Wandering Jew

Bruce Feiler is back on the road again, but what he’s really searching for are the spiritual, more than the physical, roots of Judaism



Tibor Krausz

The Jerusalem Report, May 6, 2006


In the late 1990s, with the Torah as his map and Israeli archaeologist Avner Goren as his guide, Bruce Feiler set out to retrace the ancient footsteps of biblical heroes. Barely had the inquisitive secular Jew got past Mount Ararat, the reputed landing site of Noah's ark in southwestern Turkey and the first stop on his itinerary, when he had an epiphany. Outside the derelict Turkish frontier town of Harran, he felt an urge to strip off his clothes and prostrate himself in the dirt. It was in Harran, a village which Feiler reports offers little these days beyond "ancient ruins buried underneath a coating of dust the color of sour milk," that Yahweh first instructed Abraham (then still called Abram) to "Go forth from your native land and from father's house to the land that I will show you" (Genesis 12:1).

A lion hunt scene from a palace relief of King Ashurbanipal from Nineveh (photo: British Museum)


"Here was a piece of ancient land — completely alien, yet completely familiar — that seemed to draw me to it in a way that I never thought possible outside my hometown [Savannah in Georgia]," Feiler, 42, writes in his bestselling travelogue "Walking the Bible" (2001). "It's as if my internal zip code were being recalibrated, as if my genes were being jiggled and respun... Was I reacting to a spirit that existed in the place, or did that spirit exist within me? Was it in my DNA?" Here is, we may scoff cynically, yet another enthralled tourist contracting the Jerusalem Syndrome of sudden religious awakening at the sight of myth-shrouded ancient ruins. Yet read on, and "Walking the Bible" proves to be an absorbing tale of a Jewish man's discovery of his religious and cultural roots.


A seamless interweaving of a travelogue, a "geographical exegesis" of the Torah, and a commentary on current events, Feiler's readable and informative account is enlivened by vignettes that exemplify the enduring power of hallowed topography over the lives of the Holy Land's current inhabitants. Outside the Cave of the Machpelah in Hebron, a Lubavitch hasid assures him that the patriarchs entombed inside are still physically alive. Yehuda Avni, the American-born owner of Vered Ha-Galil, in turn shows Feiler an old well on his private farm near Lake Tiberias: it was, Avni insists citing local Muslim tradition, the very well into which his brothers threw the biblical Joseph. The rancher points to a highway: that is where Abraham entered Canaan. He indicates a nearby hill: that is where Jesus delivered his famous Sermon on the Mount.


Recently, Feiler set out on another journey. In "Where God Was Born," he picks up where he has left off — namely, the closing verses of the Pentateuch detailing the death of Moses in the desert east of the River Jordan in sight of the Promised Land. Yet as the biblical narrative (continued through the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) segues seamlessly to the conquest of Canaan by Joshua, the establishment of a united monarchy by King David, and the building of Solomon's Temple, the lands where these events once unfolded have undergone momentous tectonic shifts since Feiler's last peregrinations. A brutal intifadeh in Israel and an intractable American-led war in Iraq have mired much of the biblical landscape in unrelenting carnage. Nowadays travelers visit certain holy sites at their own peril.


First Stop on Feiler's itinerary: the Route of the Israelites' Conquest. Accompanied again by Avner Goren, the American traveler thinks it safer to take only bird's-eye views of Jericho and Shechem (today Nablus) — seething Palestinian towns, both — hovering over them in a chartered helicopter guided by a veteran IDF combat pilot. As the episode portends, this time around his mission to continue retracing the grand biblical saga will also entail surviving the journey.


* * *


In the Elah Valley of central Israel, Feiler and Goren trek to the site where, tradition has it, David (still a shepherd boy) felled the Philistine giant Goliath, "in the name of the Lord," with a single, expertly aimed shot from his sling. Predictably, today a restaurant operating nearby calls itself "David's Sling." Next, the fellow travelers crawl through a three-millennia-old sewer underneath Jerusalem, which David may have used to sneak into the impregnable citadel of resident Jebusites before conquering the city and making it his capital.


With the anonymous biblical authors' painstaking attention to specific geographic and topographic details of narrated events — a riveting sacred chronicle unfolding on a meticulously documented atlas of Holy Places cartography — the Bible eminently lends itself to pilgrimages. What sets Feiler's book apart from myriad travelogues of "The sun rose in a fiery halo over Jerusalem" variety is informed commentary, facilitated by the companionable Goren and various scholars called on en route. "We pulled out our Bibles" is a stock phrase throughout the book as Feiler seeks to reenergize the familiar old stories by replanting them in their formative soil. In doing so, he reminds us that much subtlety has often been lost in time-honored cultural translations.

Moses breaks the tablets of the Law at Mount Sinai in a drawing by French artist Gustave Doré


Take David. Contra his popular image as a paragon of manly virtue (immortalized in marble by Michelangelo), David was a scheming and ruthless upstart — more like, as Feiler puts it, "a tin-pot dictator leading a bloody coup [against King Saul] than a humble servant of God... the first Machiavellian prince." Such an appraisal may seem to smack of de rigeur biblical revisionism; yet the case is the reverse. The Bible is unflinching in its portrayals of its flawed protagonists, who are just as subject to the whims of cruelty, envy, greed and pettiness as the rest of us. It's just that few of us ever bother to read the stories in their unfiltered original any more.


