The Politics of Graves

The annexation of Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem, however infuriating and foolish, should not come as a surprise to anyone who has followed the changes in the new religious culture in Israel.

Taking the naive approach, it is difficult to understand how, in a country where every interchange that is built in a residential area generates objections and demonstrations by local residents complaining about the noise, it is possible to seal off an entire neighborhood with one annexationist swish. But the annexation of Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem, however infuriating and foolish, should not come as a surprise to anyone who has followed the changes in the new religious culture in Israel.

In November 1996, for example, a certain group discovered that while they were marking the anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, which they regard as the most convulsive event in the country's history, another group was marking only the yahrzeit of the matriarch Rachel in Bethlehem. And while the first group is declining in numbers, the second is growing in leaps and bounds.

In the past few years, Rachel's Tomb has been transformed from a modest site, where women came to express their deepest longings in silent prayer, into an ugly citadel that exudes a sense of brute force. Nor is it alone. Other gravesites have been changed from anonymous places of commemoration into an industry (the mausoleum of the Baba Sali, a reputed wonder-worker, in the southern town of Netivot), from a dilapidated structure into a veritable amusement park (the tomb of Yonatan Ben Uziel, a rabbi from the Second Temple Period, in Galilee) and from a modest place of remembrance into a center of dangerous extremism (Joseph's Tomb in Nablus).

In the new Judaism, which is growing and spreading in the twilight zone between Shas, the young settlers in the hilltop outposts, the dancing Hasidim who adulate Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, the newly religious, the young men with the knitted white skullcaps and the disciples of Meir Kahane, tombs have become one of the most meaningful symbols. To understand the scale of the new cult, one need look no further than the tens of thousands of new believers, mostly Mizrahim (of Middle Eastern and North African descent), who just before Rosh Hashanah filled the planes headed for Ukraine, where they went to prostrate themselves on Rabbi Nachman's grave in Uman, and the thousands of thrilled girls, outfitted in miniskirts and jeans, who paid no small amount of money to take part in a night excursion (one of the organizers of which is none other than the Histadrut labor federation) at Amuka, near Safed, where, according to tradition, Rabbi Yonatan Ben Uziel is buried.

Those who want to deepen their understanding a little are invited to compare the number of people who traveled to Poland from Israel this year to prostrate themselves on the grave of Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhajsk, the leader of an 18th-century Hasidic sect (a miniature edition of whose work, "Noam Elimelech," newly religious women who long for a marital match for some reason keep in their purse), with the number who made the trip 10 years ago. The increase is on the order of hundreds of percent.

Sociologists, anthropologists and researchers of religion view the new fashion of visiting gravesites of tzadikim - saintly individuals - as having a number of causes that would seem, at first glance, to be unrelated. They cite, among other reasons, the immigration of North African Jewry, who sought local substitutes for the saints who constituted a major force in the communities of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria; the two dynamic Hasidic courts of Chabad and Bratslav, which were orphaned of their leaders and created alternative acts of ritual; the dormant messianic core that was latent in Zionism from the outset, or at least in certain branches of the movement; the mystical trends that are sweeping the entire West (and blowing toward the Far East); the Six-Day War of 1967 and the subsequent establishment of Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), which set out to radically change the national-religious discourse; and the debilitation of the religious leadership, including the ultra-Orthodox communities.

To this we can add the dramatic shift that has occurred in Israel in the form of the country's transition from a centralist state with a relatively developed welfare network, into a privatized community-oriented society that is constantly distancing itself from the state.

Globalization and modern technology also play an interesting role in this connection: Instead of the city rabbi, who draws his authority from the state, there are now charismatic, media-conscious politicians who have become stars in their various communities (such as Aryeh Deri), living mystical saints (Rabbi Yitzhak Kadouri, the "x-ray" rabbi and others) and dead righteous figures along with Internet rabbis and purveyors of cassettes. If Rabbi Shlomo Aviner can overleap the old hierarchy with the aid of recorded sermons, and an anonymous matchmaker can become a saint with the help of a radio spot, why shouldn't the "Friends Listen" forum on the Internet, which makes it possible for everyone to respond in place of the rabbi who was asked, not become a spiritual authority that bypasses tracks of study and ordination?

It goes almost without saying, then, that the graves of saints are an excellent basis with which to connect all these elements into a tidal wave of new religious fundamentalism. After all, the righteous man, who might be appalled at the festivities and the bloodshed, is dead, so everyone can speak for him (how fortunate that the place of Moses' grave is not known - and apparently not by chance).

But the more the discourse of the graves is filled with life, the more the political discourse dies, and along with it even the rational security discourse. Politics in Israel is now more than ever simultaneously the actualizer and the outcome of social processes, and the radicalizing nationalist politics of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party emerges smoothly from the new fundamentalism.

The Labor Party was mute as Rachel's Tomb was annexed. And why not? After all, what kind of realistic, everyday, risk- and fissure-filled peace can be pitted against saints and just men? And if we are not abandoning the weeping Mother Rachel (as Hanan Porat, a founder of Gush Emunim put it) in return for peace, who will not dare to face the masses of the children of Israel and concede - in return for some piece of paper - the Temple Mount, the eternal dwelling place of the Lord?