Theology in Israel and Palestinian Territories

22 students from SMU’s Perkins School of Theology — led by Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of the Perkins Global Theological Education Program — are participating in a Palestine-Israel immersion course from Dec. 29 through Jan. 13, 2014. Their itinerary includes lectures and interaction with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and scholars, and travel throughout the region, including to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Jericho, Bethlehem, Ramallah, the Sea of Galilee, and more.

Follow Dr. Hunt on the Perkins Facebook page at and the blog of Perkins student Scott Gilliland at

The Perkins Global Theological Education Program helps prepare students, pastors, and other Christian leaders to guide congregations into more culturally sensitive, competent, and effective mission both within and outside the United States. The program offers significant hands-on immersion experiences, grass-roots inter-religious dialogue, and exposure to cross-cultural ministries. Learn more at

In Bethlehem: Headscarves, antiquity, and the conflict

An update from Dr. Robert Hunt, Director, Perkins School of Theology Global Theological Education Program:

Let’s start with a headscarf, or scarves, so that you get some idea of Bethlehem.

I know that I could talk about the giant, ugly, and much despised wall that Israel has built for its own security, yet which also turns Bethlehem into an apparent prison. The irony being that it also surrounds the tomb of Rachel – so that what was once a lovely site for Hassidic Jews to visit is now enclosed by a huge concrete box topped by barbed wire – with an entrance on the Israel side.

Or I could talk about the city itself, which appears to be thriving despite high unemployment. Indeed it looks better than I’ve seen in 20 years from a physical standpoint. Everywhere older houses are being faced in “Jerusalem stone,” or as we’ll call it in Texas, “Austin chalk.” And new houses are going up as well. I could get nostalgic about the Star hotel, with its great views from rooms lacking even the most basic amenities (hot water, working power plugs) and last painted in the 1950s. Now they’ve renovated the whole thing! They even got rid of the Soviet-trained desk clerk who looked out sullenly from behind a glass enclosure and reluctantly handed you your room key in exchange for your passport.

But instead let’s consider first the young Christian women of Bethlehem. These women do not cover their hair, nor cut it short, so you can see that it is plentiful even when tamed by a brush. Which I note only so you realize what Muslim women have to work with from a sculpting point of view as they determine what style of scarf they wish to wear.

Thus one stunning example, which we saw in several variations, was worn by a young woman wearing leggings covered by a short dress with a high neck and long sleeves. Her scarf, a vibrant green, was fastened severely around her face – emphasizing her fair skin, dark etched eyebrows, blue green eye shadow, and red lipstick. Draped over her shoulders and covering her neck, the scarf swept back and sideways from her head to nearly the width of her shoulders, almost like two great ears, before falling modestly well down her back. Supported by unseen hair and buttressed by folds and tiny jeweled pins, it was a work of art – and must have taken some serious time to put together.

The framing of the face is, of course, critical to the aesthetics of the head scarf. Some women wrapped the scarf virtually to the edges of the eyes and right to the edge of the chin to give their face a tiny, almost pixy like, appearance. Others wrapped it back by the ears and down the neck to make their faces rounder and less angular.

Hair apparently tied up high under a scarf pulled directly back from the face gave the opposite effect of the elephant ear scarf we first saw – creating a coronet. Other variations compromised and could frame a round face in a soft square, circle, or oval of fabric. Or experimented with various ways of draping the shoulders (mostly to the left or right, centered, and folded into a series of soft pleats). Colors ranged across the range of dark primary colors and even included plaids. Needless to say the necessity of pins gave great scope for accessorizing – with a variety of broaches at the neck. (This latter more common with older women.)

In short one can do with a headscarf just about anything one can do with hair, and the scarf boutique is the hair dressing salon of their part Muslim world. (Although there are plenty of regular salons as well.)

At the university? Well those elaborate scarves were worn above skinny jeans and long sleeve T-shirts of various colors. (A relative few topping more modest outfits.) In this cold weather worn with high heeled boots and a black, belted, knee-length coat.

The meaning – completely opposite all those sectarian hats in Jerusalem. These women were one with the young men who rather modestly attended to them with a nod of the head or a sideways glance of the eye. All members of the cult of fashion and the desire to look good to one’s peers.

In the afternoon a portion of our group left Bethlehem to walk on the Battir track. It is a hiking trail down a lovely valley just outside of Bethlehem. We descended from the main road across a portion of what is known as Area C – an area that is part of the Palestinian territory but controlled by the Israeli military. And in this case frozen since the Oslo accords with no new building allowed. The only thing that leaves this valley of terraced olive fields and ancient caves intact.

For two hours we walked, descending into the valley and walking along the minuscule stream that flows through it. It looked for all the world like the hill country of Texas south of Fredericksburg, except for the olive trees. We passed terraces built up first in the Stone Age, and small caves that could have sheltered a goat herder from the time of Jacob. The olive groves are clearly tended, but for three hours we had quiet and isolation. One of the rarest things in this overcrowded place.

