israel · sermon · story

The holiness of Mount Meron

I want to talk about what it takes to make a space sacred. 

And I want to consider what it would take to desecrate a sacred space.

There is a cave on Mount Meron. It is not just any cave. It is a pilgrimage site whose reputation and mystery has grown over the centuries.

And this is the place where, on Thursday night, thousands were trampled in celebrations of Lag BaOmer. 

In this cave, two of Judaism’s greatest sages are said to be buried: Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai, abbreviated to Rashbi, a tanna in 2nd Century Yavne, and his son, Elazar ben Shimeon. 

Rashbi was a rebel against Rome. He criticised the imperial regime to his fellow rabbis. His colleague, Rabbi Yehudah, went straight to the Roman authorities and snitched on him. The Romans immediately promoted Yehudah and put out a bounty to kill Rashbi.

And that was how Rashbi and his son first wound up in a cave. The Talmud, written around five centuries later, says that this was a site of great miracles. There, in that grotto, a carob tree sprouted so that the two would always be able to eat. A well of water sprung out from the ground so they would always be able to drink. 

Every hour of the day, Rashbi and his son sat in the sand, buried up to their necks, hiding and studying Torah. They prayed and learned their traditions. After twelve years, the prophet Elijah, known for visiting pious sages, came to the cavern’s entrance and told the rabbis that the emperor had died and they were free. 

But during those twelve years of religious study, Rashbi had acquired knowledge and power far beyond what he previously knew. He went out into the world and looked upon it. 

Everywhere he went, he saw sin. Wherever he laid his eyes, Rashbi shot fiery lasers that destroyed everything in sight. God called out from the Heavens that he had better get back inside the cave. He stayed again for another twelve years. 

Finally, he came out from the cave and was able to participate in the world. 

Many years later, Rashbi died on Lag BaOmer, the 33rd day between Pesach and Shavuot. He was buried in a cave on Mount Meron. 

That was the beginning of the sanctification of the cave. 

No sources say that the cave where Rashbi and his son experienced miracles was the same as the one where they were laid to rest. It takes imagination to make the connection.

Such imaginative storytelling spurred on the legend of the cave. In 13th Century Guadalajara, in northern Spain, a mystic named Rabbi Moshe de Leon published and sold a mysterious new book. He claimed it contained the secrets of the universe itself. This book was called the Zohar. 

The text, said de Leon, had been written by Rashbi, a thousand years previously. He promoted a story: during Rashbi’s legendary time in that cave, he was not just a witness to miracles. He received a divine revelation. 

God disclosed to him hidden meanings of the Torah. These teachings, encapsulated in the Zohar, were the foundation of an esoteric practice that we now call Kabbalah.

Over the course of centuries, such Jewish mysticism would gain ever greater traction. Disciples of Kabbalah spread, and so did the myth of the cave. As the story grew, the cave became even more holy and potent. 

Three hundred years later, Kabbalah had become a movement. In the Galilee region of northern Eretz Yisrael, students of Yitzhak Luria and other great mystics assembled to learn these special teachings. They developed their own liturgy and renewed Jewish theology. They also initiated pilgrimages to sacred sites, including the tomb in the cave on Mount Meron.

In the subsequent centuries, the movement of Chassidism in Eastern Europe came to preach the importance of kabbalah. They popularised folk stories, promoted ecstatic singing and taught that there were certain special rebbes – charismatic leaders that pious Jews should follow. 

They called these legendary leaders ‘tzaddikim’ – righteous ones, and considered Rashbi a prime example. They believed that praying by the tomb of a tzaddik would make God more likely to hear them.  So, even in the 18th Century, when travel was difficult, Chassidim voyaged across Europe to visit Rashbi’s shrine.

Now, for more than 200 years, this cave has been a prime site for Orthodox Jews to attend and worship. In particular, on Lag BaOmer, Rashbi’s yahrzeit, the place fills up with people. In the preceding days, people camp across the mountain. 

On Lag BaOmer itself, fires are lit, songs are sung and people come to celebrate from all around the world. The stories that have made the cave sacred are retold.

That was what it took to turn this cave into a sacred place. Miracles. Legends. Imagination. Revelation. Pilgrimages spanning centuries. Millennia of development of Jewish tradition. 

Mostly, the cave has been sanctified by storytelling. 

For the purposes of storytelling, it does not matter whether Rashbi was really granted miracles. It is of no importance whether the caves were the same. 

It is even less significant whether Moshe de Leon inherited the Zohar from that ancient sage or made the whole thing up himself. What matters is the story. The Jews have turned this into a holy space by how engaging with it.

But that engagement has not been entirely for good and not every story is positive. Now comes the story of the disaster.

In 1911, just over a century ago, a catastrophe struck the cave. The roof above Rashbi’s shrine collapsed, killing 11 people and injuring many more. At the time, campaigners called for health and safety regulations to be implemented so that no such catastrophe could occur again. Their warnings were not heeded.

