Hallowed Ground: From Jerusalem to Lower Manhattan

Land can be deemed “sacred ground” for many reasons, but I’m struck that much too often this concept has less to do with the experience of divinity than it does the exercise of human power.

The latest debate over the Cordoba Islamic community center is only the latest example of this phenomenon – on this point I believe blogger Paul Woodward hit the nail squarely on the head with this recent insight:

Another way of saying “sacred” is to say “off-limits.”

Something can be sanctified by placing a barrier around it constructed from rigid taboos. The most extreme among those taboos dictates not only silence but also exclusion.

In such a way, for many Americans, 9/11 has been sanctified. The sacred idea occupies a sacred space and only those willing to display sufficient awe and reverence can be allowed to enter.

Woodward is absolutely right that sacred space and exclusion can invariably go hand in hand. When we read in the Torah, for instance about the Israelites’ construction of the Tabernacle (and later in the Bible, the Temple itself), we learn that certain sacred areas correspond to the specific social hierarchies within the Israelite community. Rank and file Israelites are allowed into the outer courtyard, but the inner precincts are off limits to all but the priests. And only the High Priest himself is allowed into the innermost Holy of Holies – and only on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year.

Ironically enough, Jewish tradition teaches that it was precisely hierarchy and division that led to the loss of our most central of sacred spaces. According to the Rabbis, the destruction of the Second Temple was due not to the greater military might of the Romans, but because of the divisive, internecine hatreds (“sinat chinam”) harbored by the Jewish people between themselves. I often think about this teaching when I read about the power politics raging over the Western Wall or ongoing attempts to claim the areas in and around the Old City of Jerusalem in the name of the Jewish people alone.

When it comes to the area that is considered to be the holiest of places for Jews, I can’t help but think it has more often been a place of sacrilege, not sanctity. It has ever been thus: the more we press our own claims upon the places we deem sacred, the more we manage only to defile them in the end.

And so, as I have read about the horrid political wrangling over Cordoba House, it is becoming clearer and clearer to me that this little patch of land in Lower Manhattan will only truly become hallowed ground if we resist the temptation to yield exclusive political claims over it.

If there is any Biblical image we might look to for guidance, I would argue it is less the hierarchical, exclusivist priestly model than the universal, inclusive prophetic vision famously expressed in Isaiah 56:7: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

To this end, I commend to you this recent statement from Faith in Public Life, to which I am honored to be a co-signer. I can think of no better definition of “sacred space” than this:

The profound tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001 revealed the horror that can unfold when a small minority of violent extremists manipulates religious language for political gain and falsely claims to represent one of the world’s great religions. We have witnessed this sinful corruption of religion across faith traditions throughout history and must condemn it without equivocation whenever or wherever it occurs. However, we fail to honor those murdered on that awful day – including Muslim Americans killed in the Twin Towers and Pentagon – by betraying our nation’s historic commitment to religious liberty, fueling ugly stereotypes about Islam and demeaning the vast majority of Muslims committed to peace. The proposed mosque would be part of Cordoba House, a center open to all Americans that will provide Islamic, interfaith and secular programs. The project aims to support “integration, tolerance of difference and community cohesion through arts and culture,” according to the Cordoba Initiative, which promotes improved “Muslim-West relations.” These are exactly the kind of efforts that foster dialogue, break down barriers and begin to build a world where religiously inspired violent extremism is less likely.

9 thoughts on “Hallowed Ground: From Jerusalem to Lower Manhattan

  1. Shirley Gould

    Is it too far-fetched to consider the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, which although a Jewish place is open to all? However, as far as Iknow (I have never been there) it has no prayer space. One sentence gave me pause: “the vast majority of Muslims are peace loving.” I’m not copying directly, so I may be misquoting, but how does it happen that we only hear about the “terrorists” among the Muslims?

    1. Shirin

      how does it happen that we only hear about the “terrorists” among the Muslims?

      Could it be because “we” only hear what “we” want to hear and ignore the rest?

      1. Richard Kahn

        Na. I think it’s more likely that “we” only hear what is on the news, and a Muslim not being a terrorist isn’t exactly news.

  2. Eric Selinger

    “How does it happen that we only hear about the ‘terrorists’ among the Muslims?”

