Tuesday, August 16, 2005

another "classic" pre-blog post

I found another old email, this one also from 1997. I think it works too:

With all of the attention being given to Chevron in recent days, the following problem keeps coming to mind: Why are all of our "holiest" sites associated with either death or galut? Look at what we have: Ma'arat HaMachpela, Kever Rachel, Kever Yosef. All places of burial, of death.

And the Kotel? While it does represent the victory of the Six Day War, I think that with a deeper look, the victory of the Six Day War was sweeter because of the Kotel, not really the other way around. So what does the Kotel really represent? What it has for the last two thousand years: the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash. One wall, of a building we no longer have.

None of these sites have changed their significance since the returning of the exiles or the founding of the state. We don't view them any differently now than we did 300 years ago, other than the fact that we thank God for having more access to them.

But is this really what we view as holy? Rav Soloveitchik wrote in "Halachic Man": "Judaism has a negative attitude toward death: a corpse defiles; a grave defiles... the priests of God are forbidden to defile themselves with the dead." As a kohen, I used to feel badly about not being able to visit all of the different graves in Israel; I was sort of missing out on major "tourist attractions." But I don't really see it that way any more. Last night on the Israeli news, they showed the thousands of Jews who came to Chevron to pray at the Ma'arat HaMachpela. And they even showed dozens of kohanim praying outside. Is that really what the Torah is telling us? That the holy priests of Judaism can't really achieve self fulfillment, because they can't pray at a tomb? But they can at *least* stand outside?

Rav Soloveitchik continues: "Many religions view the phenomenon of death as a positive spectacle, inasmuch as it highlights and sensitizes the religious consciousness and 'sensibility.' They, therefore, sanctify death and the grave because it is here that we find ourselves at the threshold of transcendence, at the portal of the world to come. Death is seen as a window filled with light, open to an exalted, supernal realm. Judaism, however, proclaims that coming into contact with the dead precipitates defilement. Judaism abhors death, organic decay, and dissolution. It bids one to choose life and sanctify it. Authentic Judaism as reflected in halachic thought sees in death a terrifying contradiction to the whole of religious life." The Rav continues this line of thought at length (chapter 7), and even mentions that the Vilna Gaon, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, did not visit cemeteries.

The Kotel, to me at least, always presents a major problem. How can a place that is so holy, that caused us so much joy after its redemption, be so stuck in galut? Even the way of prayer there exudes galut. Every one in their own little minyan, all to themselves. It seems so opposite from the majestic avoda performed in the days of the mikdash, just behind that wall.

Why are we stuck here? Perhaps, as Eliezer Berkovits wrote, halacha never really became freed of the galut it was stuck in for 2000 years. He wrote in "Not in Heaven": "After almost two millenia of Galut, Halacha has been given back its authentic partner, the daily reality of the life of a Jewish people living in its own land...Once again, Torah may move from the private congregational domain to which the galut had limited it into the public domain of a nation...(Unfortunately) for the time being, Halacha is in exile in the land of Israel as it was before in the lands of Jewish dispersion. It is still the Halacha of the Shtetl, not that of the State." Rabbi Berkovits shows a great example of this in terms of how we deal with shmitta today: either with a "heter mechira", where we sell the land to non-Jews, or to simply not buy produce grown in Eretz Yisrael during shmitta years. Both solutions are "depressing manifestations of typical Galut Halacha in the State of Israel." Are either really what God intended in giving us the mitzva of shmitta and the opportunity to live in our own land?

We need to begin freeing ourselves from the shackles of the galut mentality, particularly as it relates to us living in our own land. Otherwise, we'll only get as much as we ask for. We want our holy sites to be graves and ruins? Then they will be.

Having lived on Kibbutz Yavne for the last few months, I believe I am getting a better understanding of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai's request "Give me Yavne and its sages". He knew the Beit HaMikdash was going to be destroyed, and didn't want Judaism to be stuck in the ruins of the Mikdash. He preferred to build a new, vibrant, halachic life out of Yavne.

I'm not trying to make a political statement here. I believe that the presence of the IDF and Jews in Chevron, Shchem, Bet Lechem and Har HaBayit is a much more complicated issue, with factors more important than what I presented here. But I think it does present us with an opportunity to decide which way we want to go.