Monday, May 21, 2007

The Armenian Quarter

JG arrived a couple of days ago, so we took the opportunity yesterday to explore the Armenian quarter of the old city of Jerusalem. According to Let's Go, the Cathedral of St. James was holding vespers at 3pm. We killed time looking at hand-painted porcelain, and then a little before 3 started looking for the entrance to the cathedral. The Armenian quarter has more of a closed feel than the other quarters--there aren't a lot of signs advertising attractions or shopkeepers badgering passersby. We did see a bunch of people coming out of a gate though, wearing what I would describe as "Sunday best", so JG asked them where the entrance to the cathedral was. They gestured to the interior of the courtyard, and we entered. Still unclear where the cathedral was, we followed a black-robed priest who looked like he was in a hurry, and then converged with a tour group. Soon, we were at the service. One of the worshippers reminded me to remove my hat, and I noted the old ladies in attendance covering their hair with Lacy scarves.

The "Cathedral" was more of a chapel, or at least the part we were in was. It was gorgeous though. The ceiling had a lot of silver, porcelain, and glass candle lamps hanging from it at different heights. It occurred to me that this kind of lighting scheme, which I have also seen in Eastern Orthodox churches here, may have been the inspiration for the very modern hanging lights in the sanctuary at my home synagogue. None of these lamps was lit, however, and natural light from the upper story of arched windows filtered down to illuminate the space. When the angle of the sun was just right, a thin pencil of light would penetrate all the way to the floor, highlighting the previously invisible dust particles suspended in the air. The walls had medieval-looking paintings all over them. What wasn't covered with paintings was intricate tile in green, blue, and white, and what wasn't tiled was stone, etched with crosses. The floor was covered by Persian-style rugs.

Priests and alter boys were chanting a melancholy tune in a non-diatonic scale. From time to time the music would change and an alter boy would come out swinging a ringing silver incense burner that put out puffs of smoke from (I think) frankincense. The smell along with the chanting was sleep-inducing. I was jealous of the old priests who had plush armchairs to sit on. Changes in music were accompanied by changes in dress. Alter boys would bring out brilliant cloaks and help the priests put them on, arranging their headgear (pointed like Mt. Ararat, I remembered a tour guide explaining at some point) just so. When the music became more vigorous, the whole host headed for the back, which I had assumed was just a vestibule when I walked through it, and did some chanting back there. During this time, priests and alter boys shuttled old books on shtenders back and forth.

After the service ended, the alterboys changed out of their robes and back into blazers. We thanked a priest and he told us to come again.

Friday, May 18, 2007

A question of semantics

Part of the reason it can be so hard to make any progress when discussing religion is that different people think the word "religion" means different things. The rifts in definition of "religion", however, need not run along lines of belief/nonbelief, or religious/secular. Quite the contrary, believers and nonbelievers in a specific religion may in fact agree on what "religion" is, while disagreeing about whether it's true. This phenomenon partly explains the difficulty American Jews face in communicating with secular Israelis about religion.

So, what is religion?

As an illustrative example, let me explain what "religion" means to most Americans: that is, to American Christians and to American nonbelievers. For American Christians and for American nonbelievers, religion should answer the following question: What happens after I die?

Those Americans who find Christianity's answer to this question satisfactory become Christians; those who don't find Christianity's answer satisfactory reject Christianity. Of course, this is a broad simplification of a complicated social trend, but I argue that believers and nonbelievers in American Christianity share this basic expectation of religion.

Israelis have a different expectation of religion. I hypothesize that, for both secular Israelis and ultra-orthodox Israelis, religion should answer the following question: What is the relationship between God and my people?

Israelis may have beliefs about the afterlife, rooted in the Jewish tradition, but the question of the afterlife is peripheral to religion for Israelis (as for Jews generally), just as the notion of peoplehood vis-a-vis God is peripheral, or even foreign, to most Christians. Israelis who find in the Jewish religion a satisfactory answer to the question of peoplehood vis-a-vis God generally become orthodox. Israelis who do not find in the Jewish religion a satisfactory answer to that question generally become secular.

And what about American Jews? I hypothesize that American Jews have a hard time communicating with secular Israelis about religion because American Jews have a different definition of religion. And what is the question which American Jews expect Judaism to answer? I'm not sure, but as an attempt, let me quote the Cambridger rebbe (who, to be sure, has started many sentences with "Judaism is..." only to finish them differently). He said, "Judaism is the conversation about what Judaism should be."

