Wednesday 31 October 2012

Thoughts on Family Life in Judaism

The family is the second most important reality in Judaism. The fundamental unit is man and woman together, because Adam was one, and then split into two, and then brought together again in marriage.

A Jew is a Jew because he is born of a Jewish mother. A Christian becomes a Christian when he is baptized.

Jesus' commandment to preach and baptize can be seen as a variation on God's command to multiply and bear fruit. Jesus inaugurates the New Family of God, whose membership is not by birth but by baptism. And his command is like God's command: go forth, made new children of God, baptizing them... It is a question of biological children on the one hand, and spiritual children on the other.

Judaism does not, cannot see God as a friend. God reveals himself as a devouring fire. Christianity instead can see God as a friend. That is why in Christianity there can be consecrated virginity. It is like marriage! (In Jewish marriage, the man says to the woman: I consecrate you to myself.) But in Judaism there is no consecrated virginity. Christianity is a response to a New Covenant.

In Judaism, 'the commandment' often refers to the conjugal relationship. This is so important, that an exception is made even on Rosh HaShanah, when no conjugal relationships are allowed. If a woman has completed her 12 days of uncleanness, and has taken the ritual bath, she has a right to the conjugal relationship even if it is Rosh HaShanah. The commandment takes precedence over the custom.

Living under the Law cannot, must not, be understood as a terrible thing. It is like a young musician who takes the trouble to learn Beethoven really well. Once he has learnt it, interiorized it, he can produce wonderful music, much better than anything he could have produced all by himself.

What the scribe replied to Jesus - the greatest commandment being love of God and love of neighbour - is what Jews believe. (Though the problem might lie in the understanding of neighbour. Who is my neighbour?)

You can't fight a dominant culture with only prayer and sacrifice. You need a strong counter-culture. And that is what Orthodox Judaism is. See how Orthodox Jewish families are able to gather together every week, for 4 meals, without the distractions of the cell phone, with all the time to be together.

The ancient Jewish wedding ceremony involved two parts separated by a year: the betrothal, and then the coming together. With the betrothal, the couple is man and wife, but they do not live together. The coming together is the moment when the man takes the woman into his house. Which is what is symbolized by the Jewish weddings today taking place under a canopy. Today the two parts are celebrated on the same day. (This explains Joseph 'betrothed' to Mary, in the sense of married to her, yet not yet living together.)

There is a walking seven times around ... with candles. (The saat-pheri of Hinduism!)

The breaking of the glass is in obedience to the Scripture: forget not Jerusalem, even on the happiest day of your life.

The home is the centre of Jewish life, not the synagogue. Every Jewish home is a Jewish centre, God's House.

The Law is the lowest common denominator. Judaism is a religion for the common man, the simple man. The rabbis fenced in the Law with many further commands. They set their standards much higher. We must not think therefore of the Law as the moral standard of Judaism. Christianity instead is for a special group of people, who have had a special spiritual experience. (It is more demanding.)

Hebrew conversation

Boker tov!
- Boker or!
Ma shlom-kha?
Beseder gamur!
Ha kol beseder!
Ma shlom-ekh? (How are you? to a woman)
Ma shlom-hem? (How are you? to several people)
Bevakasha! (Please)
Bette avon (Bon appetit)
Ma hasha-a? (What's the time?)
Shtayim ve hezi (Three thirty)
Eser le arba (Ten to four)
Khamesh ve esrim (Four twenty)
Ka ma? (How much?)
Ka ma ze ole? (How much is this? How much does this cost?)
Shmuel Hanagid esrim ve shesh (Shmuel Hanagid 26)

Arabic conversation

- Ahlen.
Sabah'al her! (Good morning!)
- Sabah'al noor! (Good morning)
Kiv ha'lakh? (How are you? to a man)
- Mapsut, hamdullillah. (I'm fine, thanks be to God.)
Kiv ha'lekh? (How are you? to a woman)
- Mapsuta, hamdullilah. (I'm fine, thanks be to God.)
- In ti? (And you? to a woman)
- In te? (And you? to a man)
- Kushi tamam? (All ok?)
Esh tamali? (What are you making / cooking?)
- Shoraba (soup)
Muftah hon (The key is here)

Don Bosco and the Communion of Saints

We have begun the celebration of the Solemnity of All Saints. It is also the 31st of the month, the last day of the month, the day on which we commemorate Don Bosco. Fr Victor said to me: give a small thought about Don Bosco. And immediately, without thinking, I said no. Later on, thinking about it, I realized that I could say something. So here it is.

