Saturday, November 26, 2005

Ephron ben Zohar -- Ephron son of Zohar

About three thousand years ago, a Hittite man sold a cave in Israel to man named Abraham, which Abraham wanted to own in order to bury his recently-passed wife, Sarah, the matriarch and model for behavior of the Jewish people. The name of the Hittite that sold the cave to Avraham is "Ephron ben Zohar," and he wanted to give it to him for free, but Avraham insisted on paying for it, so Ephron sold it to him for 400 silver shekels. The reason for his insistence on paying for it was so that the people living around him would not contest that it didn't pass into his hands fair and square; Avraham was a known man in his time and place, and he was also quite wealthy. I remember standing in Israel a few years ago in an area, in a Jewish area, in contrast to a "Palestinian area," overlooking the area containing the Cave of Machpela (the previously mentioned cave)and imagined what the Cave actually looked like. Tourists can visit the Cave today in the Palestinian-run area of Chevron (or Hevron).

The patriarch of the Jewish people, Abraham, is also revered as a patriarch by the Muslim people, who value his sincerity and belief in (the One) G-d just as much as Jews do. Palestinians, and perhaps Muslims in general, who emphasize the importance of having total access to sites holy to them (and that nobody else, unless submitting to Muslim rule), see the town of Chevron as a Muslim, but particularly as a Palestinian town. This in part, is due to the fact that the religion of Islam defines all of the patriarchs and matriarchs, and prophets, in the Tanakh ("Old Testament," or "Jewish Bible") as "Muslims." This definition makes partial sense only because the Arabic language defines the word "Muslim" as a "submitter," one that completely submits his or her life to G-d. This submission, or totally putting yourself under G-d's rule, is as well a revered character trait in Judaism as well; the only difference is that Jews are aware that submitting to G-d does not make one a Muslim, otherwise, all the great Jews that I know, rabbi's and their wives and good people in general, are Muslims.

It would be interesting to trace the ideological transition of the site of Machpela from a place of religious significance for Jews to being considered an extremist Jewish outpost in the area of the future Palestinian state. Without doing alot of research on this, or writing a doctorate, I will attempt to trace this transition in very general and brief terms.

Israel itself, during the rule of King Saul, David, and subsequent kings, went through several border changes. In the 7th century Before Common Era, the Assyrians (to the north) invaded the Southern Kingdom. During the 5th century Before Common Era, the Babylonians invaded, and let's just say that the "demographics" of Israel changed; many of the Jews went into exile in Babylon, which geographically, is modern-day Iraq. The monarchy split into the Northern and Southern monarchies and became ruled by different sets of Jewish kings. The North was called "Judah" and the South was called "Israel," respectively named so after the tribes of Israel residing within those areas. The period of the monarchies of Israel was the last time that the Jews had a measure of autonomy in their own land, which is Israel.

As a quick aside, in the cultural sense, why do Jews even believe that Israel is their land? Are there not Jews that live in other countries? The answer is "yes," there are. However, neither Christianity or Islam, for example, believe in a land of origin, and the land is not essentially tied into the focal point of the religion. In other words, both Christianity and Islam revere certain sites, Nazareth and Bethlehem and Mecca and Medina respectively, but Christians do not see Israel as their homeland, and Muslims do not see Saudi Arabia as such. This is related to the fact that both Christianity and Islam believe that the world should adopt those respective religions, which means that its concentration to one place goes against the precepts of those religions. With Judaism, however, the belief is not that all the world needs to accept Judaism, but only a belief in the One G-d, which has certain necessary doctrines, such as His Oneness, but can be adopted and adapted to individual peoples' in their own ways. The focal point of Judaism is the return to Jewish autonomy in their land, where the Temple can be built and Jews' religious duties can be fulfilled. Christianity's doctrines especially, and not Islam's, seem to be rooted in the very destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, which is why Christianity acts as an opposing force to the religion of Judaism, trying to negate nearly every central concept about it. It's as if, in Islam's mind, Christianity was the hammer that broke the covenant between the Jews and G-d, and Islam stepped into to takes its place.