Rabbi Mark Solomon, one of our senior teachers at Leo Baeck College, recalls attending the pilgrimage in 1983. Even then, he said, “the crowd was so intense that I was sure I was going to be crushed to death. It was one of the scariest moments of my life.” 

In the years since, the number of attendees has only grown. But, despite appeals to the government, no health and safety measures have been added. This year, with so little planning due to Covid, there were even fewer arrangements to keep people safe.

And so, on Thursday night, catastrophe struck. People were trapped in a tight space with no crowd control. They panicked. A crush ensued. People threw themselves over each other. Hundreds are in hospital or seriously injured. 44 people were killed, among them little children.

Yisrael Meir Lau, the former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, immediately spoke out. Like thousands of Jews, he had to check that members of his own family were not numbered among the dead. 

“We could have prevented this,” he said. He insisted this was not a natural event like plague or fire, but something in which human beings had colluded. He has called for an immediate inquiry.

And that, I believe, is where the question of whether a site can be made from holy to profane begins. It begins with what story we tell next.

Mount Meron is a sacred site because it is imbued with spiritual stories. We cannot allow those stories to be replaced with memories of whitewash and cover-up. People must take responsibility and there must be changes so that nothing like this happens again. 

We know from experience in Britain that the only way to heal from a tragedy is through honesty, transparency and change. We learnt this far too late from the Hillsborough Disaster and still have not seen those lessons learnt with Grenfell. When officials refuse to accept liability and instigate changes, all that remains on the sites where disaster happens is the trauma of failure.

If a site can take centuries to make sacred, it can be desecrated in an instant. 

Let us pray, then, that the government, officials and religious leaders engage in serious introspection. Let us pray that real changes are made to prevent repetitions of such disasters. Above all, let us pray for recovery for the injured and the memories of the dead. May their memories be for a blessing.

Shabbat shalom.

debate · israel · sermon

The end of the two state solution

In 1982, Rabbi David Goldberg, z”l, gave a sermon so controversial that half the congregation at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue stormed out. The other half stuck around for the rest of it just to make sure they disagreed.

I have no way of knowing whether this was strictly true, but it is certainly plausible. It is most believable because, even though I haven’t yet mentioned the word, you already know which topic would elicit such a reaction. 

Israel. Of course it is Israel. It is a topic so contentious that friends and families have refused to speak to each other over it. As a result, although I do have strong views on the matter, I have so far managed to go three years without preaching on it. I have been strongly tempted to do the same thing today and just speak about the Torah portion, but I feel that I cannot do so this week.

What has happened in Israeli politics in the last two weeks will likely fundamentally change the way that Diaspora Jewry will engage with the country. Already every major Jewish communal body has released a statement, some of which I know have been circulated among members of this community. It would be a cowardly dereliction of duty if I did not comment. 

If you are surprised by the gravity of what I’m saying, it’s not because you’ve missed anything. There is no new president or prime minister. No new war, no withdrawal, no peace treaty, no assassination. What has happened is really the result of bureaucratic decision making at the end of another stalemate election. But its result is that the fabled two-state solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is now impossible.

Previously, sitting Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that if he won the next general election, he would annex the Jordan Valley. In the last year, there have been three elections, each resulting in impossibly hung parliaments, but it looks like Bibi has now secured the majority to pursue his agenda. 

As such, he will now go through with his plan for annexation, supported by the smaller right wing parties in the Knesset. That means that the entire Jordan Valley will become formally part of Israel. There will remain isolated enclaves of Palestinian towns in the West Bank and Gaza, but what remains of Palestinian territory will never form a viable state.

For most Palestinians, this won’t mean much of a change to their daily lives. For some time now, West Bank Palestinians have lived under Israeli rule. Although able to elect representatives to the Palestinian Authority, Israel has maintained control over the military, borders and economy. Israeli control will become tighter and more far-reaching, but annexation will only formalise a policy that has been in place since at least 2005.

Nor will it make a difference to most Israelis. With official backing from Donald Trump and the United States, an international military backlash is unlikely. It is already the case that few Israelis live east of Jerusalem. For those who do live in settlements, their private security will likely be supplemented by state army support. 

There will, however, be a shift in Israel’s relationship with its Jewish diaspora, especially among progressives. Most Jews in Britain do consider themselves connected to Israel, but want a just peace, even if it means giving up land or power. For decades, Diaspora Jewish support for Israel has been contingent on the possibility of a peaceful solution that involved a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

With Israel’s proposed annexation, a Palestinian state will now become formally impossible. I suspect that the two state solution has not been truly viable for some time. But if the door was closed before, it is now being locked.

In response to these unfolding events, Rabbi Lea Muhlstein of the Liberal Zionist group Artzeinu released a statement insisting that the two state solution was still possible.  I am afraid I do not see how. Most efforts to defend the viability of the two state solution seem more concerned with reassuring Diaspora Jewry than with grappling with the conditions on the ground. 

