A Lamentation on the Destruction of the Temple

1.  The absence of Presence
The Romans are approaching. We wallow in callous pettiness. The city will fall soon.

2. The presence of Absence
They are despoiling the sanctuary. We wail in piteous grief. Sun and moon are eclipsed. Horror.

3. The presence of Presence
It’s all over now. The dew washes clean our punished world. A lilac is blooming.

Copyright © 2013, Jonathan Omer-Man. For more, visit omer-man.net.

The two Israels: Balancing Israel of War and Israel of Peace

There’s been a lot of talk in our community lately about this notion of “balance,” particularly around the question of whether Israel supporters should balance their support for Israel with empathy for the enemy.

This is an important subject — balancing the love for our own people with our concern for the world at large. In times of war, as we’ve seen, this search for balance can get quite emotional and tricky.

But while we’ve been focusing so loudly on this particular balancing act, there’s another balancing act that I don’t think we’ve heard enough about.

This one is more introspective and inner-directed, and deals not so much with our enemies as with Israel itself.

It’s the balancing act between the Israel of War and the Israel of Peace. 

Between the Israel that is forced to fight to defend itself and the Israel that wants to live in peace and enjoy life.

Both Israels were on display the other night in front of an overflow crowd at the annual Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) dinner at the Century Plaza Hotel.

On the surface, you’d think the night would be all about the Israel of War.

(In fact, in my case, the “war” started even before I entered the hotel, as I was greeted on the street by anti-Israel demonstrators shouting charming questions like: “Are you going to the war-crimes dinner?”)

Most of the evening, naturally, was dedicated to the IDF. We saw videos of heroic exploits on the battlefield and heard live and moving speeches from those very heroes. (One of the speakers lost an arm in an enemy attack and re-enlisted for combat duty after a long period of rehabilitation.)

Perhaps the most moving speaker of the night was an Israeli mother who lost two sons in combat. It wasn’t only her unspeakable grief that held the crowd. It was her unbroken spirit.

She embodied the two Israels.

Her unbroken spirit and defiance embodied the Israel that must defend itself in order to survive.

Her overwhelming grief embodied an Israel that longs for a day when Israeli mothers won’t have to hear the knock of army officials coming to announce tragic news.

Both Israels seemed embedded in the soldiers, as well. They were warriors, but they were also grudging warriors.

From the humble way they spoke, from their obvious love of life, what came across was that they fought because they had to, not because they wanted to.

It was timely that the event coincided with the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, which also can be said to embody the two Israels.

As Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, the Chanukah story began as a simple story of a military victory, with the stunning success of Judah Maccabee and his followers as they fought for their religious freedom.

But after the Romans conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple, there were rabbis who thought the holiday should be abolished. Why celebrate a freedom that had been lost?

Because, as Sacks writes, “Freedom may have been lost but hope was not yet lost.”

That’s how the miracle of the oil lasting eight days became the central narrative of Chanukah.

This is a narrative that was born in war and was reborn in light. 

It’s hard not to see the connection with modern-day Israel, a country born in war that has tried desperately to be reborn in light. 

The Israel of War has always made a lot of noise, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. Israel is a tiny nation surrounded by enemies with no mercy, and it has to fight like the Maccabees just to survive.

But it’s fascinating to see how, despite all the wars, the Israel of Peace — the one that loves to celebrate life and help the world, the one that embodies the hopeful light of Chanukah — still hangs in there, trying to make noise of its own.

It’s that very Israel we saw near the end of the FIDF dinner, when a female Israeli soldier, backed by Hollywood impresario David Foster, got up to sing an American pop song that brought the house down.

As she sang, I couldn’t help thinking that this same girl might be fighting in a war soon, or might already have fought in one. There on stage was the living contradiction represented by the Israels of War and Peace — a singing soldier.

Maybe, then, this is the balancing act that American supporters of Israel should spend more time reflecting on. It’s a balancing act that is done not in America but in Israel, by a people trying to balance the need to fight with the love to sing, and the pain of grief with the will to live. 

