Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Chevra Kaddisha - Sacred Society or Life beyond life

The Jewish communities celebrate on 7 Adar the birth (2368 bce) and the death of Moshe Rabbenu, Moses, the biggest and most humble prophet in Israel. It is a traditional day of fast, studies and the day is also dedicated to the Chevra Qaddisha\חברא קדישא, i.e. the special group that is responsible for the burial of the people, in the State of Israel. It is a special and most important mitzvah to pray for the living. It is also a very human and humane task to accompany a person who passed away into earth. This duty is even emphasized in Judaism as we can read in the deutero-canonical books of Tobias/Tevya, written in Greek in which the man is a priest and still buries all the bodies of people that he finds on his way. The book is not recognized as the official and canonical books of Judaism, but it is present in the Septuagint and maybe read for spiritual support. Death is a great moment. It maybe a moment of terrible fear, fright. We all die alone, "naked" as we came into the world. Still at the moment we showed out the womb of our mother, we had a strong nourishing link that had to be cut. It may often, most often, invisibly remain in our memory, longing. When we come to the world, we are supposed to cry out, a first sound, deeply breathed in that collects air into the lungs and deploy them to the full. We have to cry and then... it starts but the umbilical cord has been removed or ever. We think at times of it with spleen and nostalgia when facing our mirror and eventually having a look at our navel. Interestingly, inside of the Holy Sepulcher Greek Orthodox Katholikon main Church, on the way out to the Tomb, there is a special stone also called the "navel of the world". The Son of God was shaped into the Body of Jesus and the Oriental tradition is simply aware that a body has a navel. Moreover, being located at the spiritual center of the universe, it is evident that we are the "navel of this planet".

By the way, Jewishness has the same but a bit inside of the Old City, at the Kotel\כותל, the Western Wall. Then we face the Wall, the huge stones, we pray toward the East because the wall faces the West. Indeed, there is a split in Jerusalem: the Holy Sepulcher or Anastasis (Resurrection) and the Temple Mount, with the venerated Wall. It is also considered as the center of the inhabited world where people may come to pray, cry, weep, sob, speak, have a heart-to-heart talk with God or dubiously contemplate the "remnants" of the "Living Place of Sanctity-Mikdash\מקדש". It is very moving to stay there at midnight, in particular when it drizzles over Jerusalem, when it is cold or, on the contrary when the soft night wind sways around the few people that recite the Tehillim/Psalms for the salvation of the living or read the "Song of the Song". Flying kipot (skullcaps) and running chaps or shy grownups whose girlfriends or wifes will catch the holy head cover on their side. Doves, pigeons, sparrows walk around singing in their tweet-tweet sounds, believers blow into the shofar (trumpet of salvation), male and female police and soldiers professionally consider the place and the visitors. The Arabs pass from the Old City to another end of some quarter or to the mount of Olives.

At midnight, every night, I try to have a night Service for the living and the dead. In my room at the Great Monastery of Jerusalem, I also face the East. Just going ahead, continuing on the path, I can reach the Anastasis and then, over and over further to the Western Wall, then the Mount of Olives. The place drastically changed over the decades. It was half destroyed and broken. It is now a very pleasant place for the pilgrims, the visitors, the people who asked to be buried there. A very decent place as it is usual for the Jews, very modern, nice-looking and with white stones, suitable tombs. Some places need a repair, but everything will be done before prophet Elijah will blow into the shofar of redemption, heralding the venue of the messiah and the end of times. Of course there are property problems, but I am not concerned. It is very striking to note how the Chabad developed around the Mount of Olives into Abu Dis. Quite unexpected some century ago. We hardly can anticipate the coming of the messiah, but nobody could think in the Ukraine, between Chernovitzi and Odessa that the descendants would buy their tombs in the most ancient place of the Jewish memory.

Still, do we really remember? Zechor\זכור in Hebrew does not mean "to remember" only. It plays on written and uttered roots. It tracks back t o"zachar\זכר = male" and the generational memory transmitted over years, centuries, thousands of years and do we remember then? It means that a "male" gives a "semen" = "imprinting mark" to a woman and cause a human being to birth. This is why we are born naked and we leave the world "naked" as well. The difference is that we may cry when dying, some use to call their mother, other would mumble or groan or breathe deeply and with pain, much sufferings. Some are conscious, some are not aware and seem to belong to the "Other world". Some seem to be radiant, others are distorted, lame, stunned, eyes facing the future or some apparent emptiness. Precisely, this makes no sense for Jewishness and Christendom. I don't want to speak of Islam because I know too little about it. I do respect Islam a lot: it is a sort of "universal Judaism", born in the desert. Words, actions, thoughts are deep and said in short to develop in multitudes of meanings.