Ascending we came up to an ill-kept road that led to Battir village – and another fabulous surprise. The village itself clings to the hillside, and apart from the road its houses are reached primarily by stairs. In a crease in the hillside, perhaps 1/4-mile across, terraces covered with green garden vegetables run down to the valley floor. They are watered from a spring flowing directly out of the rock into a series of pools and small culverts and thence along the terraces. As they have since the Romans built a considerable pool a hundred meters down the valley to store the overflow. Cleverly placed pipes at the junctions of these culverts allow water to be diverted to different areas of the hillside, yielding, as we saw, produce (cauliflower, kale, cabbage) even in the winter.

The whole is a UNESCO World Heritage site. A world away from the conflict.

Well, a mile or so. Met by our bus, we wound our way back up the valley and crossed back into Area A. At that checkpoint large signs in Hebrew and English told Israelis that by entering Area A they were in danger of being killed by Palestinians. Such signs are at every entrance into the Palestinian territory, and are quite helpful in perpetuating the loathing for Arabs and Palestinians in particular that the present Israeli government so carefully cultivates. Their counterparts in the Palestinian territories don’t need such signs, but do the same thing.

Slightly up the road we drove through a group of Israeli policemen and Palestinian youth taking a break from throwing rocks and tear gas canisters. The incident appeared to be over but the smell hung in the air along with the tension and anger between the two groups. The driver and guide didn’t even mark it as significant.

Although our guide, a student just learning, got more animated as we passed through what was once a refugee camp that turned into a shanty town and is now becoming a housing project. He explained why the U.S. is hypocritical. “USAID sends money to build schools and houses for us while they send Israel the weapons to tear them down and kill us. We should never take their money.” And thus why Palestinians must be completely self-reliant. “No one in the world is going to help us create a society and state.”

Interestingly I heard the same discourse of the need for complete self-reliance in Israel. It is the discourse of immaturity and insanity. The belief that one can be independent, and must be, is a death spiral into self-destruction and the most vicious form of idolatry – worship of one’s self, tribe, or nation.

At Battir village there is a shrine to Rabi’a, a famous Muslim woman who wrote mystical poetry a thousand years ago. I remembered one of her poems.

I carry a torch in one hand
And a bucket of water in the other:
With these things I am going to set fire to Heaven
And put out the flames of Hell
So that voyagers to God can rip the veils
And see the real goal

Comments Off on In Bethlehem: Headscarves, antiquity, and the conflict

Jesus wept.

An update from Perkins School of Theology student Scott Gilliland, who is blogging at

I don’t understand about 90% of the official “Holy Land Tour,” which sounds terrible, I know.  Here I am, 25 years old, with my wife, seeing sites and walking paths and touching places that are incredibly sacred not just to the members of my faith, but for religious and even just-plain-curious people all over the world.  Many people wait and save up their entire lives for the experience I’ve been provided at such an early age.  And I am grateful.

But I don’t get the rocks.

Maybe it’s because I am a western, American, white, Methodist male, but I just don’t connect with a bunch of rocks.  And I wish I did, I really do!  In a weird way, I feel it would justify my luckiness in visiting this place.  I’m so jealous of the Catholic and Orthodox and Jewish and Muslim believers I’ve witnessed on this trip who are so engaged with each and every site I’ve visited.  The churches are beautiful, the mosques breathtaking, the settings one-of-a-kind.

But I just


get it.


At least I didn’t get it until I came to the garden.  It was so simple.  A small gate leading into a garden of olive trees, eight in all, planted neatly into rows, similar in size, evenly spaced, except for one larger olive tree on the far side, centered and apart from the others.  Very quaint.  And for the first time there weren’t a thousand people pushing or shoving or rushing to and from one area to the next, like a Holy Land Edition of Super Market Sweep, touching as many stones as possible before their time runs out.  No, this was peaceful.

Our tour guide Johnny began to tell us about the garden, how all of the trees had been growing for several hundred years.

See, that’s the funny thing about olive trees, they’re survivors.

They don’t require much water, they can withstand brutal natural circumstances, so they are a great fit for the incredibly hot, long summers of the Israeli hill country.  Olive tree farms dot the landscape all over the Jerusalem countryside.  But this garden is different.  Like Johnny said, these trees have been growing, some of them for more than 500, 600, or 700 years.  Except one.


That’s how many years one tree has been standing in the far side of the Garden of Gethsemane, centered, apart from the rest, according to local belief.  Johnny himself believes this, too, and in my more candid discussions with Johnny, I’ve learned he is rather skeptical of most of the sites that he guides people around.  But he believes this one tree has stood for over two millennia.*

And for once, I completely connected with a Holy Site.  Not one part of me was critical, or cynical, or skeptical, but instead I was completely consumed with a moment I had been waiting for for over 10 days.

