I think probably all my readers know some version of the famous story preserved in the Talmud that features a would-be convert approaching the great first-century teacher Shammai and provocatively asking if the latter would teach him the entire Torah while the former—the would-be convert—stands before him on one leg only. It was obviously meant to be an annoying, slightly insulting question and the clear implication—that one could learn all there is of worth in Judaism in a matter of minutes—was not at all lost on Shammai, who as this conversation was taking place just happened to be holding in his hand a two-by-four which he then used handily to drive this nudnick off so he could continue his day in peace. But that isn’t the whole story, of course. The would-be proselyte then approaches Shammai’s saintly partner in dialogue and debate, Hillel, who accepts him as a convert to Judaism despite his idiotic request and teaches him that, indeed, the whole Torah can be simmered down to one single principle—something akin to what philosophers sometimes call the Golden Rule—and that the rest of it is mere commentary on that single principle. It’s a good story. It’s actually a great story—although I’ve always found it disconcerting how much more easily I find it to identify with Shammai‘s role in it than with Hillel’s—but it has a much less well-known parallel in a different ancient book, the collection of ancient sermons known as Kohelet Rabbah.
In that book, the story is about Rav and Samuel, the Hillel and Shammai of third-century Jewish Iraq and two of the greatest of all Talmudic teachers. (Rav’s real name was Abba bar Aybo, but his pre-eminence in learning and scholarship earned him the respectfully generic title simply of Rav, Rabbi.) And it’s a great story, one more relevant for the topic I wish to write about today than the more famous one about Hillel and Shammai. In this tale, the would-be convert is a Persian man who approaches Rav and asks him to teach him the Torah. The latter agrees and starts with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Opening a book, he points to a letter and says, “This is an alef.” But the Persian responds rudely and asks, “Who says this is an alef? That’s just your opinion!” Rav moves on to the next letter, but the response is the same, “Who says this is a bet?” At that point, Rav has had enough and sends the man packing. And so the man now approaches Samuel. The set-up is the same. He asks to be taught Torah. Samuel too begins with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. And the obstreperous responses, no doubt intended to get his would-be teacher’s goat, are the same: “Who says that’s an alef? Who says that’s a bet?” Samuel, however, knows how to respond. Reaching out, he grabs the man’s ear and, twisting it in his hand, yanks it as hard as he can. The man, unprepared for that kind of response, cries out, “My ear! My ear!” Whereupon Samuel coolly looks over and asks, “Who says that’s your ear?” The man, falling nicely into Samuel’s trap, offers the obvious answer: “Everybody knows this is my ear!” To which Samuel responds, “Well, I guess that there are some things that really are common knowledge, things that everybody just knows. So are you ready to learn your letters yet or shall we continue the debate about whether an alef is an alef?”
I’ve always loved that story. And it’s the text that came to mind the other day when I read an article in the New York Times that was so egregiously hostile to Israel, so unremittingly willing to sink to a level of openly anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, and almost anti-Semitic argumentation that, despite my growing disbelief over these last months and years in the Gray Lady’s evenhandedness or even pretense towards evenhandedness, I was shocked. I am referring to the article by Rick Gladstone published last week in which the reporter openly and respectfully interviewed people who seemed to think there was some historical debate swirling around the question of whether the Temple Mount in Jerusalem actually is the site of the ancient Temple.
There is no controversy in this regard among real historians and archeologists at all. The Dome of the Rock, built in the seventh century CE, was built in the spot in which it now stands precisely because the Muslims of the day were certain that it was the site first of Solomon’s Temple and then of Herod’s Temple, what we generally refer to as the Second Temple. The Kotel itself, the Western Wall—not actually part of the ancient Temple but part of a gigantic support wall built below the Temple to shore up the Temple Mount and prevent it from collapsing under the weight of the Temple, an enormous structure made almost entirely of stone—provides incontrovertible proof that the Temple stood where tradition has always maintained that it stood. As do dozens of other archeological finds—including not least impressively of all the actual sign, called the “Temple Warning Sign” currently in the Istanbul Archeological Museum in Turkey but originally discovered on the Temple Mount in 1871 by one Charles Simon Clermont-Ganneau, one of the premier archeologists of his day, that warns non-Jews from entering the Temple Mount beyond the surrounding balustrade intended to delineate the territory open to non-Jews from the inner precincts which only Jewish souls were permitted to penetrate.
