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Michael Moszczynski's Weblog
Holy places, holy words 28.XI.2008 02:37
Yesterday, I attended the Sigd, the most important festival of the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel. The Ehiopian Jews, commonly known as Beta Israel, are a group of people who maintained the Jewish tradition through the ages in Christian Ethiopia. In exile, they knew nothing of other Jews in the world or the land of Israel, and for them it was a paradise, a holy place to which they dreamt of one day returning, and the Sigd festival expresses their desire to return to Jerusalem. Now that they are in Jerusalem - and have found it not quite a land of milk and honey - the festival has been rededicated to the desire for the building of the third temple, but nevertheless each person approaches the kessim - the high priests - to receive a handful of Jerusalem soil. The place, despite no longer being a legend but a usual city racked with transit problems, remains holy. The kessim, in their multicoloured robes chant liturgies in Ge'ez, the classical Ethiopian language which few members of the community speak; they speak, rather, Amharic, the current official language of Ethiopia. Especially in Israel, one can't help but be reminded of these familiar aspects of religion - holy words and holy places - that serve to separate the sacred from the profane. Religion needs these, ultimately, because they are an extension of ancient beliefs in various kinds of magic that would be familiar to any reader of The Golden Bough.

Israel is a land of magical places. Last week, I biked around the Sea of Galilee visiting, among others, Tabgha and Capernaum. The former is the place where Jesus used five loaves of bread and two fish to feed a multitude; the latter is where he preached his gospel at the synagogue. Christian holy sites are everywhere in Israel, and one can't help but notice that, even though the vast majority of buildings from two millennia ago are lost, each house and rock in the New Testament seems to have remained - how lucky is that? My grandmother has made several pilgrimages to Međugorje, where the Virgin Mary appeared, despite being averse to all other forms of travel. My uncle, suffering from a heart problem, decided to take a trip to the holy city of Częstochowa rather than the hospital in the hopes of being cured, and promptly died of a heart attack on the unairconditioned bus. These stories appear over and over, Lourdes and Fatima and Guadaloupe, and nowhere is it more apparent than in Israel - the 'Holy Land' - home of the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, Haram ash-Sharif. I think holy places are important because they're seen as permanent - the Romans may destroy the Second Temple, but not Mt. Zion itself. That's the lesson of Sigd; even though the Beta Israel lost Jerusalem, it never lost its mythical status as the holy home of the religion.

More interesting, though, is the phenomenon of holy words and holy languages. At the Jewish tombs of the patriarchs, there were several scrolls decorated with the tetragrammaton, יהוה, which must never be spoken. The Arabic Allah is the only word in the languages that retains a particular consonant, the dark-l, and the name of the Prophet must never be spoken without 'peace be upon him.' All Christian prayers end with the incantation 'amen,' and the second commandment specifically forbids using the Lord's name in vain. Liturgical languages are everywhere - Latin, Classical Greek, Old Church Slavonic, Classical Arabic, Sanskrit. Charismatic Christians speak in tongues. Everywhere, we see words of power that are separated from the words that are used in every day discourse; the sacred words have power, and their mere utterance an effect in the world: they must be treated with respect.

You can see this in the names of the churches around the Holy Land. The Church of the Dormition. The Basilica of the Annunciation. There's the Ascension (of Jesus) and the Assumption (of Mary). There is, of course, the Resurrection. These aren't words we use every day; they're magic words, sacred words, words which apply only to holy events, whose presence brings you closer to God. Mary wasn't taken to heaven, she was Assumed into it. I think that the separation satisfies the basic human need for a reality beyond the imperfect and impure quotidian one - the belief, broadly speaking, that there has to be 'something more.' Moreover, they separate the initiates from the ignorant, the elect from the multitudes. This is one of the main way cults attract followers - they make their members feel like they're the only ones who know the real truth; that's why Tom Cruise can claim that only a Scientologist can really help when he passes by a car accident, not the paramedics; he's a Keeper of the Secrets.

One of the most interesting things is the way new religious movements, recognising this need, create holy places and holy words of their own. Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of Mormonism, claimed his scriptures were translated from 'Reformed Egyptian' (note: does not exist), and founded a new promised land on the shores of Great Salt Lake. Scientology itself is a wonderful example - they're talk of Thetans instead of Souls, Dianetics and Clear Levels, are a perfect modern construction of the magical incantations of the traditional religions. I think this is actually one of the secrets of its success; few other religions provide so stark a contrast between the holy knowledge of the initiates and the ignorance of the ignorant. I can't help but wonder if the Catholic church's difficulty in attracting new members isn't partly tied to its abandonment of Latin as a liturgical language - it thought it was imitating the extremely popular Protestant movements, but let's not forget that these have a huge movement for the exclusive use of the King James Bible, its English being the pure tongue of God, the only words worthy of literal interpretation.

In addition to the many holy places of the Abrahamic religions, I went to the Baha'i Gardens in Haifa, which are genuinely beautiful. They were created as a refuge for the followers of Baha'ullah, who were - and are - badly persecuted in their native Persia. The Ottomans allowed them to create these beautifully serene refugees, but the politics of the British Mandate have placed them in Israel - the one country they cannot visit from their native Iran. As the Ethiopians did for centuries, there is now a new group pining for an unattainable place in the Holy Land. It too has the goal of a holy language - a universal one for mankind, Esperanto. Every religion seems to need the magic words and magic centres to give its adherents an anchor, a separation from their everyday life, which in many cases is quite brutal. Nevertheless, its persistence in new religious movements - and in the old ones who feed the religious tourism Israel - ties this basic human need to the old beliefs in powerful sacred words that show how small the gulf that separates current religions from their more 'primitive' antecedents really is.

Jerusalem, Israel Il

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