleamed in the early morning light. The colors of the sides of the shrine – topaz blue, emerald green, deep shades of red – boldly declared themselves against the pale Jerusalem stone that makes up most of the rest of the Temple Mount. White Arabic writing proclaiming the supremacy of Islam encircled the shrine in a bright blue border.

I circumnavigated the Dome, looking for an open entrance. I found it, and it was guarded by several men dressed in plain clothes. No one was going in or out of the building: a bad sign. Surely, if they were allowing non-Muslims in, people would be lined up for blocks.

“Can I go in?” I asked one of the Arab men standing there, hoping that he spoke English.

“No. Closed,” he responded, turning away.

“Will it be open later?” I asked optimistically, certain that I must have just gotten the timing wrong and missed the Dome’s few open hours. I’d just have to come back later, or another day.

“No,” he turned back to look at me. “Always closed.”

But I came all this way! I wanted to say. All this way, to think about Abraham, and God, and faith. How can you not let me in? Don’t we all share this site – Muslims, Jews, Christians? Isn’t this the one place we should all be able to come and experience God in our own way? The place we can acknowledge an element our religions share in common, instead of arguing about those that divide us?

But I didn’t say anything. It would be futile. And, mindful of Temple Mount’s history --not to mention the presence of a number of armed men hovering nearby -- I didn’t want to make a scene. Instead, I walked around the building again. For a moment, I seemed to be in luck: a door at the back was propped open, and some European tourists had stuck their heads and cameras in and were clicking furiously. I stood behind them for a moment, and when they cleared out and I approached the door. Suddenly, the same man who told me that the Dome would always be closed appeared from the darkness inside and shut the door in my face.

Undaunted, I found a window on the side of the shrine and pressed my face against its metal screen, squinting to see inside. It took my eyes a minute to adjust to the darkness, and I scanned the room to make out the image of the rock. But all I saw through the dim light was scaffolding. There was construction going on, and sheets seemed to be hung from the scaffolds, blocking any view of the rock.

I pulled back from the window. Another woman was standing next to me, also American. I worried that she thought I was crazy for pressing myself against the window. All the other tourists were quietly wandering around the perimeter of the larger Temple Mount, apparently content to regard the Dome from a distance. So I told her how I’d always wanted to see the Dome, and that it was the one place in Jerusalem that I most wanted to see.

“I get that,” she said. She paused.

“There’s something about it,” she said, putting her hand to the window. “Just being in its presence you feel something, like it’s got some kind of power.”

For a moment, I looked at her like she was the crazy one.

Then it hit me: She was right. I actually did feel something there. Something deep, and powerful. Something that, crazy as it sounds, seemed to be coming from the rock inside.

I looked around. There was something about the whole Temple Mount area that was, well, serene. Peaceful. The kind of place that even I might want to come to think about God.

I nodded at the woman, and walked around the building again. I tried another window, peering in but seeing little. I gave up, and tried to satisfy myself with walking around the Temple Mount, looking out over the olive trees and thinking about all the people of different faiths who had come here over centuries to be with God.

Slowly, I turned back to the Dome and prepared to leave. My husband and kids had endured my obsession long enough, waiting patiently in what little shade Temple Mount offers. But suddenly I saw that the Dome’s door was open again. A man was carrying in carpets piled on his shoulders. He propped the door open and came out again, lifting wood that sat outside the door. As he prepared to carry it in, I quietly approached the open door. I stopped about three feet away from the threshold and stared in to the darkness. The man with the wood examined me suspiciously, then went inside.

A second later, a man in a blue uniform and more than one gun came to the door and looked at me. Even by Israeli standards, he was packing some serious heat. Had he been sent to intimidate me? If so, it worked: I’m not brave.

The man looked tough. But he looked me in the eye and said “No entrance” gently, in a way that seemed to tell me that it was OK to stay where I was and look in. He left the door open.

I scrutinized the darkness beyond the doorway for a minute. But it was no use. The scaffolding, the sheets, and the darkness kept me from getting any view of the rock. I closed my eyes for a moment and tried to recapture the feeling I had had earlier by the window, the feeling of power and connection. It was gone.

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