Added to the archeological evidence, which should be convincing enough to satisfy anyone, is the enormous body of literary evidence. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, describes the Temple Mount in detail, both as it was before and after the Romans’ successful effort to raze the Temple as punishment for the Jewish rebellion against Rome in the 60s and 70s of the first century CE. On top of that, a full tractate of the Mishnah, Tractate Middot, that has been part of our literary canon for almost two thousand years, describes the Temple Mount in detail, setting forth the various buildings and appurtenances that were part of the Temple complex with full reference not only to their height and width, but to their specific place on the Temple Mount.
Archeologists have made it clear that the Temple Mount is now significantly bigger than it was in antiquity and, as a result, the precise location of certain specific sites atop the mount is indeed a matter of scholarly debate. But none of that applies to the most important of them: the “rock” upon which the Dome of the Rock was built is the even sh’tiyyah that was once housed within the Holy of Holies. That it is taken by Muslims to denote something specific in Islamic history that is unrelated to its earlier history as part of the Temple is neither here nor there: the bottom line is that it exists now just as it existed in the time of the Umayyad Caliphate under which the Dome of the Rock was built and just as it existed in the days of the Second Temple and, for that matter, the First. An interesting letter from Professor Jodi Magness, a professor of early Judaism at the University of North Carolina, appeared in the Times just a few days ago. Identifying herself as one of the unnamed “experts” upon whom the Times’ reporter based his reportage, Professor Magness writes unambiguously, “I know of no credible scholars who question the existence of the two temples or who deny that they stood somewhere on the Temple Mount.” It doesn’t get much clearer than that!
Liel Liebovitz, a senior writer for Tablet Magazine, wrote a scathing review of the Times’ piece, the final paragraph of which I would like to cite in extenso to you: “And so,” Liebovitz writes, “because the paper of record won’t put it clearly, permit me the pleasure: Denying that a Jewish temple stood on the Temple Mount is not a form of historical argument. It is akin to denying that the earth is not flat. Or denying that global warming is real. Or that the evidence of human evolution is widely accepted by scholars. As far as history goes, it’s the equivalent of blowing up statues of the Buddha, or blowing up churches, or denying that the Holocaust ever happened. It’s a form of denialism, which seeks to obliterate evidence and basic standards of evidence in the service of some higher truth, which is rarely anything that the future is ever thankful for. It’s ugly. Paying lip-service to standards of historical proof while wildly mischaracterizing the views of scholars in the service of historical denialism turns the Times’ basic ignorance here into something much uglier.”
I couldn’t agree more, nor do I think I could have expressed myself more clearly. When a paper of the authority (self-arrogated, perhaps, but surely real) of the New York Times sinks this low in its journalistic standards, it’s hard to imagine that this could possibly just be something that somehow “slipped past” the army of fact-checkers and researchers that exist specifically to guarantee that whatever the Times publishes is factually correct. What actually is afoot here, who can say? When Yasser Arafat declared that there hadn’t ever been any Jewish temples in Jerusalem, he wasn’t speaking as an archeologist or as a historian of ancient times, but as a demagogue interested in basing his denial of the Jewish claim to Eretz Yisrael on something that sounded vaguely like historical fact. But when the Times turns to this kind of yellow journalism to insult the Jewish people by questioning one of the most historically unimpeachable pillars of its self-conception as an ancient people tied not merely by faith but by deep historical roots to Jerusalem, the situation is entirely different…and far more upsetting.