One of the more bizarre developments next to the Old City, atop Mount Zion, is the mystification and sacralization of King David's "tomb." Long a site of pilgrimage for Jews, Christians and Muslims, in recent years, the site has been allowed to made into a kind of holy religious site, with an official-looking guy behind a desk, demanding the use of kippot on the heads of men, modest dress for men and women, and, most strange of all, a large wooden mechitzah separating the empty tomb in half like a knife through a tube of goat cheese.
I saw something similar to this some years ago up in Tiberias, where Maimonides actually *is* buried (in the same cemetery as many great rabbis, including Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai, a critical figure in the creation of Jewish community traditions following the destruction of the Second Temple. There, over the Rambam's grave, is also a large wooden mechitzah, slicing his tomb in half so that men and women remain separate and the site's traditional modesty can be preserved. I have to think the Rambam would find the making of a proto-synagogue over his decomposed remains to be precisely the opposite expression of what his namesake, the original Moses, knew of his own reasons for being buried outside the Land of Israel: to prevent the worship of the dead.
But back on Mount Zion, the dead was not only being worshiped, but so was the fake dead. Archaeologists aren't entirely sure exactly where King David is actually buried (the City of David; or Bethlehem, perhaps) but they do know that this site, a place of particular Jewish veneration in our own day, is not it. In technical terms, the tomb is in reality a cenotaph, a memorial to David erected by Muslim crusaders over a site that has a complex history of serving as a Crusader, Byzantine and early Roman period Judeo-Christian church. Above the tomb is a room that is busily attended by Christian pilgrims especially, who believe it was the site of the Last Supper, even though a first century room would have been placed considerably lower two thousand years ago. Adding to the willful complexity of it all, the gospels don't mention the Last Supper taking place above King David's tomb, which, if you think about it, they would have, given the venerated status of King David in the tradition.
Alas, incredible piety and religiosity in a place where there is no there there (and did I mention the cardboard yarmulkes? Don't get me started.)
Back outside, near a gaudy statue to the tortured Jewish warrior, king and poet, donated by a pious Russian Christian pilgrim, Jewish neo-Kabbalists sold red strings to tourists. The sun baked the old stones and us as well and standing there, being consumed by this strange fire, I mourned the empty tomb of the absence of history in our time, the willed gesture that we live in an era where one can say and do what one wants in the name of tradition, even if that tradition is wrong.
On campus, for our early evening study session, two of the BYFI educators led a discussion about American history and values as they relate to the Fourth of July and the early Zionist thinkers Ahad Ha'Am (Asher Zvi Ginsberg) and Max Nordau. We plowed into the Israel-America conversation--quoting Adams and Jefferson, Ginsberg and Nordau. The attempt was to come to terms with the shared ideals and aspirations of American foundation documents, renewed each year on Independence Day, while also understanding how early Zionists sought a similar feat, linking contemporary Jewish communities to an ancient idea of Jewish nationhood.
Ginsberg and Nordau are buried in Tel Aviv. Adams, buried in Quincy, Massachusetts, and Jefferson, buried at Monticello, died on the same day--July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence signing. It's said that just before Adams died, his last words were "Jefferson lives," a tribute to his friend, compatriot and intellectual rival. What he didn't know was that a mere few hours earlier, Jefferson had already died.
My mind drifted back to the conversation of twenty-six students, debating the ideals of early Americans and early Zionists, testing those ideals against their own will and identities, and struggling mightily with themselves and one another to challenge definitions of liberty, freedom and home. An American flag is raised on Iwo Jima in 1945 and a few years later an Israeli flag is raised over a new state, reconstituted after a two thousand year exile.
What did King David write in Psalm 115? "The dead praise not the Eternal, neither any that go down into silence. But we will bless the Eternal, from this time forth, now and forever."
"Jefferson lives" in the very ideals we continually hold our nation to each year on Independence Day--especially in an upcoming election year. And "Ginsberg" is the name of a great cafe in Tel Aviv, where artists, writers and thinkers conjure a way forward for themselves as well, living and renewing or inventing out of whole cloth ideals and expressions inherited from past generations and given new shapes, new meaning.
Thomas Asher Jefferson Ginsberg. If you squint hard enough, you can see him here.