June 1, 2012

The big headline in the paper today was the opening of Madonna's World Tour in Tel Aviv last night, which made the front page of the paper and is big news here in Israel. Amazing to think about the Material Girl now as the Kabbalah Woman, bringing pop music and her extraordinary knack for capturing the zeitgeist to little old Israel.

She called it a peace concert, hoping to bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians through her unique brand of musical shtick. Good luck to her...

Today our Pilgrimage group explored the ancient highlights of the Old City of Jerusalem, beginning with a drive around the walls and a fascinating review of the three valleys that surround the City of Gold, protecting it on three sides but leaving it vulnerable, always, to attack from the north from the direction of the Damascus. Jerusalem has been conquered about 20 times in its history, and almost always from that direction. Its most recent conquests were in 1948, when the Jordanian Arab Legion expelled the Jews from the city and destroyed the Jewish Quarter, and of course in 1967 when the Israelis recaptured the city from Jordan.

We toured the amazing Western Wall tunnels, which literally run underneath the Old City from the area of Kotel all the way along the ancient support wall for the Temple Mount built by King Herod to its end in an even earlier Hasmonean-era water system, constructed by the Maccabees. These tunnels have now been open to the public for 20 years—our guide, Muki, remembers guiding groups there in 1992 soon after they opened—but no matter how many times I traverse them they are always stunning. At one point you are essentially as close as it is possible to be to the Holy of Holies, the Kodesh Kodashim under the Temple Mount, the most sacred place in the world and the location of the earthly dwelling place of the Shechinah, the female presence of God in the world.

One of the highlights of the Western Wall tunnels for me this time was noticing the underground concrete-covered gateway discovered by a British archeologist in the 19th century that leads directly to the Temple precincts. In one of the very, very few points of agreement between the Rabbanut, the Orthodox Rabbinate and the Muslim Wakf, the Islamic authorities for the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, who both agreed that this open tunnel leading to such holiness was too much to leave available as a temptation to archeologists and explorers. Too much potential conflict, controversy and sacrilege for both of them. And so after its rediscovery they ordered it blocked with contemporary concrete...

We also explored a site that has been open in Jerusalem since the 1970's, I think, but I personally had never seen it. It's called the Herodian-era mansions, and it is an underground collection of beautiful homes from the end of the 2nd Temple period, culminating in a particularly huge and fabulous one that they believe to have been the house of the Kohein Gadol, the High Priest. The homes included many mikva'ot, ritual baths essential to all the priests whose jobs were to make the ritual sacrifices so central to Temple worship in the ancient world. It was a remarkable, large site, which our guide used to also highlight some fascinating archeological finds from both the First and Second Temple times revealing idolatry during the First Temple and sectarianism during the Second Temple. Politics, and dueling belief systems, Jewish and otherwise, are clearly not inventions of our own era.

It is not well understood that there was a remarkable decision to be made in 1967 after the Israeli recaptured and reunited Jerusalem. The Jordanians had systematically destroyed nearly every building in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem during the War of Independence and their 19 year tenure in control of the area. While there had been nearly continuous Jewish presence in Jerusalem since King David's conquest in the year 1000 BCE, and definitely continuous Jewish presence since Nachmanides reconstituted the Jewish community in 1268 CE after the Crusaders had destroyed it, the fact that Jordan had brutally smashed nearly every building in the Jewish Quarter meant that archeologists could dig anywhere without disrupting anyone. There were two competing goals at the time: one, to rebuild the Rova HaYehudit, the Jewish Quarter as a vital new center for Jewish life in the Old City; and the other, to maximize the unfathomable outstanding opportunity to dig in the greatest site in the world for Jews, Christians, and archeologists. You can't dig anywhere in Israel without finding something important and ancient. But in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem you are guaranteed to find three thousand years of extraordinary finds.

But Jerusalem was much more than a city of the past, and the drive to rebuild Jewish Jerusalem was incredibly strong, and remains so. So a compromise was reached: the underground belonged substantially to the archeologists, while the above ground could be rebuilt. And so today you can find exceptional archeological remains, museums, and sites in basements all over the Jewish Quarter, while thriving homes, shops, businesses, synagogues, many yeshivot (Orthodox schools) and other institutions function avidly above ground. A fascinating agreement, which has led to the dynamic quality of today's Jewish Quarter while preserving a working link to its phenomenal past.

The focus on ritual purity in 2nd Temple times also led to the Christian emphasis on baptism as such a central rite, and being on this trip with our good friends from St. Philip's in the Hills—some are also from St. Andrew's Church in Tucson—and Reverend Dr. John Kitagawa has led to some great insights into the development of both faith traditions. While we Reform Jews still use the mikvah for Jewish conversion rituals and Orthodox Jews continue to use mikvah for family purity, it is also compelling to see how this focus on purification (purity, not cleanliness was the goal—the Herodian mansions make it clear that the priests bathed very thoroughly before entering the mivkah, to the extent of rewashing their feet before entering the mikvah) from ritual contamination led to a near-obsessive focus on removing the impurity of sin in some ritual and dramatic ways.

We toured other sites in the Old City yesterday as well, the Room of the Last Supper, which is above the Tomb of King David. Both sites are unlikely to be the actual locations of the events—both were built long after the events they were supposed to contain; the Last Supper room seems Crusader era, while the David tomb is certainly no older than Roman times, perhaps Byzantine—but that does not diminish the fervor or focus of the worshippers who flock to both.

On a more prosaic level, our bags arrived finally yesterday afternoon! They looked somewhat the worse for their ordeal, but we have clothes and shoes and provisions, which is a relief and allowed us to dress more appropriately for our Shabbat service at Kol HaNeshama, the fine Progressive synagogue here just south of the Emek Refaim area of western Jersualem. It was as always a very lovely service, and I of course saw several people I knew from around the world or the Too Jewish Radio Show. Many of the Temple's regulars were in Tel Aviv for the IMPJ, the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism's biennial convention, which must be a very festive affair this weekend, coming just after the Rabbi Miri Gold decision opens up great new opportunities for Reform and Conservative congregations here in Israel.

We had a very nice Shabbat dinner as a group, and this morning I am again reminded of how much I love the incredible quite and peace of Shabbat in Jersualem: the cars stop driving, the streets are empty of all but people walking to shul or to visit friends, it's such a lovely, calm, gorgeous day here. We are off shortly to tour different temples and then to have lunch with some friends from rabbinical school days who now live here and then more touring... but right now the peace and calm are complete.

Shabbat Shalom umevorach, may you blessed with true Sabbath of peace and blessing.

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon from Jerusalem


225 N. Country Club Road
Tucson, AZ 85716

Phone: 520-327-4501
Fax: 520-327-4504

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