Featured image: the panel discussion at Saint Thomas More Chapel
By Julia Levi
As I arrived at Saint Thomas More Chapel on the evening of Wednesday October 23, the auditorium was already packed; I managed to find one of the last two chairs as people continued to arrive, standing and sitting in the back and outside of the room. The audience spanned various religious backgrounds and ranged from university students to the elderly, gathered together to learn about the city of Jerusalem.
The panel discussion “Jerusalem: One City, Three Faith Perspectives” was organized by the Slifka Center for Jewish Life, the Muslim Student Association, the Saint Thomas More Catholic Chapel & Center, and the Interfaith Club at Yale Divinity School. It was an attempt to understand a place at the core of religious belief and conflict. In response to extremism and recent mass shootings at synagogues, churches, and mosques, this event aimed to answer how we can approach the core of these religions and how to foster future dialogue between them. Through showcasing a representative of each monotheistic faith, the panelists demonstrated an effective and meaningful way to create a discourse and pinpoint ties and differences between religions through their shared holy city of Jerusalem.
The evening began with opening remarks from each speaker and continued with questions from the audience moderated by Professor Abdul-Rehman Mailk of the Yale Divinity School. Rabbi Dr. Erin Leib Smokler is the Director of Spiritual Development at Yeshivat Maharat, the first Orthodox rabbinical school for women, and a member of the faculty at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. She spoke first about her connection to Jerusalem. She called it a city of duality, a place where she feels both “deeply embraced and deeply alienated” and where she is most at home but also quite troubled. A monument like the Wailing Wall, a site of ancestral pilgrimage, also causes pain in the way it separates women from men and ultra orthodox from other Jews. The duality has become central to Jewish consciousness. Rabbi Smokler referenced the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, who called Jerusalem a “city of twos,” suggesting its inherent paradoxical nature. In the Bible, there is an idea of a Jerusalem from below, its physical land, and a Jerusalem from above, a heavenly ideal. There is constant disparity between the two. Jerusalem at its core is a multifaceted place—it is both a human and Godly city, a mundane reality and a wondrous ideal to live up to.
Next we heard the Christian perspective on the holy city from Dr. Carol Bakhos, professor of Late Antique Judaism and Jewish Studies in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at UCLA. She first traveled to Israel while conducting research on a Harvard archeological site for her masters degree, and she was immediately overwhelmed by its mythical dimensions. After living and studying Hebrew there, she began to understand what she called the “messier, lived Jerusalem.” She fell in love with this duality, calling Jerusalem a “place I continue to go to and a place that continues to come to me.” The Christian consciousness shares the idea of duality as well: Jerusalem is a place rooted in both physical history and myth. It is the place where Jesus lived and died and the site of future revelation. Jerusalem is both earthly and heavenly and where all things will eventually come to an end.
Imam Abdullah Antepli, the Associate Professor of the Practice of Interfaith Relations at Duke University, talked about the centrality of Jerusalem to Muslim consciousness. A Turkish Muslim, Antepli was secular until his teen years when he converted to Sunni Islam and went on a spiritual journey to Jerusalem, modeled on the original pilgrimage of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem and then to Heaven. Like the other two panelists, Imam Antepli described the holy city through a dual contradiction: “Jerusalem is the place I feel the closest to God and most alienated by God.” Jerusalem is a place of potential and actuality, and the latter’s current day reality may show that we don’t actually deserve to have it. He pointed to the Jerusalem with original harmony of the three monotheistic faiths but that the Crusades shifted Islam’s outlook on the city, changing it into a place that required protection from foreign forces. The modern day conflict over the founding of a Jewish state is the outcome of hundreds of years of protecting Jerusalem from outside force and aggression.
After the three panelists spoke, Professor Abdul-Rehman Malik of the Yale Divinity School chose a few anonymous questions from the audience to develop a deeper understanding of holy city. People were curious as to where the idea of “holy city” originates and how it is interpreted, what exactly keeps the panelists so attached to Jerusalem, and how to reconcile differences in outlook between the three religions while striving for some kind of harmony. While the three faiths are inherently different in their practice, the similarity between the panelists’ fundamental ideas of Jerusalem struck me. Rabbi Smokler described having a constant “nostalgia for a place you never spend time in” and Dr. Bakhos called Jerusalem “a city that is in my bones” despite its physical imperfections. While these feelings of love and longing are at the core of the religions, the panelists didn’t shy away from discussing the faulty realities of today, both in the city’s policies and its physical structure. All panelists agreed that the constant, pressing tensions and marginalizations between groups reflect how unaligned the city is with its true ideal potential. It became clear that the Jerusalem of today is only one version of the city—a complex web of good and bad—the other version, a harmonious ideal, continues to dwell in the minds of its inhabitants who strive to achieve its state but struggle to attain it.
Professor Malik closed the panel, calling the discussion a “model of engagement we should continue to develop and export to campuses and places that don’t have it.” Through the study of Jerusalem, the core location of religious identity, the audience was able to understand the common threads that both motivate and unite the faiths.
Julia Levi is a first year in Benjamin Franklin College. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.