Monumental Roman-era synagogue uncovered

Archaeologists digging just a few kilometers from the fishing village where Jesus is believed to have preached, have uncovered a monumental Roman-era synagogue with an exquisite, colorful mosaic floor with fine female faces.

“An inscription in Hebrew has two female faces on either side. One is destroyed and the other is complete and is absolutely spectacular,” Jodi Magness, a professor of Early Judaism at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told The Media Line.

Magness, together with David Amit and Shua Kisilevitz of the Israel Antiquities Authority, are carrying out the excavations at Huqoq near the northwestern shores of the Sea of Galilee.

Digging through the remnants of a Palestinian village abandoned in 1948 and later bulldozed, archaeologists came upon an ancient Jewish village centered around the large synagogue. The ruins date from the Late Roman period, approximately of the 4th century, a time on the cusp of an “explosion of synagogue building,” Magness said.

“It’s contemporary with synagogues like Capernaum and Hamat Tiberias and Beit Alpha,” she said, adding that the town itself was mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud.

At first they discovered large, well cut stones, indicating an impressive public edifice they assumed to be a synagogue. These assumptions were confirmed when they began excavating down to the floor.

“We had been digging down through the dirt fill and one of volunteers who was on a dig for the first time was gently hoeing and suddenly felt something hard. He got very excited and called me over. We could see a little bit of the mosaic sticking out of the dirt and at that point I got very excited too and we shut down the area until we got our conservator on site to work on the mosaic,” Magness recalled enthusiastically.

One of the mosaics, which are made up of tiny colored stone cubes, shows a biblical scene of Samson placing torches between the tails of foxes (as related in the book of Judges 15). The other major mosaic held the faces with the Hebrew inscription which refers to rewards for those who perform good deeds.

“This discovery is significant because only a small number of ancient (Late Roman) synagogue buildings are decorated with mosaics showing biblical scenes, and only two others have scenes with Samson (one is at another site just a couple of miles from Huqoq),” said Magness, the Kenan Distinguished Professor in the department of religious studies in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences.

She said the fancy floor and large stones used to construct the synagogue’s walls showed that the village synagogue and nearby houses were built by an affluent society. In some ways, it appeared beyond what a small village like Huqoq would naturally have built.

“That was a little bit surprising to me,” Magness said. “I did not expect the level of prosperity that we see in the village context because this was a village not a town or a city. I am kind of dumbfounded really.”

Besides the fact that it was located near a spring, on a major trade route and surrounded by fertile land, Magness noted that ancient rabbinical sources mention Huqoq was known for its mustard plants.

“I guess mustard was lucrative,” she said.

Only portions of the synagogue have been uncovered so far. Magness said she believes the scale of the building is similar to the one uncovered in Bar Am, an opulent structure from a similar period in the upper Galilee near Safed. She said that the Huqoq synagogue was partially intact, with walls standing to half their original first floor height, and with original plaster.

The mosaic was further dispelled the notion that bans on graven images kept Jews from putting figurines in their synagogues.

“One of the big surprises in the early 20th century when many of these synagogues of this period came to light for the first time was that many of them are decorated with figured images and sometimes even pagan images and this sort of revolutionized our understanding of Judaism in this period. So apparently Jews in this period were not bothered by these kinds of images and chose to decorate their synagogues with them,” Magness said. “Now that we have this wonderful discovery we do want to share it with the public, but it is going to take time because we are still in the midst of a long term excavation project,” she said. 

Options include removing the mosaic for display in a museum or turning the site into an archaeological park, but that depends on the total finds made after a few seasons. Meanwhile, the findings have been covered over to prevent pillaging and damage until next summer when the excavations are scheduled to continue.

Roman Jewry mourns Italian Muslim leader

The Rome Jewish community mourned the death of an Italian Muslim leader who was a key figure in promoting interfaith Jewish-Muslim relations.

Mario Scialoja, a retired Italian diplomat and the first president of the Italian office of the World Muslim League, died Monday in Rome. His funeral took place Tuesday in Rome’s Grand Mosque.

Scialoja, who was 82, converted to Islam in 1988 when he was an Italian diplomat at the United Nations in New York. His last diplomatic post was as Italian ambassador to Saudi Arabia in 1994-96.

