A Grave Matter

letter-447577_1280

by Rabbi Harvey Belovski

I am enjoying the privilege of showing my eleven-year-old daughter around Israel and yesterday we spent the day grave-hopping in the Galil. We had a wonderful time, which both of us found highly educational, yet something disturbed me – the proliferation of ugly mechitzos (barriers dividing men and women) at gravesites. I found it particularly unpleasant at the grave-site of the Rambam.

I last visited the grave of the Rambam in Tiberius some years ago and remember it well. One leaves the road and walks up a gentle incline between fourteen pillars each engraved with the name of one section of the Rambam’s magnum opus, ‘Mishneh Torah’. Passing the resting places of the Shelah (Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, the great 17th-century mystic) as well as those of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and other sages of the era of the Mishnah, one arrives at the grave of the Rambam at the top of the incline. The tombstone is quite distinctive and the inscription reads, ‘from Moshe (the original Moses) to Moshe (the Rambam), no-one arose as great as Moshe’.

This preamble is intended to indicate the beauty of the site and how the area has been carefully landscaped to honour the remains of the Rambam in the most apposite manner. Regrettably, the site has been completely spoiled by the metal barrier that now bisects the grave stone itself, ruining the architecture and obscuring the famous inscription. Barriers of this kind have sprung up all over the place to ‘preserve the sanctity of the site by preventing men and women from mixing’.

I am in favour of care and sensitivity in these areas of Jewish life. I appreciate that gender mixing is fraught with problems and needs to be carefully controlled and that visitors to holy sites need to pray and think in a synagogue-type atmosphere. However, a degree of common sense and self-regulation is necessary to avoid a slide into extremism. People had been visiting the grave of the Rambam for centuries quite successfully before the erection of the mechitzah. I think it is safe to say that they managed to achieve their goals there by voluntarily finding a space to daven (pray) undisturbed. The segregation of such sites is considered by some to be a sign of a Jewish world that is stronger and more confident in its Yiddishkeit (Judaism). I feel that the opposite is true.

It is apparent that among a growing segment of the observant world, there is no recognition that architecture and other cultural manifestations may contribute to religious inspiration. Obviously, they have to be crafted to ensure that they remain within the parameters of halachah (Jewish law), yet when carefully devised they can enhance our spiritual world immeasurably. Some of those policing our world see one part of the picture (the need to regulate gender interaction), yet are oblivious to, and even actively reject, any concessions to wider sensitivities: further incontrovertible evidence of rising religious myopia.

Rabbi Harvey Belovski, a musmach of Gateshead Yeshiva and graduate of Oxford University, is the rabbi of the Golders Green Synagogue in London, a lecturer, author and counsellor.

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24 Responses

  1. SG says:

    I met this man in the winter of 2000 in the old cemetery of Tzfas. No longer in his 30s, he devotes his life to maintaining the cemetery, and his story is well known to Tzfas residents. I was referred to him to locate the grave of my aunt, who passed away in 1950. He located the grave immediately, and promised to see to its upkeep. I was amazed and inspired by his story and his dedication.
    BTW, I believe that the rationale behind the blue headstones is the same as for techeiles on tzitzis – to raise our thoughts to the blue sky and to our Father in Heaven.

  2. Toby Katz says:

    GB — too bad you didn’t get the man’s name — a follow up story on where he is now would be great.

    I like the shade of blue you consider “garish” BTW.

  3. GB says:

    Way back in the 1980s I visited the ancient cemetary in Tzfat. There, the headstones were marked in a rather garish light blue, with a darker royal blue handpainted lettering identifying many headstones. It was not attractive to say the least, and I wondered why the chevra kadisha or municipality would agree to such a primitive markation. Fortunately I kept my thoughts to myself!