Don Bosco's passion, as we all know, was to lead young people to God. His way of putting it was Da mihi animas, caetera tolle. The congregation has discovered other ways of talking about this: we are signs and bearers of God's love to the young; we are educators and evangelizers; we are missionaries of the young; we are revelations of God's love to the young.

Does this have anything to do with the Solemnity of All Saints? At first sight the connection seems very remote, and even forced. But connection there is, since all the mysteries of faith are connected among themselves, as Vatican I and Vatican II taught us.

The God to whom Don Bosco would lead young people is a God who is Love, a God who is Communion, a God who is Three in One, One in Three. And the mystery we celebrate in these days, All Saints and All Souls, is really the mystery of the Communion of Saints. So to share Don Bosco's passion, to live DMACT, is to strive to be builders of communion, builders of reconciliation, builders of peace, and to be ourselves, first of all, people of communion and reconciliation and peace.

Forgive me if I reflect here on a question put to me by one of you: why should I spend time with the community? What do I get out of it? I don't know how to answer that question. I am baffled by it. It is like the question, Why should I be good? Why should I do good? I remember Salvino Azzopardi asking us this question years ago, in his Ethics class. And I remember very well his answer: Because I should be good. Because I should do good. Because I am built that way. Because I am made that way. (Actually he said something stronger: he said there is no answer. If anyone has a question like that, he should go and see a psychiatrist.)

So: why should I spend time with the community? My only answer is: because I am made for communion. I am built for communion. I am made in the image of a God who is communion. I am called to be like, and to be one with, a God who is communion. This is the meaning of my life. This it the meaning of Eucharist. This is what I am made for. 

OM, Mary and the New Family of God

I am speaking on the last day of the Marian month of October, and I have no letter assigned to me, so I will speak of OM, which is all the letters. OM = AUM. AU = all the vowels, in English AEIOU. M is the mother of all consonants, the first syllable uttered by babies. So OM is the summary of all the letters.

What shall I speak about? I will speak about one of my important Marian experiences, and that is the discovery of a book. You will say, what, a book is an experience? For me it was. Fr Chrys Saldanha one day gave me this little book by Ratzinger, called Daughter Sion. I did not much like Ratzinger at the time, but I read the book, and was totally captivated, both by what he was saying about Our Lady, and by Ratzinger himself. It was, for me, a sort of double conversion. In that book, Ratzinger shows how the Marian dogmas are deeply rooted in Scripture, and it is wonderful how he does it.

One of the things he reflects on is the scene of Mary coming to see Jesus, and Jesus saying: Who are my mother and my brothers and my sisters? Those who hear the Word of God and keep it. Ratzinger reflects: Jesus, here as ever, is inaugurating the New Family of God, which is based not on blood ties but on faith, the same faith that Paul will later reflect on so wonderfully. Mary is blessed, not first and foremost because she is the mother of Jesus, but because she believed.

The New Family of God: that is at the heart of the feast which we have already, like good Jews, begun to celebrate: the Feast of All Saints, the feast of the communion of saints.

AUM is the summary of all the letters, and therefore of all words, and so is a symbol of Christ, who is the Logos, the Word, the Alpha and Omega,  is the reconciliation of all things and of all people, the Head of the Body, the Church.

And Mary, our Mother, the Mother of Christ, the Mother of the Church, as Vatican II so beautifully understood and placed before us for our consideration.

And we all in AUM, in the Logos, in which Our Lady has been given so wonderful a place.

