Why do we have the custom of visiting cemeteries on fast days? ...Because the cemetery is the resting place of righteous persons, so the place is holy and pure – and prayers are better received on holy ground.
– Jacob Moellin, “Sefer Maharil,” laws of fast days (Germany, 14th century)
This year, our education center offered a series of Friday morning "traveling bet midrash" programs, involving text study and discussion out in historical and archaeological sites. Last week it was my turn to facilitate. The agenda was to study about Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai, the second century rabbi who is associated with both the Bar Kochba rebellion and with mysticism (according to tradition - but not historical research - he is considered the author of the Zohar, the central work of Kabbalah). Rabbi Simeon was a Galilean figure, and various stories associate him with sites in the region. The idea was to study in two places: Peki'in, a village whose current inhabitants include Druze, Muslims, Christians, and a few Jews, where one can visit a cave where Rabbi Simeon and his son hid from the Romans for 12 years; and then, after half an hour's drive, the Jewish village of Meron, where Rabbi Simeon is believed to be buried. The tomb complex there is a stronghold of Ultra-Orthodoxy; I figured we'd visit briefly and then find a quiet, shady place to sit and continue our study. The impressive ruin of an ancient synagogue, partly carved into the mountainside, is a five-minute walk from the tomb complex - an appropriate setting for reading texts from the Talmudic period.
The day before the program, I figured I should reconnoiter, as I hadn't been to the two sites for at least a year. In Peki'in, the path from the road down to the cave had been improved since my last visit, stone stairs with iron railings, and new wooden benches surrounding the tree-shaded plaza around the cave. The area was clean and pleasant, which had not always been the case on previous visits.
Moving on to Meron, I made a quick pass through the tomb complex, a jumble of stone rooms and courtyards (with separate areas for men and women), including prayer rooms, kitchens, balconies, areas for eating, and of course a room with something that looks like a sarcophagus but is apparently just a grave marker. There were probably a few hundred people around the complex, most of them praying the afternoon service when I got there. The last time I had been there was on Lag B'omer (Rabbi Simeon's yahrzeit) a few years ago when the crowd of pilgrims was estimated at over 300,000. Then, seeking a shady, quiet spot, I went through a cow barrier to the excavations of the ancient synagogue. I was totally unprepared for - and can't explain - what I found there: Garbage dump would be an understatement. The entire excavation area was covered in all kinds of trash - from bags, bottles, and food remnants to rags, broken furniture, and construction waste. The large graffiti sprayed on the famous façade of the synagogue and on the wall carved in the mountain seemed to be the work of Orthodox vandals. I searched in vain for a spot that was not disgusting, and finally drove higher up the mountain to an area of scrub pasture, where I found a lovely almond tree shading some natural sitting-stones.
The bet midrash the next day was quite successful; the discussion was lively and the participants found the questions of the connection between fanaticism and spirituality - and of the custom of praying at graves - interesting and challenging. I didn't show them the ancient synagogue. But my own visit there left me wondering (once again) about the concept of "holy land," and what it takes to make a physical place holy, and why Rabbi Simeon's tomb (which, of course, is probably not actually historically his tomb) is treated as a holy place, while the once-beautiful (even as a ruin) synagogue next door is apparently seen as devoid of any religious meaning or value. Which leads to further questions of the relationship between beauty and holiness - and conflicting definitions of beauty…Maybe next time we should make it a point to study in the trashed synagogue, as a setting for raising some of these difficult questions.