    I soon met the “artist” who was responsible for the headstones paint job and upkeep – a pleasant Sephardi man in his 30s. He told me the following amazing only-in-Israel story:

    He was a wrestler who was part of the Israeli Olympic team. Shortly before leaving Israel to represent the team abroad, he was visited by the musmach of Rabbi Yosef Caro in a dream. The holy man berated him about the horrible condition of the graves in the ancient cemetary, that he must do something about it, that it was bringing great shame to the tzaddikim buried there in shamayim! Well, the young athlete thought the dream pretty weird, but he was not a shomer mitzvot, and although with his Sephardi traditional background he greatly respected the Sages; he shrugged the entire episode off. The following night, he again was visited by the Sage in a dream. And the next night as well. Now he was somewhat concerned, and he ran to a local Rav, who managed to convince the young man that this was no simple coincidence. The athlete was convinced to not attend the Olympics!! And that was the Munich Olympics… where his teammates were massacred by terrorists. He vowed to become Shomer Mitzvot, and devote his life to maintaining the ancient gravestones of Tzfat’s cemetary. And while his “maintenance” may not have been the most aesthetic job in the world, for me those blue headstones were no longer ugly. Has anyone else run into this man at the old cemetary in Tzfat?

  4. Ari says:

    In the context of segregated gravesites, separate-gender cemeteries begin to take on a certain, twisted logic. May G-d help us all.

  5. Barbara says:

    Toby – Separation of the sexes in the marriage bed was a joke. Too bad your leg came off in my hand.

    What I’ve read above surprisingly makes reference to mechitzos and “unaesthetic mechitzos”. Even the original post says “… metal barrier that now bisects the grave stone itself, ruining the architecture and obscuring the famous inscription.” One would think that there would be some way, with sensitivity to the intent and the architecture, that it could have been done in some better way. And no, it is not a fashion show or contest, but we don’t deliberately or neglectfully make Torah scroll covers (just an example) to be ugly either, do we? (See comments above regarding Kever Rochel.)

  6. Shira Schmidt says:

    28 b’Shvat I agree with the commentors who pointed out: (a) how wonderful it is that huge numbers of people (men &women who are shomer mitzvos and not-yet-shomer mitzvos, children on school trips from non-religious and religious schools) are visitng the graves; (b) there is no free lunch, and this has necessitated mehitzos because of inappropriate behavior. Here is an additional aspect no one mentioned. The Israel Defense Forces commissioned myself and my colleague Jessica Setbon to translated the 200-page color-illustrated coffee-table book “Jewish Holy Sites and Tombs in Eretz Israel” by Michelson, Millner, and Salomon into English. Why the IDF? To encourage people in E.Y. to know the land and to connect with tradition. But when you have droves of buoyant soldiers, mixed groups of men and women, many of whom have little background in proper decorum (but have tremendously good intentions) visiting these places – problems are bound to arise which unaesthetic mehitzos can help ameliorate.

  7. Bob Miller says:

    Should we somehow make the new visitors aware that the actual prayer at the gravesite is to HaShem and not to the deceased as an intermediary? This might not be obvious to all.

  8. Jewish Observer says:

    “I think he couldn’t be more wrong. We do see our history as glorious but charedim are by far the most optimistic and forward-looking of all Jewish groups, measured by willingness to marry and have children and actually create a Jewish future. As I said above, charedim (and all Orthodox Jews) visit ALL the holy sites and tourist attractions in Israel in great numbers, graves, shuls, museums and also areas of natural beauty.”

    – first of all if she knew me you would know I could be WAY more wrong

    – 2nd of all, what Ms. Katz writes reads like good propoganda for a brochure, but anecdotal evidence doesn’t bear it out

  9. hp says:

    “I doubt that the religious women who visit gravesites have abandoned tznius.”

    They haven’t, but the wonderful development of not yet observant individuals seeking out the graves of Tzaddikim has resulted in a challenge that was therefore addressed.

    I am aware of how many on this thread disagree (even vehemently so), but I believe that erecting a Mechitza was a nice, respectful solution to the issue. I certainly would not have preferred signs with pointed proclamations that may hurt well meaning visitors. Kol hakovod to these women who are not aware of tzniut and are stirred to visit these holy graves. Kol hakovod to a method that does not embarrass these women, and yet ensures that men are able to pray.

    As Pinchas Giller noted, “(and I have seen nominal “chilonim” at the graves also, saying Tehillim with religious guides) well, people are seeking hte wellsprings of spirituality in Eretz Yisrael. It’s not surprising.”

  10. Toby Katz says:

    Bag said, re separate days for men and women: “That would be tremendously inconvenient.”
    He is correct and I was only half-serious. I don’t know the answer.

