A Grave Matter
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.