Diaspora Jewry is, however, not reassured, and the British community has seen considerable fallout. The President of the Board of Deputies, Marie van der Zyl, urged communal unity as representatives from StandWithUs, Habonim Dror and LJY-Netzer wrote to express their opposition.

Even in unlikely quarters, people are lining up to attack Bibi’s decision. Sir Mick Davis, former Treasurer of the Conservative Party, has urged against annexation, saying that it would run contrary to Jewish values.

I think that is right, and that the values that would be contravened are given in precisely this parashah. Moses tells the Israelites: “You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike.” (Lev 24:22) Both right and responsibility, privilege and punishment, must be the same for all those living under the same rule.

Annexation will create a situation in which a people is formally and irrevocably governed by a party it did not elect and could not deselect. It will formalise a tiered class system, where Jewish Israelis have full rights, Palestinian citizens of Israel have fewer and West Bank Palestinians have none, while all live in the same space under the same rule. This is unjustifiable. 

Most of the attacks against Bibi’s plans seemed to have focused on belated efforts to salvage the two state solution. As I have made clear, I think that option is already politically defunct. But that does not mean progressives must give up entirely on any hope of a just solution in the Middle East.

One possibility which has so far only been advocated from the political fringes is of enfranchising the Palestinians. It is, strangely, a position that unites both some settlers and Israel’s radical left, but has been considered outside of acceptable political discourse among mainstream Diaspora Jewry until recently.

If Israel is to be a single state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan, let it be a democratic one, where everyone who lives there has full voting rights and representation. The Palestinians should be able to set the political direction of the country just as much as Israelis, if it is indeed to be one country.

The main reason that this has remained a fringe view is that it would certainly mean an end to a Jewish political majority. The Palestinians living in the region almost outnumber the Israelis and could thus theoretically out-vote them. As such, Israel would cease to be a Jewish state, at least in an ethnic sense.

In that sense, a single democratic state could not be considered within the spectrum of Zionist opinion. But I am less concerned by the certainty of an ethnic Jewish majority than I am by the moral standing of the Jewish people. 

If Israel is indeed willing to implement policies tantamount to occupation, segregation and apartheid, and the Diaspora Jewish community does indeed continue to meet such policies with indifference and even support, what will be left of Judaism? Who are Jews if we refuse our God-given task of being a light unto the nations? What are we if we do not meet but exceed the ethical standards our tradition has taught us?

For years, Progressive Zionists have faced a tension between being progressives and being Zionists. Many have managed to hold nuanced aspirations that balanced their desire for peace with their desire for security; their commitment to other Jews with their commitment to all humanity; their belief that Israel could be both Jewish and democratic. That tightrope has now fallen under the weight of the two poles it was balancing, and most Jews will have to choose one or the other. Politically, they will either be Progressives or they will be Zionists.

Given a choice between a Jewish state and Jewish ethics, I will certainly choose the latter. But even then, I do not think that abandoning the idea of Jewish ethnic majority means sacrificing concern for Israelis’ ability to live and thrive where they are now. I believe it is fully possible for Israel to maintain its cultural autonomy and distinctly Jewish character without clinging to an ethnically based majority or to political supremacy.

The third largest grouping in the Israeli Knesset is the Joint List – a coalition of Palestinian and Jewish leftists. They are non-Zionists who hope for joint political power between Israelis and Palestinians. 

Their leader is Ayman Odeh, a lawyer from Haifa. He has now become the de factol opposition leader as Gantz goes into coalition with Bibi. In 2015, in his maiden speech before the Israeli Parliament, he shared his vision for the country:

The year is 2025, the 10-year plan to combat racism and inequality has borne fruit. Hundreds of thousands Arab employees have been integrated into the private sector, the high-tech economy and the public service.

The social gaps between Arab and Jewish citizens have been reduced remarkably and the economy has been prosperous for the benefit of all residents.

Jews are learning Arabic, Arabs are diligently honing their Hebrew skills. Jewish and Arab students are being introduced to the great thinkers and philosophers of both peoples.

His vision has become my vision. That aspiration for a just, peaceful and shared country chimes more with my idea of what would constitute a Jewish state than one based on racial ideas of citizenship or Orthodox ideas of laws. 

I hope that, as you wrestle with the tensions that will be drawn out over the coming weeks and years, others will be able to support that dream.

Of course, many will not. Despite the calls for unity, I think this is more a time for diversity. A collapse in political consensus need not mean fallout of the Diaspora Jewish community, but could mean a flourishing of new ideas and renewed conversations. We now have a true opportunity to intellectually engage each other about what Israel’s future will be and how we will relate to it.

If nothing else, I hope that at least less than half of you will storm out in anger.

Shabbat shalom.

israel palestine flags

I gave this sermon over Zoom on Saturday 9th May 2020 (Parashat Emor) for Three Counties Liberal Judaism. I am especially grateful to Tal Janner-Klausner, for being my political tour guide of Israel-Palestine, and for all their help with editing this sermon.