Lots of things happened in the next 656 years or so (586 BCE - 70 CE, Roman invasion), and Israel fell under foreign rule once again. Again, lots of land-changing happened under Roman Christian rule as well, with several political forces attempting to gain and regain control of the land. During the 7th century of the Common Era (about 1,300 years ago), some 700 years later, Islam formed as a religion, gained power, and removed the Byzantines (who themselves replaced the Romans). By now, the land and its various sites took on significance for Christians as well, partially who took over sites that were previously Jewish. When the Muslims got there, they had the pleasure of taking over sites that were once Jewish and then became Christian, which in their own minds, these conquests completed the status of these areas and coverted them to Muslim sites. This had deep religious signficance for the Muslims because they viewed their religion as the completed form of both Judaism and Christianity. If we criticize the Iraq war for having ill designs, we are not free from criticizing Islam's political behaviors during that specific time. Sure, it was a long time ago, but history is a continuing continuum, and the fact that it was a long time ago does not detach us from those events. In other words, the very events themselves are locked in time, but their effects are not, and we feel them today; Iraq wasn't Muslim before the spread of Islam, and Jews lived in modern-day Iraq nearly 1,300 years before both Christianity and Islam existed. So if time is of the essence, as it is in Arab culture, or in other words, that time can bound people to a land, Babylon/Iraq is Jewish.

Just an aside; people who hold the anti-war opinion sometimes say that to attack Iraq is to attack the place where civilization began, but for some strange reason it seems that they attach "dawn of civilization" with Islam. One our problems as Americas is that we associate "exotic" with "ancient" and "ancient" with "truth," and while "ancient" and "truth" have a certain correlation, something's exotic status does not make it ancient, and therefore exotic things are not necessarily representative of truth. Just because Muslim culture is older than ours does not make it the dawn of civilization and it does not make it truth. Jewish culture, for one, is far older than Muslim culture (and the basis of it), yet many of the same people that oppose the war believe that Israel should make room for the Palestinians to create their own state; isn't this an example of an older culture having to make room for a newer culture? How is this consistent? It is morally and logically wrong to venerate the exotic and strange just because it is exotic and strange. If Iraq is the dawn of civilization, it's because Abraham, the first Jew, was born in the city of Ur, in Iraq, and he brought monotheism to the world, and monotheism is the dawn of civilization as far as the West is concerned.

In 1948 of the Common Era, Israel was established as a state in the Middle East, some 1,200 years after Muslims arrived on the scene. The Muslims are grounded in a strong tradition of revering their patriarchs and matriarchs, which they have in common with Jews, but as I stated before, they are also grounded in a strong tradition of defining Jewish history as Muslim history, and therefore, the religion of Judaism was essentially doesn't exist, indicating in the Muslim mentality that all lands "previously" belonging to Jews and Judaism were no longer Jewish. They declared that this was the very will of G-d Himself. I will add more later, but Israeli, and then Palestinian nationalism, is essentially how the Cave of Machpela became considered to be a Palestinian site that restricts Jews from visiting or living in. Basically, Machpela, in Chevron, is treated the same way that Muslims treat all areas under their rule in Muslim and Arab countries; outsiders are not really welcome.

The patronizing factoid here is that Islam, as a religious force, places a high importance on its religious sites and demands total freedom in having access to them; anything less is an affront and direct insult to their religious, social, and political sensibilities. This however, especially in the last century or so, and arguably at other times, is not granted to Jews (or Christians), primarily in respects to Palestinian nationalism. In the "Palestinian territories," where bastions of almost complete lack of political order makes room for terrorism that kills Israeli's, Palestinians and poisons everyone involved, where many religious Jewish sites are located, these sites are seen as Muslim sites. This is made possible because the Muslim religion claims a monopoly on Biblical Jewish history, defining every figure in the Jewish narrative as "Muslim" and therefore allowing them to define Jewish holy sites as Muslim holy sites. For this reason, the Cave of Machpela, where Abraham, the first Jew, buried his wife Sarah and then was buried himself by his sons Isaac and Ishmael, is considered a Muslim holy site. Nazareth and Bethlehem, aside from being Jewish sites, are also Christian, but since Jesus was supposedly a Muslim, those sites are considered Muslim and are part of the Umma, which is the worldwide Muslim population.