    ———————————

    Ori Pomerantz asked: “Why is visiting graves more popular than it used to be?”

    The answer is that EVERYTHING is more popular than it used to be, everything is crowded — stores, streets, buses, museums, famous old shuls, the zoo, tourist sites — because there are so many more people, especially Orthodox people, visiting Israel. The growth in our population as well as increased affluence, which makes travel more possible, are both factors. Just look how many more boys and girls spend a year in Israel after high school — way more than was the case a few decades ago. There are dozens of girls’ seminaries now in J-m, vs exactly three in 1970.

    —————————————————–

    Jewish Observer wrote: “Why is visiting graves more popular than it used to be? My theory is that the focus on graves (which you see a lot by charedim) is a look toward the past glory of Israel versus an orientation toward the future.”

    I think he couldn’t be more wrong. We do see our history as glorious but charedim are by far the most optimistic and forward-looking of all Jewish groups, measured by willingness to marry and have children and actually create a Jewish future. As I said above, charedim (and all Orthodox Jews) visit ALL the holy sites and tourist attractions in Israel in great numbers, graves, shuls, museums and also areas of natural beauty.

    ——————————————————————-

    Bob Miller wrote: “So where is the crying need now to increase separation at all costs? I doubt that the religious women who visit gravesites have abandoned tznius.”

    AH basically already answered that when he wrote: “Rather it is because in the last couple of years women in halachically immodest dress have been visiting those sites and it was practically impossible “L’Halacha” to pray or say tehillim at any of those gravesites.” These women are for the most part NOT Orthodox, but they do have an emotional and spiritual attachment to holy Jewish sites, and the fact that they wish to visit these holy sites is a wonderful and hopeful sign for the future. But it does present an immediate halachic problem for right now.

    ————————————————————————

    Pinchas Geller wrote: “Among Edot ha-Mizrach and Sefardim, the pilgrimage included the religious, traditional and ‘avekgefallen’ members of the community….”

    As he himself writes, this was not only in the past but remains the case today. (“I have seen nominal ‘chilonim’ at the graves also, saying Tehillim with religious guides”).

    ————————————————————

    Reading that mechitzos have been erected in many places because many women come to holy sites dressed immodestly, Bob Miller asked, “Which other solutions were considered before this one was chosen?”

    I don’t know what he would consider a better solution, but I can think of a much /worse/ solution: asking chiloni women to leave, or embarrassing them because they are not dressed appropriately. B”H they come to daven, and I hope they are made to feel welcome when they come.

    ———————————————————————

    Barbara wrote: “Let’s take this to the ultimate (il)logical conclusion. Strict separation of the sexes, including in the marriage bed, will put an end to this nonsense entirely in about 40-60 years.”

    There are Jewish groups who have “achieved” negative population growth, but they aren’t the Orthodox Jews.
    A walk through any charedi neighborhood in Israel would quickly disabuse her of the notion that charedim practice separation of the sexes in the marriage bed. Baruch Hashem we have more and more Jewish children every year, ken yirbu.

  11. Bob Miller says:

    AH said, “it is because in the last couple of years women in halachically immodest dress have been visiting those sites and it was practically imppossible “L’Halacha” to pray or say tehillim at any of those gravesites.”

    Which other solutions were considered before this one was chosen?

  12. Barbara says:

    Let’s take this to the ultimate (il)logical conclusion. Strict separation of the sexes, including in the marriage bed, will put an end to this nonsense entirely in about 40-60 years.

    One other issue, which is not very obvious. How/when do you segregate children from their parent of the opposite gender? You are speaking of traveling with your daughter (and there is no criticism intended), but I know people with younger children, who are quite tall for their ages, who have been confronted by others over their child that is ‘too old’ and is therefore engaging in an inappropriate activity with a parent! Never mind that ‘mind your own business’ is the appropriate reaction, but the same mindset is operating there.