"Ta spermata" in Greek is so clear: we are born of "generating (semen)" that creates history and going ahead of everything. Generations born of male as a physical memory that allows the human to be creative just as God is as to shape a human being in His Image and Likeness. It comes out of a "neqava\נקבה = hole = female" that is cyclically rhythming along the many years of impregnating fertility. It is a rhythmic movement of humankind. At the present, the Great Lent of the Eastern Orthodox traditions requires to stop all sexual intercourse till the time of Resurrection and Eastern/Passkha. The pious Jews have the same : to separate and to get together on a cyclic basis. In the Song of the Song, a real mystical book that Saint Thérèse of Lisieux could hold tight to her body and that she read with much insights, the bride and the bridegroom match in words without ever meeting in reality. It calls for love: "I abjure you, maidens of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the hinds of the field: do not wake or rouse Love until it please! השבעתי בנות ירושלים בצבאול או באילות השדה אם-תעירו ואם תעוררו את האהבה עד שתחפץ (2:7 and seq.)".

In Jerusalem, we expect the revelation of the future, but the prophets were killed there. We anticipate the resurrection of the dead and people still want to buy their coffins and tombs or - as in the apostolic times - live among the tombs and caves. Jews conduct non-stop prayers from the recent "Ir David\עיר דוד" facing the Mount of Olives to recall and memorize the departed, while on the other side, the Tomb of the Virgin-Theotokos Mary goes deep down into the rock and caves, at Gethsemane.

Do we recall the living? Or can we even simply imagine that the Body of the Great Assembly encompasses all of our humankind? This is Jerusalem, the "Community from Above and the Community of beneath = Qahal shel Ma'lah veQahal shel Matah\קהל של מעלה וקהל של מטה - the immense crowds of people of all nations, races, tongues, tribes that will rise from the great journey. I thought of the wonderful book written by Kurt Lewin, the son of the late Chief Rabbi of L'viv (Lwow, Lvov, Lemberg). His father used to visit the outstanding metropolitan Andryi Sheptytskyi who saved so many Jews and telexed to Hitler and Himmler to protest against the extermination of the Jews. He was the only man who ever went so far. He was leading a permanent synod of his clergy from his wheelchair at Jur (Lviv).

His brother Klement had saved the young Kurt Lewin who, after the war, arrived in Israel by some miracle and fought in the army. He later left for Canada and met with some Ukrainian clergy. He eagerly wanted to witness in favor of the canonization of the metropolitan. This has been blocked over the years because the man was indeed a hierarch out of all norms. He had visited the Holy Land, spoke and read Hebrew, could speak in Yiddish and wrote so many notes against the extermination of the Jews. Some people do not like him or do not trust him at the moment. His canonization process began in 1958. The procurator in charge of collecting all the documents is still Mgr. Michael Hrynchynshyn, a Canadian Saskatoon-born Ukrainian bishop who got involved in this incredible story. I owe him a lot and always visit him in Europe. Today, during the Service of the Great Compline and the reading of the "Great Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete, (in fact he was also in Jerusalem)", I recalled him, both the bishop and his task that he will conduct till his last forces for the living memory of the great man of the Church and the great friend of Jewishness. And then, among the icons that cover our wonderful rather small church above the Holy Sepulcher, the chanting reminded me the words of Kurt Lewin in his book "A journey through illusion". He described the first Ukrainian Service he attended to as a Jew sheltered in order to be saved from the surrounding killings. He describes the Vespers/Evening Service with much precision and exactitude. He attended many times. And he added: Fr. Klement (the metropolitan's brother) told him many times as also to other Jews and rescued that it was very important to remember what we have learnt in our early days, to collect the data and words and save them so that in times of hardships and loneliness, they could be helpful and allow us to face what we would never have expected. I prayed for these men today. I often do. I often think of our ways and do regret that I never met personally with Kurt Lewin.

Today, in Lviv, there is a danger to capture the personality of metropolitan Andryi. Some people would never answer or write to me. But the metropolitan was a man out of standards, a man of pardon, or sufferings that do not rely or achieve in pains and aching but these are symptoms that lead to life, from now on, till we are together. Even if we are born to quit each other, or get separated, God will teach us in time. My handicaped daughter said that to my wife when she was a child. She had just lost her mother. The child looked at her and quietly said: "Don' worry, mom, God explains now to your mother what she could not understand; and morever, you see, you have me and I just have the same face so that I will look after you".

On this 7 Adar 5769, it was also my wife's birthday (3rd of March). A woman of virtue, values, beauty. A way of faith that confuses a lot and still is deeply marked by God's Presence and Providence since our encounter and marriage on the Kinneret and our present life-style: the Church does unite for ever Jews and Gentiles in a manner than goes through the pangs of birth (Galatians 4:19). Whatever people want, desire, wish, capture or rapture, seize or long to frame with envy and hatred, we do not understand that God's Love is to wake and rouse only upon Divine time and schedule. All the rest is nothing but life and pardoning.

