Friday, May 31, 2013

Israel Journal V: Safed

Photograph by Hallie Cohen
You might have seen an occasional tank on Armistice Day or as a war memorial in your home town. But tanks are visible everywhere in Israel and you see groups of uniformed young men and women waiting for buses in kiosks, coming or going to military service. Zionists believe the advent of the state of Israel in l948 represents the coming of the Messiah. Considering that only three years before millions of Jews were slaughtered in concentration camps, it’s hard to dispute the presence of some sort of miracle or at least anomaly of historic proportions--despite all evidence of secular military might. Of course the discussion of Israel’s status as a secular state with a distinct religious bent defines what the country is all about. In America we cherish the separation of church and state. In Israel, marriage can only be legitimized through religious authority. And when you go to the great religious cities of Israel, Safed, Tiberius, Jerusalem and Hebron, you can see a living example of Jewish law at work. There are 613 mitzvot or commandments, a number of which are alive and kicking in Israel today. Some of these  come with no payback such as the accompanying of the dead to their last resting place. The Zohar provides the foundation of the Kabbalah, which is a kind of mystic subtext of Jewish religion. It was written in Safed. Not far from Safed is Bar' am, the temple where the Mishnah, the commentary on the Talmud was written. Israel is ecumenical to the extent that it's the home of three of the world’s great religions, but Jewish religious law competes with secular law in every aspect of Israeli life. The Green Line refers to the Israeli border following the war of independence in l948. The Eruv is the line that surrounds cities and defines the Sabbath laws. Where do man’s laws end and God’s laws begin? This is one of the fundamental questions of Israeli life and one that is being questioned by those who  challenge the exemption of ultra Orthodox Jews from military service.

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