March 2017

By Albert Kohn

Nachshon programming has been very upbeat and energizing; we have met with inspiring leaders, felt the energy pulsating through the contemporary start-up scene and danced with Breslov Hasids. Yet, Saturday night on our Tzfat trip was, well, different. Descending from the bus, we found ourselves in the pits of shadowy valley staring up at the stars. Instead of being there to commune with nature though, we were there to visit the grave of the somewhat obscure Talmudic figure named Yonatan ben Uzziel whose burial site is said to provide aid to its pleading visitors. As each of us approached the velvet covered tomb in our own way and did seven traditional circumambulations of the roof, one could sense the discomfort. Should one really turn to the dead to find assistance in challenging times? Is this rationally defensible? Is it even Jewish?

It is the fact that saints and pilgrimage to their graves are a cornerstone of medieval Christian history that makes this last question regarding the Jewish character of our late-night trip so poignant. Why would us, aspiring Jewish leaders, deviate so harshly from the character of our history? Well, even though this question was on everyone’s mind, a little bit of research shows that there is little reason for concern. Though out of vogue—especially in progressive American denominations—communing with the dead by visiting their burial places is a religious practice rooted in our history and culture. Continue reading