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Karen Armstrong's Jerusalem--One City, Three Faiths

         Author reviews Armstrong's Jerusalem, a book that contains many "puzzling and undocumented assertions. (Ballantine Books ed., 1997, 474 pp. illustrated with maps and photographs)

    Armsrtong's treatment of holiness is also problematic; nowhere in the Quran do we read about the holiness of Jerusalem. It is rather a theme which begins to be sounded in Islamic literature only after the Muslim conquest of Palestine (634-638 A.D.) and, as an obvious result of that conquest, after contact of the Muslim newcomers with its Jewish population. From the literary evidence at our disposal, it is quite obvious that the Muslims, as the Christians beforehand, did not come to understand and to appreciate the concept of Jerusalem’s sacredness until Jews in Jerusalem (and perhaps Christians as well) made them aware of it, or as Muslims themselves otherwise experienced the manifestations of that concept once they had settled in the city; and it must have taken them several decades to fully assimilate the implications of their control over it. The Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik ordered the building of the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount only in 688 A.D.— a full half-century after the Byzantine surrender of the city. Armstrong, however, does not take up the problematics of the interpretation she has chosen to embrace but rather gives the impression of seeming to put this matter aside in favor of emphasizing Islamic religious originality. That characteristic of Islamic religion should certainly be emphasized where emphasis is due, but when she makes such undocumented statements as that “From a very early period the Muslims felt that a visit to their new shrine took them back to the primal harmony of paradise” (p. 239) or that the rock and circular dome “symbolize the spiritual ascent to wholeness and perfection” (p. 240), or that by erecting the Dome and restoring the Mount “Muslims expressed their conviction (my italics—N.G.) that their new faith was rooted in the sanctity of the older traditions” (p. 236), the author appears not so much to be fundamentally exploring the Islamic concept of holiness as to be urging upon her readers religious interpretations of her own making.

    Among many other equally puzzling and undocumented assertions found in Armstrong’s book are the following:

    1. Pp. 40-45: With reference to David’s bringing the Ark of the Lord up to Jebus, (Jerusalem’s prior name), “Other famous Jerusalemites [besides Uriah] who would become very important in the Jewish tradition may also have been Jebusites. One of these was Nathan . . . Zadok, the chief priest of Jerusalem, may also have been a Jebusite . . . Zadok is a Jebusite name, . . . Religion is still used as grounds for appropriating territory in the Near East . . . By conveying the Ark to Jerusalem, David was gradually appropriating the city. . . ” It is regrettable to find jejune interpretations of biblical texts being used in a modern book, as here, to support a contemporary political agenda, particularly when there is no hint of that agenda in the book’s title. 

    2. P. 81: “The Temple was destroyed, but in Babylon the exiles learned to find God in the Law of Moses, making of the sacred text a new shrine.” I am unaware of any ancient or medieval Hebrew author who suggested, or whose thought would imply, that the Pentateuch or any other writing was to be considered a shrine— an idea that belongs more in the category of new-age spiritualism than sober historical discourse.

    3. P. 127: During Herod’s time, when the High Priest put on his sacred garments “he was . . . empowered to approach YHWH.” P. 137: After Antiochus, emphasis was not placed “on the social concern which had always been regarded as an essential concomitant of the Zion cult;” p. and passim (italics mine—N.G.). Given developments in late Second Temple Jewish religious thinking that are by now widely known, as well as the terminology used by Armstrong herself to describe Islamic belief, the appropriate expressions would be “to approach the Lord” and “Judaean religious and social thought.”

    4. P. 137: The Associates (haberim) “pledged themselves to live perpetually in the state of ritual purity that was necessary for Temple worship.” There is no hint in the Tannaitic texts describing this group that their observance of ritual purity was anything other than an effort to scrupuously observe the Pentateuchal laws of purity per se. No ancient statement attributable to this group adduces Temple worship as its raison d’etre.

    5 Ibid.: The piety characteristic of the Associates’ joint meals “made each home a temple and brought the sacred reality of Jerusalem into the humblest 
house.” P.166: The Tannaitic rabbinical figures “taught that the home had in some sense replaced the Temple: calling the family house a miqdash m’at (small sanctuary): the family table replaced the altar, and the family meal replicated the sacrificial cult.” The expression miqdash m’at is, to the best of my knowledge, used only to describe a synagogue. Armstrong cites no ancient text-passages where this and the other cited assertions might be found. 

    6 P. 167: The synagogue building had an “element of holiness and, like the vanished Jerusalem sanctuary, had a hierarchy of sacred places . . . . The women had their own section . . . ; the room where the sacrifice was conducted was holier; then came the bimah (reading desk) and, finally, the ark containing the scrolls of the Torah . . . ” Sacrifices were, however, not conducted in synagogues, and there was no such room in them; the synagogue, moreover, is not characterized in rabbinic sources as a place having an “element” of holiness, but as a building whose holiness is exceeded only by that of a school.