I realize that the foregoing "question" is not a question at all, but an elliptical statement. I further recognize that it is self-referential in a way that neither the "American Christian" nor "Israeli" definitions of religion I have proposed are, and that therefore my "American Jewish" definition of religion is not parallel to my other two. But, in a way, I think this lack of structural parallelism accurately evokes the difficulty American Jews have in talking about religion with Israelis: not only do we define religion differently, but we define religion as two different kinds of things entirely.

The Israeli may say simply that he rejects Judaism, and such a statement is logical according to his definition of religion. By rejecting Judaism, he means that he finds Judaism does not satisfactorily inform him of the nature of the relationship between God and the Jewish people. Perhaps he doesn't believe in God, or perhaps he has found the meaning of Jewish peoplehood elsewhere, such as in secular Zionism--there are many possibilities, and they all amount to a denial of Judaism, for the Israeli.

But the American Jew, exhibiting his stereotypical erudition and penchant for acrobatic philosophical posturing, cannot comprend the Israeli's rejection of religion. The reason is that, under the American Jew's definition of religion, it is utterly impossible to "reject Judaism", except if it be by simply ceasing to think about Judaism at all one way or the other. Try it! The circularity is sternly inclusive:

Under the American Jewish logic,
(1) to reject Judaism would mean coming to believe that Judaism inadequately answers the question of what Judaism should be;
(2) yet for a skeptic to believe that Judaism fails adequately to answer the question of what Judaism should be implies that our skeptic holds some rationale for judging a reasonable answer to the question of what Judaism should be;
(3) and if our skeptic holds a rationale for judging answers to the question of what Judaism should be, he is davka already participating (at a rather high level) in the conversation about what Judaism should be;
(4) making exemplary Jew.

As American Jews, with our bizarre, sternly inclusive, circular definition of Judaism, we can be quite comfortable with participating in Jewish ritual life and traditional Jewish study to any greater or lesser degree. The whole spectrum of religious observance becomes an open field for trial and subsequent reflection. And if we are inconsistent in our practice, it is only because we are searching.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


Monolatry is an important word to know for understanding a country like Israel whose nationhood is bound so closely with its religion.

Monolatry means the worship of one god. This is as distinguished from monotheism, which means the belief in one god. Catch the distinction?

So, the role of monolatry in the history of the Jewish religion is as a middle form between polytheism and monotheism. King David, like all Israelites at that time, was a polytheist. At some point after David, however, there was a change. Judaism changed into a henotheistic religion, which is to say it believed in several gods but preferentially worshipped one. The next stage after henotheism (and this would be about 300 years after David) was monolatry.

Monolatry was a little different from henotheism because monolatry introduced the idea of god having a special relatioship with the nation of Israel. Monolatry is where religion and nationalism become linked. A monolater may or may not believe that other gods exist, or he may be agnostic about them. But he believes that, as far as his nation is concerned, there is only one god for them. Unlike a henotheist, a monolater does not fear the dust storm god or the bad luck god and the sea storm god and so forth; even if they do exist, they can't touch him because his nation is protected by his national god. As long as his nation stands, so does his god.

Monolatry is not monotheism. Monotheism developed only after the Jews were exiled to Babylon. For then, their nation really was destroyed, and they needed an enlarged, more universal understanding of god in order to carry on being Jews. So, they developed monotheism: the positive belief that there is one and only one god for all of man kind.

Monotheism is a pretty tall order, and I would argue that many many modern Israelis are in fact not monotheists, but monolaters. I mean this in the following sense: their religion is bound up in nationalism. Think of the kotel, the western wall. Its most powerful association for most secular Israelis is as the place where certain army units are sworn in. The kotel is a religious symbol co-opted for nationalist purposes (and has been ever since Herod built it). For a true monotheist, god is a parable for universalist ideas such as universal human dignity, human rights, human brotherhood, etc. One god is the proverbial reflection of the idea of one humanity. But for a monolater, one god is a parable for the unity of his nation. One god is the reflection of his unified nation.

