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Holy Land Seminar Day #7

Morning sessions today included Rabbi Jack Bemporad, visiting professor at the Angelicum, on the challenges of “Facing the Holocaust Theologically and Morally” and Rabbi David Hartman on Zionism and the Challenge of Sovereignty.

Catholic-Jewish relations are coming up on a critical turning point. The current generation of leadership at the very highest level of the church is a generation formed by WWII, the Holocaust, the founding of the State of Israel from the former British protectorate of Palestine and the resulting wars, intifadas, and other forms of violence. Pope Benedict was a youth in Nazi Germany. John Paul II was a young man under Communist Poland.

But for me and my generation of peers both Catholic and Jewish, these are historical events. Important, yes. The Holocaust cannot be forgotten lest genocide be allowed to happen again, as it has too many times this century. But they are not experienced events. They did not shape our identity, and the future of Catholic-Jewish relations will not be able to sustain the Euro-centric focus that has dominated it for the last few decades. What happens when we elect an African pope (or Asian, or one from the Americas?), especially one who is now 60 or younger? It might not be at the next conclave, but it will happen. Thankfully, the conversation is already started.

Rabbi Hartman’s quote of the morning, “Weakness invites violence; strength invites dialogue” indicated that this is not the kind of interfaith meeting between reform rabbis and liberal protestant pastors that are familiar back home! Politics cuts different lines here, but religious dialogue needs to continue, including if not especially from the more traditional parts of our respective religious bodies.

After the presentations, we concluded with a celebratory meal and ‘graduation’ ceremony. It has been an intensive week, but far too short. We are left thirsting for more – which I suppose is the idea – rather than having questions answered, I have come away with more questions than with which I arrived!

The afternoon schedule was something I had been looking forward to and dreading at the same time, a visit to Yad VaShem (the Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Memorial and Museum). We were honored to begin with meeting Dr. Ehud Loeb, a survivor from Germany and member of the committee on the Righteous Among the Nations. The committee singles out and recognizes people or organizations who risked their own lives and safety to rescue Jews from the Holocaust, using rigorus documentary standards. Dr. Loeb’s own life was saved by several people at various points, including five now honored among the Righteous.

It has been almost 14 years since my first visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Musem, and it remains one of the most powerful experiences of my life. It took me over four hours to make it through, and much longer to process it all. I anticipated Yad VaShem to elicit a similar response. Unfortunately, you cannot do something like this on a schedule, and I am skeptical even about doing it with a guide or a group. The museum is in itself excellent, powerful, evocative. But we did not have enough time to experience it all, or to process it afterwards, or discuss the content – including the controversial panel on the “Silence of the Church” and Pius XII. I will go back to Jerusalem, even if just to get the full experience there sometime.

Rabbi Bemporad did take the opportunity at that point in the tour to make clear his objection to the treatment of pope and Church in eloquent and informed terms – unfortunately our guide was not one of the historians or otherwise responsible for the content. That would make an interesting debate – “Hitler’s Pope” [sic] as understood by different Jewish voices. This was part of the discussion during Pope Benedict’s visit last year, and the recent opening of more archives to allow all scholars access to information regarding Pius’ actions during the Holocaust.

Dinner was at the Motefiore estaurant, in the shadow of a Motefiore’s Windmill (or, as we dubbed it, the Dutch Church/ St. Eveline’s). An interesting neighborhood history, with him having to pay Jewish settlers to live outside the city walls during the waning Ottoman occupation in the late 19th century. One of our guests was artist Avner Moriah, who gave us each prints out of his newest series of work, “Genesis”, featuring Abraham taking Isaac up to Mount Moriah for his sacrifice. I got to sit between two post-modern Jewish philosophers for dinner – and there are not that many, I hink!

Holy Land Seminar Day #5

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.

Holy Land Seminar Day #4

Happy Birthday Angie (my little sister)!

