Balagan is a useful Hebrew word that means “chaos.” If there’s any one-word description of this trip so far, it’s that, and my guess is that with each passing day, it will only get more appropriate. Before we go jaunting all over the Land, we’re continuing to zoom in on Jerusalem itself, a city that has inspired awe for millennia and is now known for its incredible combinations of paradoxes: Holy and unholy, authentic and inauthentic, permanent and fleeting, religious and pagan, concealed and revealing, lamenting loss and celebrating continuity, overwhelming and underwhelming, and so on. And what would a visit to Jerusalem be without this group of Christians going to the holiest site that there is for us here, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre? And having this tour be led by a Jewish scholar of world religion rather than a Christian?
The Holy Sepulchre is one of the many meeting points of the “Holy Trinity of Jerusalem:” Holy sites, tourists and pilgrims, and local community members. It’s got a little bit of everything in it: It’s a site holy enough to “warrant” centuries of fighting over precious real estate within it by the various Orthodox and Catholic communities that run it now; people come from all over the world, sometimes in clothes that help you identify their Christian sect, to visit it; and many community members are tour guides or members of Orthodox and Catholic worshipping communities. What makes this spot such a big deal is two potentially crucial spots within it: If you believe tradition and the architecture that goes along with it, there’s Golgatha – where Jesus was crucified – and the tomb he was buried and later arose from on the 3rd day. Since it’s an Orthodox and Catholic church (depending on where you’re standing within it – not joking), it’s a far more visual, olfactory, and tactile experience than the average Protestant church is. People show respect by venerating (bowing in front of) icons and holy objects, which serve as ways of communicating the Gospel without necessarily needing to know how to read or write. People touch and kiss things that I never would have imagined in a church. It was beautiful to witness how the different people within the church related to the objects within: Were they silently praying? Were they singing? Were they kissing, touching, or bowing in front of objects that made them feel closer to God, like the Golgatha, the Stone of Unction, or the (now empty) tomb? Were they just looking as a non-Christian, fascinated by that Jesus guy who’s mentioned in every other religion at least once?
I was thinking of writing more about church history and how we ended up with some of the most important divisions within the church in this post, but honestly, if you’re into history at all, go look it up yourself – it’s funny and frustrating all at once, and people’s invective against one another at various church councils could, and sometimes did, draw blood. These politics invade Church of the Holy Sepulchre as just another defining element of it. My classmates either hated or loved the experience. I personally was in awe of the beauty and being in potential story locations.
However, I must admit that I felt more at home in the local Lutheran church than I did at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (a church made up of over 10 different Orthodox and Catholic worshipping sects). I am a Protestant after all, even though my range of fluidity with and understanding of other branches of Christianity is increasing (and even though I’m still discerning my denomination within the Protestant family itself… Don’t get me started on just how many times the church has divided; there are tens of thousands of denominations). And I loved seeing a church decoration written in Arabic – it’s not something I ever expected to see in person, but it’s all over the different churches! I feel like the churches in the Middle East are so culturally different from American churches in some ways that it can be easy to forget that there are Christians who speak Arabic at all.
After spending hours in churches or learning about church history, we switched back into the more dominant religion in Israel (some would even call it the state religion): Judaism. Nothing says “Jerusalem” quite like the IDF having a soldier induction ceremony right next to the Western Wall – the holiest site of Judaism – behind which, on the Temple Mount (or al-Haram al-Šarīf, depending on who you ask) lie a few very important Islamic sites, including the Dome of the Rock (right) and the Al Aqsa Mosque (you can see its minaret to the left). This, right here, was one of the most overwhelming moments of the trip for me because I was afraid the syncretism and politics of it all would lead to a clash right while we were there. So many sights, sounds, and people going in and out – so many residents and tour groups with starkly different narratives. Right behind where I took this picture, there’s a giant solid gold menorah that represents what the Temple Institute believes was in the Second Temple – that they are excited to put in the future, prayed-for Third Temple. The snag? Well… The mosque and the shrine that I just mentioned are there. That menorah is just… waiting there. People are actively praying for these religious sites to somehow disappear, and people who are fanatical in their beliefs sometimes enact violence (successfully) to hurry up the process. And that’s the danger of not hearing different narratives or only thinking that there is one that could possibly be accurate (whether it’s pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, for example). One narrative is not enough. Tantur Ecumenical Institute, where we’re staying, has thus far provided outstanding guides who tell stories in multiple different lenses, always making sure to include where question marks in our historical findings should be and using multiple words when appropriate. For example, the 1948 War is known by very different names, depending on who you are. Our guides have told us all of them; I heard other guides not doing the same, and I feel like their visitors lost out because of that.
I was so overwhelmed that I could barely take in my experience praying on the women’s side of the Western Wall, but it was beautiful nonetheless. It felt holy to me in that moment not because I personally felt the presence of God but because of the reverence and holiness that the women around me gave it. Prayers were tucked everywhere; Jewish prayer books were spread throughout the crowd; and there were women from all over the world, feeling at home.
We also walked around the Jewish Quarter and our guide taught us how to discern among the different branches of Judaism based on people’s dress, since almost every Jewish person wears a kippah (and many women wear headscarves) here, regardless of whether they believe in God. It’s fascinating and slightly jarring to me that, just by looking, you can tell how “religious” someone is. (I’m distinguishing here between spiritual – as in, feeling a personal connection to God/YHWH/G-d, however you prefer to write it – and religious – as in, keeping the rituals and “rules”/laws of a particular religion). I love that my tattoos show other people that I believe in God, but I would be uncomfortable if they could look at me and know, perhaps without even knowing my name, how “strict” I am about sort of personal topics like sex, alcohol consumption, and so on. But then again, the way that Christians and Jews define themselves is quite different – Judaism is an ethnic, social, national, and religious heritage all in one! So even if someone is strongly atheistic, they may keep the laws of Judaism because it’s family tradition. It’s a people group, not just a religion.
One last story for the day because I’m still figuring out what the heck happened today: As we were about to head home for the night, a few of my classmates, my professor, and I stopped into a shop. It was owned by a Palestinian Muslim who looked (and sounded) physically and emotionally exhausted, and told us his own narrative. Much of what he said was true, some of what he said is a common narrative, and one thing he said stunned me because of its “fake news”/conspiracy theory quality (and because it was something I had never heard): He thought that ISIS was being funded by fanatical Jews to make peaceful Muslims look bad. One narrative is never enough, no? Though that particular narrative is false, the feelings that created it are real. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have your religion hijacked by a small but unfortunately real and dangerous percentage of its adherents. I can’t imagine what it’s like to live under occupation and to know that you could be prosecuted just for speaking your mind on the Internet. To not have freedom of movement. To not have so many of the freedoms and privileges that define being human.
In the midst of balagan, I need to keep believing that this story from Scripture is true:
“That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, ‘Let us go over to the other side.’ Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?’ He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, ‘Quiet! Be still!’ Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, ‘Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?’ They were terrified and asked each other, ‘Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!’”
– Mark 4:35-41 (NIV)