World’s sacred places lure Tucson rabbi on trip of a lifetime

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon at the last stop on his world tour, the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru (Courtesy photo)

An intense interest in the world’s sacred places would be natural for any clergy. But Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, took it to the next level. He purchased an around-the- world plane ticket and embarked on a whirlwind trip to more than 120 sacred places — from temples to mosques, from cathedrals to monasteries, archaeological sites to caves, lakes and mountain tops. In about three months, from Jan. 11 to April 7, he visited 20 countries and 70 cities. Of 42 flights, the longest being 17 hours from Sydney to Santiago, Chile, he only missed one.

“I was incredibly lucky,” Cohon told the AJP after his return home. “I didn’t check any bags but I brought a great deal back with me.” He’s currently working on a book about the world’s sacred places, stemming from blog posts he wrote nearly every night while he was away.

During those three months, “I could have restricted the trip to what Jews consider sacred places but that would limit it,” says Cohon. A few years ago, he read an article about Gobekli Tepe, an archaeological site in the southeastern Anatolia region of Turkey, which is around 11,000 or 12,000 years old. “I had an epiphany when I read that piece. It never really left me. I had a sabbatical coming up. What would I really like to do?”

Cohon wanted to see Gobekli Tepe. The site contains the world’s oldest known temple, which, he says, “was the first cooperative structure built in human history.” Plus, it’s the first structure human beings put together that was bigger and more complicated than a hut.

What we didn’t know, until Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute began the excavation of Gobekli Tepe in 1995, is that “the invention of community came from religion,” says Cohon. “A whole group of people worked on this structure. They later deliberately buried it. We don’t know why. Only 5 percent to 10 percent of this site” has been excavated to date.

Cohon started his trek at England’s Stonehenge, which is around 5,000 years old. Along the way, he’s been struck by how often sacred places have been reused by one religion or another. “You could say that about any sacred place in the world,” says Cohon. The Canaanites probably used the site of the Temple Mount before King David conquered Jerusalem. In ancient Egypt, the Temple of Luxor — built in 1400 B.C. on the east bank of the Nile River — catered to a panorama of gods and goddesses. These days it also includes a mosque, which Cohon visited.

“Almost everybody goes to a sacred site for a small group of reasons,” notes the rabbi. “People go for healing. They go for love, seeking their beshert (soulmate). In Japan, everyone is seeking the ‘right’ spouse. They go for community, and they go to feel there’s something greater than themselves. In certain places in the West we feel we have to justify that. It’s not true in the rest of the world.”

What surprised Cohon in every religion is that “we’re all sun worshippers, even we Jews,” he says. “In the Second Temple that Herod rebuilt 2,000 years ago, the rising sun came over the Mount of Olives directly into the temple, which was a cue for saying the morning shema and making the morning offering. We were deliberately not sun worshippers because it was pagan. But we hadn’t lost that.”

Also, consider Japan, which is such a high-tech society, says Cohon. “The reason why the sun is on the Japanese flag is that they still worship the sun.”

After visiting so many of these sites, he felt “the places themselves end up with a kind of energy. I’m a Westerner, I’m Jewish. I believe in one God but here I am in a Hindu temple in a village near Ubud in Bali, where people go to worship the god of their choice” from a plethora of Hindu deities.

“Here I am in this totally alien experience,” he continues. “The priest’s son loaned me special ceremonial clothes, which was very sweet. I’m sitting on uncomfortable ground. They’re splashing holy water and I’m wondering ‘what’s in that water?’” Still, “I could feel the energy of their religious experience and their religious joy.”

In so many of these sacred places, says Cohon, “there was a depth and a power to the experiences, despite how alien they were to me. I’ve always believed that human beings are intrinsically the same all over the world. Whatever sacred place I was in, to have these experiences totally reinforced this.”

People have asked him, “What was the most frightening thing that happened?” It was sitting in a tuk-tuk in traffic in Delhi, India, with pedestrians, cars, motor bikes going every which way, he says. “Nobody observes the traffic rules. I was terrified.”

One of Cohon’s most peaceful moments, which surprised him, was sitting under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, India, where the Buddha attained enlightenment around 400 B.C. “It was just a tree but there was something there,” he says. “It was incredibly peaceful in a country that doesn’t seem terribly peaceful.”

Something else he discovered on his epic adventure is that “perspective and wisdom are basically the same thing. We want the time, the place or the intellectual ability to step back and look at our lives,” says Cohon. “Many religions provide that. In Judaism it’s Shabbat. In Buddhism it’s meditation. In Hinduism it’s festivals.”

It was extremely important to blog every day to organize his thoughts. “I wanted to know my first impressions and how they affected me,” says Cohon, adding that he hopes to complete the book by the end of this year. He’s already working with a publisher.

A week after his return, the rabbi may be sitting at his desk, but his adventure continues. “In the process of such disciplined travel,” with no lingering in beautiful spots, he explains, “you can become more of an essentialist. The Hebrew word is ekar (root source or essence).” And now, Cohon affirms, “I have enhanced empathy for human connection.”

To read Cohon’s blog posts, visit travelpod.com and search for “the holiest places on earth.”