Sharing the Holy Sites. By Rabbi Michael Cohen


In Albert Einstein’s Rabbi: A Tale of Science and the Soul we read, “If we understand that God is the ultimate power in the Universe, and if we think we know what God wants, it can become intoxicating. There is a danger in all religions for that feeling of absolute power to become pervasive and corrupting.”
The holy task of all religious leaders is to cultivate a different vision. All religions have safeguards to prevent its members from hijacking religion as a result of an exclusive, intolerant and fanatical urge.
Religious leaders of all faiths must be honest and admit that too many of us fail in this regard, which is particularly true when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
There is no greater example of that failure than the competing claims of jurisdiction of the Holy Sites in Jerusalem, Hebron and Bethlehem. The Cave of Machpelah in Hebron – which is considered by people of all Abrahamic faiths to be the burial place of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Leah – and Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem were Holy Sites where Jews, Christians and Muslims would once pray together. Now they have become stained with scenes of violence and tension.
The most contentious of Holy Sites is Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. Jews consider it their holiest site, also called The Temple Mount, the place of King Solomon’s Temple built in 957 BCE. And Muslims consider it Islam’s third holiest site, the Noble Sanctuary, the place of Mohammed’s Night Journey to Heaven, which was commemorated by building the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque in 692 CE.
Sadly, today, this area has also become the site of political conflicts, with violent and sometimes deadly confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians.
Yet, this holy site that seems to bring out such exclusive viewpoints also has the potential to teach us a more inclusive model.
During the 1,000 years that Jewish temples stood on Mount Moriah, tens of thousands of Jews would make pilgrimage to this site, three times a year. These three holidays were and are still known today as a hag, very similar to the word hajj used by Muslims to describe their pilgrimage to Mecca.
One of the Jewish pilgrimage holidays was Passover. The highlight of the holiday was the bringing of the paschal sacrifice to the Temple. In the crush of people it was not uncommon for a family’s sacrificial lamb to become mixed up with other lambs. In regard to this confusion, the Mishna – the most important source of Jewish law after the Torah – states, “If the Passover sacrifice of two groups were confused, [those involved] say to the other: ’If this Passover sacrifice is ours, you withdraw from yours, and you are subscribed for ours; and if this Passover sacrifice is yours, we withdraw from ours, and we are subscribed for yours’” (Pesachim 9:10).
We can loosely apply this analogy to the Holy Sites dispute within the larger Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Though the sites are not lost, as in the case of the lambs, and the issue is between people of two faiths rather than one, the wording – which is innovative, creative and certainly reconciliatory – nevertheless presents a model of sharing something holy by two different groups. It is a model based upon the understanding that the best way to preserve oneself is to embrace the other.
If the majority of religious leaders were to powerfully preach this message they could play an important role in mitigating this conflict.
The lesson for the religious leaders of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is to start by talking about making the Holy Sites not bastions of exclusivity, but rather models and places where each side can meet each other and see the holy spark we all contain, no matter what our religion.
I witnessed something like this earlier this year on a Saturday morning at the Kibbutz Ketura in Israel. The synagogue was filled with Jewish, Christian and Muslim college students of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, including some Muslim women wearing headscarves. They were there to celebrate the Adult Bar and Bat Mitzvah of two of their classmates – a very powerful sight to witness.
As religious leaders, we should make every effort we can to talk about the Holy Sites as places holy to all three Abrahamic faiths, and to strive to connect with those of different faiths. Through dialogue and personal interactions, we can begin to lay the foundation for sharing the Holy Sites and embracing the other.


* Rabbi Michael M. Cohen is Director of Special Projects for the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (, which trains a new generation of environmental leaders for the Middle East and is a member organisation of the Alliance for Middle East Peace. This article is part of a series on spiritual leaders and interfaith dialogue written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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