Let us strive to build up the New Family of Christ in our own little ways, in the little things of every day, in our respect for one another, in the use of the common language of the community. Don Bosco, whose passion to lead young people to God should not be read in any individualistic or private way at all. The God to whom Don Bosco wants to lead us is the God who is communion, the God in whom all things will one day be reconciled.

Thursday 25 October 2012

Visit to the Israel Museum

I joined the First Years, led by Victor-Luis Cabanas, on their trip to the Israel Museum. We walked from Ratisbonne down to the Museum - a half hour walk downhill, through Sacher Park, and past the Knesset.

The museum opens at 1000. Our first visit was to the representation of the City of Jerusalem in the period of the Second Temple - which is the temple of Herod - which means around the time of Jesus.

Next, two short movies, one on the Qumran findings, and the other a fictional one about life at Qumran. Quite well done, both of them.

Then to the Shrine of the Book, which I found really impressive. Not enough time to absorb everything - the exhibits found at the Qumran site pertaining to the Yahad, the Human Sanctuary; some actual pieces of the scrolls found there, including a piece of Isaiah, and a representation of the whole Isaiah scroll, which forms the centre piece. New for me was the exhibit of the Aleppo Codex - the one on which the currently used versions of the Masoretic text is based. Though the exhibits are not as clear as they could be (I mean the information in English), I imagine the actual Codex is on display in the Shrine.
The Aleppo Codex was written in Tiberias in the 10th century CE. Its text embodies traditions of pronunciation, spelling, punctuation, and cantillation handed down through the generations and finally committed to writing in Tiberias by scholars known as the “Masoretes.” From Tiberias the book was taken to Jerusalem, to Egypt, and finally to Aleppo, Syria; it was smuggled back to Jerusalem in the 1950s.
The scrolls were at first studied in the Rockefeller Museum, which is, I think, near the Old City. At the time it was in Jordan. A Bedouin antiquarian called Kando acquired 7 from the finder, and sold 2 to an Orthodox prelate in Jerusalem, who eventually managed to smuggle them out to the US. There he could not find buyers, so he put in a small advertisement, and so the scrolls were finally bought by a private party for the Israeli government. In the meantime, prof. Sukenik of the Hebrew University had bought the remaining scrolls. It seems to took some risk in journey across the then Jordan border to the Old City to make his acquisition.
Qumram MSS: 150 BC - 70 AD.
Aleppo Codex: written in 10th century AD. Originally 380 leaves; only 295 now survive, containing three-quarters of the Jewish Bible. Copied by Solomon ben Buya'a. Bought by Israel Simhah, and donated by him to the Karaite synagogue in Jerusalem. Smuggled out in late 11th century AD and offered for sale in Egypt. Bought by local Jews and deposited in the synagogue of the Jerusalem Jews in Cairo. At end of 14th century, it was brought to Aleppo deposited in the ancient synagogue there. Brought to Jerusalem in 1958. Entrusted to the Ben-Zvi Institute, then to the National Library, and finally to the Shrine of the Book in the Israel Museum.
"According to tradition – and modern scholarship – the great philosopher and legal (halakhic) authority Maimonides (1138–1204) relied on the Aleppo Codex when he formulated the laws relating to Torah scrolls in his legal code, the Mishneh Torah, as he explains in the conclusion to that section: “In these matters we relied upon the codex, now in Egypt, which contains the twenty-four books of Scripture and which had been in Jerusalem for several years. It was used as the standard text in the correction of books. Everyone relied on it, because it had been corrected by Ben Asher himself, who worked on its details closely for many years and corrected it many times whenever it was being copied. And I relied upon it in the Torah scroll that I wrote according to Jewish Law” (Sefer Ahavah, Hilkhot Sefer Torah 8:4)."
"Many printed editions of the Bible base their texts on the Aleppo Codex: The critical edition being published by the Hebrew University Bible Project; the scientific edition being published by Bar-Ilan University – Mikra’ot Gedolot “Haketer,” which includes the Masorah Parva and Masorah Magna from the Aleppo Codex; and, most recently, a new edition of the Hebrew Bible inspired by the Aleppo Codex, entitled Keter Yerushalaim (Jerusalem Crown)."
Small Codex: probably written in Italy in 1341. Now in the Shrine of the Book. 
"Besides the Aleppo Codex, the Jewish community of Aleppo owned three other important codices. One of them, known as the “Small Codex,” was probably written in Italy in 1341 by an Ashkenazi scribe. Its main part comprises the Pentateuch, with vocalization and cantillation marks and an Aramaic translation. Masoretic notes are inserted between the columns, and Rashi’s commentary appears in the upper and lower margins. The Small Codex also includes an additional text of the Pentateuch in tiny Hebrew letters – without the translation, vocalization, and cantillation marks – as well as the Song of Songs with Rashi’s commentary, the Five Scrolls, the sections from the Prophets read in the synagogue after the Torah reading (haftarot), and a commentary (midrash) on the Masorah. It is currently on display at the Shrine of the Book." 
Leningrad Codex: 1009 AD
Finally, an all too brief visit to the Archaeological section, breezing through the pre-historic findings, including the Chalcolithic; the Canaanite (impressive - they had a high civilization, while the Hebrews were still nomads); the Jewish periods. No time to even breeze through the Hellenistic and Roman periods.
The Jewish Bible, I learn, is called Tanakh. The parts are the Torah (Law), Nevi'im (Nabi, so Prophets), Ketuvim (Kitab - but Poetic Books). The Psalms are the Tehillim. 

