June 8, 2012

Sometimes when traveling in Israel you have a day that encapsulates the remarkable layering of cultures and civilizations that would make this an extraordinary destination if there were no contemporary religious or political importance to the country. Today was such a day.

We traveled through history and across the country, visiting four very different and quite spectacular archeological sites and places that could each merit a separate trip in and of themselves. The fact that we have now been fully oriented to the flow of the historical narrative of Israel helps establish context, but each place has wonderful and powerful things to teach.

We began with the Mishnah-era city of Tzippori, which was built on a pleasant hill overlooking a beautiful set of valleys, making it both breezy and strategically important. As the Talmud tells us, "Why was it called Tzippori, 'bird-like"? Because it sits high the mountains like a bird." There is combination of small homes in what was a very busy city, and a truly elegant mansion, with a magnificent floor that has beautifully wrought scenes from a Dionysian celebration of wine and drinking for that ancient Greco-Roman religious cult. Included in that mosaic is the "Mona Lisa of the Galilee", a fabulously expressive and lovely mosaic at an extremely high artistic level.

There is debate over whether this was the home of wealthy Roman pagan, or perhaps of the head of the Sanhedrin. Muki likes the possibility that in an era when human images actually appear on synagogue floors a high Jewish figure might have actually had a home with such a decoration in his triclinium, the elegant main dining area for banquets. I tend to think that even in this era no high Jewish authority would have the scene of a riotous pagan ritual drinking contest between the god Bacchus and the then-human Hercules ending with Hercules passing out. A Purim scene like that maybe, but not a Dionysian cult mosaic...

The highlight of any visit to Tzippori (also spelled Zippori, and also called Sephoris) is the magnificent synagogue, a large structure featuring one of the finest mosaic floors in the world. Interestingly, in addition to donor medallions all over the floor—some things never change in temple life, do they?—there are many other images in the grand mosaic, including the Akeidat Yitzchak the binding of Isaac by Abraham on Mt. Moriah (now called the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) and other Biblical scenes. Here, in apparent violation of the 2nd Commandment against graven images, full faces and bodies are used in what is quite obviously a very Jewish context. The most remarkable aspect of the mosaic, however, is the central medallion, which is a full zodiac, showing the months of the year and their pagan astrological signs. The Jewish element here is the inclusion of Hebrew names for the months, but otherwise it's the zodiac as we know it today, and as the Greeks and Romans worshipped it.

This is far from the only 2nd to 6th century synagogue floor with such a zodiac mosaic—the much simpler one at Beit Alpha near Beit She'an well south of Tzippori, and the one near Tiberias at Hamat Tiberias on the shore of the Kineret (that ironically was damaged by vandals the week we began our tour of Israel) come to mind—but this one is extremely impressive and beautifully wrought. It testifies to a theme of cultural integration, and perhaps even assimilation, during the Byzantine/Talmudic period in Israel, a period in which the majority culture was not always Jewish here, and attractive elements made their way into our own tradition.

From Tzippori we rode to Nazareth, Jesus' original hometown, although he was born in Bethlehem. Nazareth was the setting for the Annunciation, a crucial element in the theology of Christianity, and it is the place where Jesus' parents, Mary and Joseph, lived most of their lives. This is a large town, sometimes called "the Arab capital of Israel" with an Israeli-Arab population that was long predominantly Christian and is now becoming increasingly Muslim, in part because of the very high Muslim birthrate. Nazareth has been called the "Arab Silicon Valley" because of the thousands of high-tech software companies that have begun here, often with commercial relationships with high-tech firms of Jewish Israelis in Tel Aviv's Herzliyah area.

On our way into Nazareth's central area of religious importance led under a very disturbing and huge sign that reads, in English and Arabic, "And whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accebted (sic) of him and in the Hereafter he will be one of the losers" quoting the "Holy Qur'an (Koran)." Apparently, this sign was posted as a result of Moslem anger towards Christians for a large platform constructed to house the pilgrims who were venturing to Nazareth for the pope's visit there a few years ago. I suppose it should come as no surprise that religious tolerance towards Arab Christians is in very short supply among some of the Arab Moslems in this region.

Although I have been to Israel many times, this was my first visit to Nazareth. The Church of the Annunciation is the largest Christian church in the Middle East, in Roman Catholic tradition it marks the site where the Archangel Gabriel announced the future birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary. Interestingly, it is a modern church constructed by Solel Bonim the Israel construction authority, believe it or not. For reasons known only to the complex Israeli bureaucracy, this major Christian tourist destination has had its huge cathedral constructed by the Jewish state. It is quite a majestic building, with large artistic donation panels from countries around the world, each unique to that culture and tradition. Perhaps the most interesting is the panel from Japan, showing the Mother and Child scene with Japanese features in a Japanese setting. A fascinating experience and beautiful.

From Nazareth we went on to Tel Megiddo, a remarkable site that was the inspiration for James Michener's great historical novel of Israel, The Source, and descending into its extraordinary water system, and coming out the far side, is an amazing experience. It is at Megiddo that you can most clearly see the layering of civilizations, each built on the previous one, that compose an archeological hill or tel. Megiddo shows it in a deep trench that reveals the stratigraphy of the sacred part of the city, where the various shrines and temples stood one upon the other, each new conqueror rebuilding the sacred precinct to a new god. From Canaanite to Egyptian to Israelite to Assyrian to Babylonian to Persian, each superseding the other. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of all this is that the city petered out about 2500 years ago, and missed the next 8 or 10 civilizations that succeeded—Greek, Maccabean, Herodian, Roman, Byzantine, late Persian, Arab, Crusader, Mameluke, Ottoman Turk, British, Israeli...

For that you need to continue south and west to the coast and visit the most beautiful archeological site in Israel, and perhaps in the world, Caesarea, located on the Mediterranean coast about an hour north of Tel Aviv. With gorgeous views of the sea framed by the ruins of the huge Herodian port capital city here there are few vistas that can match Caesarea, and in addition to the fully functioning outdoor amphitheater that faces the sea and hosts many contemporary concerts all summer, there are newish excavations that have made the Hippodrome just as dramatic and beautiful as the Roman amphitheater and Crusader castle's remains have been for decades. Caesarea also hosts fine restaurants and lovely shops as it did in ancient times, and the nearby neighborhoods reflect its location and are among the finest in all of Israel.

We arrived in Tel Aviv in time to find out that the Gay Pride Parade scheduled for the next day required a variety of road closures that would make our touring much more complicated—and to discover a city filled with rainbow flags, signs welcoming the attendees, and an excited air in the crowded hotel lobbies. We also met more friends, a congregational trip from my classmate Rabbi Andrew Paley's synagogue in Dallas and the arrival of the "Young Men's Mission" from Tucson, which arrived Friday. If you go to Israel sooner or later you will meet every Jew in the world... possibly in your hotel lobby.

Kulanu Yehudim the song goes, "we are all Jews"—we aren't, but at times it certainly feels like every Jew knows every other.

At the hotel that night Wendy and I met with Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the young, energetic head of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, and I interviewed him for the Too Jewish Radio Show. It is a very exciting time for Reform Judaism in Israel now, having grown in the past few years from 25 congregations to 40 and increased presence and importance in the Israeli marketplace of ideas and values. There is still a long way to go, and the Rabbi Miri Gold case, and the victory in that case, is just one step—but the direction is very positive and the energy is wonderful.

L'Shalom v'Rei'ut, in peace and friendship,

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

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