No Neutral Ground

No Neutral Ground

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I am not the most traveled person you ever met, though I’ve been to a good many places. I probably don’t have the authority to say this, but I will. I have seen a good many cities, liked them all, but except for two, they are all in some ways sub-species of the same genus. Not exactly “all alike,” but alike enough that they didn’t mess with my head. Except for Paris and Jerusalem. This one is about Jerusalem.

Jerusalem throws so much at the visitor, all at once, that one feels tempted either to run away screaming or just get back on the plane, or as most tourists, walk around in a stunned daze. First of all, you see lots of guns. I mean, LOTS of them. With compulsory universal military service, and with trainees required to have their rifle with them at all times, 24/7, on duty or off, this should not be surprising. But even for a gun-guy like me, it’s still odd to see a fairly attractive young lady, dressed like such young ladies everywhere…except for the automatic rifle slung over her shoulder! There is a famous picture, which, because I know what’s good for me, I have not viewed and will not post here, of a woman in a bikini, a very tiny one, with her rifle over her shoulder chatting with a friend on the Tel Aviv beach. Israelis call it “guns-n-buns.” Talk about sending mixed messages!

People line up for hours to enter the Edicule, the chunk of stone within which the tomb of Christ is seen. Constantine had all the stone around it carved away in the 4th Century.

Then of course, there is the mix of cultures. Secular Jews, westernized Arabs, Armenian arabic-speaking Christians, orthodox Jews, skinny jeans, long black coats, shaved heads, side curls and huge fuzzy hats, Christmas on Dec. 25, Christmas on Jan. 6., New Years in September, New Years AGAIN on Jan. 1…Friday sacred to Muslims, Saturdays for Jews, Sundays for Christians (Thank God for long weekends!) here at JUC they finally despaired of officially having days off for religious holidays because…there is no end of them, and with a faculty inlcuding protestant evangelicals, Jewish Rabbis, Palestinian civic leaders, a few more or less secular guest professors…you can imagine! So each professor just lets the class know what the schedule will be.

The almost sacramental sign of this craziness is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Ostensibly the holiest spot in Christendom, where everyone comes to see the grave of a religious leader precisely because he is NOT there, the church is owned collectively by a tense coalition of Latin Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrians, Copts, and Ethiopians. The group can be so fractious that the actual keys of the church are held by a Muslim family who unlock it every morning and lock it back at night. Father Jerome Murphy-O’Connor in his Oxford Archaeological Guide to the Holy Land expresses his impressions with notable candor:

One expects the central shrine of Christendom to stand out in majestic isolation, but anonymous buildings cling to it like barnacles. One looks for numinous light, but it is dark and cramped. One hopes for peace, but the ear is assailed by a cacophony of warring chants. One desires holiness, only to encounter a jealous possessiveness: the six groups of occupants…watch one another suspiciously for any infringement of rights. The frailty of humanity is nowhere more apparent than here; it epitomizes the human condition. The empty who come to be filled will leave desolate; those who permit the church to question them may begin to understand why hundreds of thousands thought it worthwhile to risk death or slavery in order to pray here.

Along with all that, one encounters the jarring collision of the sacred with sometimes naked commercial exploitation, the quest to find and preserve history with the desire to bring tourists to view the (selected and market-worthy) treasures of the past. There is, in Jerusalem, no neutral ground. Everything is claimed by someone, everything is sacred to someone, everything has been seized, fought over, lost, fought over again and become an icon of sacred hope or bitter resentment. On one field trip, I pointed out a prominent hilltop with a rock outcropping, and asked “So what’s that?” To my shock, the answer was “It has no known historical or biblical significance.” I almost wanted to stand on that hilltop! Our beloved Jerusalem University College at last received permission to dig a new sewer line—and boy was it needed! They had not dug a day before the Israeli Antiquities Authority stopped them…some artifacts turned up…now we are going to have an excavation—2 squares!—on our basketball court to insure that the sewer line doesn’t damage some artifacts from the Byzantine or some other post-interesting era…

