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A month into my fellowship at Tantur, and though time is flying, it has proved to be just what I needed – an escape from the work and distractions of Rome. Not that the last three weeks have been without concerns, as violence has escalated in and around Jerusalem. Thankfully, Tantur is safely removed from the areas of tension, and spending the day in the library and at my desk is easy to do. There have been some exceptions worth sharing, however.
I arrived in the middle of the High Holy Days, between Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), the latter of which coincided this year with the beginning of Eid Al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice/Time of the Hajj).
Tantur is at the southern end of Jerusalem, about 8km from the Old City, and just under a kilometer north of the checkpoint into Bethlehem. (It is another 3.5km to the Church of the Nativity).
On Yom Kippur a group of us walked into the old city, stopping at St. Clare Monastery on the way. The Poor Clares here arrived from France in 1884. A glimpse into their life can be found online here.
On arrival in the Old City we went first to vespers with the German Benedictine monks at the Abbey of the Dormition, on Mount Zion, just next to the Tomb of King David and the Cenacle (the Upper Room of the Last Supper). Through the construction of the abbey took place from 1900-1910, with the first monks arriving in 1906, the history of the community starts with the 19th century immigration of Germans into Jerusalem, culminating in the 1898 visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II. During his tour, the Kaiser dedicated the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City and donated the land for the Abbey to the German Association for the Holy Land.
After vespers we wend our way down to the Kotel (the Western Wall), just in time to get settled before the shofar (ceremonial ram’s horn) sounded, marking the end of the day of fasting and the beginning of a celebration. This was one of the most moving spiritual experiences, watching the joy and celebration. I had not arrived in the Holy Land expecting this to be on my to do list, but now I can cross off something that belongs up there with Midnight Mass at St. Peter’s, as far as lifetime religious experiences go. It has made me realize that any “bucket list” i might keep for myself begins with unique spiritual religious places/times. Appropriate, then, that my time here begins with Yom Kippur at the Wall and will end after Christmas in Bethlehem.
Quickly added to the list was the opportunity to celebrate Sukkot – the Festival of Booths, or Tabernacles – with a friend from Hebrew University. A rooftop Sukkah and a cozy company of guests from both Israel and the U.S. made for a real welcome to this place. I imagine the cultural equivalent to be Thanksgiving – you know you have been welcomed as friend and family when you have this gift!
Attributed to Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin (d.1821) founder of the Lithuanian yeshivot:
“Thus will be the advent of the Messiah: you will be sitting in your room alone studying, and your wife will suddenly enter and say, ‘Oy, Hayyim! You are sitting here studying? Don’t you know the Messiah has come?’ Startled, you will sputter three times and say to her, ‘Who told you?’ and she will say to you, ‘Go outside and see for yourself: not a soul is left in the city, not even the babes in their cradles, for everyone has gone out to greet [him].’”
Aviezer Ravitzky, Messianism, Zionism, and Orthodoxy: Historical and Conceptual Background, p. 22
This morning’s program featured orthodox Professor Menachem Fisch, examining the topic, “Beyond Mere Tolerance – Jewish Resources for a Genuine Religious Pluralism” using Nostra Aetate and Dignitatis Humanae as starting points, noting that neither Judaism nor Islam has adequately responded to these 50 year old documents.
Then post-modern Jewish scholar Micha Goodman, who is what we would call a lay ecclesial minister, offered an overview of Anti-Semitism, its causes and the realities of the current situation.
For our afternoon excursion, we went to the village of Ein Karem, which is believed to be the village where Zachariah and Elizabeth raised John the Baptizer, and also includes the church of the Visitation and Mary’s Well, two locations vying for the role of memorial to the meeting of Mary’s visit to her elder relative.
For dinner guests, we had recent graduates of the first cohort of law students at Ono Academic College, bringing together the Christian, Jewish and Muslim judges responsible for the religious laws in Israel. Unlike most countries, Israel has no civil marriage. If you want to get married you have to do so through your religious authorities; therefore also divorce and custody issues are handled by religious law. This program took the people responsible for these decisions and put them through a three-year degree in civil law together, creating interreligious dialogue along the way. Our able included a Haredi Jewish Rabbi, an Islamic Judge from Jaffa, and a Melkite Catholic priest.
The Shalom Hartman Institute, which is serving as our academic centre for the morning sessions of our seminar in the Holy Land, was founded by Orthodox Rabbi and Professor David Hartman in the 1970’s and named for his father. It serves as what we (Christians) would call an ecumenical centre of education, bringing together Jews from almost the entire range of thought and life – Modern Orthodox, Traditional, Reform, Liberal, Secular, and a few that defy customary categories. It serves as a centre for the continuing education of Rabbis, has two high schools (boys and girls separate), and several research fellows and innovative education programs, including the intensive week seminar that serves as part of my Russell Berrie Fellowship in Interreligious Studies.
This morning’s first session was with the founder’s son, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, continuing the themes of membership and identity, the differences between these questions being addressed in Israel and in North America (where the largest population of Jews live). We then engaged the question of feminism in Judaism, especially as it is being dealt with in Orthodox Jewish congregations, and how it relates to other movements.
An example: There is a mitzvot, one of the religious laws, that 10 men are required for liturgical prayer. This is traditionally interpreted such that it does not matter how many women are present, one or a hundred, you cannot begin until you have at least ten men. A Reform synagogue might say, “this is an unjust law – women are people too!” and dispense with the rule, or amend it so that ten people of either gender is sufficient for the liturgy to begin. One Orthodox congregation, by contrast, has decided instead of breaking or ignoring the law, they will honor it but add one of their own, requiring also ten women to be present before the liturgy can begin. (I would be interested to hear thoughts on this, to me, the Reform response seems more masculine, and the Orthodox more feminine!)
The afternoon we spent in the neighborhood of our hotel, known as Mt. Zion (though historically, the original reference to Zion was probably the temple mount in the City of David, and this Mt. Zion took the name later). We started at a holy site that is simultaneously holy to all three major monotheistic religions, including the Last Supper Room and Pentecost shrine, which was at one time converted to a mosque, and the Tomb of David.
Nearby we stopped by the Church of the Dormition of Mary and the Church of St. Peter Gallicantu (the rooster sings), commemorating the denial of Christ by Peter and including what is thought to be Caiphas’ house. The organ at the church of the dormition was being tuned while we were there, adding an eerie tune to the background while meditating on the mystery of the resurrection of the body.