Triplog: Israel (Part 3)

I wish we had more time to explore Jerusalem. What an amazing city. Starting at the Zion Gate, we walked through the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, exploring a place that felt more grown than built, fantastic in its layers of structure created over thousands of years. We wandered narrow alleys and countless shops, had some more falafel, and visited the crowded Western Wall, the last remains of the Old Temple of Jerusalem, where some members of the group were deeply moved. At the Davidson Center we explored the history of the Temple and the city, and wandered over and through amazing ancient ruins. The great temple measured 500 meters to a side, and was in its day an architectural marvel to match the great structures of Rome. But the Romans destroyed it, twice, and later the Dome of the Rock an Islamic mosque, rose in its former location. I could have used another couple days in the Old City alone, and would have relished the opportunity to see the various places of worship and the Christian, Arab, and Armenian quarters, but due to security and liability concerns those parts were officially off-limits to us.

We also walked through part of new Jerusalem during the quiet of Saturday Shabbat. From afar we glimpsed the Supreme Court, Knesset (parliament), and walked through a beautiful rose garden, but we did not get to enter any of the buildings. Sadly, the majority of our time in Jerusalem was spent inside underground windowless conference rooms in our hotel, due to a program called the Israel Shabbat Experience led by two well-meaning modern Orthodox men. This program, billed as potentially life-changing, could have gone better.

So far the religious component of the trip had been fairly minimal; nonetheless, many participants were on their guard, awaiting a religious indoctrination they felt was inevitable. Thus it was unfortunate that expectation setting for our Shabbat program was non-existent. In my mind, the ideal program would have started with at least a brief introduction to the fundamental principles of Jewish thought, in a purely education vein, followed by an exploration of the rich traditions that make up the Shabbat. Many participants on this trip have had little or even no experience with Jewish culture, much less with religious worship. Shabbat done well can be spiritually meaningful for people of varied backgrounds and traditions. Havdallah in particular has always struck me as a particularly beautiful ceremony.

We instead jumped straight into blessings, followed by a somewhat confusing ethical discussion based on Talmudic teachings. I felt the need to raise my hand and ask a very basic question, “what is the Talmud?” The facilitators were caught off guard by this query, and did not adequately answer it. Throughout the “discussion,” which concerned a hypothetical young German soldier on trial for Nazi war crimes, most participants were confused, uncomfortable, and guarded. Our huge 25 person discussion circles in a noisy and crowded room made meaningful debate difficult, and no one really wanted to give their opinion anyway when they felt that there was an official preordained answer to come at the end regardless of our personal thoughts. Particularly notable, in our group of young adults, was the refusal of anyone to take an absolute position about the scenario. Perhaps heated debates might take place in teenage Birthright groups, but we both refused to mete out a punishment to the German soldier without due consideration of all the facts and mitigating circumstances, and also refused to state with certainty that, in his position, we would have the moral turpitude to make the “right” choice.

What does the Talmud say? Something about moral absolutes, and the need to behave as individuals rather than to follow the crowd, and the need to understand absolute and inflexible notions of right and wrong. No one said it during the session, but afterwards several people fumed at a Talmud that would demand we follow moral absolutes rather than doctrine while at the same time allowing orthodox Jews to continue to subjugate women in accordance with religious law. Instead of explaining Talmud as I learned it, as the fundamental philosophical text of Judaism, a series of questions and answers and commentary to be studied and learned from, we inferred from our orthodox captors that Talmud is strict Jewish law, not open to discussion or debate. There were a lot of questions stewing in the group, on such potentially controversial issues as homosexuality, birth control, the role of ancient tradition in modern society, gender roles, and sexism in Judaism, but for the most part they went unasked, due to discomfort about the tone of the entire program.

Our Shabbat services were farcical. We had no challah bread for the blessing over the bread. We had no Kiddish cup for the blessing over the wine, not that either blessing was explained. The havdallah ceremony marking the end of the sabbath and the start of the new week, which is traditionally held under the stars, took place underground. The spiritual meanings of these ceremonies and the thousands of years of tradition that underly them were completely glossed over. For those like me in possession of a decent Jewish cultural background, the entire process was tedious. For others who lack that context, it were painful, upsetting, even scary.

While in Jerusalem there were two other official activities of note. We visited a traditional Israeli street market, the Makne Yehuda, in the hours leading up to the start of Shabbat. It was a sprawling and crowded mass of culinary commerce, magnificent to behold. We also spent one evening taking in the shopping and entertainment of Ben Yehuda street, including, in my case, some kosher sushi and dim sum. A great, if brief, “taste” of all the city has to offer. So much wasted opportunity in such a wondrous locale.

2 replies on “Triplog: Israel (Part 3)”

  1. On my trip, I also felt that Shabbat was handled badly. I didn’t have an experience like yours, but there was a vocalized desire from our staff to keep things from becoming too religious to avoid any discomfort that might arise. This resulted in a service that lacked in tradition, explanation, and meaning, which I personally found much more uncomfortable.
    I was surprised at how few of the participants had the religious background that you and I do, and I felt that most would have benefited from a gently educational experience.

  2. You sort of point something that’s been the crux of most major Jewish movements (besides Reform and Socialist): following the more interesting thought process of some parts of the Talmud, or absorbing the philosophy guiding the tradition, versus following the individual rulings decided on by the debates in the Talmud (and the post-Talmudic rabbinic arguments to resolve some inconclusive rulings and apply the rulings to new situations). The Talmud is a meandering collection of thousands of pages with commentary covering centuries of legal debates, wordplay, tall tales, and the occasional joke. The distillation of the final decisions reached is really only a small fragment (in fact, it’s distilled in one small volume in a later work called the Shulchan Aruch). And of course, being a massive work spanning several authors, hundreds of participants in debates and stories, and several generations, it’s awfully hard to pin down one simple guiding Talmudic way of life.

    And that’s half the fun of having so complete a record as the Talmud; you have rabbis with day jobs as leather workers arguing the finer points of obscure laws about even then-abandoned animal sacrifices, tales of peeping tom law students spying on their rabbi, jokes about the afterlife, and weird Wiccan-sounding recipes involving cat ashes to ward off evil spirits; intensely argued legal decisions with appeals to Biblical verse that are then abandoned for great reasons like “well, this should be the law, but most normal people would ignore this, so we won’t make that a law.” So it’s clearly a process very defined by circumstance and the evolving circumstances the (relatively) newly exiled nation was finding itself in.

    The American equivalent debate (different in many ways, but same basic idea) is over the intentions of the Framers versus the wording of the Constitution, or “activist judges.” But consider: The mishnah and talmud span a period of history longer than the USA’s entire existence. So “what would the Talmud want me to do” is a much more complicated and more massive thing to dive into than Constitutional law :).

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