I think ideally Judaism is a religion of both monotheism (belief in one god) and monolatry (worship of one god). Judaism says that there really is only one god for everyone, but that the Jewish people has a special relationship with that god. (Judaism is open to and ultimately agnostic about the possibility that other peoples also have special relationships with that same god.)

Monday, May 14, 2007

Just another shabbat in Jerusalem

On shabbat, MA and I went to TS's seuda shlishit. There were some secular Israelis there, and some other Americans, and somehow we started talking about the relationship between government and religion here. It is striking how these conversations always seem to go the same way, Americans totally impassioned, Israelis staring blankly.

From the American point of view, Israel's government supports one form of Judaism to the exclusion of others, and a particularly obnoxious one at that: ultra-orthodoxy. The ultra-orthodox minority controls marriage, death, and conversion for all Jews in Israel. And their form of Judaism is really sexist. "Why should the government support this?" the Americans demand. "Why do the rest of us have to live under their form of Judaism?"

The secular Israelis, meanwhile, feel disconnected from religion, and can't figure out why the Americans care so much what shade of silliness is recognized as the official religion. Moreover, they can't quite figure out how we American Jews-- modern orthodox, traditional egalitarian, or liberal--are different from the ultra-orthodox. "You are wearing a kippah and you just said kiddush, so doesn't that mean you are religious too?"

We reply that we are, but differently from the ultra-orthodox. We aren't sexist, for example. Or, we see the bible as a literary or historical document, rather than simply as devine revalation. "Why does the ultra-orthodox form of Judaism get government recognition, and not ours?"

"Because they practice the Jewish religion," reply the Israelis, quite innocently. "They are living the traditional life the way it's always been."

At this point, TS, flushed with emotion, had the best line of the evening: "Who made them God?" Her point was that Judaism has always changed and developed in every age and this idea that the ultra-orthodox are preserving authentic Judaism is a myth that the ultra-orthodox have fed to the secularists, and that the secularists have swallowed with a gullability not often associated with Israelis.

"But, if you don't like religion, why are you so worried about what the crazy ultra-orthodox do? Just leave them alone and live your own life," say the secular Israelis.

"We won't let them co-opt Judaism and steal it from us," we reply. And, indeed, for those committed American Jews born of a Jewish father and a non Jewish mother, they are literally fighting for their Judaism against a religious establishment that says they aren't Jewish.

Slightly confused, the Israelis ask, "Well, what is Judaism to you, then, if not the religion of the ultra-orthodox?"

And this it seems is the crux of the communication gap. We American Jews have had to live as a minority, and therefore we have had to think about what it is to be Jewish. We have lots of ideas about this. Judaism is a history, a set of values, a culture, a family, much more than a religion. Judaism is a nation, a civilization, encompassing a great profusion and diversity of religious practice.

These secular Israelis who don't even really consider themselves Jewish can't even anwer the question of why the State of Israel should exist, though they fight and die in place of the ultra-orthodox in order to ensure the continued existence of the State. Why does the world need a Jewish state? To protect the Jews? Perhaps, but Jewish people are really safer in the United States. It is true that Jews in Germany in 1930 thought they were perfectly safe and turned out to be tragically wrong, but the idea that the Jewish state exists solely as a refuge for the Jews rings terribly hollow to me. Perhaps it is because I have lived a life in which assimilation has always been easily within reach whereas Judaism I've had to search for and work at. Really, what can a secular Israeli say when asked why the state of Israel should exist? 3000 years of history so that...

"So that we can have a bonfire on lag baomer and cheesecake on shavuot."

That wasn't the Israelis, that was me, and I think it was my best line of the night.

After about an hour of this argument, the Israelis wearied and wanted to talk about something else. It's strange, because as American Jews in Israel, this is sort of all we ever talk about.

So no resolutions came out of this conversation, but I did learn something. I haven't had a chance yet to snap a picture, but if I think of it I will take one of a window in a Tel Aviv bridal shop. The wedding dresses in this country are scandalous. They are these lacy, revealing affairs that are not decent. Cleavage, bare midriff, bare shoulders, open back, the whole deal. It's a little shocking. "There is white material piled on in places that don't need to be covered and nothing in places that do need to be covered -- it's like what Barbie would get married in," said TS. The reason davka is religion.