I thought about Jesus sitting in this garden, similar to the one I was in that day, standing by the tree I could touch, weeping over what was about to happen inside the walls of Jerusalem.  I myself felt moved to weep.  As I held back my tears, I thought about this tree.  A tree that no one was crowded around, that couldn’t quite blend in with its brothers and sisters though it may try.

I thought about what stories this tree could tell.  The thousands of years of human history it has witnessed.  The rise and fall of empires.  The times of war and the times of peace.  The cries of joy from pilgrims deepening their faith.  The cries of mourning from families burying their dead.  The tears that fell from the face of a man named Jesus, whom people called God, traitor, King, and fool.

This tree, living and breathing, has somehow survived, shielded from the destruction that has rained on this region for thousands of years.

That is holy.

After all this time, though, with all the stories locked away under the layers and layers of bark, what would this tree say to me, given the chance?

I wonder if it isn’t weeping, too.

Weeping over the division and tension felt every minute of every day for people living in the borders of Israel and Palestinian territories.

Weeping over the violence carried out in the names of Gods and prophets whose ultimate messages were those of peace.

Weeping over the importance given to temples, and politics, and roads, and churches, and rocks, and things, instead of the simple value of human life.

Weeping over a humanity that still would rather crucify the peacemakers, the truth-tellers, and the agents of love rather than addressing the problems that plague our people from Israel to Dallas City Hall.

Jesus wept.  Gethsemane weeps.  And so do I.

The good news is there is hope.  There is always hope.  And if there is one word that leaves my lips as this trip nears its end, it is “hope.”  In all our travels, and studies, and conversations with Israelis, Palestinians, and the in-betweens, I have heard over and over and over again the unrelenting power of hope in the Holy Land.

Hope is a tree standing for centuries when all it takes is a stray spark to burn it down to ashes.  Hope is 120 Palestinian students studying dance – where a government considers the arts unnecessary – just for the chance to share their culture with the world.  Hope is a group of academic Jews, Muslims, and Christians coming together in the heart of Jerusalem to forge new conversations, ask bold questions, and search for new understandings of faith.

Hope is the spirit that Christ walked with as he left the Garden, and it will be the spirit that I leave with from this place.

I’ve had my spiritual experience.  I know why I was brought to this place.

I may weep.  But I have hope.

*Note: To be fair, I went back later and researched what I could with spotty wifi and learned that only 3 of the trees have been scientifically analyzed, because the other 5 trees are lacking their oldest core.  The 3 tested trees each dated to 1092 CE, 1166 CE, and 1198 CE.  These three trees all share the same parent lineage, meaning measures were taken to preserve an ancient lineage.  The tree in the center of the garden was not tested and is impossible to date using current methods.  Read more about the trees here.

Comments Off on Jesus wept.

Israel trip Days 10-11

An update from Perkins School of Theology student Scott Gilliland, who is blogging at

I’ve just realized my title for these blogs is partially incorrect. I’m surprised it took me until now to realize that they should have been titled “Israel/Palestine Trip,” out of consideration for the two distinct peoples that occupy this land officially known as “Israel.” These last two days we have been based in Bethlehem, which sits just inside the West Bank (named for its geographical location on the western bank of the Jordan River, which is actually on the eastern border of Israel, which is super confusing, but whatever…), so I’ve become acutely aware of the distinct differences between the Israeli and Palestinian territories.

We began Day 9 by leaving Nazareth bright and early to make our way down the eastern edge of the country, through the West Bank, along the Jordan River, with Bethlehem as our ultimate goal. We stopped first in Jericho to see the Mount of Temptation (where Jesus was tempted by Satan before entering Jerusalem) and it was completely underwhelming. The problem is, even the biggest believers in the Holy Land locations admit that the Mount of Temptation could actually be any number of mounts in the area, and so what you visit is a view of a mount, along with a man urging you to ride his camel and shops selling the same gifts that are literally everywhere in this country.

We then traveled to the Jordan River, which is way smaller than I ever thought. It is maybe 20 feet across. Also, it was incredibly cold, so I have respect for anyone brave enough to get baptized in it during the winter. We loaded up some water bottles for friends and family back home and headed out.

The hills of Qumran.  All of the little dark holes you see are one of thousands of cave openings that dot the landscape in this region.  An archaeologist's dream.

The hills of Qumran. All of the little dark holes you see are one of thousands of cave openings that dot the landscape in this region. An archaeologist’s dream.

