Thursday, November 22, 2007

Hagidah na: pray, tell me

Geshem! Rain or tif-tuf... drizzling drops! some water falls, temperatures seem to fall down toward winter. Fresh air and warm clothes, hats, head covers of all sorts; well, hoods are fashion. Quakes come slightly up from the depths of the earth. Queues of Russian Orthodox pilgrims join the many foreign tourists. We might discover in the coming years how important the traditional pilgrimages are that lead the rich and the poor to travel to the Holy Land and Jerusalem from Russia, the Ukraine, Belorussia, Romania, Bessarabia, the Ural mounts. It covers a huge territory that starts at the bottom of Siberia to swindle along Caucasus, Georgia (where the Talmud was "achieved"), Armenia.

The weather might dissuade some Westerners, though still... they are used to rain. The Slavs don't mind for various reasons: if they are “new wealthy” and made a fortune out of the blue, they do have the required money and adequate currencies. The Dollar's dropping down affects the poor who would barely eat and drink but run along all religious places to following the "Jesus’ footsteps". Of course, we have 24 000 Jewish pilgrims alle yuhr / per annum to pray at the Breslover Rebbe’ grave at Uman, in the Ukraine, but who counts?

On the other hand, these numerous God-seekers and new converts to renewing Eastern-Orthodox faith show a curious impact: I am always astounded by the power of clothes on our minds and understanding of reality. The local Israeli Christian Orthodox faithful do have their tours. They are dressed like anybody in Israel, with blowing up chewing gums / mastik (from French "clue"), tight jeans, tanned skin, holding their mobiles and 5768 version of light dirt pink sweaters with hoods. Piety mixes with ignorance and some thirst to visiting the Holy Places. Then, it is so cool to drink a Maccabi beer and swallow a falafel in between. The Israeli guide speaks Israeli.

The new style “foreign-on-pilgrimage” Christian Orthodox, is modestly dressed, accompanied by priests with big pectoral crosses, heavy Russian skufias (skufiot say the Israeli children) or clerical hoods, long black cassocks. The groups seem in shock, discovering Jerusalem, lodging mostly in hotels and guest-houses and marching out all the day. The Christian Orthodox guide speaks what he has got from some Gospel and formal catechization. People would not meet: no way for locals to meet with other locals and certainly not foreigners with locals. They say Todah to the Arabs and Shukran to the Jews, one more normal sign of confusion.

We feel as if we were in 1917 in any place of some Eastern Orthodox region from Poland to the Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria and the tsarist empire. Fascinating how 90 years have passed. Still, we might have the (erroneous?) impression that we participate in an old film, thanks modern technique (Schindler's List has it). Upgrading is difficult with such mutual ignorance of Israelis toward these visitors who focus on the first century and some essential periods that are over. Paving the way to modernity is still very uncommon and full of hardships. Indeed, how can these numerous pilgrims accept modernity as they desperately dive into the past to wipe out the rejected apostasy that, inter alia, revolutionized their society?

Hats are a major factor allowing to differentiating the various denominations or sects that exist in Israel. November 20th, 2007 = 10 deKislev 5768. 180 years ago, the "Mitteler Rebbe", DovBer, the second Rabbi of Lubavitch movement was released from prison where he had been sent because, after the death of his father, R. Schneur Zalman fun Lyadi in Kremenchug, he made his way to this Belorussian-Ukrainian town. He had a lot of money that he thought more useful to distribute to the needy and was denounced as carrying illegal actions against the Ottoman Empire in Palestine. Interestingly, this accusation showed repeatedly in the history of the Chabad. Thus, Kislev 19, 5559 is a very special date for the Hassidic movement. On that date (November 27, 1798), the founder of the Chabad, R. Schneur Zalman of Lyadi was released after 52 days spent in jail in Saint Petersburg for conspiracy against the Czar and already suspected of specific actions in Palestine. It became the Rosh HaShanah of the Hassidic movements era, in particular of the Chabad. This year, it will correspond to November 29, 2007 marking the 60th anniversary of the partition of the country (Eretz) into two possible countries by the United Nations.

