Sunday, June 12, 2011

Leaving Jerusalem . . . but keeping the Law!

Cave of Shai Seltzer
Photograph by Rina Castelnuovo
(Image from New York Times)

I lived in Jerusalem as a postdoctoral scholar for about a year during the academic period 1998-1999, along with my wife and daughter at first, but joined by our newborn son, who increased our number from three to four by entering the world some months later in that sacred place, one of several significant events, including a terrorist attack, that we experienced in Jerusalem, so this Travel article on the Holy City by Joshua Hammer for the New York Times brought back memories from just over a decade ago.

Mr. Hammer, who must have arrived not long after we left, lived in the city from 2000 until 2004, working as Newsweek's bureau chief, and he recently wrote "Jerusalem Outings Go Beyond the Biblical" (June 10, 2011), words that will prove somewhat ironic in a sense that I'll attempt to clarify after we look at this passage:
I lived in Jerusalem . . . and distinctly remember how totally the western -- Jewish -- side of the city shut down at the start of the Sabbath. At 3 p.m. on Fridays, the streets emptied of traffic, commercial districts cleared out, and quiet contemplation pushed aside the tensions of this hectic, largely working-class city -- tensions aggravated at the time by the al-Aqsa intifada. I eventually came to savor the silences of the Sabbath; even so, there were Saturdays when I yearned to escape the city’s religious aura and bask in a secular atmosphere. Frequently, that meant exploring a few enclaves a short drive from downtown Jerusalem, where nonreligious Israelis go to sip cappuccinos, shop for art and antiques, picnic, hike in the hills and otherwise forget that they live in one of the holiest cities in the world.
I have similar memories, though I didn't get to the exact same isolated spots. But I'm suddenly struck by this need to escape the holiness of Jerusalem for the secular world.

I often attended a French Hill synagogue on the Jewish Sabbath, intent on experiencing Judaism from the inside, to the extent that one can under the condition of being non-Jewish (despite having been circumcised on the requisite eighth day).

Nevertheless, I sometimes needed to get away, and I now see that such a desire, ironically, fulfilled the Sabbath, for the Hebrew word meaning "holy" is qodesh (קדש), which many scholars take in its basic meaning to indicate "set-apartness," or "separateness," and this etymology suggests that if I were in a secular frame of mind, I would be better off joining the common world, if not the impure one, and thereby leaving holiness to its separated self.

I can therefore state with impunity that I "[r]emember[ed] the Sabbath day, to keep it holy," by absenting my profane self from it, thereby helping it to maintain its separated holiness, hence keeping the Law, if somewhat in irony.

Though I wouldn't wish to hammer the point in . . .

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