From there we went to Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found back in the ’40s by a shepherd boy looking for his goat. The Israeli Parks Department forces you to watch a truly excruciating video telling the story of one of the Essenes (a Jewish sect living in the area during Jesus’ time, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls). From there you walk through a mediocre “museum” before finally exiting into the actual excavation site. This is where it got pretty interesting – you could actually walk through their living quarters, dining area, work room, etc. The scenery was also pretty breathtaking, with mountains rising and falling along the desert terrain, thousands of caves dotting the landscape and reminding you just how many secrets could still be buried.

After lunch and a little gift shopping, we made our way to the Dead Sea, renowned for its high salt and mineral content that gives swimmers the ability to float unnaturally well. The mud is a little treacherous, and the feeling of such extreme buoyancy is at first bizarre and unsettling, but after a little while a lot of fun. Then after a little while more, it’s super painful… you know, because there are crazy high levels of salt in there.

Then off to Jerusalem, where we visited a church with great acoustics, old ruins, and that’s about it. Moving on.

We arrive in Bethlehem for the night with a 5:30 wake-up call staring us in the face, so we ate and scurried off to bed in expectation of a day in Jerusalem around the corner.

The Dome of the Rock.  I became lost in photographing it, so much so that at one point, in order to get better shot--seen here--I laid down on the ground, a big no-no that a soldier quickly pointed out to me.

The Dome of the Rock. I became lost in photographing it, so much so that at one point, in order to get better shot–seen here–I laid down on the ground, a big no-no that a soldier quickly pointed out to me.

We started today (Jan 8) off standing in line at 7:45 (breakfast was later than expected, and super weird… who serves cold cuts and croutons for breakfast? Answer: our hotel) along with many other tourists hoping to walk in the Temple Mount. This is where the 2nd Jewish temple stood until 70 CE, and now is home to two beautiful mosques, the most notable and picturesque being the Dome of the Rock (a.k.a., the building you see in, like, EVERY photo of Jerusalem). I have never felt more out of place or keenly aware of my not belonging than I did today on the Temple Mount. We entered, and at first everything felt fine, nobody really paid any attention to us, but then behind us came a group accompanied by a couple of Israeli police (at least one of whom was Jewish), which the group of Muslim women sitting near the entrance to the Mount clearly did not appreciate. The began chanting “God is great! Honor the prophets!” in Arabic (according to our guide), which caught me off guard at first, but our guide and professor assured us this wasn’t uncommon. So we continued up the Mount, climbing the steps to the Dome of the Rock, which is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen in my life.

At this point I was hyper aware of where I walked, how far I was from the group, and the fact that our guide was constantly scanning the environment as he spoke to us. The women’s chanting had not yet died down, in fact it started growing a little louder, joined by some male voices. Maybe it was his eyes, or his quieter voice, or the fact that he said “If people start running, wait for me to run and follow me,” but it got a little tense for a while. Everything turned out fine in the end, and Raegan and I managed to get some incredible shots of this incredibly contentious land.

We continued our day by following a few of the stations of the cross on Via Dolorosa. Overall, I really didn’t connect with most of it. I expected to be really drawn into the path that Christ walked on the way to his crucifixion, but the churches clearly lend themselves to an Orthodox/Catholic perspective, and I couldn’t help but feel again out of place at these sites that should have meant so much more. The pushing, shoving, sparkling, overly-ornate attractions were hardly what I expected to find at Jesus’ tomb, the stone that split upon his death, etc.

We then ventured up to the Mount of Olives, to see the Chapel of the Ascension, where Christ is said to have ascended into heaven. It was surprisingly simple, which I appreciated, but still no deep spiritual event for me. I have to admit, at this point I was getting really disheartened. Here I am, a seminary student, a passionate Christian, on the trip of a lifetime, having just seen sites in one day that people wait their whole lifetimes to visit, and I’m just not connecting. I get pretty dadgum depressed, and it continued through Dominus Flevit, a Catholic church that, in all honesty, I only half paid attention to.

And so we made our way down to the Garden of Gethsemane, and it’s here that I will stop, because for me it requires an entire blog post (hopefully not this long) all on its own. That’s because of all the places I’ve visited, of all the sites I’ve seen, rocks I’ve touched, churches I’ve entered, nothing compares for a moment with what I experienced in the Garden where Jesus prayed, wept, and found peace before he submitted to death. It demands more than a separate blog post, but for now, it will have to do. Coming in about 10 hours! For now, off to another day in Bethlehem!


Comments Off on Israel trip Days 10-11

From Jerusalem to Nazareth

An update from Perkins School of Theology student Scott Gilliland, who is blogging at

Goodbye Ezra, Hello Johnny!  We made the shift these past two days from the Jewish perspective of Israel (with the help of Shalom Hartman Institute, Dr. Marcie Lenk, and Ezra the Incredible Tour Guide) to the perspective of Johnny the Tour Guide. Just for reference, Johnny is an Arab Christian who lives in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. He is very knowledgeable, occasionally (a tad?) inappropriate, and overall about a 180-turn from the leaders of our last week.

