Who Weeps for Rachel? (Extract)

A revered holy site for generations, Rachel's Tomb on the road to Bethlehem has become a political and religious icon

20pray (photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
(photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
Extract from a story in Issue 20, January 19, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Clutching worn prayer books, arriving in a steady stream of chartered buses from all over Israel, they come to the tomb of Rahel Imeinu, "Our Mother Rachel." It is the 11th day of the Hebrew month of Heshvan, the traditional date of her death (which fell this year on November 9th), and thousands of Jews flock to pray and weep at this spot, approximately six miles south of Jerusalem, on the outskirts of Bethlehem. Here, according to tradition derived from Genesis, Rachel, the second wife of Jacob, and one of the four matriarchs, who shared her beloved husband with her sister, was buried after she died in childbirth with her second son Binyamin. The women wear sweeping skirts and head coverings reflecting their religious affiliations. The men, far fewer than the women, are clad in black frock coats, fedoras and homburgs. This is largely an inelegant, impatient crowd with many wizened faces and frayed clothes - Israel's faithful who have come from the immigrant towns, the down-scale neighborhoods of the cities and the agricultural hinterland. They are joined by thousands of English-speaking Orthodox women, for whom support for Rachel's Tomb has become a way to express their devotion to Judaism and Israel. Rachel is the mother of sorrows, recalled in the writings of the prophet Jeremiah as bitterly weeping over her exiled children, the Jewish people, after the First Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE and the Jews were exiled to Babylon. According to legend, God was so moved by her tears that he promised her that one day she would witness the "return of her sons to their borders" (Jeremiah 31:14 to 17). The figure of Rachel has been a source of eternal admiration and identification for Jewish women throughout history, who have fervently believed that through her merit God will intervene for the good of all Jewish women and the Jewish people. For them, Rachel's Tomb is the timeless symbol of maternal suffering But the tomb has also been the focus of a long series of political, social and theological disputes, and a place of bitter conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Israel retains control of the site, although it is in the West Bank, over the Green Line, while the Palestinian Authority says that it belongs to the Islamic waqf (Muslim religious trust). The worshipers are unaware of, or unconcerned about, all of this. For these Jews, and especially for these women, this is not a contested and embattled place, where Israelis and Palestinians have lost their lives over the past few years, but the final resting place of "our mother of sorrows." Yet these faithful have been caught up, some unwittingly, some disingenuously, in the political and nationalist struggles of this land. Once a modest biblical-looking structure, graced by an olive tree, depicted in countless paintings and pictures throughout the ages, Rachel's Tomb is now completely overshadowed and surrounded by Israel army-manned watchtowers and eight-meter (25 feet) high concrete fences, erected to protect Israelis from terrorist attacks. This has cut off Palestinian access to the tomb, where Muslims and Christians also used to pray. This year's anniversary drew as many as 70,000 to 100,000 Jewish visitors, an all-time high, according to police at the scene. While Israelis can now drive their cars and park in a new lot across the road from the tomb, on this anniversary day visitors are instructed to park their cars at a nearby junction, an eight-minute drive away, and board buses that charge just under five shekels ($1.25) for the round-trip. Like the Western Wall and other holy sites, Israeli authorities have turned Rachel's Tomb into an ultra-Orthodox synagogue with separate entrances and prayer halls for men and women, and the multitude self-segregates itself and heads off to their respective doors. The women surge toward the blue-painted door to the entrance of the women's section, creating an urgent, unruly mob outside the door. The privately-hired female guard, clad in a long blue skirt and long-sleeved shirt, allows only a few in at a time, using her arm to bar the masses. And yet, there is a sense of conspiratorial female spiritual camaraderie amid the chaos. A young woman with head covering passes out booklets of Psalms to be said at the tomb. "Pray and pass," she shouts cheerfully. "We don't leave Mother alone," proclaims one flier handed out by the Jerusalem-based Mosdos Kever Rochel, (Rachel Tomb Institutions, in Yiddish) one of several not-for-profit organizations that promote exclusive Jewish worship at and ownership of the site. The rooms accorded to the women are not large and can comfortably accommodate only about 150 women. But there are many more here today and the crowd grows with each