Ramblings on religion, Jerusalem, and how everything’s connected

I’m not a religious person, but I do have a history of religion-hopping. Raised as a Chreaster (church attendance only on Christmas and Easter), I dove head-first into the southern-bible variety of Christianity while I was at the University of Texas at Austin. My affair with this particular flavor of religion lasted through most of my twenties, and even included a few years as a Bible teacher. My mom called it a cult, but I didn’t care. I was too busy trying to become perfect.

“This is all bullshit,” I thought on one unremarkable morning in my 27th year, kicking off a 6-year period of atheistic hedonism that ended when I grudgingly acknowledged the pointlessness of my lifestyle. “Ok, maybe it’s not bullshit, but I don’t want anyone preaching at me.” My girlfriend introduced me to Zen Buddhism and I was hooked.

10+ years of occasional meditation retreats and inconsistent but regular practice helped me get my head on straight and listen to my gut. And then I got curious about other paths like Kabbalah, Sufism, even Wicca; basically everything but the kitchen sink. And soon enough, I noticed something: they’re all pretty similar. I mean, if God is One and all, like nearly all of these religions say, then it stands to reason that a lot of the core messages are the same… right?

“Hear O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is One.” Deut 6:4

The Quran tells Muslims to say to Jews and Christians, “our God and your God is One, and unto Him we surrender” (29.46). 

Spirituality has been stashed in the back seat of my life for a few years now, but then I randomly found myself in Israel while searching for a warm, cosmopolitan city on the water (hello Tel Aviv!). As soon as I landed, I felt an energy here that I couldn’t explain, which woke up that old kitchen-sink-religion curiosity. Here I was in the birthplace of three major religions, and I couldn’t wait to explore.

A country united

In Israel, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re religious or not, or whether you’re in Jerusalem or the secular city of Tel Aviv: you’ll move with the rest of the country to the rhythm of Jewish tradition dating back thousands of years. The bustle of life nearly comes to a halt for Sabbath (Shabbat) every Friday from sundown to sundown, and for the weeks of major holidays like Passover. Busses and trains don’t run, so don’t plan on going anywhere on weekends unless you rent a car or use the ubiquitous scooters. The markets are also closed. Some shops and restaurants are still open, but you’ll want to plan ahead.

Passover evening from my roof deck, overlooking a typically high-traffic street in Tel Aviv.

Thanks to the Law of Return that encourages Jews from every part of the world to come home to Israel, you’ll encounter people from every nationality: Russian, European, American, and even (although too rarely) African. Everyone is integrated into a single society through a well-oiled process of language and culture classes, support in finding jobs, and more.

But the most compelling moments of unity are triggered by the memorial sirens. I experienced two of them in early May: one for the 6 million Holocaust victims (Yom HaShoah) and the other for fallen soldiers (Yom HaZikaron). During the 2-minute siren wail, cities and towns come to a standstill. Drivers stop and exit their cars, even on busy highways, to stand in remembrance. Pedestrians stop in their tracks. Diners set down their forks and stand by their tables. A friend pointed out that there’s plenty of disagreement within Israel on politics, religion, the occupation and more, but for these two minutes, the differences disappear while everyone stands united. It’s powerful to witness.

In Tel Aviv, drivers exit their cars to stand in remembrance of Holocaust victims

Jerusalem: A study in division

Passover, aka Pesach or Holy Week, comes just after these two memorial days. It’s pilgrimage time for tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews who come to Jerusalem to pray. As a recovering religion addict who’s fascinated by diverse cultures and faiths, I decided to take the 1.5-hour bus ride from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem for a pilgrimage of my own.  

The ancient walls around the old city have been built and destroyed numerous times since Jerusalem’s inception 1000 BC; originally built for defense against invaders, today they symbolize the defense of the sacred against the creep of modernity. The journey from the main bus station to the old city along Jaffa Road is largely a tourist trap, although the discerning traveler might want to wander through the Mahane Yahuda market, where 250 vendors sell fresh fruits and vegetables, honey, cheese, spices and other sensory delights. It’s a photographer’s dream, especially on holy days.

