Just back. As always, fascination, irritation and sheer undiluted joy in almost equal measure when disembarking on the long, long ski run that marks the entrance concourse to Ben Gurion. Even a visit to the dentist (the only Irish Jew I know) failed to dampen enthusiasm. Much as I love Israel, however, sometimes the second of the three is more pronounced.
I got to interact with quite a wide cross-section this trip and it’s noticeable that so many Israelis are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the religious establishment in general and the Haredi political parties in particular. So, electing someone like the controversial Minister Azoulai to the Knesset, as happened in 2015, was like putting a TV evangelist in the White House. More recently – today in fact, two-thirds of Jewish Israelis oppose the recent cabinet decision to shelve a deal for pluralistic worship at the Kotel. Returning to Minister Azoulai, from my own goyische perspective (all Orthodox can stop reading now, since I clearly know nothing) to suggest as he did that only people who follow Jewish law to the letter – italics mine – can be described as Jewish and described non-Orthodox streams as “people who try and falsify” the Jewish religion isn’t just stupid. It’s short-sighted to the point of ridicule, because it suggested that he alone was the lawful custodian of every jot and tittle – and everybody else was wrong. The clear implication is that only the prayers of the ‘righteous’ are heard and the harder you try to keep the Law, the more weight your prayers have. Relentless davening at the Kotel seemed to have something of an air of desperation to me this time around.
I tend to get on best with the ‘secular’ Jews, the ones who wear Levis and have a sense of humour all of whom were universally welcoming and seemed generally glad to see me. It was nice to get back – despite being housed in an hotel without AC and the relentless pulse from the street musicians in Zion Square. Although I have to confess to getting a bit too superannuated to stay in scruffy hotels without room service, international TV and a shower with multiple functions. Note to self. Save up and next time stay at the King David, or, perhaps the American Colony, where the concierge is a friend and might be able to surreptitiously offer a favourable rate.
The diversity of the place did help to focus a few ideas trawling around in my mind. Religious denominations, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim are both inevitable and, indeed, desirable because our faith is like a fingerprint, shaped by the unique contours of our soul and the tension and counterplay of prayer forms part of its inner fabric. Doesn’t matter how much people bang on about separate spaces on the Kotel for men and women, or whether the Jews can pray on the Temple Mount or, as happened very recently, a Haredi man (this time one of those with the big fur hat) had the temerity to dance with his daughter at her wedding, causing no end of a fuss in the Orthodox press, since you’re only supposed to dance with her if both of you are holding a piece of string. Differences are inevitable because if we all thought exactly the same, we’d all be in love with the same woman. They’re desirable because how else are people to be encouraged to think, reason and debate in free societies, thereby making progress? Karl Barth, the great Victorian theologian wrote at length about the ‘otherness’ of G-d, by which he meant that the behaviour and attributes of the Creator could not simply be explained by childish anthropomorphism; instead the Creator reveals His essence through an ongoing work of rescue – a shorthand for redemption or salvation – outside of and sometimes apart from ourselves.
I’d further ask – if G-d declines to hear the prayers of non-Haredi Jews, where does that leave the rest of us, believers, idolaters, triers, failures, sinners all? I’ve never much liked how people try to categorise prayer, thereby adding to or subtracting from it, from the petitionary Janis Joplin ‘Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz’ to the exaltatory poetry of the Psalms. In their different ways, they are representative of the same thing, the unseen bridge, the gap between the hand of G-d and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
I do rather hope that G-d hears the prayers of the goyim along with all the rest of the hangers-on. All G-d’s chillun. People like me. People like this crowd – the real reason for my trip. Thanks, everybody…