hour. The desperation to enter the women's section is overwhelming. "Don't push!" voices scream out from the depths of the multitudes as handbags and elbows are put to good use in the offensive to gain a foothold into the door. Soon the latrines in the women's section break down and a male worker fetches a plunger from the police station. In the crowd are Esther and Miriam, friends from Rehovot, in the center of the country. Both identify themselves as religious nationalists who regularly don knitted caps on their heads. Neither wants to mention her family name. Each says she has personal pleas and needs divine aid. Esther, mother of an unwed daughter, is praying for a "nice son-in-law." Miriam thinks it's "bad luck" to spell out what she wants and why she has come. Impervious to pleas not to push, the pair firmly inch their way forward in bemused despair at the mayhem. Once let inside the compound, they quickly move into two cramped rooms reserved for women. In the farther room stands an immense marker covered with a white velvet cloth. This purportedly is Rachel's gravestone. Men can be heard on the other side of the mehitza (barrier between the sexes, required according to religious law), crying out in supplication. Inside, some women moan and weep loudly and kiss their prayer books; others chant prayers in a quiet, brisk and business-like manner. The lucky ones have snagged plastic chairs. Even luckier are those who can touch and kiss the gravestone. "Rachel is the epitome of self-sacrifice," says Esther, as though talking about a pop icon. But there's no time for chit chat. The guard is imploring women to pray quickly, leave and make room for others. Huddling together, Esther and Miriam take out their prayer books and shut their eyes, moving their lips urgently. "Mama Rochel will help us. Especially today," says Esther confidently, referring to the matriarch in Yiddish. The date of Rachel's death is not mentioned in the bible. Scholars say the date is deduced from the reference of Benjamin's birth and Rachel's death on the "eleventh day of the eighth month" in chapter 22 of the Book of Jubilees, a Jewish work dating from the 2nd century CE. Medieval rabbis later interpreted the date to be the Hebrew calendar month of Heshvan. The date is also mentioned in Yalkut Shimoni (Simeon's Compilation), a 13th century collection of midrash (commentary and legend) and Jewish law composed in Germany. The tomb was first mentioned by early Christian sources, according to Professor Ora Limor, a medieval historian and rector of the Open University. Limor does not rule out the possibility that the ancient interest in female cults inspired like-minded Judeo-Christian tales of virtuous and divine women and saints. Over the generations, Jewish women have developed rites and rituals particular to Rachel's Tomb. According to ancient custom, barren women and those suffering from deep pain or sorrow would surround the tomb with a red thread, then tie the thread to their elbows or necks, believing and hoping that the merit of Rachel and the sanctity of the tomb would permeate their own lives and souls. Women have also created other rituals specific to the site, such as kissing the shelves on which religious books have been placed. Hebrew University Prof. Rahel Elior, chair of the department of Jewish Thought and an expert on Jewish mysticism, notes several reasons why women have felt attached to Rachel's image and revered her tomb. Known for her beauty, says Elior, Rachel was the first woman in the bible to be mentioned in the context of romantic love, and she even experienced a kiss, thereby becoming a role model for brides seeking love. Her tomb became a pilgrimage site for barren women because, she, too, was at first barren and only later blessed with Joseph, known in the bible for his beauty and wisdom. Elior notes that the image of Rachel weeping for her exiled children, cited in the Book of Jeremiah, has became a paradigm for all mothers worried about their children. It is also important to note, Elior continues, that for centuries most Jewish women had no avenue to express their religious devotional feelings in any other way apart from tomb pilgrimages because they were not part of study circles open to men. And while the Cave of the Patriarchs, biblical resting place of Sarah, Rebecca and Leah, was historically closed to women visitors, Rachel's Tomb was not. Prof. Susan Sered of Suffolk University (in Boston), an Israeli-trained anthropologist and expert on women and religion, tells The Report that it is unclear when women's interest in Rachel's Tomb started but it "picked up steam in the late 19th century, had another boost in popularity during the Holocaust, and moved up another notch after 1967," when Israel captured the area from Jordan during the Six-Day War. Her research shows that the tomb was more popular with women than men in the early 20th century and again in the 1970s and 1980s "but changed somewhat in the 1990s," because more men began to show up. In recent years the tomb has become a receptacle for material objects, which reflect traditional issues. A