(Davka, by the way, is an adverb meaning "because of but also in spite of." It's a word that recognizes that impossible ironies are integral to the cosmos.)

During the actual ceremony, there is of course an ultra-orthodox rabbi present. The ultra-orthodox rabbinate requires that wedding dresses be sufficiently modest - everything that has to be covered has to be covered, as well as a lot else. So, these brides wear some kind of a shawl thing during the ceremony, and then, as soon as the rabbi is gone, off with the shawl, on with the debauchery. The tastelessly revealing wedding dress is a thinly veiled middle finger to the enforcers of traditional morality. A little like graduating with nothing on under your robe.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Ride to Tveria

I'm getting a little out of chronological order here, but I just have to tell you about the ride to Tveria from Tel Aviv. At the bus station, there were a number of sheruts around looking for passengers. A sherut is a shared taxi that looks like a mini bus. It has a destination, but not a schedule. It waits until it has 10 passengers, and then it leaves. You pay once you are underway. So, when I got to the bus station, with my big bag, the sherut drivers knew I was going somewhere, so they piped up. "Jerusalem!" "Haifa!" "Tveria!" "Tveria!" I shouted back. It was like marco polo. "Put your bag in the back and wait here,"said the driver in Hebrew. Soon, we had 10 passengers, and the driver got in. But when he turned the key, the sherut wouldn't start. A wild and scragly looking hasid came over, said something quickly in Hebrew to the driver, and the driver told us to get out and go with this other guy. We all got our bags and shlepped to the other sherut. "Kol hazayin," I found the opportunity to say. Wild hasid driver pulled out as soon as we were all loaded, but he didn't get out of the parking lot before a third driver ran up to the driver's window, furious about something. I don't know what unwritten rules the drivers keep for determining who gets to collect passengers and whose turn it is, but I gathered that wild hasid driver had broken them. I didn't catch most of what was said, but I did catch the parting salvo: "You will pay for this! (spits on the ground)" We started moving again but were soon stopped again by a fatter, angrier driver. This one berated wild hasid for breaking the rules and said, "You should be ashamed of yourself for doing this, and you are a man who wears a kippah!"

"Yes," wild hasid replied, eyes gleaming, "and I have to finish my shift before shabbat."

With that, we drove away. Nothing else very interesting happened on the way to Tveria, except that one passenger heard the call of nature and asked the driver to pull off the highway so he could urinate. The passenger seemed to feel no embarassment at making this request, and the driver obliged without protest.

More Tsfat

As I was coming back from my hike in the wadi, I started to feel pretty hot, since the sun was up by that time. I decided to take a cool, refreshing dip in the Mikvah of the ARI. A mikvah is a ritual bath, and this particular mikvah is adjacent to the cemetary. The mikvah of the ARI is fed from a natural spring where the ARI (famous kabbalistic rabbi from way back) used to do his ritual immersion. In the first picture, you see the waters gushing from the spring and running down the hill to the mikvah.

It was still pretty early, but there were two hasids at the mikvah. One was in the tub, splashing around pretty vigorously; the other was getting dressed. I have to confess part of the fascination of going to the mikvah of the ARI was voyeuristic - the idea of peeking behind the curtain. Here are these hasids, these men who dedicate themselves to what they believe to be a righteous lifestyle, these guys who wear the black suit, white shirt, black hat, and fringes no matter how hot it gets. Their lifestyle is supposed to transcend the physical and reach for the spiritual reality in everything. Just what would they look like without all their holy clothes? Would their underwear be black, or white? (Or some other color, say, magenta or chartreuse?)

The answer is, they looked pretty scrawny. Pale, thin, with shoulders hanging forward. Wet beards and peos clinging to translucent skin. Their underwear: white, or gray (which is halfway between black and white).

I have a certain amount of sympathy with the idea of living a life that emphasizes the spiritual and deemphasizes the physical. The hasids who taught the classes on Judaism told us when we meet someone we should not think so much about what that person looks like, but rather try to understand the person inside - try to see what a beautiful soul they might have. Modern secular life certainly gives too much weight to outward characteristics in telling us how to present ourselves and judge others, and the kabbalistic approach of looking at the person inside seems to me more likely to produce social harmony. Whether the Chabadniks of Tsfat actually are better at looking at the person inside than anyone else is remains an open question - even by the Chabadniks' admission - what they say is we should WANT to see the person inside.

