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April 24, 2014 | 24th Nisan 5774

Summer tourists III

Galilee Diary #241
July 10, 2005
Marc J. Rosenstein

Many of the visiting groups requesting our study tour of Zippori National Park in the past several weeks have been teachers from Jewish schools in the Diaspora, here on in-service training programs sponsored by their communities or the Jewish Agency. Our two-hour tour of Zippori includes highlights of the excavations, and the study of rabbinic texts that help bring the ruins to life (and are in turn made real by the opportunity to see their material context). For example, we study texts on the rabbinic view of theaters – as we sit in the Roman theater; and we discuss Josephus' account of the Zipporians' surrender to the Romans – as we sit in the shade and enjoy the view of neighboring Yodfat (where Josephus himself commanded the bitter battle); etc.

For me, one of the most powerful texts we study in Zippori is the account of Rabbi Judah Hanasi's death in the Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 104a:

When Rabbi was dying, the sages decreed a fast and prayed for mercy, and said “Whoever says ‘Rabbi is dead’ – let him be impaled!” Rabbi’s maid went up to the roof and said: Those above want rabbi – and those below want Rabbi; may it be Your will that those below will overcome those above… But when she saw Rabbi’s great suffering, she said: May it be Your will that those above will overcome those below. But the sages would not stop praying for mercy. So she took a pot and threw it down from the roof, and [startling] the sages [so they] stopped praying, and Rabbi’s soul departed.

We generally read this while standing on the roof of the citadel. The story is supposed to have taken place on some rooftop in Zippori, around 220 C.E. Beyond the thrill of studying a story in its actual location, it is significant that this is not just a story, but a precedent often quoted in discussions of medical ethics. If it is strictly forbidden in Jewish law to hasten death, Rabbi's maid's behavior is seen as precedent for the possibility of removing an unnatural impediment to death. The story therefore figures in deliberations on the circumstances in which discontinuing life support may be permissible.

Thus, reading this text on a Zippori rooftop creates a remarkable combination of classic rabbinic text, current ethical dilemma, and concrete historical context. It is a unique educational moment, in which an ancient text comes alive in two different dimensions. On more than one occasion, when I have pointed out that "it might have happened right here," a member of the group has responded that "it happened to me."

As a Jewish educator, it doesn't get any better than this: an interaction of text, life, and the actual act of study, that validates in a satisfying way our claim of the relevance of text. When I point this out to visiting teachers, it only heightens their frustration with their lot: such a meeting of text, value and place is obviously a lot more common here in Israel than in the Diaspora. The challenge they face is how to bring such experiences home with them, how to use their own Israel experience somehow to create useful vicarious or virtual Israel experiences for their students. This is indeed a daunting challenge, and I always feel uncomfortable when they ask me for solutions and I don't have an easy answer.

On one level, of course, there is no answer. One of the points of living here is the availability of opportunities like this one. We live where the stories happened; we live in the frame of reference of the text; we have chosen to live on the stage set of the formative drama of the Jewish tradition. It is unavoidable that the stories will lose some of their vitality when told in a foreign setting. But this non-answer is a bit of a cop-out, for on another level, the challenge is that of all education: how do I pass on what I have learned from my experience to others who have not had and cannot have that same experience? If we cannot bring Jews to Israel, then we educators have to find ways to bring Israel to the Jews wherever they are, using text and technology, drama and dialogue – by becoming, ourselves, embodiments of Israel engagement.

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