curtain sewn from pieces of a wedding dress belonging to Nava Applebaum, a 20-year-old Jerusalem bride who was slain, with her physician father, in a 2003 terror attack on the night before her wedding, was donated by her family to grace a Holy Ark at the tomb. (It is now missing; the family has been notified and a police complaint has been filed. The theft of religious Christian relics was not uncommon in medieval times.) Not all Orthodox women share the enthusiasm for the tomb. Dr. Chana Kehat, an activist with Kolech, the Forum for Religious Women, a modern Orthodox feminist group, says that she stopped visiting the tomb in her teens when she abandoned the ultra-Orthodoxy of her youth and concluded that Rachel was not buried there. Kehat says she is not fond of the practice of praying at the graves of the dead altogether but is "particularly disturbed" by the displays of religious fervor at Rachel's Tomb because the sorrowful image of the biblical Rachel crying merely reinforces "negative stereotypes" about women being emotionally weak. "It is that very weakness," she says, "that appeals to the ultra-Orthodox and to women who reject the challenges of religious feminism." Yet the numbers of faithful coming to the tomb have been growing over the past few years, says Rabbi Yosef Shwinger, director general of the National Center for Development of the Holy Places, a governmental agency under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Tourism, which has been contracted by Israel's Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria to run the day-to-day operations at the tomb. Jews have apparently identified with Rachel since antiquity, although the well-known structure was built at an unknown time in the classic shape of the tomb of a Muslim holy figure, similar to hundreds of other such structures in the region. By medieval times, the identification had been ensconced, and Tel Aviv University historian Elchanan Reiner tells The Report that some 18 medieval Jewish sources make reference to Rachel's Tomb, including Benjamin of Tudela, the 12th century rabbi and explorer. The Ottoman Turks, who recognized the shrine as a holy Jewish place, capped it with a domed structure around 1620. The structure was restored and expanded in the mid-19th century by philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore (with permission of the Ottoman rulers). From 1948, following the War of Independence, until the Six-Day War in 1967, the shrine was under Jordanian jurisdiction; Jews were barred from visiting and the adjacent Montefiore addition was turned into a Muslim morgue - this despite the 1949 Rhodes Armistice Agreements between Israel and Jordan, which mandated that Jordan would not alter Jewish pilgrimage sites under their jurisdiction and would allow access for Jews. When the IDF paratroopers captured Bethlehem on June 7th, 1967, few recognized the site. The roadside tomb had been enveloped by a Muslim cemetery and a neighborhood of private homes and shops. The victorious Israelis were presented with a key to the tomb by an official from the Islamic Waqf and military rabbinate personnel visited the site, bolstering later Muslim claims that it was, and is, waqf property. On the intermediate days of Sukkot 1967, only months after the war, some 45,000 people visited the shrine. Recalls settlement leader and former right-wing Knesset member Hanan Porat, 65, who had spent his childhood in the Etzion Bloc, south of Bethlehem, until 1948, when the region fell to the Jordanians, "We were very conscious of fulfilling the ancient prophecy to Rachel and returning to our borders. It was thrilling." In 1971, mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek (an early founder of Israel's modern Labor party, who subsequently left to form his own municipal slate, but returned to run in 1993 at Labor's bidding) favored annexing the tomb to Jerusalem's municipality. However, he failed to garner sufficient government support for the proposal. Despite pressure from religious and right-wing groups, Porat laments, "the government has always been hesitant to take a stand." In 1994, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, as part of the Oslo process, started working on arrangements for Jewish holy places that fell under Palestinian jurisdiction in 1994, but they concentrated on other sites, including several obscure houses of study located in the West Bank. By early 1995, then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, focusing on the site which he regarded of paramount importance to religious Jews - retaining Jewish control of the Temple Mount and Western Wall - was planning to hand over Bethlehem and other West Bank cities to the Palestinian Authority as part of continued negotiations; Rachel's Tomb was slated to be ceded to the control of the Palestinian Authority. Anticipating that it might be returned to the Palestinians, Porat organized an ad hoc men's yeshiva at the tomb in the early 90s, with, Porat says, special permission from the Israeli Civil Administration, which controlled the site. Personalities such as Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Ashkenazi chief rabbi Yisrael Lau, and minister of religion Prof. Shimon Sheetret wanted the tomb to remain under Israeli control. Eventually Rabin caved. According to reports, Rabin was most affected by a meeting in July 1995 with ultra-Orthodox member of Knesset Menahem Porush (United Torah Judaism). Porat recalls that he was on his way to the meeting with Rabin when he encountered Porush in the Knesset corridors and explained the "urgency" of the meeting with the prime minister. Porush asked to come along. Once inside, Porat recalls that the ultra-Orthodox MK wept while beseeching Rabin not to forget "Mama Rochel" and include the tomb under Israel's control. Porat remembers that Rabin was startled by Porush's hysterics and told him to calm down. Rabin's Jewish identity, Porat says now, "was not shaped by knowledge of the holy sites but he had a Jewish heart." But Dror Etkes, 40, who formerly monitored settlement development at Peace Now for five years (2002 to 2007) and currently heads the Land Advocacy Project of Yesh Din, a group working against alleged violations of Palestinians' rights by settlers, says that in agreeing to keep Rachel's Tomb under Israeli control, Rabin "made a huge error. The settlers knew how to manipulate him, again and again." With the outbreak of the second intifada, in the fall of 2000, the area surrounding Bethlehem and the tomb itself became the site of intense fighting. For months, under Israeli military orders, the site was completely closed to civilians. But as the Palestinian uprising besieged the tomb, it became a symbol not only of Rachel and her tears, but of Jewish rights and privileges in this contested area and a particular magnet for right-wing women's political activism. By November of 2000, hardcore right-wing activist Miriam Levinger, who had led the Jewish resettlement of Hebron in 1968 with her husband, Rabbi Moshe Levinger, pitched a protest tent nearby. She was joined by a like-minded group, Women for a Better Tomorrow (known more popularly as "Women in Green,") an organization of right-wing women, most of them American, led by Belgian-born Nadia Matar and her American mother-in-law, Ruth. The tomb, open on a very limited basis between November 2000 and 2003, was re-opened to Jewish visitors in 2003, on the condition that the worshipers arrive at the site in well-guarded shuttle buses. Arabs refer to the site as "Kurbat Rahil" - the dome of Rachel, says Palestinian archaeologist and historian Dr. Nazmi Al-Ju'beh, who lectures in history at Birzeit University on the West Bank and is director of RIWAQ, the Centre of Architectural Conservation, a preservationist group in Ramallah. According to some Muslim scholars, the name Rachel is derived from the Arabic word "to wander" because, according to legend, during one of her wanderings, Rachel died and was buried there. Another legend tells that when his brothers sold Joseph into slavery, his convoy passed by his mother's grave. Joseph wept, and heard his mother's voice from the grave, urging him to trust in God. Prof. Al-Ju'beh says he is not certain of the etymological roots of the name. As a biblical character, however, Al-Ju'beh says Rachel is "very important" in Islamic thought because she is a member of the biblical family of Abraham, who is regarded as a prophet and is the father of Ishmael, an ancestor of the Arab people and an Islamic prophet as well. And even though neither Rachel nor any other Bibical woman enjoys the status of prophet (as did Sarah who had a conversation with God), they are revered, because they are family members of prophets. In Islamic tradition the true resting place of prophets and their families is not known; symbolic shrines built in commemoration of these personalities are erected and venerated instead. Al-Ju'beh says Rachel's Tomb is such a place. The popular Muslim claim, which has gained credence with Palestinians in recent years, that the site is actually the burial place of Balal Ibn Rabah, an Ethiopian-born servant of Muhammad, who died in 642 CE, and was significantly the first African convert to Islam, is part of a later narrative from the 17th and 18th centuries, says Al-Ju'beh. Indeed Rachel's Tomb, he says, was traditionally a shrine shared by the traditions of three faiths. "Today it is an Israeli military fortress and at the center of a strategic right-wing Israeli attempt to establish a Jewish presence in the West Bank," he says, adding that he does not minimize Jewish traditions surrounding the tomb. "I have no doubt that Jewish pilgrims who go there are full of faith but I think it's a monstrosity and has lost all its purity and holiness," says Al-Ju'beh. Suhail Khalilileh, 38, of the Applied Research Institute-Jerusalem (ARIJ), a Palestinian non-profit based in Bethlehem, established in 1990 to monitor local ecological issues, tells The Report that for centuries the shrine was "open to all faiths." He does not address accusations that the Jordanians barred Jews from pilgrimages to the tomb. Extract from a story in Issue 20, January 19, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.