5:00 AM. Awake. In Jerusalem. On purpose – Fr. Charlie Cortinovis, who was part of the first cohort but could not join them for the Jerusalem seminar owing to his being ordained, had arranged to celebrate mass in the holy Sepulchre, with a half dozen of us going with him. He and the three other priests who went actually squeezed into the tiny area on top of the grave itself, while Matthew, Val, and I were joined by a couple of sisters in the tiny chapel just outside, which itself is located within the much larger Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. This is another experience I need more time to receive before I can share it properly!

After walking back to the hotel, we start with an Israeli Breakfast. If you have never had an Israeli breakfast, you have never really had breakfast. It makes the American version look Continental! But, enough about food, I’ll save that for later…

We started our sessions at the Shalom Hartman Institute today, and for the rest of the week our mornings will be spent in seminars offered by a variety of rabbis and scholars from across the Jewish spectrum, and afternoons are spent  touring the holy sites. Evenings are spent at dinners with other guests, getting to know a variety of people.

The first session is with a Conservative Reform Rabbi, Bill Berk, originally from Phoenix and now in Israel, on the “Emergence of Modern Judaism” outlining the encounter with, and reaction to, modernity in rabbinical Judaism, and the shift taking place from rabbinical to (post)modern Judaism. The second presentation is with Liberal Rabbi Rachel Sabbath Beit Halachmi, on “God, Torah, and Israel: The Theologies and Ideolgoies fo the Different Streams of Judaism” outlining the complex world of Jewish realities – Ultra-Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Traditional, Reform, Liberal, Secular and even “post-denominational”.

[As I write this, at about 6:45, I can hear the muezzin call to prayer from the minarets of Jerusalem – haunting, beautiful, prayerful – like hearing the bells of Rome when I am there.]

We took the afternoon to head up to the Mount of Olives, first stopping on Mount Scopus to look out over the Judean dessert and the Jordan valley to the high places of Jordan.

Jewish tradition holds that the resurrection of the dead and the last judgment will occur at the end of time here, where since biblical times there has been what is now the largest Jewish cemetery in the world, on the slope of the Mount of Olives facing Jerusalem.

As we walk down the hill, we stop at the church Dominus Flevit, commemorating Jesus’ weeping at the sight of Jerusalem. Continuing down we come to one of the most reliable, historically accurate sites in the holy land. The Holy land is filled with memorials of memorials, contemporary churches built on the site – and sometimes the very foundations of – older churches: crusader, byzantine, Judeo-Christian. Some are only ever intended as commemorations of events or people, not claiming to be accurate, others are held by tradition to certain locations from at least the time of Helena’s state visit to the region in the 4th century. There are varying degrees of historicity, many being probable, but only three are considered absolutely certain – one of these is the Garden of Gethsemane, with olive trees still standing that date back to the time of Christ (confirmed by DNA and carbon dating, no less).

A stone’s throw from the Church of All Nations and the Garden is Mary’s Tomb, along with the traditional site of the tombs of Joseph, Joachim and Anna.

We returned to the hotel for an hour reflection session with Rabbi Berk and Dr. Adam Afterman, coordinators of the academic program, and then head to dinner at Canela restaurant nearby.

Holy Land Seminar Day #2

Yesterday’s blessing of rain proved to be today’s even greater blessing of a clear crisp sky, perfect for traveling around the country. From Jerusalem we left early toward the Salt Sea (aka Dead Sea) descending from the Holy City’s elevation of 800 meters (2400 feet) above sea level, to 400 meters below – the lowest place on Earth, passing the remains of the crusader’s Good Samaritan Inn along the way.

Turning north, we drive for a couple hours through the badlands near the Dead Sea, the major oasis of Jericho, and desert hills covered in more green than our guide can remember seeing  in more than 20 years. There is even snow visible on the mountains, something one of our native guests, Dr. Adam Afterman, has never seen there.

