Location, location, location

A physicist puts his mind to the geographical problems of the Temple Mount.

Picked up the large well-bound book at my local bookstore. The gold lettering on the spine and cover read simply The Temple Mount: Where Is The Holy of Holies? Normally I'd put such a book straight back on the shelves, dismissing it as another fanatical quest to identify the site so that someone can cause a great deal of trouble. So why didn't it go back on the shelf? Wrapped around the outside of the book is not a dust jacket but a wide paper strip announcing that the author, Asher Kaufman, was a physicist at the Hebrew University and had earlier been engaged in work on nuclear fusion in England. In the beginning of my academic life in Oxford I was also a physicist and I believe the subject insists on the highest level of analytical and objective thinking. A physicist working on this problem... now that's a whole different quest. This book is a challenging read even if you really enjoy fathoming complex puzzles, but Kaufman does make every effort to carry the reader with him through a labyrinth of hypotheses, esoteric texts and scientific methodology. The book follows chronologically the path of enquiry pursued by Kaufman himself for the past 35 years, leading you up the same blind alleys as he pursued and through his moments of inspiration he might prefer to call them revelation where Divine Providence has guided him. It is a quest carried out with the devotion and sincerity of a profoundly religious Jew, informed by the highest level of scholarship. His textual sources include the writings of Josephus and Tractate Middot of the Mishna. He has already published a new edition of Middot based on his studies of manuscripts and early printed texts. He commits himself to this holy detective work with passion and a meticulous eye for detail. He has mapped all archeological evidence above ground and intensively studied the reports of the 19th-century digs, uncovering a great deal of unpublished material held at the Palestine Exploration Fund, London. But what are his conclusions? Where is the Holy of Holies? Dr Kaufman's answer is simple and he has drawn its location "to within a few centimeters," he insists. Basically, he contends, the Holy of Holies lies north of the Dome of the Rock. And although the Waqf, the Muslim authority responsible for the Muslim holy places, has never allowed scientific excavations of the Temple area, it has from time to time dug trenches in the area for laying water pipes and electricity cables. Kaufman has visited these diggings on over 200 occasions and has written detailed reports on what was uncovered. He has on some occasions been accompanied by a photographer. His findings, which he maintains support his theories, will be presented in a series of articles and a new book. But it is not that simple. Kaufman's theories stand in opposition to other ideas. The other two main contenders for the site of the Holy of Holies are the "traditional location" at the site of the Dome of the Rock and south of the Dome of the Rock as proposed by architect Tuvia Sagiv. But how can a layperson possibly assess the validity of Kaufman's conclusions? Inevitably one must look at what other experts in the field have to say about his research even though, understandably, archeologists are a little touchy about other professionals encroaching on areas where they feel their expertise is pre-eminent. That aside, a review of Kaufman's book was recently published in the Biblical Archaeological Review by Prof. Joshua Schwartz of Bar-Ilan University. Although Schwartz presents significant criticisms of some of Kaufman's results, Kaufman feels that he can refute them all. And while it seems that archeologists have generally not accepted the new theory, Schwartz does conclude, "Asher Kaufman is one of the foremost scholars of the Jerusalem Temple.... While we may disagree with him at times, his ongoing contribution to Temple Mount scholarship cannot be denied." This is hardly damning criticism, so Kaufman's research should definitely be taken seriously. And one can't help but be impressed by the rigor of much of his methodology. I contacted Kaufman and he kindly offered to meet me in the quiet order of his home in the Beit Hakerem neighborhood. His soft Edinburgh accent, gentle manner and reasoned arguments are hard to reconcile with the final "proposals" he outlines at the end of his book. The building of the Third Temple, he says, will be "something wonderful for the Jewish People, and for the world as a whole" although he does not believe that ritual sacrifice will be reinstated. Since he locates the Holy of Holies north of the Dome of the Rock, he believes the whole area of the Temple Mount could be divided into a Jewish and Muslim area, Al-Aksa Mosque being within the Moslem area. The Dome of the Rock would be within the court of the Temple. "In ancient times, strangers other than of the Jewish faith were permitted entry into this court.... This means that there would be free access to the Dome of the Rock. It could be administered by the Muslims without any change." He accepts that most of us will find this naive but he is happy to record his "vision for the future."