    Depends on the media you follow, I suspect. And on how many Muslims you actually know, person to person. At my house, we hear a fair amount about non-terrorist Muslims, both through media and in person, at the schools where my children go and where I teach.

    That may be why I so strongly support this particular mosque–and why I don’t feel a part of your “we.”

  3. Anya Cordell

    Regarding this issue, and, particularly the fever-pitched vitriolic tone that now prevails re. Muslims, which we should certainly be in the front of the line, speaking up about, please see the following piece at http://www.tikkun.org

    Lighting the Anti-Muslim Fuse at http://www.tikkun.org/article.php/20100825053912401

    The full title is
    The Consequences of Lighting the Anti-Muslim Fuse”

    Please feel free to forward this along; I hope it is seen widely and can contribute positively to the very chilling and challenging time we are in.

  4. Julia

    If I was Muslim, I think I’d feel really rejected (if not down right persecuted) about this hubbub. While I did have a bit of a pause about the proposed prayer space in the building (then again if one is committed to praying five times a day, it might be nice to have such a space), I still wonder if it was the YMCA putting up a building (or even the JCC – or let’s face it, the Gap) if it would be such a huge deal. Or maybe no matter what is proposed (besides some huge Maya Lin monument), there would be dissent. What I would like to know is how can this space possibly be a space for healing, for moving forward, for better things (than the actions that opened up the land)if it is just a monument to a moment of destruction -which seems to be the chief complaint. Does anyone really think that all the people who died in those buildings and planes would want this land to be a huge everlasting monument to their tragic deaths? It seems like the proposed center is really the way to go – the best option so far.

    1. Shirin

      Thanks for your empathy and your sentiments, Julia. Muslims not only feel rejected, but also downright threatened, and with very good reason. Nor did it begin with 9/11, though that event certainly gave the hate mongers a bigger voice and a touch of false legitimacy they had not had before, and the actions of the government, including the current one, have helped inflame things too. The hate speech keeps getting louder and louder, and more and more widespread, and so have the hateful and even violent actions. I guess Jews of all people have some historic experience with that.

      From some of what you say it is not clear whether you are aware that Islamic Cultural Center is not going to be built at the location of the destroyed twin towers. In fact, you will not be able to see it from there, nor will you be able to see “ground zero” from the location of the Center. Nor is it intended as any sort of monument to 9/11 or to anything else. The group that plans to build the Center purchased an abandoned building that used to house the Burlington Coat Factory. The building is more than two blocks from “ground zero”. That building will be turned into a center for all kinds of activities, including cultural and athletic activities for both men and women, and will not be exclusively for the use of Muslims any more than the YMCA is exclusively for the use of Christian males or the JCC is exclusively for the use of Jews.

      Does anyone really believe there would be this kind of furor if anyone but Muslims had purchased that building with the idea of constructing a cultural center, or anything else for that matter? If it were purchased for use as a community center for Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, or whomemver would it be referred to as “The Ground Zero Church/Synagogue/Temple/younameit”, despite the fact that it would be neither a house of worship nor at “ground zero”? And by the way, if two-plus blocks away is too close for Muslims to build a cultural center, how far is far enough away? And while we are at it, should Muslims even be allowed to live in that neighborhood? If the governor of New York is willing to provide the Muslims with an alternate piece of land outside that neighborhood such that the center would no longer actually serve the Muslims living there, perhaps the governor should help all the Muslims living in the area to move closer to the new location of the center. Surely they would all be happier living in their own community, right? We would not want to force them to become integrated into American society, would we?

      As for the fact that a small amount of space will be allocated as a prayer room, I would encourage thinking people to contemplate why it would give them pause to have a room for prayer, or even a mosque as part of an Islamic center. Would it give them the same pause to have space in a Christian center devoted to a chapel, or to set aside space in a Jewish center for prayer or religious services? Would they object to a prayer space in a Hindu, Sikh, or Buddhist center? What is so automatically off-putting to decent, thinking people about Muslims praying or holding religious services, and why?

  5. Sora Ryu

    After what ADL did, I’m glad there are still people who avidly support freedom of religion in this country. To paraphrase J Street, if some people’s freedoms are threatened, than the freedoms of all are threatened.


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