“A sincere friend with whom we shared genuine dialogue initiatives has left us,” said Riccardo Pacifici, president of the Rome Jewish community. “Even in moments of tension, he always demonstrated he knew how to maintain the level of dialogue and respect.”

Scholar explores ancient Jewish reactions to ancient pagan statues

Imagine a rabbi encountering a statue of Zeus in Roman Palestine, circa 70 to 300 C.E. — a monotheist’s nightmare.

“The myth is that he would have uttered something like the Yiddish ‘gevalt,'” said professor Yaron Z. Eliav of the University of Michigan, who recently spoke about Jews and statues at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades. “We imagine he would have put his hand over his face, the way an ultra-Orthodox Jew might shield his eyes from a poster of a woman in a bikini.”

But the sages who wrote classical texts, such as the Talmud, could not afford to ignore such statues, which were like the mass media of the ancient world.

Images of gods, mythological monsters, sports heroes and emperors were greek statueeverywhere: atop pedestals and in niches, adorning public buildings, temples, fountains and tetrapyla, the colonnaded structures marking street intersections. They were intended to be lifelike and often heavily painted, as revealed in the Getty’s new exhibition, “The Color of Life: Polychromy in Sculpture From Antiquity to the Present.”

“One could not have strolled heavily Jewish cities such as Tiberias or Caesarea without encountering Roman sculpture every step of the way,” said Eliav, as he strolled amid ancient statues at the museum. “While the assumption has been that the sages opposed everything Graeco-Roman, they were in fact far more sophisticated and varied in their response.”

Eliav co-directs the multidisciplinary Statuary Project at the University of Michigan, which, among other endeavors, peruses classical Jewish texts for references to statues (there are at least 6,000 of them — many appreciative of the figures’ beauty and tolerant of female nudes).

The texts reveal that the rabbis were fluent in Greek and in the customs of the ancient world. “Not only did [they] repeatedly mention statues by name, such as Aphrodite, Mercury … emperors, or even the ‘faces which spout out water in the towns’ (t. Avod. Zar. 6:6), they were also conscious of the social and political dynamics associated with the positioning of statues,” Eliav wrote in an essay.

Thus they were able to work out pragmatic rulings on how Jews should interact with the ubiquitous sculpture. In a Mishnah debate on idolatry, just one scholar, Rabbi Meir, insisted that “all statues are forbidden”; most of the others argued that only statues meant to be worshipped were off limits. A passage in the Yerushalmi, the Palestinian Talmud, suggests that informal rituals conducted in front of public sculptures did not necessarily turn them into idols — a practical viewpoint in a society where the informal veneration of statues, including processions and the sprinkling of libations, were common.

As Eliav traversed a room filled with statues of Aphrodite (also known as Venus), the goddess of love, he recounted the Mishnah anecdote about Rabban Gamaliel in the “Aphrodite bathhouse.” When a pagan asked how Gamaliel could tolerate the bathhouse’s statue of the goddess, the rabbi said the sculpture didn’t function as a deity, but rather was “an ornament for the bath.” Gamaliel reasoned that Romans would not walk around naked in front of a statue they intended to worship; he added that: “She [Aphrodite] is standing by the drainage, and all the people are urinating in front of her.”

Eliav paused by a statue that could have decorated such a bathhouse — a small, second century marble Venus, missing her head and arms, but still sensual with wet-looking drapery clinging to her curvaceous body.

“Many bathhouses had statues like this Venus, which would have been appropriate, because Venus was born of the sea,” Eliav said. “The rabbis would have engaged this kind of statue on a daily basis, because everyone in the Roman world loved bathhouses — they offered warm, clean water, which people didn’t have in their homes.”

Next, Eliav pointed out a very different image of Venus: A massive, clothed statue that may well have been worshipped (one possible giveaway was her size.) The rabbis noted other ways to discern statues that were worshipped — such as those wielding “a stick or a bird or a ball” (the eagle was associated with Zeus, for example).

“What fascinates me is that the rabbis knew the attributes the Romans used to identify their own deities,” Eliav said.

