Thursday, February 15, 2007

A Grave Business

I am enjoying the privilege of showing my eleven-year-old daughter around Israel and yesterday we spent the day grave-hopping in the Galil. We had a wonderful time, which both of us found highly educational, yet something disturbed me – the proliferation of ugly mechitzot (barriers dividing men and women) at gravesites. I found it particularly unpleasant at the grave-site of the Rambam.

I last visited the grave of the Rambam in Tiberius some years ago and remember it well. One leaves the road and walks up a gentle incline between fourteen pillars each engraved with the name of one section of the Rambam’s magnum opus, ‘Mishneh Torah’. Passing the resting places of the Shelah (Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, the great 17th-century mystic) as well as those of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and other sages of the era of the Mishnah, one arrives at the grave of the Rambam at the top of the incline. The tombstone is quite distinctive and the inscription reads, ‘from Moshe (the original Moses) to Moshe (the Rambam), no-one arose as great as Moshe’.

This preamble is intended to indicate the beauty of the site and how the area has been carefully landscaped to honour the remains of the Rambam in the most apposite manner. Regrettably, the site has been completely spoiled by the metal barrier that now bisects the grave stone itself, ruining the architecture and obscuring the famous inscription. Barriers of this kind have sprung up all over the place to ‘preserve the sanctity of the site by preventing men and women from mixing’.

I am in favour of care and sensitivity in these areas of Jewish life. I appreciate that gender mixing is fraught with problems and needs to be carefully controlled and that visitors to holy sites need to pray and think in a synagogue-type atmosphere. However, a degree of common sense and self-regulation is necessary to avoid a slide into extremism. People had been visiting the grave of the Rambam for centuries quite successfully before the erection of the mechitzah. I think it is safe to say that they managed to achieve their goals there by voluntarily finding a space to daven (pray) undisturbed. The segregation of such sites is considered by some to be a sign of a Jewish world that is stronger and more confident in its Yiddishkeit (Judaism). I feel that the opposite is true.

It is apparent that among a growing segment of the observant world, there is no recognition that architecture and other cultural manifestations may contribute to religious inspiration. Obviously, they have to be crafted to ensure that they remain within the parameters of halachah (Jewish law), yet when carefully devised they can enhance our spiritual world immeasurably. Some of those policing our world see one part of the picture (the need to regulate gender interaction), yet are oblivious to, and even actively reject, any concessions to wider sensitivities: further incontrovertible evidence of rising religious myopia.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents


Anonymous said...

Being a close friend with one of the leaders of the organization that builds these “Mechitza’s”, I can attest to the fact that the primary reason for building those fences is defenitely not to “preserve the sanctity of the site by preventing men and women from mixing” and nor because people want to “pray and think in a synagogue-type atmosphere”. Rather it is because in the last couple of years women in halachically immodest dress have been visiting those sites and it was practically imppossible “L’Halacha” to pray or say tehillim at any of those gravesites. Therefore a commitee of askonim was formed to establish fences to be able to say “a yidish vort” when visiting the rambam and others.


Fran said...

It would still be agreable to see a more creative solution to this issue. If a sign and a supply of shawls, not trendy enough to walk off with, would not suffice, could not a small area be set behind a partition for those for whom tefila would not otherwise be possible. I can't believe the site of the Rambam's kever is frequently thronged by less than optimally clad women, save the summer tour 6 weeks.

Anonymous said...

Quoting my husband, ' Baruch Hashem there are people like Rabbi Belovski around' (After reading this article)

The link underneath is an article I feel is related (towards the end of the article), about the growing trend to avoid getting involved with yiddishkiet (and by doing so, missing out on lots of positive mitzvos) in the name of 'being frum'

I might be wrong, but then again.....does Hashem want us not to speak, to avoid loshon hara? To not work for fear of not dealing honestly?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

Can someone please explain the difference between the “modesty patrols” in Iran and Saudi Arabia and these extremists? Have we not learned from the Taliban destruction of the The Buddhas of Bamyan?

Surely the mutilation of a centuries old gravesite is an act of spiritual destruction. Why do we allow these fanatics to destroy the spirit of our sacred religion in the name of their perverse distortion of halacha?

These fanatics must be stopped in their tracks before they destroy our beautiful religion.