13 February 2012

What Will They Say?

Archaeology in its incomplete potential is often more alluring than a finished product, which can sometimes fall prey to the ideology of the site's ruling authority.  Before we came down to Jerusalem on Friday, we stopped off at Tzipori, one of the cities that gave rise to post-Temple rabbinical Judaism.  Cosmopolitan in its origins, Tzipori represents, for me, the Sages openness to the world, comfortable in their Greco-Roman cultural context and yet proudly Jewish, seemingly aware of the ways in which identity is more multiple than singular.

Contrast that with the Old City, a place I love to be and yet whenever I wind up in the Old City, something about the way the Jewish Quarter is framed leaves me feeling empty.  It's as if Judaism and Jewish culture is stagnant, envisioned only through the strangest and most conservative of forces at best while increasingly yielding to the most extreme and frankly, weird, visions of the Jewish future. 

The Temple Mount, in all its glory with the Dome of the Rock shining above, is a study in two visions for the city that not only having nothing to do with one another but in fact harbor deep aspirations for the apocalyptic elimination of one another.  The Muslim Waqf denies the ancient Jewish claim on the city, having gone so far in recent years to destroy archaeological evidence of Jewish life beneath the Temple Mount while the Temple Faithful strategically position a replica of the Menorah that stood in the Temple in ancient days right across from the entrance to the Western Wall area as if to send the signal that the End is Near and the Third Temple is on its way.  All over the Jewish Quarter one can see signs of such hopes, a quaint expression of delusional madness that is best ignored by the majority of Israelis who find the personalities inside the Old City to be hopelessly caught up in the fog and hard rain of religion.

Despite it all, we continue to have moving experiences when we approach this Wall of Jewish Prayer, a focus of Diaspora Judaism's exilic hopes for return.  Cynicism yields to humble experience when some touch the wall that prior generations could only hope to conjure in their minds; and thus serving as a kind of emissary for lost generations is an experience that rightly keeps things in perspective.

We had approached the Jewish Quarter yesterday after spending an hour atop Mount Zion, watching Christian pilgrims experience the joy of seeing the room where Jesus had his last supper; bemused as Jews prayed beside the supposed Tomb of King David (in fact more likely a shrine to a Muslim holy man) and then later, inside the Christian Quarter, where fevered pilgrims prostrated themselves in all manner of positions, touching and kissing marble and rock where Jesus may have once suffered and died. 

Extraordinary, isn't it? 

Everyone is kissing stones.  And in their mind's eye, they see their Beloved God.

Faith, it appears, is in the eye of the beholder.

After a day in the Old City we went to Hebrew Union College where we learned about the work of the Israel Religious Action Center, a worthy organization advocating for equal religious rights for Reform and other non-Orthodox Jews in Israel.  It was a good conversation--practical--and had an appropriate focus on what is possible in a nation with no shortage of urgent demands on its population.  Perhaps the greatest impediment to the growth of a progressive Jewish spiritual life in Israel is a combination of the stranglehold of the ultra-Orthodox on a politicized state religion, Zionism's success in building an indigenous Hebrew culture without religion, and the trite but nevertheless accurate idiom that "the synagogue I don't attend is an Orthodox synagogue."  Since security generally trumps all, it seems that it will be several more years until the Reform movement can truly get a foothold in the spiritual imagination of more Israelis.  To date, Reform synagogues claim only 10,000 members--in a nation of 6 million Jews, it leaves tremendous room for growth.

Some of us walked into Mahane Yehuda for some grilled meat for dinner and then ambled back to the hotel under a clear sky and moonlight, through West Jerusalem enchanting neighborhoods.  In two thousand years, I suppose, it's likely some archaeologist may very well tell the stories of the streets we walked.  Past cafes, bookstores, schools, mansions, gardens, soccer fields and basketball courts--all overflowing with life.

I wonder what the archaeologists will say? 

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