Sunday 21 October 2012

Kateri Tekakwitha, first native american saint

Among the 7 being canonized today, there is also Kateri Tekakwitha, a native American, known as the Lily of the Mohawks. She converted to Catholicism in New York at age 20, then moved to a Jesuit mission near Montreal. She died at the age of 24. Another young saint, another indigenous saint, together with Pedro Calungsod.

Saturday 20 October 2012

Young Pedro Calungsod, saint and martyr

Tomorrow Pedro Calungsod will be declared a Saint, by Pope Benedict XVI. There is great excitement among the Filipino communities here in the Holy Land. Pedro was a Filipino from the south of the country, a Visayan. He seems to have become part of the missionary effort of the Jesuits in his part of the country, and joined Fr Diego Luis de San Vitores on a missionary journey to present-day Guam as a catechist. He suffered martyrdom there. He was only 17 years old. So we will have one more young saint. Extraordinary to think that a young man of 17 can give his life for Christ, with great simplicity, I imagine. Sr Sara Garcia was saying in passing this morning: he was afraid to die, but when the time came, he faced death with courage. I was thinking: aren't we all, all afraid to die. But there is something that led young Pedro, something that gave him courage at the point of death. That something is a great love, for which we all pray: that we might be filled with that Love.

Not much is known about Pedro's early life, not even exactly where he was born. The image above is modelled on a young Filipino basketball player who is, interestingly, known to our young Filipino students here. But what is known is enough. A young, 17 year old martyr. Bl. John Paul certainly admired him, and promoted his cause for beatification. Here is what he said about him:
...From his childhood, Pedro Calungsod declared himself unwaveringly for Christ and responded generously to his call. Young people today can draw encouragement and strength from the example of Pedro, whose love of Jesus inspired him to devote his teenage years to teaching the faith as a lay catechist. Leaving family and friends behind, Pedro willingly accepted the challenge put to him by Fr. Diego de San Vitores to join him on the Mission to the Chamorros. In a spirit of faith, marked by strong Eucharistic and Marian devotion, Pedro undertook the demanding work asked of him and bravely faced the many obstacles and difficulties he met. In the face of imminent danger, Pedro would not forsake Fr. Diego, but as a "good soldier of Christ" preferred to die at the missionary's side.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

The Sea of Galilee, and Mt Tabor

The little church of the Primacy of Peter, on the shore of the Lake, not far from Capharnaum, next to Tabgha

