CHAPTER 3 - ENCOUNTER WITH THE MUFTI OF JERUSALEM
On finally reaching the Dome of the Rock, a sign at the base of the staircase leading up from the Jewish Quarter of the Old City warned that rabbinical law prohibited Jews from touring Temple Mount. The Holy of Holies was once there, site of the Presence of God. I thought about the edict, but I wasn’t yet Orthodox so I dismissed it. If the rabbis allowed gentiles to walk all over the place, and they aren’t defiling it, then why should I?
In the Mount I walked around, then under the rock on which Abraham offered to sacrifice Isaac. A guide pointed to where Muslims claim Mohammed ascended to heaven. When the tour was over, I asked an attendant where I might go to discuss The Great Christ Debate. The man didn’t comprehend English but understood when he saw the Mosque on the book's front cover and my portrait on its back. He took me to the library. There a worker sent a messenger to inform the Mufti, Muslim leader of Jerusalem, that an author friendly to Islam was in their presence.
The Mufti was a thin man who appeared to be in his fifties, perhaps older. He wore a red fez on his head and spoke no English. An interpreter was summoned.
“As-salaam alaykum,” I began. “I’m a Jew but I’d like to help resolve a few of the differences that divide us. I believe Mohammed was, like our prophets, divinely inspired so I keep much of Muslim and Jewish Law.”
“Do you want us to do likewise? If not, why do you keep both?” the Mufti asked.
“I obey both only as a token of my life’s ambition, ending the hostility that divides the two halves of our common family,” I told him.
“An admirable goal, my friend,” the Arab said, “I’m happy that you apparently accept our Book, but I must inform you that it was sent to replace Torah. You need only follow our law.”
“I don’t agree.” I answered. “The Koran was sent in Arabic for the sons of Ishmael. The Torah was given in Hebrew at Sinai for the Jews, the sons of Isaac. Each law is valid for the people who have received it. What we need isn’t bloodshed over our differences, but a healthy respect for them.”
The Mufti argued that Jews had corrupted the Torah, even as the Christians had corrupted the Gospels, but asked me to continue. The remark, however, caught me off guard, for there was much in the Koran to back the Torah. I hesitated before continuing, wondering, “Can this man be serious?” The Torah makes no effort to cover up the shortcomings of Moses or the sins of the Jews, something that could be expected had it been politically altered.
“I don’t understand,” I told the Mufti, “You say that the New Testament was corrupted. That view and the distortion of Jesus’ doctrine by Paul are cornerstones of my book. Ancient manuscripts like the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus are quite different from many modern versions of the New Testament. Even within a given translation today there are big differences in how Jesus is quoted from Gospel to Gospel. The four Gospel resurrection stories often contradict each other on important details. Most of what’s found in the King James Version of Mark’s resurrection account is reduced to a mere footnote in the Revised Standard Version because modern scholars believe the section to be a hoax. But I have never seen any evidence that would indicate the Jews have acted in similar fashion with the Torah.”
“If the Jews had not altered their Scriptures, they would have accepted Mohammed,” the Mufti said. “Why did you write The Great Christ Debate?"
I wanted to argue more about the integrity of the Torah, but decided that it was best to advance the conversation towards my main reason for coming to the Mosque.
“My wife was Christian and it was for her and the son of our mixed marriage that I began a search for the truth about Jesus some three years before. In Judaism today our most important prayer, the Shema, declares the Unity, not the Christian Trinitarian, nature of God. I learned that Jesus taught the same thing in Mark 12:29. In John 4:22 he even said salvation comes from the Jews (i.e., the Jewish teachings about God and Law) and that God is not a man, but a Spirit. Again, on the cross he declared, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” All this seemed to point to a historical Jesus not in conflict with the basic tenets of our faith. He never thought of himself as God.”
“So far we agree. Continue,” the Mufti said.
“Christians think Jesus claimed to be divine because he said I and my Father are one. But in the 17th chapter of John he prayed that the disciples might be one, even as he was one with the Father. This meant he had to be speaking about unity of purpose with God, not unity of identity.”
“Certainly,” the Muslim said, “If Jesus called himself the Son of God, a fact that we question, he also said, Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Why therefore haven’t you Jews accepted him as a prophet as we have?”
“Jews,” I answered, “haven’t accepted Jesus because we saw him as a blasphemer. We also thought he opposed Jewish Law. Yet he said, Whoever relaxes one of the least of the commandments and teaches men so, shall be least in the Kingdom of Heaven. We’ve confused Paul’s anti-law position with the views of the Nazarene. And we rejected him because of his fulfilled promises in Matthew 10:34 and Luke 12:51 to bring the sword and division as opposed to peace, the expected role of the Messiah.”
