Those tempted to think that Judaism is the most spiritual of the three religions that developed from Abraham should think again.
True, Judaism does not have a man-god with lots of paintings and statues at its center, and it does not seek to conquer the world in order to advanced the muddled teachings of an old book.
And there is a great deal of profound argument and admirable humanism in the 2,500 years of Judaic writing.
However, we also share with other faiths what some consider the more primitive expressions of bizarre belief, focused on stories of venerated leaders and holy sites that have little basis in historical reality.
Modern Israel is blessed or cursed with having to put up with the crowds that travel to our surplus of such sites. More than other places, we demonstrate in our witness of frequent celebrations (Jewish, Christian, and Muslim) those sides of humanity that seek otherworldly answers to daily needs, personal crises, or faith in something much greater than ourselves.
The holy sites and the spectacles that occur at them demonstrate that history is a spiritual enterprise, more concerned with viewpoint than verified realities.
Once again we see the wisdom of putting History Departments in the Humanities Faculties, which in Hebrew are labeled מדעי הרוח. That can be translated as the Science of the Spirit, or the Science of the Wind.
Both Jerusalem''s charm, and its traffic jams, reflect its great share of the holy sites.
- The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was identified as the site Christ''s burial in the fourth century, as the result of a spiritual inspiration by Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine. Among the doubts are its location, which may have been within Jerusalem at the time of Jesus'' death. Jews view dead bodies as impure. Jesus died a Jew, and would have been buried outside of the city. Protestants who venerate a site to the north of the present walls may have a better case than the various Christian Churches claiming parts of the Holy Sepulcher.
- Helena''s inspirations also had something to do with the location of the Monastery of the Cross, said to be erected on the site of the tree that produced the cross (she was also noted for finding relics of same), and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
- The Dome of the Rock and nearby al-Aqsa Mosque gain their sanctity from a story of Muhammed''s miraculous night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem on his heavenly horse.
- David''s Tomb, Rachel''s Tomb, and Joseph''s Tomb are centers of prayer for Jews, as well as dispute by historians who bother with such issues. Rachel''s and Joseph''s tombs claim veneration from as early as the 4th century CE, and David''s from no earlier than the 12th century. All this may make them old, but still "discovered" at least a millennia after their inhabitants are said to have died.
- The Cenacle or Upper Room, said to be the location of Jesus'' Last Supper, may have been located as early as the 4th century or as late as the 12th. The building came after the famous meal, so the food may been served at about that spot but not in that very room, which is not the only place claimed for the Last Supper. Among the problems in what has become the principal site claimed for the Last Supper is its location in the same old building above what Jews claim as David''s tomb. If David or anyone else was buried so close, Jesus and his Jewish students would in all probability have avoided eating in an impure place.
- The Prophet Samuel has made it convenient for both Muslims and Jews who consider him holy enough for his tomb to be the center of a synagogue and a mosque. One body said to be Samuel''s is entombed on the ground floor and another a flight above, in an impressive building outside the present western boundaries of Jerusalem.
- No less picturesque is what a Palestinian Muslim sect considers the tomb of Moses. It is located in the Judean dessert, east of the main road between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. It looks like something that Cecil B. DeMille could have constructed for one of his Hollywood spectaculars.
The site, alas, is not accepted by mainline Muslims. They agree with the Jewish tradition that Moses never made it to the Promised Land. There is a grave, said to be that of Moses, on Mt Nebo in Jordan, but that does not fit with the passage in Deuteronomy (34:6) that no one knows the place of his burial.
The Galilee became a center of Rabbinic Judaism, along with Babylon after the fall of Jerusalem. Babylon is not accessible, but lots of hill tops and hill sides in the Galilee have pilgrimage-attracting tombs of great rabbis.
Most prominent is that at the center of Lag B''Omer, which has acquired its own mixture of ancient and not so ancient myths, and is one of the great celebrations in the Israeli calendar for secular kids and religious adults. On some years crowds of up to half a million gather at the purported grave site of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, credited with being a disciple of Rabbi Akiva, involved with the bar Kochba rebellion, claimed by some (and vigorously denied to others) to be the author of the principle text of Kabbalah, the Zohar, and somehow involved with the the drinking of considerable wine, and the first haircuts given at the grave site to 3 year old boys. The good rabbi also is associated with bonfires, seen throughout Israel on that day, used more for roasting potatoes than prayer, and smelt in the air for a day or so later when schools are on vacation in recognition of what the kids of have been doing all night.
And we should not overlook the grave of Nachman of Breslov, in the otherwise undistinguished town of Uman in Ukraine. It attracts thousands of Hasidim and others drawn to their spirituality on several occasions annually via charter flights from Ben Gurion Airport.
While some may roll their eyes at such a catalog, it is wise not to overlook the thousands who believe, and the benefits they generate for employees and investors in airlines, hotels, tour buses, and souvenir sellers.
Jerusalemites must reckon with the benefits of religious and heritage tourism for the economy, even while we may curse the jam of tour buses when we want to go somewhere.
The Pope is due in town on May 25th.
It''ll be a good day to spend at the beach or the coffee houses of Tel Aviv.
Meanwhile, this place is not free of efforts to create new history.
On the headlines is a video purporting to be the intentional killing of peaceful Palestinians by the IDF.
While the details are still under inquiry, it appears to be a poor imitation of previous efforts, the most prominent being that of Muhammad al-Durrah. This one shows two separate instances of Palestinians, presumably shot fatally by the IDF, easing their way to the ground by extending both arms ahead of them.
If that video persuades you. I have a bridge you may want to buy.