Anyone who knows me, virtually or in-person, knows that I have little use…and little regard for Religion. Not Faith….and the freedom to practice it….but Religion.
But I understand it’s impact [positive AND negative] on culture and society, and every once in a while, usually when and where I least expect it, I come across somebody’s perspective on the larger question of what Faith means to a culture…..and I’m blown away.
I’m currently without the distraction of cable news and political drama [except for fleeting glimpses] and I couldn’t be happier about it. It’s allowed me to reconfirm what’s important in life…and political theater ain’t it. I’ve been able to catch up on some quality reading and am currently winding down on The Lion’s Gate
, by Steven Pressfield; in my opinion, one of the greatest authors of my time.
In The Lion’s Gate
, Pressfield takes the reader through the unfolding events leading up to, during and just after the Arab-Israeli “Six-Day War”. The entire book is phenomenal, the story being told through the post-war interviews with no small number of the veterans themselves. However, one passage struck me as poignant and thought-provoking, over all the rest:
The Jewish religion is not a faith that prizes blind obedience or collective adherence to dogma. Our tradition is cerebral. We debate. We argue. The question is always holier than the answer.
The primal Jewish issue is justice. Judaism is a religion of the law, and the seminal concept of the law is that the minority must be protected. In the Jewish faith, you study. You wrestle with issues. You are a scholar. You deliberate, you dispute. A Jew asks over and over, “What is fair? What is just? Who is a good man, and why?”
I spent only one winter in the yeshiva. What I learned, more than Torah, was to love the teachers, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook and “the saintly Nazir,” Rabbi David Cohen, who embodied these pursuits with such honor and integrity. I learned not so much from them as through them, by watching their actions, hearing their speech, and observing the way they conducted themselves. I learned the history of the Jewish people, the incredible suffering endured by millions over so many centuries, and of Jerusalem, the centrality of this place in the soul of the people, their neshama, and why our return to this site means so much.
The Kotel. The Western Wall, as it is called in English. How did so much hope and passion come to be attached to a wall? Not even the wall of a temple, which the Kotel is not, but even humbler, a retaining wall for the mount upon which the razed temple had once stood. A ruin. How could this mean so much to me? How could it mean so much to our paratroopers who had never studied, who knew nothing of Torah, who did not even know how to pray?
A wall is unlike any other holy site. A wall is a foundation. It is what remains when all that had once risen above it has been swept away. A wall evokes primal emotion, particularly when it is built into the land, when the far side is not open space but the fundament of the earth itself. When one stands with worshipful purpose before the expanse of a wall, particularly one that dwarfs his person, that rises above him and extends on both sides, an emotion arises from the heart that is unlike the feeling evoked by any other religious experience. How different, compared to, say, worshipping in a cathedral or within a great hall or at the foot of some monumental tower.
One approaches the Western Wall as an individual. No rabbi stands beside you. Set your palms against the stones. Is God present? Will the stone conduct your prayers to Him? Around you stand others of your faith; you feel their presence and the intention of their coming, but you remain yourself alone.
Are you bereft? Is your spirit impoverished? Set your brow against the stone. Feel its surface with your fingertips. Myself, I cannot come within thirty paces of the Wall without tears.
The ancient Greeks considered Delphi the epicenter of the world. This is the Wall to me. All superfluity has been stripped from this site and from ourselves. Here the enemies of my people have devastated all that they could. What remains? This fundament alone, which they failed to raze only because it was beneath their notice. The armored legions of our enemies have passed on, leaving only this wall. In the twenty centuries since, those who hate us have defiled it and piled trash before it and even relieved themselves against it. They have neglected it, permitted slums to be built up around it. This only makes it more precious to us.
That morning of June 7, I can’t remember exactly when this happened—maybe on the way down to the Wall with Moshe Stempel and the others. At some point we were climbing the stairs—Yair Levanon, Dov Gruner, Moshe Milo, and I—when we noticed a scrawl, freshly scratched into the stone, in Hebrew:
IF I FORGET THEE, O JERUSALEM, MAY MY RIGHT HAND FORGET ITS CUNNING.
This is a verse from Psalm 137, which also contains the line “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.”
While we grow fat and lazy under a relentless parade of self-indulgent, vulgar, Statist politicians….while we surrender our most basic liberties to the guise of security….we have aging contemporaries who know what it means to fight for their very survival. And they bore the cost stoically.