Last night was another in our series of "dialogue evenings" bringing together people from Moreshet, an orthodox community, with neighbors from other settlements in the area. Interestingly, this began as an initiative of the Moreshet group, who felt socially isolated as the one orthodox village out of the 30 or so small rural Jewish communities in this county. We meet monthly, for an informal study session and discussion. This time the topic was the Temple Mount, and attendance was high, close to 50. It was Moreshets turn to host and moderate; Shmuel, a young physician who is also a rabbi, had xeroxed some traditional texts emphasizing the vision of the end of days, when "out of Zion shall go forth the law," when "My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples." His introduction to the discussion focused on the seemingly universalistic message of these texts - that somehow the Temple Mount is supposed to be a unifying symbol, one that will bring all peoples together in peace. And yet, as we know from the newspaper, today it seems to be a symbol of divisiveness and fanaticism, of violent confrontation.
The discussion kept on veering toward the precipice of a political debate, but not quite getting there because none of us really wanted to open one. The hints were there though, as some of the orthodox participants kept emphasizing the holiness of the Temple Mount and all the events in our history that had occurred there. It was as if everyone knew the likelihood that the evening would degenerate into the defending of "left" and "right" positions of "sacred ground" vs. "sanctity of human life." But we also knew that that would be unproductive because then no one would listen and no one would learn.
Meanwhile, perhaps the most important thing that happened in the discussion was the conflict that developed among the orthodox participants. There was quite a wide spread in their views of tradition - which came as a shock to the non-orthodox members of the group who tend to assume that orthodoxy is monolithic and dogmatic. At one point Malka, an orthodox educator, expressed cynical relief that at least the Temple Mount is only associated with Jewish historical events; think of how much worse the conflicts would be if we claimed it as the site of the creation! At this point Gadi, a neighbor of hers, said, "What do you mean? It was the site of the creation; doesnt the Talmud speak of the Foundation Stone of the Universe?" "But that is just a folktale," countered Malka. "No, it is written in the Talmud - it's the truth!" insisted Gadi; "How can you question it?" At which point Malka rolled her eyes at some of her other neighbors (who clearly identified with her) and decided not to continue the argument. It was such an important lesson for all of us non-orthodox members of the group, a fascinating breaking of stereotypes.
It made me realize how common - and how damaging - it is for members of one group to be "sure" that they "know all about" the other, when in fact they know nothing at all. Whether its Jews talking about Arabs, or secularists talking about orthodox, or orthodox talking about reform, everybodys an expert; and the greater the ignorance, the more emphatically it is expounded. And since we are so often involved in defending our own positions from attack, it is rare for members of one group to have an opportunity to "look inside" and see the richness and complexity and ambivalence in the thinking of the "other side." Every structured encounter, like our "dialogue group" has the potential to undo some of this, but "the work is great, and the day is short..."