Thursday, October 27, 2011

Scraps of Paper and Hope

27 October 2011

Deep in the Old City, I stand before the western wall, the kotel, the sacred center of Jewish piety in Jerusalem.  Around me men are praying: some nodding back and forth toward the wall itself, some leaning intimately into the wall, several singing and dancing in a wild and rhythmic circle.  Up above, not visible, but felt, is the Temple Mount, Al-Haram Al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, the Dome of the Rock.  Hundreds are gathered there as well, for prayer and study and meditation around their Muslim faith.  The two sites—kotel and sanctuary—meet here; there’s no doubt as to their proximity.  Tension persists: will that proximity encourage collaboration?  Or will it continue to deepen and provoke other urges?

I’ve been here—to the kotel—several times before.  Today I’m drawn to the hundreds, thousands of tiny scraps of paper—prayers—folded and tucked into every imaginable crack.  The wall is huge, its rocks giant and old.  Some remain from the old temple’s ancient days.  In the larger seams between stones, dozens and dozens of these prayers are wedged together.  In smaller holes, one or two are all that fit.  It makes for quite a sight: a huge wall, decorated with thousands of prayers.  It almost seems as if the prayers themselves are holding the old wall together.

Jewish friends remind me that when these prayers are collected—as they are from time to time—they cannot be burned.  They bear, after all, the name of God, petitioning the Divine for peace or the health of friends or the safety of children.  As they’re gathered, then, they are given a kind of Jewish burial, honoring their intention and the holy longing of the souls who penned them.

Something else strikes me today.  And it has to do with the importance of the written word.  Here’s a holy site—one of the holiest—and it’s held together by words, prayers, texts scrawled (sometimes hastily, sometimes not) on little bits of paper.

Words, texts.  Where would Judaism be, or Christianity, or Islam—without words and texts?  Like the text (from Genesis) in which God directs Abraham to a ram in a thicket: No longer will you sacrifice human life on this mountain.  Like the prophetic text that rings across the prophetic pages of Hebrew Scripture: Beat your swords into ploughshares!  Study war no more!  Like the strange call to forgiveness we hear again and again in the gospels: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

In Jerusalem, Jerusalem, a remarkable meditation on religion and violence, James Carroll explores the meaning of violence in the biblical record.  He has this to say about the biblical impulse itself:  “Israel’s uneasiness about violence is what generates not only the bible, but Israel’s dynamic and ever-evolving understanding of God.  That is why violence is so prominent in the bible: because violence is the problem it is addressing.  Across 1000 years, the human conscience began to reject what human life had always apparently required, and the record of that rejection is the bible.”

Strangely, that’s what I see now, when I look up at all these tiny bits of paper, pressed tightly into the western wall.  I see ancient storytellers passing on the story of Abraham’s non-sacrifice of Isaac.  I see Isaiah and Micah insisting on beating swords into ploughshares.  I see Jesus challenging followers to forgive not seven times—but seventy times seven.  Scraps of paper, texts, words.  Each one a question opening into mystery, wonder, compassion. 

Not everyone reads scripture this way, of course.  I know that.  So often we turn to scripture for justification: my way, not your way; my people, not your people; my wall, not your wall.  But I stand at this wall and wonder if story and wonder might not unlock a different future here.  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”