Above: the bustle of Mahane Yahuda Market. Bottom: Along the main Jaffa Road well after sunset, an elderly Jew tries to read in the fading light

After passing through one of the seven gates into the Old City, you’re in a place that feels oddly like a religious theme park. It’s been adapted for the 4 million tourists that visit the city each year, replete with handrails, maps and signage to guide visitors through the city’s Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian quarters (while the Armenians are Christians, their neighborhood is separate due to language and culture.)

At the entrance to the main Jaffa Gate, built in 1538 by Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.
“Hey look!” The Arabic inscription at which he’s pointing reads, “In the name of Allah the Merciful, the Great Sultan, King of the Turks, Arabs and Persians, Suleiman son of Selim Khan—may Allah make his Kingdom eternal—gave the order to build this blessed Wall.” 

I can’t even begin to communicate how surreal this place is. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus’ bones are supposedly buried (and I have a crazy story about this place I’ll share in another post) is literally next door to the Muslim Mosque, which is around the corner from the Jewish quarter. Everyone worshipping the same God and sharing the same spiritual ancestry through Abraham, while fighting over which path is more right.

Christian worshippers march through the Old City

Walls within walls

There are three levels of physical barriers in Jerusalem. The most contested, obviously, is the wall erected during the Second Intifada in 2000 to separate Palestinians in East Jerusalem from Jews in the West. Initially temporary, this barrier built for security doesn’t appear to be going anywhere despite being a violation of international law. I didn’t venture into east Jerusalem, but in another post I’ll tell you about Hebron in the west bank.

The second barrier is the Western Wall, where Orthodox Jews come from around the world to pray. It’s the closest that Jews can come to the Temple Mount, which is considered the holiest place for the Jewish people. It also happens to be considered the holiest place for Islam, and thus is one of the main bones of contention between these two religions. The current peace in Jerusalem comes courtesy of an Israeli-enforced agreement that Jews are not permitted beyond the Wall. The Temple Mount itself is under the custody of the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, an Islamic religious trust funded by the king of Jordan.

The men’s section of the Western Wall; photo taken by yours truly while standing on a ledge outside the barrier along with other peepers.

Everything is in its proper place. Not only are Jews divided from Muslims, but the men’s section of the Wall is divided from – and twice as large as — the women’s section. This third barrier within the Jewish faith is a physical manifestation of the gender-based segregation imposed by the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate. Despite the Wall’s original intent of allowing open access to all worshipers, women are not allowed to wrap themselves in a Jewish prayer shawl (a talit), carry a torah scroll, or to raise their voices in prayer.

The division at the Wall has been a major source of internal conflict; the activist group Women of the Wall joined with the Reform and Conservative movements in a drawn-out battle for a more open, inclusive section of the wall. An agreement was reached in 2016, only to be shut down a year later in a surprise government vote.

Jerusalem, like Brexit, is just a highly visible microcosm of the division that’s happening everywhere — every culture, every country, every aspect of life. Maybe it’s pointless to highlight this pattern in this particular city when it’s so pervasive. And yet I’m obsessed with this issue… with how we humans compulsively chop things up into isolated boxes. We teach subjects in schools in isolation of each other, try to solve complex health problems within narrow specializations, divide people by color and gender and identity. We love our boxes. Why?

My theory was that it’s a left-brain thing. Right brainers see connections while left brain sees differences. But that doesn’t really account for the judgment we place on those differences.

Yes, we really are loving our neighbor as ourselves

Back to that One God thing. Whatever you believe — whether it’s one path or many paths or no path at all — it’s hard to disagree about what One means. The same. No differences, no dividers, no barriers. Unity sounds lovely in theory, until we’re asked to love our neighbors, friends, enemies, women, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, and Christians as ourselves.

But hey, maybe that’s exactly what we’re doing, and we just don’t love ourselves very much. As within, so without. Seems like those who are the most vocal judgers of others are carrying around shame they can’t even see or acknowledge (hello anti-gay politicians and Catholic priests). We externalize self-loathing, or even the milder yet no less dangerous “not measuring up,” onto other people. It’s just easier to live with ourselves that way.

Could Jerusalem’s walls simply be a mirrored reflection of the barriers within ourselves to hide the junk we don’t want to see? Perhaps the day we can stop wielding our spears of judgment against what lies within us — the good, bad and ugly — we’ll be the bringers of peace on earth.

Sunset over the ancient old town of Jaffa in Tel Aviv, Israel

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