Johnny "I've Got Jokes" the Tour Guide.

Johnny “I’ve Got Jokes” the Tour Guide.

Of course, we have Dr. Hunt with us as always, but it’s hard to compete with, “I don’t mean to offend women, but…” (an actual Johnny quote).  Note: When someone begins a sentence with “I don’t want to offend you, but…” or “I’m not racist, but…” or “I’m not saying I’m in favor of killing kittens, but…,” they are, in fact, about to say all those things.  To his credit, Johnny has not advocated killing of kittens… yet.

We left Jerusalem early in the morning and made our way out to the coast to the ancient city of Caesarea Maritima, a city built by King Herod during his reign over Judea to appease the Caesar at the time.  I must admit, I was a little disappointed because evidently things that are 2000 years old (and occasionally invaded) have the tendency to fall down.  The palace of Herod, the homes, the chariot arena all required imagination to envision – though Phil Dieke and I managed to re-create a magnificent horse race for all the tourists present.

 The theatre in Caesarea Maritima.

The theatre in Caesarea Maritima.

After Caesarea Maritima, we headed in the direction of Mt. Carmel, near the site of one of my personal favorite Old Testament passages.  Go look up 2 Kings 2:23-25 and then read it to your kids and then answer the door for the CPS agents.  Unfortunately, no pictures there, because the view was pretty hazy and there wasn’t much else to look at.

Bahá-í Gardens

Bahá-í Gardens

From there we went to Haifa, en route to Nazareth, and stopped at the beautiful Bahá-í Gardens. Bahá-í (pronounced bah-high) is a faith that grew out of utilizing elements and traditions from many major religions present in the world (Christianity, Islam and Judaism, to name a few).  The gardens were gorgeous, and very picturesque, but we were all excited to get to Nazareth for the evening.

We then went to Nazareth, and immediately noticed the increase in Santas on billboards and storefronts.  I am increasingly aware of the “Jesus DisneyLand” effect (as my fellow student Thomas puts it). Cutting through the marketed nature of these places is not easy at times, and honestly there are places and moments when I think, “Eh… this isn’t really getting me like I thought it would.” Maybe it’s because I set the bar too high to have a religious experience at every site, or maybe it’s because there are gift shops at every church that sits over every rock where someone says something happened.  I don’t mean to sound cynical (because, as you’ve read before and will read again, I’ve had some very spiritual moments in these places), but I also want to remain transparent during this 17-day journey.

In Nazareth, we’re staying in a hotel that was converted from a convent because so many pilgrims wanted to stay close to the Basilica of the Annunciation (containing the site of Christ’s childhood home). It might be prudent to say here that many of the sites on this pilgrimage cannot be verified as historically factual sites for a number of reasons, which raises the question of what makes a site holy or sacred?

 Basilica of the Annunciation

Basilica of the Annunciation

For some it is critical to believe the sites are the actual precise locations where biblical events took place, but I would argue something else. Take, for instance, the Basilica of the Annunciation.  Is the small stone room within the historical location of Mary and Joseph’s starter home?  I honestly don’t know. Neither does anyone else in terms of the anthropological measures.  But it was someone’s home during the time that Jesus lived, that we do know, and seeing the space and breathing the air and walking up to the point of almost touching the place where, 2000 years ago, a mother and father and children lived, ate, prayed, and grew… that is a sacred place.  And it could easily have been Jesus’ home. It’s as likely as any other ancient home in Nazareth, so why not imagine him there?  For me, the sacredness comes in seeing the home, seeing Jesus as a boy with a mom and a dad trying their best to make life work in Nazareth.  It’s a beautiful picture (unfortunately for you, the dim light in there made for not-so-beautiful actual pictures, so here’s the exterior of the church instead).

We went to a church where Joseph supposedly had his workshop, but it didn’t really affect me, and so I’m not going to say much here.

We woke up early today and I can finally say I’m on the right sleep schedule! Yay!  It only took a week.  Today was probably my favorite day in terms of sites visited, next to our first day in Jerusalem.  Enjoy the following pictures/comments so that I can spare you too much more writing.

Mount of the Beatitudes.  Beautiful mosaic work inside the church; mosaic is kind of a big deal around here.  Phil Dieke (fellow student, friend, and expert on Rome) had a great devotional asking us to consider the teaching "blessed are the peacemakers"in light of the conflict surrounding the Holy Land.

Mount of the Beatitudes. Beautiful mosaic work inside the church; mosaic is kind of a big deal around here. Phil Dieke (fellow student, friend, and expert on Rome) had a great devotional asking us to consider the teaching “blessed are the peacemakers”in light of the conflict surrounding the Holy Land.

Synagogue at Capernaum, dated around 400-500 CE (AD).  Capernaum is the most impressive historical site I've seen so far, for the simple reason of how many original stones and buildings are still intact.  The two outer columns are original.