We have today in the Eastern Orthodox Church as we continue to read the Great Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete. It is Saint Philemon of Gaza's name day. Gaza was a town in Phrygia. His story is accounted in the shortest but clearest Christian-inspirited epistle written by Paul of Tarsus. St. Paul was put into jail and sent to Rome where he met with Onesimus, a servant of a wealthy man, Philemon. A man in whom Saint Paul had full confidence. Onesimus had robbed and cheated Philemon and this is why he was in jail. He met with Paul and was baptized by him because he had become a believer, a man of faith. In his short "epistle to Philemon" Paul wrote to Philemon that he was in jail and had met Onesimus who had harmed Philemon. Paul understands quite well. But, in the name of God, he sends back Onesimus to Philemon and asks the "boss" to welcome him with much love and like a brother for the sake of the Risen Lord. He asks him to pardon him and not to treat him badly because God had released Onesimus. He also dares write to Philemon: "(Onesimus) is no longer a slave, receive him as a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you... if he had wronged you or owes you anything, put that upon my account. I - Paul am writing that with my own hand. I will repay" (Philemon 15-17). Philemon did receive Onesimus and they both served the Church.

In this letter, Paul summarizes the whole of the Christian faith and the Jewish way. The problem is that the two function in different manners or methods. And also that they are terribly estranged. But this short letter is not only good for Lent and Fast. It is one of the last writings of the Gospel. It is one of the fundamentals of the Way. Thus, we can come back to saint Thérèse of Lisieux. She was a very young girl, 15 years old, wanted to save the prisoners and the criminals and pray for the clergy. She heard of a frightful criminal, Henri Pranzani, who had killed a woman in horrible circumstances. She decided she would pray for him and she asked for a sign of his repentance, if any. She got it: the man who had no faith suddenly asked for a cross and kissed it before being brought to the guillotine. This "humble prayer" was not the demand of a bizarre teen; on the contrary, it got to the heart of humble praying demands for the sake of salvation.

There is a steadfast work in the people I tried to mention today: hope beyond hope. Pardon beyond all possible awareness or conscience, because God only calls the living. This is why, it is not only the day for the Chevra Kaddisha\חברא קדישא (Aramaic words) that bring the departed to some rest. It is also the day of the birth of Moses, a day of unexpected miracles.

This is why I wonder if mgr Richard Nelson Williamson should not benefit of this kind of praying demand. It is useless to ask for written documents. The man cannot write. He cannot suddenly admit that he recognizes the Jews and the gas chambers or the mass murders. He cannot accept that Vatican II exists and is ongoing. This has nothing to do with the Pope's journey to Israel, Palestine or Mount Nebo... It has nothing to do with 6 million and some many thousands and thousands of other victims (from the Gypsies to the homosexuals of both sexes, the Slavs and the Communists and these and those). I thought of Kurt Lewin, the son of the Chief Rabbi of Lviv/Lemberg, stubbornly wanting to witness that a great man of faith, metropolitan Andryi Sheptytskyi, apparently abandoned during the terrible World War II, saved thousands and so many more of Jews in inhuman conditions. Still unknown at this point. The metropolitan is not recognized because of the Poles, the Germans, the Ukrainian fascists, the Soviets, and sadly by the Jews at the moment. Metropolitan Andryi showed to be a real conscience enlightened by God. And this is hardly accepted by many at this point. But how can anybody - inside and outside of the Catholic Church - require from a senior Tridentine excommunicated (he is still in that stand) clergyman to bear the guilt of all those who want him to sign things he just cannot even acknowledge. The man has nothing to do in Auschwitz, nor in Israel, nor to be trapped somewhere far from Patagonia.

He only needs to be touched by the grace of God. He has to be pardoned, not by any human, but by God. And this is the exploit that reached so many people when they interceded, expecting nothing else than Divine cuddling for humans in distress. Who knows? Nothing is impossible to God. Faith can cause a mustard tree to grow or a mountain to move. Why in the world should such a person be required to make repentance while we clutch to our wounds? I am a survivor of these wounds, but I am sure that intense prayers can bring to goodness, love and life. There are men that are only used for tactical and diplomatic purposes; they do not cause real repentance and this is very sad if not a big mistake. It prolongs hatred while faking to settle pending issues. True, it may happen that Israel has no other choice than wrestling in the darkness of hideous memories that cannot die out.

When A. Eichmann was taken to Israel, he visited the country and saw how the Jews had developed the country. He was asked what he felt at this view. He answered that he only accomplished his task and duty and though the realizations were nice, he did not regret what he had done.

I believe with full confidence that God resurrects the dead.

av Aleksandr [Winogradsky Frenkel]

March 4/February 18, 2009 - 8 Adar 5769 - ח' דאדר תשס"ט
Saint Sepulcher square, my wife, our children and me on the top of the Great Monastery in Aug. 2003, shadowed on the opposite wall.