Middle Israel: To storm a shrine

Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Monument to a spiritual-rape victim's poetic justice.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
The Gazans who this week chiseled to bits the buildings where last month people still prayed to God had plenty of precedents from which to derive inspiration. Napoleon, for instance, who was deeply impressed by the Kremlin's magnificence, at first thought he would dismantle it and bring it to Paris. Then, when it emerged that that wouldn't be feasible, and that the French would in fact soon be fleeing Russia, he had the structure prepared for demolition, when divinity intervened from above, as sudden rain prevented the fuses from lighting the explosives his engineers had already attached to St. Basil's Cathedral. For Napoleon, destroying what had already become the hallmark of Imperial Russia had less to do with faith, and more with power; the Kremlin was where he camped and Czars governed, and the Frenchman wanted to make the statement that if it wouldn't be his it would also not be theirs. Two centuries later, however, the communists approached with a much deeper hostility the shrine originally built to thank God for Ivan the Terrible's military victories. Rather than merely a political rival, to them it represented an ideological eyesore. And so, in 1918 they shot the Kremlin's chief priest and melted down its massive bells. Still, the Bolsheviks could not bring themselves to tear down that awesome structure itself. When architect Pyotr Baranovsky threatened in a letter to Stalin to slit his own throat on the steps of the church rather than oversee its demolition, which he had been ordered to carry out, he got a five-year jail term, but the Kremlin's demolition was indeed suspended. It was, of course, the exception to the communist rule, whereby numerous Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim and Jewish houses of worship across the Soviet empire were converted to theaters, gyms and storage houses, or were altogether destroyed. NOT FAR from the Kremlin, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which had taken three czars and nearly half-a-century to erect before it came to dominate Moscow's skyline, was actually leveled in 1931 by thousands who were unleashed at it by Stalin, who dynamited it to death. The communists, of course, did not invent this triumphalism. During the Reformation churches were routinely destroyed by their Christian adversaries, and Byzantine-era synagogues in the Holy Land were frequently torched by Christians who were out to eradicate the faith they sought to succeed. When Islam came along it merely emulated an intolerance that had already been pervasive for centuries, though its insistence on planting its own shrines on those of other faiths was apparently an innovation. When Islam conquered Jerusalem it placed shrines where Judaism's Temples once stood, while previous and subsequent Christian rulers remained indifferent to that site. When the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, the most meaningful place Muslims ever wrested from Christendom, they turned its most monumental church, Agia Sophia, into a mosque. That is also how the Indian holy site of Ayodhya became a mosque centuries before it was stormed and torched last decade by thousands of Hindus, and that is how Muslims in Nazareth tried to build there a mosque that would dwarf the largest church in that place, which was dear to Christians centuries before Islam even came into being. THE JEWISH people have much less experience in this kind of competition. Theirs has never been a proselytizing faith, and even God's express command to their forefathers to eradicate Canaan's idols was so poorly carried out that the prophets constantly scolded them for that failure. Even the fall on its face of the great Philistine idol Dagon, the one they had thanked while mocking the chained and eyeless Samson was God's rather than the Israelites' doing. Maybe that is why we Jews, when faced with scenes like this week's storming of Gaza's synagogues, are less baffled by the immediate political mechanics of the situation like the PA's failure to confront the riffraff whose instincts were well-known, and whose behavior was universally foretold and more by the mind-set that transcends them. We Jews are first and foremost curious to understand just what it is that makes people mount, hammer, loot, break and torch handsome structures where others have worshiped God. How does it not occur to them that rather than enemy fortresses, those were houses where only the other day a young woman thanked God for His safe delivery of her baby; where a jobless man swayed praying for a job; where a memorial prayer was recited for a recently deceased grandmother; where a childless woman begged for a baby all hers, and where an ill person's family prayed for his recovery? What emotional need did these pogromchiks' savagery serve, and where can it later lead? Sadly, just like their leaders' quest has so far been less about creating their own state and more about destroying someone else's, now theirs has also emerged as a need not to practice their own faith, but to humiliate ours. SURVEYING the barren field left where the Cathedral of Christ the Savior's 100-meter-high marble-plated walls had earlier that day still stood under their glistening golden domes, Stalin's sidekick Lazar Kaganovich said with a serial rapist's satisfaction: "We have torn off Mother Russia's skirt." According to his and Stalin's plan, victory was to be complete with the construction, on the cathedral's very site, of the Palace of the Soviets. It was to be the world's highest structure. On its top, the super-tower was to shoulder a Lenin idol larger than the Statue of Liberty. As it turned out, all this was a bit too much for God to stomach; the palace plan had to soon be abandoned because the soil at the site proved too soft and damp for a skyscraper. In the 1950s a huge swimming pool was built there. Then, after communism's fall, the cathedral was rebuilt. The Russian Orthodox Church was never known for its philo-Semitism, and celebrating its moral victory does not come naturally to us Jews. Yet the shrine destroyers' ultimate defeat by the shrine builders should make any humanist reflexively celebrate, even if he is an atheist. Similarly, after this week's somber sights all champions of honesty, tolerance and faith should carry their eyes from Gaza's smoldering sand dunes to Moscow's restored skyline and wonder who in all this was the Napoleon, the Stalin and the rapist.