Have you ever had a friend suggest something to you, decided it was probably a very good idea and simply said “Sure, let’s go!” – then a week later you begin to realise the implications – timing, cost, actual interest now that the whimsical moment has passed? To cut a very long story short, thanks to a friend and colleague of mine from Seminary days – I ended up on an intensive seminar in the Holy Land learning all about the Holocaust and Jewish life pre and post WW2. I really did think right up until the week before leaving “Jarel, why the hell did you sign up for this?”, and as usual when I feel this way, the thing (whatever it may be) turns out to be a life-changing experience in some way or other in the end…! These are just my own dis-organized offerings of some reflections now that I’m home…I don’t want to make any conclusions, no matter how conclusive what I write may sound…nor do I even want to go close to touching on the political situation in the Holy Land…the time I was there was nowhere near long enough to fully meander the interstices of the situation! Anyway… The seminar is an annual, ecumenical event for clergy from Britian organised by the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ) in conjunction with Yad Vashem in Israel with the International School for Holocaust Studies. It’s based mainly at Yad Vashem, just on the slope of Mount Herzl adjacent to the Jerusalem Forest – just as well the location is so serene and light – the complete opposite of that to which it stands testament. [Yad Vashem = “And to them will I give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name (a “yad vashem”)… that shall not be cut off.”] (Isaiah, chapter 56, verse 5) Each day consisted of a 7am rise (5am if you were one of the healthy gym people…!) with an 8:30am coach straight to Yad Vashem for lectures, seminars and workshops. This meant, on many mornings, dealing with stories and images from the holocaust which was both heartbreaking and haunting in equal measure. In truth, it’s only now, back at home, that I fully realise the emotional toil of engaging in such a task. Day by day, hearing of lives cut short by the evils of the Holocaust – whether it came in the form of stories from the ghettos or from the death camps or even from those who survived, there really was no way of us escaping the hororrs of the Shoah throughout our time. One of the very first things we did was visit the Yad Vashem Museum with our seminar leader extraordinaire Yiftach Meiri and our brilliant group leader Fiona who managed to keep a group of clergy together – really, no mean feat! For me, the Museum visit was perhaps the foundational aspect of the trip – the museum is extensive, full of material and information and yet at the same time it felt as though it was a sacred space – no photography allowed and guards watching your movements…lean on a display cabinet at your own risk here! I was struck by how parts of the museum made me feel, the shoes, the clothes, the carriages, the belongings…the bunkbeds from the death camps…the list goes on! At one point, just beside one of the bunks, there was this image – it was as though their eyes were looking into my soul and still crying out for rescue. The picture took up the space of one wall, and stood right beside a bunk identical to those in the picture – the only other time I felt the feeling I had was kneeling in adoration infront of the Blessed Sacrament during Benediction at Ealing Abbey (a weekly event for me when I was at home in London). Like Pope Francis on his recent trip to Israel, kissing the hands of survivors, I somehow wanted to honour – venerate those precious lives so cruelly ended. Very early on in my time in the Holy Land I found myself asking a question that has been asked and is continuously asked in this part of the world: “Where are you, God?….where are you?” In this image, in this complex, in this seminar, in this land – Where are you, God? And praying the Divine Office daily really brought to life some of the set Psalms in a way they had never come alive before… Very early on, it became quite clear that unfortunately, the one place it so clearly seemed God was not, was the Church at the time of the Holocaust – quotes by the Church Fathers, countless pictures of Pope Pius XII and conversations with Jewish people made it clear that there was and is still a feeling of failure, betrayal and even culpability where the Church is concerned in relation to the shoah… . it was even suggested that without the writings of the Church Fathers against the Jews, the Holocaust would not have occured. Anyone reading Chrysostom, Augustine or Luther and the vehement language used in regard to the Jews might well follow this train of thought and concur…I’m uneasy and undecided. It’s probably my own inability to deal with the guilt of the churches past failure as a Christian and as a clergyman that gets in the way here – something for me to think and pray about for sure. This strong criticism led me to criticise myself, my preaching and my theological rhetoric. Was I encouraging antisemitism? Did I preach against the Jews? Did my lack of interest in Old Testament scholarship lead me to take shortcuts in exegesis and therefore burden the Jewish people of Jesus’ time with the ignorance of all humanity? Probably. Yes. Throughout my time, I couldn’t help but think of the struggle and enslavement of my nameless, faceless, un recorded ancestors. Again and again I wondered “would more people understand what we feel about the past if we only had a face and names and more facts, or is it all too late?” All this whilst at the same time being reminded again and again that we mustn’t compare the holocaust to any other event, and that even alongside other genocides it stands alone. One flaw here though, is that it’s only in relation to other horrors of the world that we as humans measure the enormity and sheer unprecedentedness of the Shoah…the human heart naturally looks for places where it sees similar woundedness to place itself alongside other brokenness, struggle or pain. Ultimately, we must compare – allowing another to come alongside us and say “yes, me too”. Of course no two people feel the same, but it is the nature of being human that we connect one another’s stories to the other! It was interesting to see after attending the prayers to welcome the arrival of the Sabbath at what was described as “the most happy clappy synagogue in Israel!” (Yes, really, it was!), we were invited to the homes of local worshippers to share in the Shabbat meal. Hearing the stories of Israeli families, many of whom had moved from the USA 10-20 years ago. There must exist for them a two-fold sense of belonging…with all the baggage that comes with being part of a people that has been persecuted and so nearly annihilated.