Our guide for the weekend in the north of the country is led by Yitzhik’s wife, Yessika, who will prove to be a superlative guide, expert in Christian history, and theologian! In fact, we find out later, she does not even give tours any more, instead teaching tour guides, writing, and consulting with the state and archeological finds – we were very fortunate to benefit from her expertise!

As the landscape changes gradually getting more green, more naturally irrigated, and as we continue north along the Jordan river valley, we come to Lake Kinnesseret, the Sea of Galilee. Driving north along the west shore (clockwise), we make a brief stop in the town of Migdala, the home of Mary Magdalen, and site of a very recent discovery of a synagogue dating from the Second Temple period (ie, the time of Christ).

Apparently, the Legionaries of Christ are building a retreat centre there and while breaking ground for an ecumenical chapel (!) the buldozer hit some stone … which turned out to be part of the synagogue, the first discovered in the town after years of searching.

We continued to the Church of the Beatitudes, located on the hill above the Galilee near Capernaum, and then to Kursi, the site of an old Byzantine monastery and a small chapel recalling Jesus’ exorcism of Legion on the site.  Then to Kibbutz Ein Gev for a lunch of St. Peter’s Fish, and then a boat ride across the lake back to Capernaum.

This is beautiful country. If I were God wanting to become Incarnate, this is a pretty nice place to grow up and spend a few years preaching and teaching!

Near Capernaum is a small fishing village with a well preserved synagogue a stone’s throw from the church built over the site of Peter’s house, which had itself been converted to a Domus Ecclesiae early on.

We then moved on to Tabgha (Arabic version of the Greek Heptapegon, meaning Seven Springs), where we checked into Pilgerhaus Tabgha, and got a couple hours to relax overlooking the Sea of Galilee during sunset. I had my first encounter with the hyrax there, munching on dinner outside my room.

At about 7:30 we got on the bus to head to Nabi Shueb, the Tomb of Jethro, and holiest site to the Druze. More about them to come, but this is a religion that separated from Islam about 1000 years ago, and honor Jethro, with Jesus, as the greatest prophets: Mohammad, Abraham, Moses and others honored as well. We were hosted to dinner by their top leaders, the President of the international council, sheikhs from all over, and were invited into the tomb of Jethro itself. I cannot express in a short space how rare an opportunity this was, and how honored we are by it; I am still processing it!

Holy Land Seminar Day #1

Our days are packed, so I am going to post a few brief sketches of our itinerary and activity, and fill out more details when I am able. But I wanted to share what I’ve been up to this week!

Woke up before dawn to get ready and get to Leonardo da Vinici Airport by 8:15, a little more than two hours before our flight is scheduled to leave.

Flying to Israel from Rome took a little over three hours. The Tel Aviv airport is one of the nicest I have seen in the world – the contrast with Fiumicino is on many levels striking. We were met by security officials who streamlined our passport review, and then met our guide, Yitzik, and bus driver, Ezra.

Diving from Tel Aviv on the caost, to Jerusalem in the mountains only takes about 40 minutes, and we get to the hotel a little before sunset. With a little time to check in, unpack and freshen up, we get a brief intro to the Jewish teachings and practices of Sabbath before heading to the home of Rabbi Donniel Hartman for a traditional Shabbat meal.

Oh, The singing!  The Shabbat songs are beautiful! It makes me wish I had not basically failed Hebrew!

What does it mean to be a Jew? What is Jewish Identity? Is it family? Is it faith? A people? A nation? These are the questions affecting life in Israel and Jews in general, and the topic of our dinner conversation. There is no consensus. Even when establishing the state of Israel, a definition could not be found, so the one used for the Right of Return is based on the working definition developed by, of all people, Adolf Hitler. If he would have murdered you, you can claim citizenship in Israel and “come home”. Beyond that, it is an open question.

Our first day in Israel was especially blessed. That is to say, it rained. A fine, soft rain like we get in Seattle, but a genuine blessing in a dessert!

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