  13. Pinchas Giller says:

    I agree with the sentiments of this piece. I wrote a scholarly article about pilgrimage to gravesites some years ago (available http://www.yarzheit.com/heavensregister/galileegiller.htm). It all began for me, in 1972, when I visited the Rambam’s grave in the middle of the night. It was just a column lying in the dust but what suffused with a great sense of religious mystery. The physical beauty and mystery of the gravesite, suffused as it is, according to this tradition, with the nefesh of the tzaddik, is really a kind of spiritual currency and it really does detract from the beauty of Eretz Yisrael when these ancient structures are built over so brutally. Another aspect of the old pilgrimages were their inclusiveness. Among Edot ha-Mizrach and Sefardim, the pilgrimage included the religious, traditional and “avekgefallen” members of the community. In fact, the old sites are built so as to dramatize the life of the tzaddik. R. Yehudah ben Baba is buried at the cleft of a little valley, R. Yohanan ben Zakkai lies between R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua. Moreover, the structures that were there were there for centuries; the grave of Benyahu ben Yehoyada’, for instance, is (unless it has been “remodeled”) much as it was when the Ben Ish Hai had his transformative experiences there.

    As to why there is so much pilgrimage (and I have seen nominal “chilonim” at the graves also, saying Tehillim with religious guides) well, people are seeking hte wellsprings of spirituality in Eretz Yisrael. It’s not surprising.

  14. mb says:

    Seperation at the Kotel is a fairly new development.

  15. Bob Miller says:

    Pious Jews used to scorn innovations in Judaism using language like: “The Rabbonim of the past were head and shoulders above us and they didn’t innovate in this way, so how can we presume to do this?”

    Sometimes, the rejoinder was that a new situation had cropped up. So where is the crying need now to increase separation at all costs? I doubt that the religious women who visit gravesites have abandoned tznius.

  16. AH says:

    Being a close friend with one of the leaders of the organization that builds these “Mechitza’s”, I can attest to the fact that the priamry reason for building those fences is defenitely not to “preserve the sanctity of the site by preventing men and women from mixing” and nor because people want to “pray and think in a synagogue-type atmosphere”. Rather it is because in the last couple of years women in halachically immodest dress have been visitong those sites and it was practically imppossible “L’Halacha” to pray or say tehillim at any of those gravesites. Therefore a commitee of askonim was formed to establish fences to be able to say “a yidish vort” when visiting the rambam and others.

  17. Jewish Observer says:

    “Why is visiting graves more popular than it used to be”

    my theory is that the focus on graves (which you see a lot by charedim) is an look toward the past glory of Israel versus an orientation toward the future

  18. Jewish Observer says:

    “The beauty of Kever Rochel has been completely destroyed”

    the beautiy of kever rochel has nothing to do with the edifices surrounded it (but I do agree with you)

  19. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Why is visiting graves more popular than it used to be?

  20. bag says:

    “They should make separate days for men and women and put the gravesites back the way they were.”

    That would be terrifically inconvenient for many people. Preserve the aesthetics, but deprive people of the ability to go with their families? Ensure that the few things couples and fathers and daughters can do together in haredi society are reduced one by one by separate hours and days (as they already are intruding on them with separate seating, and separate standing areas and whatnot)

    I went to kevarim with old yerushalmi families and they didn’t request separate standing areas.

  21. Toby Katz says:

    The beauty of Kever Rochel has been completely destroyed, inside and out. Inside it’s the hideous partition and outside it’s the concrete barricades to keep out our beloved Ishmaelite brothers. It is no longer possible to see — at all — what the original building looks like, inside or out. All you can see in every direction are obstructed views.

    One factor I do have to concede that has changed is the sheer number of people who visit the holy sites these days. Never before in history did crowds gather at every kever in E’Y as they do today. There were a few individuals here and there. I guess with the advent of crowds we also need crowd control.

    So aesthetics have to be jettisoned.

    A great, great pity.

    They should make separate days for men and women and put the gravesites back the way they were. Or instead of a physical barrier, they should paint lines on the ground at the Rambam’s kever and other holy sites, with men to remain on one side and women on the other.

  22. jacob says:

    The segregation of the sexes is permeating every facet of our lives. Forget shul and school. Think Sidewalks and buses now.

    jacob

    http://www.jacobdajew.blogspot.com

  23. Jewish Observer says:

    “further incontrovertible evidence of rising religious myopia.”

    as if you needed more evidence after the posts on this blog site blaming Mrs. Schear for being attacked

  24. Noam Stadlan says:

    very nicely put.