    7 P. 167: After the Temple was destroyed, Jews celebrated Passover “with a family meal at which the father, clad in white, officiates as a priest . . . ” —with which compare p.156, where Armstrong states that, at Yabneh, Yohanan ben Zakkai “and his fellow rabbis, many of whom had served as priests in the Temple, began to build a new Judaism.” (Italics mine—N.G.) These assertions grossly overstate the priestly role in post-biblical rabbinic Judaism. Virtually no Tannaitic master was of priestly descent, and written traditions pertaining to the Passover seder do not describe the officiant as serving qua priest.

    8 P. 156: Many of the [rabbinic] laws were concerned with the Temple ritual, and to this day when Jews study this legislation, they are engaged in an imaginary reconstruction of the lost Temple in which they recover a sense of the divine at its heart.” On the contrary, the great majority of rabbinic laws do not deal with Temple ritual, which, in addition, is hardly ever studied today in the rabbinical schools. According to ancient recorded Jewish tradition, rabbinical students achieve a sense of the divine through intense study of Jewish law in the schools, whose curricula as a rule have not included and do not include the laws regarding Temple ritual. I have occasionally studied those laws for their historical interest, but my perception of Armstrong’s description is that it is imaginary.

    9 P. 255: The Karaite Daniel al-Qumisi (not “al-Qumusi”) supposedly emigrated with his companions from Damaghan in the province of Qumis (not “from Khurasan”) to Jerusalem where “he came across documents belonging to the Qumran sect . . . . These . . . Scrolls convinced Daniel that the exile of the Jews would shortly end . . .” However, although Hebrew texts were discovered during the ninth century in a cave near Jericho, there is no evidence that Daniel al-Qumisi ever saw such texts or that they were writings similar or identical with those found in the 20th century in caves near Khirbet Qumran; one would moreover be hard put to meet a scholar of the Qumran texts who has succeeded in demonstrating an affinity between the contents of any particular scroll and the ideas of Daniel al-Qumisi. Nor is there any extant evidence that Sahl b. Masliah was “Daniel’s disciple” (ibid). Hasty writing, however unintentional, can easily mislead. 

    10 P. 426: “In exile, Zion became an image of salvation and reconciliation to the Jews. Not surprisingly, al-Quds has become even more precious to the Palestinians in their exile. Two peoples, who have both endured an annihilation, now seek healing in the same Holy City.” The highly personal, arbitrary and undocumented statements cited above, and others like them found in the book, pale when compared to this most unfortunate characterization of historical events of the past seven decades.

    Armstrong’s treatment is obviously not totally innocent. The book’s rhetoric, judging from the above citations and many other passages, seems pitched towards gaining the reader’s assent to certain of the author’s own conclusions regarding the political situation now prevailing in Israel and the territories, with particular focus on Jerusalem. In the end, Armstrong’s view of this matter emerges as decidedly partisan, not at all flowing of necessity either from the documented historical facts presented by the author or from those sources relating to it that remain untreated by her.

    As for the statement quoted above that the book merely attempts to determine what members of the three monotheistic faiths mean when they say the city is “holy” to them, etc., it must be said that that effort has produced few genuine new findings in the book—something which could only be accomplished by a careful study, in the original languages, of the pertinent Semitic terms within their literary contexts. The Meccan Mosque, for example, is sometimes referred to in Islamic sources as hatim al-masajid (the seal, or highest, of the mosques) and at other times as al-masjid al-haram (the forbidden mosque); the two mosques together, i.e., of Mecca and Medina, are collectively called al-haramain (i.e., the two harams); while the Jerusalem mosque is generally known as al-haram al-sharif (i.e., the noble haram )— and these are different expressions altogether than the beit al-muqaddas used with respect to the Jerusalem Temple or Jerusalem itself. The latter expression contains the same roots as— and appears to derive specifically from—the Hebrew beit hamiqdash, commonly translated as “the House of Holiness,” but the terms miqdash, qadosh, qedushah and others derived from the same root, in fact, have multiple meanings in biblical Hebrew, not just the sense of “holiness” as speakers of English generally understand that term. Mastery of the terminology and ideational complex of the subject of “holiness” or “sanctity” as a whole, over and across several religious traditions, is a daunting task. Armstrong supplies imaginative ideas regarding what she considers to be the state of mind of Jews, Muslims and Christians vis-a-vis venerated objects, structures, and concepts found within the separate traditions, but as a rule her interpretations, except when footnoted as they occasionally are, are not found in the actual sources of the religious traditions. Armstrong’s goal as set forth in her introduction remains elusive, but it may surely be hoped that she will treat this subject in greater depth in future publications.

Norman Golb is a distinguished Professor at the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago   

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