“Why do you think he would make such a promise?” the Mufti asked.
“The answer was given to us by Mohammed. He told us:
To each among you God prescribed a Law and an open way. If God had so willed He would have made you a single People, but His plan was to test you in what He has given you: So strive as in a race in all virtues. Your goal is to know God better. In the end when you return to Him as we all must, He will show you the truth of all things that you now dispute.
“Jesus was sent to test us. The question is, will we fail the test by focusing on our differences or pass it, as Mohammed has suggested, by focusing on our common moral tenets? Surely as the Koran teaches us, God will resolve our differences when we die. Our task then, as Jews and Muslims, isn’t to war on each other, but to show the world the way to true peace. The Nazarene told us how to attain that goal. The Kingdom of God, he said, is within us. Us! Not some magical Messiah! When we want it badly enough, it’s ours for the taking.”
“Be specific,” the Mufti sighed. “How can we achieve this Kingdom of God that our prophets have spoken of?”
“By making a simple trade. A Third Temple for the Jews and a Palestinian state for the Arabs in exchange for it. God told Mohammed to change the qibla, the direction a Muslim faces in prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca. Did you ever wonder why?”
“I suppose you have an answer from Allah Himself to give us?” the Muslim said euphemistically.
“Perhaps,” I asserted, “It was to tell the Muslim that he must seek spiritual fulfillment through the haj or pilgrimage to Mecca, not Jerusalem. It is in Mecca that the Muslim makes his sacrifice. But God has decreed that it is in Jerusalem that the Jew must make his. Help us to attain our spiritual fulfillment. Let us build our Temple and fulfill the sacrifices that God has ordained for us in our Law. I believe that in exchange for a pledge of non-intervention by the Muslims of the world, the Jews would gladly give up enough of West Bank and Gaza territory to allow for a Palestine State. In short, we will trade a nation for a Temple.”
“This holy place is ours!” bellowed the Mufti.
I replied, “The Nazarene said if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and make your gift.” The first murder occurred when Cain slew Abel. The motive was jealousy by Cain over Abel’s offering. It’s time for the sons of the brothers Isaac and Ishmael to stop killing each other. Abraham’s descendants should never be in the business of impeding the other’s offerings to God.”
“Mr. Roffman,” the Mufti said with a half chuckle, “I like many of your ideas. But the Jews don’t believe that our Book is from God. We would never give up our possession of the Mosque here until they accept the Koran. And then we won’t have the need! They can worship here as Muslims! And even if they accepted the Divine revelation of our Book in principle while they still continue following Torah as you advocate, would you really expect us to leave our beloved Mosque completely?”
“Who’s House is the Mosque?” I asked. “Yours or God’s?”
“God’s most certainly!” the Mufti answered.
“Then as God loves all His children, He would never want you to leave completely. Isaiah (66:21) taught us that He would indeed want you to stay on, even in a priestly capacity.” The Mufti reflected for a moment on all he had heard, then finished by saying, “Go, convince your stubborn fellow Jews of what you’ve told me. If you succeed, then we’ll have something more concrete to talk about. Please leave us a copy of your book. I wish you well. As-salaam alaykum, Mr. Roffman.”
“Alaykum Wa-salaam,” I replied. That ended the encounter.
I was excited by the meeting. Too excited. I walked down into the Jewish quarter and then started through the Dung Gate to leave the Old City when I was suddenly stricken with an intense chest pain. I dropped to the ground and lay there for about ten minutes, short of breath and in fear of a heart attack. Was God now punishing me for having violated the Holy of Holies? My mind was bombarded by a rash of fears. I began to think carefully about all that had transpired that day. It wasn’t just that I had tread upon forbidden ground. I had failed to adequately defend the honor of the Torah when the Mufti impugned its faithful reproduction down through the ages. If I had missed something in the Koran that attacked the validity of the Torah, then the premise of my aspirations and my work had to be wrong. Mohammed might not be the prophet sent to correct what (from the Jewish perspective) had been Paul’s destructive work. Perhaps this was what God was trying to tell me by frightening me so. The pain then receded and I managed to hail a cab back to the hotel after resolving to steer clear of the Dome of the Rock again.
“I need a better answer about my work than the Mufti or his friends can provide,” I told Miriam that night over the phone.
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
“Go to the Source, to Sinai. I don’t know what I’m going to find there. Probably just a bunch of hot sand and rocks.