However, the mikvah showed me another consequence of deemphasizing the physical life in favor of spiritual pursuits. These guys were not a picture of physical well being. I can't see into people's souls, so I don't know about spiritually speaking, but they did not look like they could do ten pullups or run a mile or touch their toes or chop a cord of wood. The yogis of India see physical fitness as integral to spiritual well-being - the hasids could learn something from them!

Anyway, when Reb Splish Splash got out, it was into the mikvah for me. It was not as cold as the lake at Glacial Trails Scout Ranch, but it was cold enough that it seriously sucked the breath right out of me. Three immersions in that and I was good and cooled off, believe me. The mikvah of the ARI also explained why our sages of blessed memory, who insisted that a man ought not recite a blessing while nude, had no problem reciting a blessing in the mikvah: the water was so cloudy you couldn't see more than two inches into it. Thus, one's nudity is not in view, so saying a blessing is not a problem (remember, this is a spiritual cleansing, not a physical cleansing).

After drying off, I headed back up the hill to my hostel. But at the top, I took the second picture. It seems that water that was bursting so vigorously from the hillside was not the mineral-rich bounty of a protected aquafer. It was coming from a truck. Why, then, was it so murky? Why, then, did it smell vaguely sulferous? What, exactly, did I immerse myself in? I don't know.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007


Yesterday and today I was in Tsfat ("that place I can't pronounce," says mom). Tsfat is a mystical city. The Jews of Spain in the Middle Ages started to get quite a mystical tradition going, and when they were expelled in 1492, a bunch of them settled in Tsfat. Tsfat is high on a mountain. It is as you can see still green there, unlike most of Israel now.

Tsfat has a lot of synagogues. A lot of art galleries. A lot of ultra-orthodox. A lot of Americans who started out secular, did a lot of drugs, and then found orthodoxy and kabbalah. A lot of trinkets and magical crap. A lot of Tsfat is suffused with mysticism/superstition. The grocery store where I bought breakfast this morning is called "Super Rav-Hesed," which means "super great in compassion." I stayed at the Ascent Institute of Tsfat. They are among other things a hostel that charges 60 shekel a night for a bed, but refunds you 10 shekels for every class you attend on Judaism. Yesterday morning, when I went to check in, I asked, "Is there a bed available?"

"Are you Jewish?" asked the innkeeper.

A little offended at having my Judaism challenged, I responded, "Yes," but as soon as I had I regretted it. Did the availability of a room depend on my religion? In the United States it would be illegal (I'm pretty sure) for her to ask me the above question in that context. I immediately wished I had simply repeated my question, as in, "First tell me if there is a bed available and then we can discuss my religion." In any case, there was a comfortable bed available in a clean room, and before I could even check in I was accosted by a wild and bushy American hasid asking me where I was from, what I studied in college, telling me how much more fun I must be having now than he had when he had my youth and good looks, and trying to give me a tape of some kabbalistic stuff.

I went to two Judaism classes, so my stay was only 40 shekels.

So what are these pictures?

I went on a hike this morning to the Nahal Amud, which is a wadi, or seasonal river. I didn't know where the trail was, so I cut cross country, scrambled over boulders, clung to trees, etc. to get down to the wadi. This was all before sunrise, since I knew as soon as the sun was up I'd have to get indoors. On the way through the brush and jumble, I came across a couple tombs of old rabbis out there in the forest. They were hollows in rocks, sort of cemented into little bunkers, with blue dombed roofs. Inside, burned up candles, notes from the faithful, lots of books, some old chairs. I came across what looked like a hermit's sukkah. The hermit was not home.

Something about the air in Tsfat is elevating. Out there in the quiet morning, things just seemed so clear. It was exactly the kind of place I would like to go to everytime I have an intractable problem. A good place to go to let the pieces fall together. The trees and rocks and wildflowers all seem to say, "There are answers out there, and you are so close to finding them." I guess those rabbis felt the same thing. The patterns of wear on the limestone boulders were pretty distinctive too. They were linear cracks and scratches, crossing each other obliquely. They made me think of perhaps a homo habilus's first grasps toward abstraction - just scratches made in clay or rock as he tries to get his head around the idea that an image in his mind can be manifest in the world through a stroke of his hand.