We go through a very rich, historically memorizing period: on November 20th, Queen Elisabeth celebrated the 60th anniversary of her marriage with Prince Philip. Dramatic events were then affecting our region; the State of Israel also came to a turn and then into existence sixty years ago. The Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain loves hats as we do, though for different reasons. Her marriage has seemingly been full of love and patience. The event trails back to the major events linked to the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the upgrading of our local changes. The Anglo’s are still pretty much involved in Iraq and the Middle-East, for the same reasons as they were by the time of the World War I and 60 years ago. The Queen’s marriage has overcome and challenged all the disturbances of the royal family. Israel rose again as an independent State that it had not been long before the Christian calendar. Still, we hardly can match or tie the knot with the neighboring states. Israel continues a striving internal search and external grafting process in view to reach our full identity. Actually, November 20 is also the Children’s Day and we often may look like fiddling in a kindergarten.

This Shabbat Vayishlach [And (Jacob) sent (messengers)] is read in Bereishit 32:1-36:43. The haftarah – prophetic version is to be found in Prophet Hosea 11:7-12:12 (Ashkenazim) and Ovadyah 1:1-21 (Sefardim). On the one hand, Ya’akov wrestled a whole night till dawn with a man (ish immo) (Gen. 32:25-33). He fought alone, wrestling with himself and subsequently with God because this struggle was a combat for maturity. In such a situation, souls are compelled to fight against what is invisible, a sort of hidden punching-ball that injures till we reach our identity. We remain alone, as Jacob was that night when he became Israel. Thus, he is the fruit of Abraham’s blessing. Isaac remained alone and obediently accepted his life in full loneliness. Jacob faced a war, wounded his hip and the sinew for ever. In being alone they got the call to have lots of children, more numerous than the sand!

Still, Isaac met Rebecca through the shadchen-servant as he was coming from the outskirts, ba mibo (Gen. 24:63), from outside of what could be considered as the spiritual battlefield for prolonging the blessing, from the outskirts of his self. This loose attitude is en vogue at the moment. It is also a sort of lack of self-determination that shows a lot of sufferings, some hardships in clear and conscious acceptance of who we are. This is one aspect of Isaac’s personality because he mainly acted alone because he trusted God and Abraham. As shown by many rabbis, Abraham similarly treated Ishmael (sending him into exile) and Isaac (substituting him by the ram) in a kind of double Akeidah or bond/binding that isolated them for the time of their lives and history. God’s reward to spiritual solitude is get large communities.

This is why Jacob’s petition: “Hagidah-na shemcha – please tell me your name” (Gen. 32:30) is so intriguing and significant. This phrase is astonishingly close to gid hanasheh – the sinew of the hip/thigh that the Jews are not allowed to eat (Gen.32:33) as it caused injury to Jacob for ever, keeping him limping in the face of God. Why should you know my Name? the question corresponds to the very sinew that allows human beings to walk in discovering life and announce how difficult it may be to assume God’s election. We are rather reluctant to see the close connection that links our interrogating God about His Name with our physical shape that shows the Image and Likeness of God with much precision.

Interestingly, Jacob returns to Isaac’house and can bury him with Abraham at the cave of Machpelah.

The haftarah accounts: “In the womb, Jacob seized his brother’s heel, and with his strength he overcame (Sarah) (an angel of) God. He struggled with an angel and prevailed (Hosea 12:4-5). “sharah/sari”, playing on alternative “shin and sin” consonants, refers to loosening, overcoming of a place, to dwell, take lodging.

Jacob’s wrestling to reaching his “self” is a real face-to-face with God. “The exiled community of the children of Israel who are in Eretz Canaan, Tzarfat, and the exile of Jerusalem in Sefarad will take possession of the cities. And saviors will ascend Mount Zion to judge Mount Esau and then the Lord will have total dominion” (Ovadyah 20).