A view of the Sea of Galilee, south end, from the road to Poriyya

I've never seen this kind of representation of the sacrifice of Elijah on Mt Carmel (Mukraka)

The Church of the Transfiguration on Mt Tabor
There was a huge crowd of people waiting for the taxis to take them up to Tabor. We were the 25th group. Some of us decided to walk up, and it was a good decision. I took an hour going at a steady pace, and it wasn't tiring. Wonderful to think that Jesus must have done this, probably more than once. Mt Tabor is not far from Nazareth; the houses and buildings of Nazareth can be easily seen from Mt Tabor. Vernet says that Jesus must have surely been taken there by Joseph as a boy. The peculiar hill - an inverted bowl, self-standing, as they say - is even today covered with forests, and there are animals too in the wild - one of our students even spotted a fox. It must have been even more spectacular and thickly forested in Jesus' time. I wonder how it was on the summit. It must have been bald, if he went to pray there. And he must have taken a good part of the day, or, as one of our students said, the transfiguration must have taken place at night.

I found Tabor changed. 18 years ago, I remember being struck by the great and beautiful silence, the atmosphere of peace and recollection on the top. This time it was different. I popped into the bookshop to have an espresso. The young boy at the counter asked if I were a priest, and offered me a free coffee. He said: Padre, 20 years ago about 300 people used to come up a day. Today we have 3000 people coming. And then, the Franciscans have added gardens and things. 20 years ago there were no gardens. No wonder.

The church is beautiful. I have no memory at all of the mosaic in gold, of the attempted alabaster roof. All I remember is the peace, the tranquillity, as if Jesus were still there. He was, I guess, and still is. But now I met him in a young lad from the Mondo-X community who offered me a coffee. 

Hippos, Kursi and Capharnaum

The Sea of Galilee, from Hippos

Vernet at one of the gates of Hippos. This was the base of the watch or guard tower

The ruins of one of the churches of Hippos

Another view of the Sea of Galilee from Hippos
 Hippos (Gk) or Susita (Hb), both meaning horse. Never heard of this before. Must have been an impressive town, on the top of a hill, very well defended, overlooking the Sea of Galilee on its east bank. The ruins of a Byzantine church, an Augusteum, an Odeon, several impressive public buildings... Never conquered, but destroyed eventually by an earthquake.
And this,,, is Kursi, the remains of a monastery, right next to the 'Chapel of Pigs'

Jesus seems to have sent 2000 pigs down this slope into the Sea of Galilee  
 Just an extremely ruined church now, built to remember the miracle of the cure of the demoniac in the country of the Gerasenes or Gadarenes. This was part of the Decapolis, which explains the large herd of pigs. Pandri koil!
And this is the Synagogue of Capharnaum, where Jesus pronounced the Bread of Life discourse
My pictures of the house of Peter and the 'room of Jesus' are poor. But up there is the famous synagogue. What we see now is a much later structure, built of white stone, on the foundations of another of black basalt, which was probably the one in which Jesus gave his discourse. 

Monday 15 October 2012


Yesterday we were in Galilee. That's always something marvellous - the lake, the little towns around, the place of the Annunciation... And the ruins of Sepphoris, a very large Roman town 5 kms from the village of Nazareth, which must have been like Mapusa, market town, administration, and so on. Vernet says Joseph must have found most of his work there, and Jesus must have visited. Strange, no mention at all in the gospels. And Tabor - again some 5 kms or more from Nazareth, impossible to miss... The geography has its own eloquence. And the lake. wonderful. 

Saturday 6 October 2012

Ashkelon and Lachish

Our first trip to the Shefela. We took the road south through the Bet Jala tunnel, and on through Betar Illit, through the Valley of the Terebinths - the place where David answered Goliath's challenge.

The first stop was at Tel Erani, next to the wrongly named Kiryat Gat.