I learnt alot from that happy clappy synagogue – we received such a warm welcome, information and some background about what was going to take place and no stares, or awkward looks from the regulars to this bizarre group of clergy from britain in their midsts. Perhaps this was more of a foretaste of heaven than what we can expect in most of our british churches…all around us were people praying and lifting every part of their being up to God in prayer…some rocking,some sitting, some dancing (no, really) and one person who could have easily have been speaking in tongues from where I was standing. Yet, this was clearly OK, not difficult, or awkward, you could simply connect with God as you felt best in this place. Surely this is an important part of what worship should be! Rev Dr Mitri Raheb, whose church we were able to attend on the Sunday morning in Bethlehem, once said that his friend from the US kept calling and talking about his plans to bring a group from his Church to the Holy Land but that he kept cancelling at the last minute saying “It’s just not safe enough to come this time, we’ll wait until it’s a bit calmer” and Mitri replied “So, basically you’re telling me I’ll never see you!”. Dr Raheb was right in his rather pessimistic? response to his friend. Things are not, and have not been for some time, calm and safe in this land and as soon as I arrived I felt the deep tension in the air, as though we were waiting for something to occur – but what? I had no idea. Was this a legacy of the holocaust? A mindest that come hell or high water we. will. not. let. this. happen. to. us. again….or was it simply the fear brought about by the conflicts with Palestinians and others? All of this feeling of uncertainty was impacted by the saga at the airport endured by all of our group when leaving Heathrow – the security questions….where do you live? where did you live before that? and before that? What was the address? Where did you study? What are the names of your churches in Cardiff? For me, one of the key texts in the Old Testament come from the book of Genesis -‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them’. The biggest part of learning that occured for me on this trip, was a deeper understand of what the image of God was *not*, where the image of God was *not* reflected, and what can happen when we stop seeing the image of God in our fellow human beings. What held the whole experience together for me was the opportunity we had to Walk where Jesus walked, and take in the views that he and his disciples saw – to know deeply, that in him all the pain of all God’s children was held and made whole. And in this time of Advent, when we as followers of Jesus Christ, hear again those profound words from John’s Gospel:’In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life,and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’ It is thanks to this adventure that I am reminded again of the darkness, of what it can become, of what it can destroy and of how it must be defeated.
And although I leave with more questions than I arrived with, and with sadness at learning that in Judaism the notion of forgiveness doesn’t really have a place in the way in which it is central to Christian theology, here is, perhaps, one of the places where in Jewish-Christian dialogue Christians can offer something very useful in the conversation. Not to pontificate about forgiveness, because we are terrible at it at the best of times! But to say, here is something we think important and fundamentally essential if human beings are to travel alongside one another in life – recognising, and I think this is critical, that forgiveness without repentance is a huge ask of anyone and almost incomplete.
On our visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I was stunned to silence by the atmosphere on the site of the Crucifixion (Golgotha), literally moved to tears by the experience, something I’ll never forget – tears partly because I realised in a deeper way, once again, that Christ really did come to us, die for us, and rise again…for us! But also tears beause of just how divided the Christian people have become…nowhere is that more evident than in that Church. Ultimately, I have the Jewish people to thank for taking me deeper into the mystery of self and deeper into the mystery of my Christian faith – the mystery that teaches that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again, and that that mystery comes as it once came in that little bundle of flesh and blood in a manger all those years ago. For me, the challenge now is to work out how that makes a difference to every life that has ever lived and what difference his birth makes to our broken world…this is not a conclusion, just the beginning of another chapter in life’s mystery. As an individual this trip has added fuel to my hope that in the eschaton, this (whatever this may be) too shall pass, and in the light and love of God all, in the end, will be well. That I, as a Christian and as a clergyman carry a great responsiblity to get right up in the face of injustice and evil and show it up for what it is. I take away some serious concerns for the politcal situation in our own country – God only knows what could come from the feeding of people’s fears…and yet I leave aware that it was a real blessing – a foretaste of heaven in so many ways – to embark on this little adventure with [a really fantastic group of] ecumenical colleagues…to find out that we have much more in common with ourselves and with others than we often think – to travel the road less travelled and now to take this exeperience with us in our hearts as we seek to do our best to make Christ and his love known in the world!