Kenneth Lapatin, associate curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum, joined Eliav in the gallery.

“The rabbis re-contextualized the statues and found ways to ‘read’ them that made them acceptable on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “And their world view often allowed them a great deal of variability, because they, like us, lived in a complex society, where on the Sabbath they were [strictly] Jewish and on Tuesday they might serve on the city council and on Wednesday they were perhaps working in their blacksmith shop, making armor for the centurions.”

Eliav, 43, spent much of his childhood in the ultra-Orthodox community of B’nai B’rak in Israel. His father, an ardent Zionist, separated from the more observant branch of the family in order to join the army, to attend a secular university and New York University law school.

Eliav attended yeshiva in New York for five years before moving back to Israel, where he enrolled at Hebrew University. “My religious identity was always shaky, but I always had a lot of passion for Jewish texts,” he said. “I decided to study the Talmud, but with the help of my professors, I realized I didn’t want to study it out of context. That is when I began studying classics and archeology in order to understand the environment in which the texts were created.”

Today, Eliav’s specialty is the encounter between Jews and Graeco-Roman culture. His book, “God’s Mountain: The Temple Mount in Time, Space and Memory,” won the 2006 prize for best first book from the American Academy for Jewish studies.

He believes that the findings of the Statuary Project will have relevance for Jews today.

“It shows that the rabbis worked to pave a path that would allow people to embrace their Jewish identity within a multicultural environment,” he said.

The Treasures on Top of the Mountain

By many accounts, it ranks just below Jerusalem as one of Israel’s most beloved treasures. It holds United Nations Education, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) status as a World Heritage Site. Conde Nast Traveler magazine even named it the “World’s Best Monument.”

Masada, which represents a stronghold of Jewish courage and defiance, is among Israel’s most visited sites. Located in the Judean Desert, adjacent to the Dead Sea, King Herod the Great built Masada 2,100 years ago as both his winter palace and a place where he would retreat in times of crisis.

Thanks to monumental excavations begun in 1964 under the direction of Yigal Yadin, visitors regularly come to this lone mountain. At a sharp peak of 1,200 feet, Herod fashioned this marvelous palace with three floors of elegant halls. Its many other wonders included heated bath houses decorated with still-visible mosaics, a remarkable plumbing system to gather runoff from nearby flash floods and even chambers for storing ice in the desert heat. Masada, it seemed, was unconquerable.

But after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, fate would eventually prove otherwise. Some 960 Jewish zealots took over the abandoned palace as the last independent Jewish holdout in the Land of Israel against conquering Roman armies. The refugees survived atop Masada for three years until a 36-month Roman siege, involving tens of thousands of Roman soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Jewish slaves, finally succeeded.

What the Romans found when they arrived was a community that had taken its own lives rather than become captive slaves. The Roman siege ramp on the western side of Masada that led to the end of the battle still offers easy walking access to the top of the fortress. From there, you can also see the outlines of several Roman camps below.

The World Heritage Committee recognized Masada under the auspices of UNESCO, describing it as “a symbol of the ancient Jewish kingdom of Israel, an example of the opulence and luxury of the early Roman Empire and a symbol of Jewish cultural identity and, more universally, of the continuing human struggle between oppression and liberty.”

In advance of expected, heavy millennium year tourism, Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, in conjunction with the National Park Authority, completed a $40 million conservation and renovation project at the site. A 90-minute drive southeast of Jerusalem or about 20 minutes from Ein Gedi, Masada now includes a state-of-the-art visitors center, as well as high-speed, high-capacity cable cars, which start at the eastern entrance, one mile from the Dead Sea. But hundreds of visitors each day choose to hike up Masada’s Snake Path.

The weather is accommodating year-round, though high summer temperatures suggest an early morning visit. If you’re up for an early morning arrival, it’s a magnificent place to watch the sunrise over the Dead Sea. Plan on spending about three hours to tour the site.

Masada is reachable via regularly scheduled bus service from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Eilat. Use the western entrance for the nighttime sound-and-light show (fee required). For more information, sound-and-light show schedule and admission fees, visit