Sunday, August 15, 2010

What makes a place holy?

Charles Krauthammer begins his column decrying the building of the Cordoba House Islamic cultural center two blocks from the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan with these words:
A place is made sacred by a widespread belief that it was visited by the miraculous or the transcendent (Lourdes, the Temple Mount), by the presence there once of great nobility and sacrifice (Gettysburg), or by the blood of martyrs and the indescribable suffering of the innocent (Auschwitz).
When we speak of Ground Zero as hallowed ground, what we mean is that it belongs to those who suffered and died there -- and that such ownership obliges us, the living, to preserve the dignity and memory of the place, never allowing it to be forgotten, trivialized or misappropriated.
I understand why a place that people believe was "visited by the miraculous or the transcendent" is considered holy - Krauthammer might have given the example of the Ka'ba in Mecca as well - but why does the shedding of blood visit sanctity upon a place? He conflates several different circumstances here.

Gettysburg is the site of a historic battle of the American Civil War - those who died there were soldiers fighting for a cause they believed in. Thousands died in the fighting. For Krauthammer, and probably for many Americans, the place is made holy by the nobility and sacrifice of the soldiers who died there. But are all battlegrounds sacred? What about the battlegrounds of the First World War? Guadalcanal? The Ardennes Forest (where the Battle of the Bulge was fought)? Khe Sanh? Fallujah? The battlegrounds where Iranians and Iraqis fought each other in the 1980s?

Were those who died at Auschwitz martyrs? Emil Fackenheim has argued that before the Nazi assault upon Jews, Jewish martyrdom was something that could be chosen. Jews in the Middle Ages who were confronted with the choice of converting to Christianity or being killed, and chose to die, were in fact martyrs, witnessing to their devotion to God. (The English word martyr, taken from the Greek, originally referred to a witness).

But the Jews who were taken to Auschwitz were not confronted with any kind of a choice - they were killed. Nothing a Jew could do could dissuade the Nazis from killing him or her, since the Nazis thought of Jewishness as a racial, not a religious identity. Jews who had converted to Christianity were killed as Jews at Auschwitz (and other death camps). This is why Edith Stein died there, even though she had converted to Christianity and become a nun. Catholics regard her as a martyr for her faith, but I don't think many Jews would.

Krauthammer also says that Auschwitz was sanctified by the "indescribable suffering of the innocent." I certainly think it is more accurate to call those who died there innocent victims, rather than martyrs, since they had no choice about their fate.

And he also says that the World Trade Center site is "hallowed ground" because of the suffering and death of the victim on September 11, 2001. Again, these people were offered no choice - Osama bin Laden did not appear before them and give them the choice of martyrdom or conversion to Islam. They too were innocent victims.

So Krauthammer, and probably many other people, would consider the Gettysburg battleground, Auschwitz (and other concentration and death camps), and Ground Zero "hallowed ground" because of the deaths that occurred in those places.

But can death sanctify a place? In Jewish tradition, death is the greatest source of impurity. If one touches a dead human body, or enters a house or other enclosed space where there is a body, one becomes impure. In biblical times, this meant that the impure person could not offer a sacrifice in the Temple, or even enter the area of the Temple. According to the Torah, the ashes of the red heifer are needed to purify people from the taint of death. And since we no longer possess those ashes, we are all tainted with the impurity of the dead. There are still vestiges of this belief in Jewish ritual practices. Men who are kohanim generally do not enter graveyards. After visiting a graveyard, people will wash their hands. Jews place graveyards outside cities or other areas where people live. The fact that we are tainted with the impurity of the dead means, to many religious Jews, that we should not set foot on the Temple Mount, in accordance with the purity laws of the Torah, which state that the area is still holy.

Auschwitz, the other death camps, and many other places in Europe once occupied by the Nazis are full of mass graves of Jews and others murdered by the Nazis. Many of these places have, in fact, been forgotten. During the Soviet era, in the USSR, their character was distorted by Soviet memorial practices, which did not mention Jews as victims even when all or a majority were in fact Jews.

If the location of a mass grave has been suppressed or forgotten or distorted, is it still sacred ground? How would we know that it was sacred? Krauthammer says that Ground Zero is "hallowed ground" because it "belongs to those who suffered and died there." In this formulation, a forgotten mass grave somewhere in eastern Europe is hallowed ground because it belongs to those who died there. But how would the rest of us know this, if the memory has been lost?

This is something that has bothered me for a long time. It has always seemed to me that it would be right and proper that such a place - a mass grave, the site of a concentration camp or a massacre, places where great suffering and death have occurred - would announce itself, even if we did not know what happened there, so that when we came upon it we would know that something evil had happened there, that the land itself would be marked by a psychic scar perceptible to human beings who pass by. But this is not true. When people do not know that a particular place was where a massacre happened, or that a mass grave is located there, or that once there stood a concentration camp - the land itself does not cry out to us. Unlike the biblical story of Cain, the voice of our brothers' and sisters' blood does not cry out to us from the ground. A place cries out to us only when we know what happened there and mark it as a site of death.

But does mass death caused by great human evil make a place holy? When I think of what happened at the Skede dunes north of Liepaja, Latvia, along the Baltic Sea, it is hard for me to consider this place holy. For me, it is cursed. (Again, this is a human perception, since the ground itself does not cry out to us). What the Nazis and their collaborators did there (and in many other places) to innocent people are among the most dreadful things that human beings have ever done to other people. As Krauthammer says, the suffering of those who died there is indescribable. How could the wicked actions of the perpetrators or the horrible suffering of the innocent make this place holy?

When I was there a couple of weeks ago, I didn't know exactly where the mass graves are, nor does the monument there specify where they are (unlike the memorial at the Rumbula Forest in Riga). The place itself did not speak to me, only the inherited knowledge of what happened there, which has been preserved in human memory.

So is Ground Zero holy ground? Is it hallowed by the suffering and deaths of the victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack? Or is it cursed by the evil of the actions committed by the Al Qaeda hijackers? The answer depends upon one's notion of what makes a place holy. And what should then happen is determined by what one thinks is appropriate to a holy or a cursed place.

For me, the Islamic center that Imam Rauf proposes to build two blocks from the World Trade Center site does not violate the sanctity of Ground Zero - if in fact it is a holy place, sanctified by the deaths of the victims of the attacks. Aside from the constitutional question of whether the government has any right to prevent an Islamic center from being built there (which it does not, as long as it accords with the zoning regulations of New York City), the place that he proposes to build is intended to build bridges among people of different religions, not separate them or incite further hatred. It seems to me that Cordoba House is exactly the kind of center that should be built close to Ground Zero - because what we need to learn is how to live together with each other in peace.


  1. Wow--another example of how Jewish and Christian traditions are so fundamentally different, as well as a clear-headed examination of terms we take for granted: hallowed, sacred.

  2. Rebecca,

    I think Krauthammer is using the word Martyrs in the Jewish meaning, derived from Kdoshim, not in the Greek meaning.

    Didn't you recelntly write something complementary about the Israeli demonstrators at Sheikh Jarrah? What the settlers are doing there is 100% legal, by all accounts I've seen; the demonstrators argue, however, that it's somehow immoral and politically idiotic. It seems to me your position on this is the opposite of your position on the Musilm cultural center in Manhattan.