On top of all that is a heavy layer of modern Israeli consumer and entertainment culture. So an underground shopping mall, just outside the Ottoman era Jaffa gate, features all the high-end consumer products, but also crowds over, without technically destroying, a set of Iron Age remains and tombs. Just below my window here at Jerusalem University College is the Valley of Hinnom. This valley, in its from-Hebrew-To-Greek form in the NT, is “Gehenna,” the most consistent image used by Jesus for Hell. The OT saints considered it permanently unclean due to the immorality, idolatry and naked savagery practiced there, including the sacrifice of children. But today, the Valley of Hinnom is a park, a lovely place with winding walking trails below a rock scarp pocked with tombs, some of which come from the 1st Temple era (pre 586 BC). In one of those tombs, archaeologist Gabby Barkay (who also teaches for JUC) found tiny silver scrolls smaller than a post-it note containing the oldest ever writing of a biblical text, the Aaronic blessing—from the 600’s BC (take that you advocates of post-exilic authorship of the Priestly document!). Looming above the valley and standing a bit back is the “Hill of Evil Counsel,” which excellent name it acquired long before the United Nations decided to put their headquarters there! When you come to Jerusalem, you better have fresh batteries in your Acme Irony Detector!

No wonder this place simmers with covert tensions and subterranean resentments. Both emotionally and historically, the most important stuff is…underground. Yet, there is also a bravado, a kind of “get on with it and live” attitude. Tomorrow might bring devastation, but for today, don’t you think my price on this olive-wood chess set is a bargain? Or would you like some of this blue faux-mosaic pottery with “Jerusalem” painted on it?

How to cope? I found one answer today, predictably, in a cramped, classic Jewish bookshop over in the “new” city. I love these shops. Anyone who has ever seen my office, especially when a couple projects are in full swing, will know what I’m talking about! These shops intermingle titles in Hebrew, German, English, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and more. While they like to put classic Jewish religious texts in one spot, somehow it never succeeds. The shelves have slowly done what archaeological tells do. The oldest materials, at the very bottom of the tell, have a way over time by some mysterious force, of “percolating” to the top. So you can walk over a tell in this land with a modern village on top, and pick up a potsherd dating to 3000 B.C. right next to an empty Coca Cola can. Likewise, you can pick any shelf at random in one of these bookshops, and find the most dizzying range of titles you ever saw.  Consider the shelf in this picture. As a game, start on the left, note the title, and then look at the next title, and try to link the two by some word-association or thought connection. Then go to the next title and link it, but try to keep all three together. Proceed all the way to the right, where you encounter Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six, a book on model trains, and Hayim Tadmor’s epochal “hot” volume, The Inscriptions of Tiglath Pileser III. You have just begun to learn how rabbinic thought works! I’m telling you right now, the Tadmor volume was worth the day, just seeing it! And friends, we’re just talking about perhaps 12 inches of shelf space! In this one shop, shelves loomed over their narrow aisles in a manner suggesting any minute the unwary shopper would be entombed in a cascade of very large, very heavy books that have fallen a very long distance! And the aisles are exceedingly narrow.

And as you might guess…I loved this place. I found 3 or 4 shops like it, and all were delightful to my eclectic eye. Just looking at shelves like this points to the kaleidoscopic imaginings of Jewish intellectuals, who never seem to grasp that fields of study have proper boundaries. Sure, it makes sense to pour half a glass of Freud, stir in some Torah, add a pinch of Tom Clancy, and cap it off with Tiglath Pileser III! When I’m in these shops, I find I walk softly and speak quietly…there is a conversation going on among all the voices in these books, and I would not want to interrupt or disturb them.

I have learned that coping with Jerusalem requires something more than mere flexibility or that ultimate value of decadent western sensibility, indifferent tolerance. To cope with Jerusalem is to see it like that bookshelf: an invitation to bring together opposites, antimonies and contrasts, to watch the sparks flash from the meeting, to have the boundaries of our traditional discourses punctured and made porous, if not transparent. In short, you have to love it.

Which might be why, after all, God chose Jerusalem as the city of his own heart. Maybe even God looks down on Jerusalem and finds pleasure in its side-curls and shaved heads, its tank tops and tattoos, its many languages, its transformation of icons of everlasting uncleanness and damnation into outdoor concert venues featuring  Electric-Jewish-Klezmer-Swing-Fusion where families hike, picnic, where children play, and where intrepid archaeologists sift from the decayed matter of ancient tombs precious historical and religious artifacts. Maybe God likes all that, and maybe he agrees with me that, other than Paris, you won’t find that anywhere else.

Maybe not even in Paris.


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