Synagogue at Capernaum, dated around 400-500 CE (AD). Capernaum is the most impressive historical site I’ve seen so far, for the simple reason of how many original stones and buildings are still intact. The two outer columns are original.

The stone where Jesus is said to have laid the loaves and fish and blessed them before feeding the 5000.  You might recognize the mosaic in front of the stone from communion plates and cups in your local church.  This site had the greatest spiritual effect on me of any of the holy sites so far.  I love the juxtaposition of a simple, unassuming rock (it couldn't have stood higher than a foot tall at the tallest point) as the place where Jesus performed the largest miracle in his ministry before the cross.  We should never take for granted the places we've come to as potential places of incredible impact.

The stone where Jesus is said to have laid the loaves and fish and blessed them before feeding the 5000. You might recognize the mosaic in front of the stone from communion plates and cups in your local church. This site had the greatest spiritual effect on me of any of the holy sites so far. I love the juxtaposition of a simple, unassuming rock (it couldn’t have stood higher than a foot tall at the tallest point) as the place where Jesus performed the largest miracle in his ministry before the cross. We should never take for granted the places we’ve come to as potential places of incredible impact.

Comments Off on From Jerusalem to Nazareth

Hats of their fathers

An update from Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of the Perkins Global Theological Education Program:

Let me start with a hat – or if you prefer, a kippah (also called yarmulke, from the Aramaic).

We had a lecture today to wrap up our visits (over two days) to see the diversity of Jewish Jerusalem. At first glance, men in Jerusalem seem to fall into three categories: broad-brimmed hat wearers in black fedoras, narrower brimmed trilbies, and the kippah.

But if you watch out a bit, especially on the Sabbath, you’ll see the eight types of hats (not including the kippah) worn by Hasidim, and those worn by the ultra-orthodox, and those worn by the Sephardic and Yemeni Jews, each according to his origin. But under those hats are kippahs, and these further delineate not merely which sect of orthodox Jew wears it, but also his political inclinations across a broad spectrum. Our guide gave us the rundown on the top 15 or so – fascinating but I won’t repeat it.

We had a chance to do some hat spotting yesterday by taking a very slow drive on the eve of the Sabbath through the ultra-orthodox neighborhoods north of the old city.

A different world, where a dozen or more costumes (along with hats) delineate the varying forms of ultra-orthodox sect, bound together by a determination to avoid corruption from negative outside influences and to maintain the purity of their varying interpretations of the law. (In many cases to also avoid recognizing Israel’s sovereignty and thus paying taxes and serving in the military.)

But what do we make of all those men in their varied hats, vests, pants, and locks of hair curling down in front of their ears? (Cut or uncut makes a difference.) What do we make of the women, all modestly dressed but with a variety of head coverings (including wigs) that denote just what constitutes public modesty in their particular sect? Of the large posters on the wall telling of the latest ruling of this or that rabbi – a means of communication that harkens to village squares in the 17th century and before? Of the great busyness as all rush to complete their Sabbath shopping before sundown? (Marked by sirens, for from that point onward not only is it forbidden to buy and sell, but to even carry something in your pockets lest an accidental commercial exchange ensue.) And what to make of the fact that in this quest for purity and integrity tour buses are not welcome, so that here we took no pictures and our guide sat discreetly and spoke quietly as our bus pushed through the crowds?

It is understandable of course that people do not wish to live like animals in a zoo, or characters in a museum diorama. But there is more going on with a man wearing black knee britches over long socks and square-toed buckled shoes. Or another in a gold- and white-striped bathrobe over a white shirt and black pants. Or the young women with flowing hair alongside their mothers whose bald-shaved heads are tightly bound in a colored scarf.

But let us take the first man, who when Sabbath comes like a Queen to her Bridegroom will take off his black hat and long coat and put on a luxurious fur-covered hat shaped like a small tire. And will put on a long, rich silk black coat bound at the waist with a wide black silk sash. And who will polish his shoes, or change them for something better, then wear or carry his prayer shawl (whose inventiveness and richness of decoration around the neck tell of status) and step out toward his synagogue for Sabbath prayers.

It is said, and disputed, that this is aspirational dress from the 17th and 18th centuries when Jews imitated the local nobility. But if there was a pull there was also a push. Across Europe, but especially in the East, Jews were forbidden to wear their traditional clothes. So they had little choice but to adjust (because their rules of dress made direct imitation impossible) to local styles.

But why not something more modern? If you could dress like a Polish nobleman on market day in 1736, or a German gentleman on his way to the University in Berlin in 1875, why not like a modern businessman in 2013? A good suit (less the tie, which may be forbidden by certain interpretations of the law) surely suits the demands of modesty. And of course this last is Sabbath wear for some modern orthodox. It marks them as modern.