A disciple of Paul of Tarsus wrote an appealing verse about the strange path we often have to go through, seemingly as tortuous like Jacob’s fight: “In your struggle against sin you have not resisted to the point of shedding blood. You have also forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons: “My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by Him; for whom the Lord loves, He disciplines; He scourges every son He acknowledges” (Proverbs 3:11-12; Deut. 8:5)” (To the Hebrews 12:5-6).

Monday, November 19, 2007

Sha'on: Updates and special hours

As recently noted by a Western journalist specializing in religious affairs, most maps and confessional patterns that were extant till some decades ago are obsolete at the present in the Near and Middle-East, in particular in the State of Israel and the neighboring countries, to begin with the Territories under Palestinian Authority. Indeed, Christendom does not mirror today the manifold changes that the Churches underwent since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. The British occupied Jerusalem and Baghdad in 1917. In one night, the Turkish heads and authorities had left the Holy Land. The Ottoman Empire definitely collapsed in 1922 with the foundation of the Turkish republic - considered as a catastrophe by the nation. The British exerted their mandate over Palestine from 1920 till they left at the eve of Israel's independence on May 14, 1948.

This means that, for centuries, the Holy Land has been twice under the rule of the Ottomans and taken over, conquered or defended by some colonial superpowers, mainly the Christian kingdoms, empires and states that tried to protect - according to their own interests and privileges - the "kingship of Jesus Christ in the Holy Land". Let's say that, lately, the region that comprises Eretz Kanaan/Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, Arabia has been protected by shifts by Rome and the Popes that launched the crusades (Great-Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy), then Mediterranean countries like Christian Orthodox Greece and the Russian Empire insofar it is possible to speak of separate national entities until the 19th centuries.

On the other hand, the crusades were launched for various reasons that did not necessarily aimed to protect and save the Holy sites of Christianity. Hungers, epidemic diseases, unemployment and terrible misery combined with the different splits that affected the unity of the Church do explain these moves towards Jerusalem. The local Church of Jerusalem has always been broken down into trends, which somehow is typically oriental. The crusaders were racing with appetite toward plundering and sacking holy cities and regions that had progressively become estranged to the unity of the One Church. They raped, murdered on their way to saving Jerusalem from the hands of the infidels. As a consequence, each nation and the papacy, Constantinople (first see for the Orthodox Christians), progressively sent their missionaries: this is why there are thirteen main Churches recognized by the State of Israel as the heritage of the Ottoman firmans (legal decisions/authorizations). The Franciscans have been present since the 13th century; the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem was cut down step by step. The Crimean war (1853-6) led in the Russian Empire mainly aimed at securing the Orthodox rights over the Holy Sepulcher... In the meanwhile, in the South of Eretz, the faithful were Lutheran and Anglican in the North - a pedigree German Kaiser-King of England agreement concluded by loving cousins.

The en masse arrival of Armenian and Syrian-Orthodox believers in the Holy Land after the Ottoman genocide in Turkey (1915), a lot of Maronites from Lebanon (in the 70 and 80ies) paved the way to other Western denominations like the Baptists, Mennonites and now Evangelicals... Some Christian Orthodox left the mother Church and joined Rome like the Greek Catholics (Melkites), the Syrian Catholics. Most Chaldeans live in Jordan. In Palestine, their Orthodox brethren, the Nestorians or Assyrians had been murdered in a few days by the Ottomans at the beginning of the 20th century. This means that the Churches (Eastern Orthodox, Catholics, Ancient Churches and the sects that mainly appeared throughout history in Western Europe continue to live on a colonial pattern in the Holy Land and regard themselves in accordance with this hardened old-hat structure. The French Catholic “Freres – Brethren” educated generations of Arabs and expatriates of all denominations. The German Catholic and Lutheran presence is significant. The Russian ecclesiastical missions that had separated after the Bolshevik Revolution just reunified in May 2007, on Ascension Day. The Georgians wrote in Jerusalem their first texts and dwelt for a while with the Greeks at the Great Monastery above the Holy Sepulcher. The Serbs, the Romanians and other Orthodox used to reside in the country. A lot of educated Arabs perfectly speak Armenian who are well-read and whose convent shelters one of the most renowned libraries of the Christian world. This merely corresponds to a British-Ottoman map. The same is true with regards to the restoration of the Latin Patriarchate in 1876 that had been suppressed after the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Jews have always lived in Eretz Israel. They recurrently came up to the country in times of great distress or mystical movements (Rabbi Luria Caro and the Kabbalah), convinced by the false messiah Shabtai Zvi and the terrible pogroms in Eastern Europe in 1648. This provides a lot of keys to understanding how Israeli society develops in the present on the basis of messianic and prophetic internal drives that, in the end, may be spiritually stronger than the Shoah (Gerschom Scholem, Abraham Heschel).