Occasionally, though, Feiler veers off at tangents of supercilious hyperbole. "Jews must be careful before accusing others [i.e. Christians and Muslims] of tyrannical behavior," he writes. "Long before Constantine, David makes the first play to establish monotheism as the universal faith of the Near East." How so? Archaeologists have been barely able to confirm the historicity of David (generally seeing him as no more than a mere chieftain retroactively glorified with legendary deeds), never mind finding any evidence for his imperialistic ambitions, religiously or otherwise. Feiler's polemic is predicated on a boast in the Bible that the kingdom of David and Solomon stretched from the Nile to the Euphrates. (Hamas firebrands like Mahmoud Al-Zahar cite the same "evidence" in accusing modern Israel of harboring imperialistic designs to recapture the extents of David's conquests.)


That begs the question: if biblical historiography can hardly be taken at face value, does a pilgrimage like his involve visiting the actual locations of ancient dramas, or rather tracking mythological events grounded in geographical reality? Feiler adroitly sidesteps the issue. His proclaimed aim is "less to prove the Bible and more to witness its atmosphere and lingering appeal." For his purposes, that approach is justified: charting your biblical itinerary by incontestable archaeological facts on the ground wouldn't get you far past Jerusalem from around the time of King Josiah of Judah (c. 639-609 BCE), when much of the Hebrew Bible was likely composed. Historically speaking, therefore, Feiler arrives on the firmest ground during his travels when he follows the people of Israel into their Babylonian captivity.


Motoring across Iraq these days is no joyride, he reports. Every oncoming car may hide a potential suicide bomber; trigger-happy U.S. soldiers fire at drivers who fail to stop on command; a bullet-riddled roadside statue of Saddam Hussein suffers from a "bad case of revenge acne." The blatant lawlessness belies the land's greatest cultural legacy. The Code of Hammurabi (identified with King Amraphel of Shinar in Genesis 14) was one of the world's first comprehensive legal systems whose 281 laws would greatly influence the earlier legalistic traditions of the Bible. Hence the title of Feiler's book. According to secular scholarship, the God of the Bible was born in Mesopotamia, midwifed into existence by semi-nomads in Canaan who ingeniously grafted old Sumerian creation myths and Mesopotamian cosmological ideas onto their nascent religious customs and morals. If so, God came of age in Palestine in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE when prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel and scribes like Ezra revolutionized monotheism by refashioning a tribal, parochial faith into a universal yet highly personalized religion through literary texts that still comprise the theological heart of the Hebrew Bible.


This seminal religious revolution was a gradual intellectual process with no iconic geographical landmarks; therefore, unlike the formative story of the Exodus, it doesn't translate readily into a geographical journey. Yet as Feiler finds, the past remains tangibly alive in the present. Next to a reconstructed mock-up of the grand palace of Nebuchadnezzar II, the Babylonian tyrant who vanquished the Kingdom of Judah and carried the cream of its inhabitants into exile, stands a new red-and-white marble palace in the style of an ancient ziggurat. A stunted latter-day Tower of Babel commissioned by a megalomaniac of biblical proportions, it belonged to Saddam Hussein, who hero-worshipped Nebuchadnezzar and would have loved to emulate him by also sacking Jerusalem.


* * *


In another ironic twist of history today's archenemy of Israel was its savior in biblical times, discovers Feiler, a genial if somewhat lachrymose raconteur with the insatiable curiosity of a restless intellectual thrill-seeker who learns and reflects with every step on the way.


The Persian Cyrus the Great crushed the Babylonians in 536 BCE, repatriated the enslaved Israelites to their homeland, and sponsored the rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem (for which acts of magnanimity he was to be lionized in the Bible). Yet the returnees, scholars believe, carried back to Palestine more than just goodwill from Persia. Influenced by dualistic Zoroastrian ideas, post-exilic Judaism would be transformed as Jewish theologians came to share the view that the battle between Good and Evil was the motivating factor for the universe and that every man staked a claim on the outcome through his conduct of inequity or morality. (The concepts of Heaven and Hell with a concomitant new belief in an afterlife probably took roots in Judaism around this time.)


Feiler duly goes in search of any lasting sign of this monumental religious metamorphosis. Outside the city of Yazd, he visits the "silence towers" of Iran's last handful of Zoroastrians, where dead devotees were until recently exposed to vultures and the elements in the belief that burying a corpse would literarily gain Evil more ground. (Such extreme aversion to dead bodies also dominated purity rituals of Second Temple-era Judaism.) But why should we still care about old Zoroastrian ideas? Because, Feiler posits, the warring factions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam could do well to heed the vanishing faith's egalitarian ecumenism whereby your religious affiliations do not matter; only your good deeds do.


He certainly has a point. The urges of the faithful to arrogate exclusive rights to the sacred and its manifest legacies tend to breed acts not of holiness but evil. In every religion from animism to pantheism to monotheism, worshippers need sacred sites to ground their intangible beliefs in palpable reality. Yet overt fixation on such sites can lead them to lose sight of the real, metaphysical essence of their faith. As Feiler says apropos the Western Wall: "By focusing so intently on the physical structure of the Temple, rather than on the covenant with God it was mean to embody, Jews risk equating their faith with a totem..."


The same, of course, goes for Christians and Muslims, too. And so the children of Abraham continue to fight to the death over small plots of real estate that bear incalculable value merely through the sheer weight of religious association. Hence the message of Feiler's book-length peregrinations: A real journey through the Bible must take place on the inner landscape of one's soul during a private pilgrimage of spiritual discovery.


Yet at the end of his journey he returns to the Western Wall, kisses it, and weeps. They're not just any old stones, after all.



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