Why dress in what looks like a silk bathrobe with gold and white stripes over a similarly colored vest? Why wear a massive fur wheel on your head – especially since it set you back a lot of money you don’t really have?

Are they all crazy?

I think not.

First, of course, clothing is an identity marker, as well as a marker of power and prestige. The latter accounts for small variations in dress. We passed four young men on Saturday/Sabbath morning dressed in the highest of high style. They could have been four young noblemen on the streets of Vienna two centuries ago. No one could mistake that the silk hats, silk coats, and Italian cut shoes were expensive. And if we didn’t get it, then certainly the prayer shawl – the neck of which was lined with seven long rows of large cut semiprecious stones – told the story. “We have money to burn, and we are awesome.”

And identity accounts for the unique costumes – which for centuries have been the way that Jews identified themselves to each other by sect and place of origin. But pantaloons and knee socks? Fur hats?

Let me suggest a reason for hanging onto those old styles. It is a remembrance and reminder of something that should not be lost. It is a way of saying, in an alien place and alien era, that before the Nazis tried to exterminate Jews across the world, before the Crusaders and Czars and Cossacks emptied their villages and sent them fleeing to some slightly less unfriendly territory, that there was something good, something fine, something Godly that existed at the intersection of space and time and culture marked by those robes and hats.

Something that should not be forgotten, and which cannot be disentangled from the warp and woof of silk cloth shaped into a coat, or the lighting of the candles and aroma of the spices that lingers when the last oven fire is extinguished at sundown and the food is laid on the table. Something too deeply entwined in the old liturgies sung in the schul and the rabbis poring over the Talmud to make their declarations and the swaying of locks of hair as men bow in prayer to be pulled out and reshaped into modern forms. Or at least too deeply entwined for mere humans to pull that sacred thread free. And anyway, stripped down to some essence – whether in law or theology or ethics – how does it shape us into a community? And how does it help us remember that the God of history is God in history?

Surely Christians don’t need to be told about incarnation.

Duncan Black MacDonald urged that his students “love people in all their little peculiarities.” And we should honor those who love themselves the same way. To hold that which is small and old, which sets them apart by the color of a buckle or the weave of a kippah, is to reject all claims to being universal that might compete with those of God.

No doubt I am reading into the ultra-orthodox motivations and self-understandings that most of them hardly consider. Still, how much better to look out a bus window on the masses of pre-Sabbath shoppers and be reminded that although back in Belarus, or Poland, or Russia, or Ukraine bitter winds howl over the shifting snows that cover the ruins of a civilization, what was good was not lost.

When the angels of God come to separate the wheat from the tares, perhaps they will also unravel the mystery of how God’s commands are woven into silk and satin and release them from that burden. Until then I tip my modern hat to those who wear the hats of their fathers, and stake for us all (however unwittingly) God’s claim on past and future.

The gold- and white-striped robe was, it turns out, an adaptation of a common white and black djellaba worn by North African Jews in Jerusalem during the Ottoman era. The change in color an adaptation driven by laws forbidding that particular garment, substituting gold for black. It bowed to imperial power while poking it in the eye. The Ottomans are long gone from Jerusalem, the djellabas and their wearers remain.

I’ve seen the kingdoms blow
Like ashes in the winds of change
Yeah but the power of truth
Is the fuel for the flame
So the darker the ages get
There’s a stronger beacon yet . . . .

Exodus 9:8-10 – from the Indigo Girls

Avishai Bar Asher speaking on the meaning of the Sabbath.

Avishai Bar Asher speaking on the meaning of the Sabbath.

Perkins students

Perkins students

Perkins students

Perkins students

Comments Off on Hats of their fathers

Struggles with space

An update from Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of the Perkins Global Theological Education Program:

Let me start with a map. The distance from the Jordan River (border of Jordan) to the Mediterranean Sea in the center of Israel is just over 40 miles. Everything is compressed. There isn’t a lot of physical space. And that space holds a lot of history.

Almost anywhere you dig, literally anywhere, you will find layer upon layer of different cultures and civilizations. And that space holds a lot of different peoples. The distinction between Arabs and Jews doesn’t begin to express it. There are many kinds of each, including not only theological divisions but essentially ethnic divisions as well.

But it isn’t just different peoples. It is different worldviews and viewpoints. And these struggle with space and for space; social, psychological, and spiritual. We have heard about the difficulty for politicians to “remain within the consensus,” meaning the current multi-party government, when a large part of the constituency wants to break out over sometimes minute ideological issues. But issues critical to their sense of community identity. We have heard of how women struggle to stay within orthodoxy because they do not want to suffer the dual punishment of facing both misogyny and exile from their community and tradition.