People are used to the clashes that affect, on a regular basis, the relationships between the Churches inside of the Holy Sepulcher and its compound (Copts and Ethiopians). Photographs dating of the end of the 19th century show Franciscans and Greek-Orthodox clergy and lay people fighting with much conviction. It happened until recently. People should also know and experience that it is a unique place in the world where any human may come and pray and this is more significant than any division. Still, the traditional Churches have changed. The Franciscan Custody covers a huge territory composed of different countries where the faithful have evolved and live in the present on new patterns. In Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Cyprus, i.a., the faithful of different Churches don’t share the same problems and life realities. Before 1967, Jordan exerted a full control over the Holy sites of Jerusalem. Today, the Christians in Jordan are much educated and totally Arab. The very few Christians that remain in Bethlehem and the West Bank feel isolated. Gaza is totally isolated and a shame for any human conscience. Galilean Arabs can freely feel Arab, Christian and Palestinian and still be Israeli citizens. On the other hand, everywhere different North American or Protestant sects, born along the Rhine by the time of the Reformation (16th c.), have shown up in the country and are active: the Quakers, Baptists, Methodists, Evangelicals along with Messianic believers paralleled by some new wave Italian or Polish groups. Nonetheless, it is quite amazing how the Arab Christians of Jerusalem would not really pay attention to these historic splits and indistinctly frequent all these churches for personal or family convenience, thus maintaining a native form of unity.

It is true that the Christian natives suffers and will continue to go through hardships at the peripheries of Israeli Galilee and the Merkaz-Center. They are definitely not likely to speak out and still live with mental attitudes that swing between strong individualism and singularity of each sect and old-fashioned views that hardly can cope with the Israeli way of ruling and obligation of the people to be responsible for who they pretend to be.

Israel has a Christian unconscious part. It is in charge of an immense archaeological and spiritual heritage that tracks back to the first century and covers 2 000 years of monuments and spiritual life. It might be unbearable for some Jews at the moment. Three decades ago, I visited the Mount Tabor church and heard a father explaining in Hebrew to his son all the details of the Transfiguration (Hishtanut). He told me that his parents came from Poland and that being born in Israel, he felt totally free toward Christianity. He considered it was a duty to explain this to his son as a part of the local Israeli history. At the moment, the efforts developed by the State to gather the exiled into an Israeli and Hebrew entity might rebuke Jewishness in accepting any pretense or claim presented by the Christians. There is a huge gap that widens due to more and more ignorance on the Jewish side and lack of in-depth recognition of Israel on the Christian side. There is also a sort of interpretative absorption of Christian present and past that often does not match with the reality and prolongs the extant estrangement.

At different moments through history, time and hours, clocks (sha’onim) seemingly stopped or bent and curved the line of our understanding. This is terrible with regards to emunah - faith because it might obliterate existing connectedness for a while. We have been wrestling for ages, trying to envision the future and still looking backwards. Chizkiyah said to Isaiah: “What sign can you show me that the Lord will heal me?” Isaiah answered: “Shall the shade move ten degrees ahead or shall it go back ten degrees?” – Chizkiyah said: “It is easier for the shade to be extended by ten degrees… but no, let the shade turn backwards.” Isaiah asked the Lord Who turned the shade backwards by ten degrees” (2 Kings 20:1:11). Would we need some sign of that nature to understand that changes are at the heart of true and living traditions?