The next stop was the old city of Ashkelon, which is now a national park. We paid 22 NIS each, which is the group rate. Included was also a good swim, since the park includes a beach. The breakers were rapid and strong. Facilities are good: showers and toilets, besides lifeguards. In the park: the 4000 year old brick gate from the Canaanite times; the Philistine city (very little); the Roman ruins (much more); a Crusader church, built seemingly on Byzantine ruins.

Ashkelon was situated strategically on the Via Maris, the Way of the Sea, the ancient trade route linking Syria and Egypt. It was therefore a prosperous commercial and maritime city.  The site was settled some 10,000 years ago. A city was founded in the Canaanite period (200-1550 BC); part of the glacis can still be seen today, as well as what is perhaps one of the oldest, if not the oldest, gates in the world. Later it was one of the five great Philistine cities (1200-1000 BC).
"Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashquelon, lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice." (2 Sam 1:20)
Here Samson struck down 30 Philistines and took their clothes to pay the thirty companions who had answered the riddle he has proposed them at his wedding feast. (Judg 14:11-19)

Ashkelon joined the revolt of King Hezekiah against Assyria. In return, Sennacherib attacked the city and replaced its ruler. In 604 BC, Nebuchadnezzar attacked and destroyed the city.

It was an independent city during the Hellenistic period (332-37 BC). It reached its heyday in the Roman period (37 BC - 324 AD). In the Byzantine period (324-638 AD) it developed a trade in fine wine which was exported to Europe. The city appears in the map of Madaba.

After lunch in the park we visited Tel Lachish. The huge ramp built by Sennacherib in order to conquer the stronghold is still very much there. They worked hard those days. Not much of the city can be seen, except for the gate, near which the ostraca were found, one of them reading: We can no longer see the lights of Azeka... Sennacherib had by then already captured that city. Tragic finding that kind of thing. The last thing a doomed people must have written. At any rate, the city seems to have picked up again, till it was destroyed once again 200 years later by Nebuchadnezzar. What is remarkable is that archaeologists have identified a mural depicting Sennacherib's conquest of Lachish.

On the way back, we had an appendix: the Bar Kochba underground village "Meharot Hasan", near the kibbutz Amaziah. The cave dwellings are one of the victims of the economic cutbacks of the Israeli government. The caves are now shut to visitors, there are no lights, and the whole site is abandoned. Still, our young men enjoyed the visit.

Wednesday 3 October 2012

First trip to the Shefela

Tomorrow, 4 October 2012, we have our first trip to the Shefela. I thought the Shefela was the coastal plain region of Israel, but as it turns out, it is the region between the central 'mountainous' region (max. 1000 m.) and the coastal plain (0-150 m.) The shefela is therefore probably the hilly region, between 150 and 350 m. in height. It contains two torrents mentioned often in the OT, but whose names I did not manage to get.

Historically, we move from the Late Bronze period (1500 BC), through the First and Second Iron Ages, with the arrival of the Philistines and the Jews (c. 1200 BC). I learnt from Vernet that not only the Jews but also the Philistines arrived from Egypt, expelled in fact from that land; only, the Philistines entered from the south, while the Israelites entered from the east. Then we have the Hellenistic and Idumean periods. The Idumeans were expelled from Edom by the Arabian Nabateans, and they took refuge in southern Judaea, which was at the time rather empty because of the Exile. Then of course we have the Romans.

Archaeology. The Shefela contains plenty of Tels, mounds which are the remains of ancient cities. We will be visiting Ashkelon and Lachish. Ashkelon was a Cananean city of the early Bronze period. I believe we will be able to see some brick walls. But most of the ruins are from Roman times, and Ashkelon was a magnificent city in those times, very rich, with even a cemetery for dogs. Lachish is from 6th century BC. It was conquered by Sennacherib before he went on to Jerusalem, and later by Nebuchadnezar.

Vernet also spoke enthusiastically about Star - Khirbet Qeiyafa, recently excavated, in the area of Bet Shemesh and Bet Gemal, with two gates. Though scholars are still disputing, this city might be the key to the chronology of the Iron Period, Vernet said. Perhaps mainly because of the ostraca - potsherds on which things have been written. 

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