And all of this takes place in actual spaces, neighborhoods in which some Jews want to stop all cars from disturbing the Sabbath and others don’t want their freedom impinged by religious laws they find ridiculous, for example. Or at the Western Wall divided by gender, with women having less space and reformed and conservative Jews even less. Or in the head-space where Israeli Arab Muslims and Christians live when the national anthem, specifically Zionist and therefore explicitly excluding them, is sung.

And no place has all of this tension more compressed than Jerusalem, where a couple of hours’ walk can traverse them and encircle them.

And perhaps that is why our hosts expressed quite openly how the 30-mile trip to Tel Aviv is a million-mile trip toward feeling relaxed. One said he went to Tel Aviv at least once a week “just to breathe.” We all felt it as well.

Jerusalem is a straitjacket in a padded cell, Tel Aviv a spacious garden. Both cells and gardens are features of a lunatic asylum, but I suspect the latter is the path to sanity. Our discussions leading up to the Sabbath can be summarized as the efforts of scholars to see how Jerusalem can also be a garden.

. . . .

Tradition of the rabbis. First note that there are two different versions of the Ten Commandments – one in Exodus and one in Deuteronomy. With regard to the Sabbath, two different words are used: “remember” and “observe.” They don’t mean the same thing. But there the rabbis will not allow precedence based on either chronology or anything else. So they say that God revealed all of the Commandments, in both of their different forms, at exactly the same instant to Moses. Now it is up to us not to resolve the contradictions by exclusion but by inclusion.

Jerusalem market a few hours before the Sabbath begins.

Jerusalem market a few hours before the Sabbath begins.

Perkins students enjoy lunch at the Shalom Hartman Institute.

Perkins students enjoy lunch at the Shalom Hartman Institute.

Comments Off on Struggles with space

‘Who is my neighbor?’

An update from Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of the Perkins Global Theological Education Program:

Today we looked at social justice in the Talmudic tradition: “And the Torah commands us, ‘Do not harden your heart and do not close your hand’ to the needy. If your heart hardens, your hand will close and you will see that your fingers are of equal length and then you will say to him (the poor person) – ‘Go out and work like me!’ But do the opposite, open your hand and then you will see that your fingers are both short and long and this is how God created people, big and small, and this lives from that.”
– Rabbi Yeshua Lalum (1901-1950)

Some hard questions about how far this extends. “Who is my neighbor?” isn’t just a Christian question, and time and circumstance make answering it harder than it might appear.

Rachel Korazim tells the history of Israeli interpretations of the Shoah and how they are changing.

Rachel Korazim tells the history of Israeli interpretations of the Shoah and how they are changing.

Today we visited the Holocaust museum. Now we are in Jaffa listening to a wonderful lecture by Rachel Korazim on the different narratives of the Holocaust that shape Israeli thought. This is the theme of the week – multiple narratives of what it means to be Jewish. Indeed, contradictory narratives.

On the beach in Tel Aviv - a long day coming to an end.

On the beach in Tel Aviv – a long day coming to an end.

Comments Off on ‘Who is my neighbor?’

Jewish teaching and learning

An update from Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of the Perkins Global Theological Education Program:

First day of 2014 here in Jerusalem. A regular working day. What New Year celebrations they have come from Russian immigrants whose old Soviet home ramped up New Year celebrations to shut down Christmas. Now stripped of the paeans to Soviet socialism, I hear it’s pretty much down to vodka and fireworks.

We’ve been learning about God in the Jewish tradition, but a good deal more as well about the methodology of Jewish teaching and learning. First – start with the text. Second – discuss it vigorously and never dismiss a minority opinion or what appears to be an off-the-wall reading. Why? A note from Donneil Hartman, “Teaching should not be the assertion of authority, but it should be an act of disempowering the self and placing what one teaches entirely in the hands of the students’ act of choosing what they hear and how they interpret it.”

The cemetery above the Kidron Valley.

The cemetery above the Kidron Valley.

Perkins students in Havruta (study) groups.

Perkins students in Havruta (study) groups.

The Western Wall from above.

The Western Wall from above.

From Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives.

From Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives.

Comments Off on Jewish teaching and learning

Arrival in Jerusalem


Perkins School of Theology students at the King Solomon Hotel in Jerusalem.

robert-hunt-perkinsAn update from Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of the Perkins Global Theological Education Program:

Perkins Global Theological Education has arrived in Jerusalem! Part one of two weeks in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. In our hotel, and with our hosts in Israel, Marci Lenk of the Shalom Hartman Institute.

Next week we’ll be with the Dar al Kalima University and the Bethlehem International Center.

New Year's Eve on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock and Jerusalem.

New Year’s Eve on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock and Jerusalem.

Students attending lectures at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

Students attending lectures at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

In the city, waiting to be let into the police station overlooking the Temple Mount.

In the city, waiting to be let into the police station overlooking the Temple Mount.

Comments Off on Arrival in Jerusalem