23 September '16..
1. I was asked to give a speech of about 12 minutes at the Israel American Council's upcoming national conference to young Israelis living in the U.S. about archaeology and the story of Israel.
It's a very Jewish thing, compressing thousands of years into a drop of time. There are many aspects to archaeology. Generally, it's about physically touching ancient material: structures, fragments of pottery and metal, inscriptions, graves, and more. History, particularly ancient history, is mostly silent. Very little of it is written down. Archaeology helps reconstruct the past.
For us as Jews, reconstructing the past isn't a matter for a museum to handle. We aren't sitting and watching a historic play; we're part of it. To understand this, let's think about archaeology in other fields, such as the archaeology of texts or language.
What is a word? A signifier. What happens when a word can refer to more than one thing? What happens when it's an ancient word that has existed for 3,000 years? Words like these are like the tips of icebergs -- their contemporary meaning is just the uppermost layer. If we dig, we discover older layers of meaning. We might find, in other periods, that a word meant exactly the opposite of what it does now.
Think about Hebrew. Anyone who speaks this ancient language is unconsciously getting the past to speak and awakening the immense trove of knowledge and meanings and traditions amassed within the language. In a beit midrash, a place of Jewish learning, we will discover that the verbs used are in the present tense: Rabbi Akiva "says" (not "said"), Rashi interprets, the Prophet Isaiah prophesies. For the Jew, ancient texts are not something to be abandoned on dusty shelves or put in museums -- they have always surrounded Jews, who talked and argued with them, defied them, and took joy in them. Through the use of Hebrew, they were always accessible.
Today, too, Hebrew speakers are able to read the texts that date back 2,000 years or more. If we try harder, we can also become acquainted with the Talmud. And of course the poetry of Spanish Jewry, and Jewish philosophy, biblical commentary, mystic literature, the Zohar, the hassidic and enlightenment movements, up through the literature of the rebirth of the modern Jewish people and the modern day. If we want, we can learn about the lives of Jewish communities in North Africa in the 10th century C.E. or in Renaissance Italy and more, through the system of questions and answers (the responsa) that connected the Jewish world.
I mentioned that these texts "surrounded" us, and I actually meant that they "enveloped" us as both individuals and as a people. This is a defensive wrapping that protected and preserved us in the many diasporas and which even today is supposed to protect the Jews of the world, as long as they are not in their natural home, Israel.
2. The texts, as important and moving as they are, provide a limited archaeological experience. Reading about and studying Jerusalem in the First Temple period is not like walking around the City of David. When you're standing there, you understand what the poet meant by "the mountains surround Jerusalem" (Psalms 125:2) or "dwells between his shoulders" in Moses' blessing to Benjamin (Deuteronomy 33:12) -- that the place where God resides (known in Hebrew as the "shechinah") is between the shoulders -- halfway up, not in the valley and not at the highest hilltop. That is how our forefathers distinguished between their belief and the idol worship that was "on a high and lofty mountain" and "under every spreading tree" (Isaiah 57:5-7).
Several weeks ago, archaeologists revealed how the decorative floor of the Temple looked. They discovered it after intensive work that entailed putting together fragments of stone that had been found among the rubble removed from the Temple Mount. It's supposedly just a floor, colors and stones, not very much.
But the enormous excitement expressed in the news headlines about the discovery demonstrated that the archaeological find had touched a raw nerve. Every time we encounter a remnant of our past as a people, we get a response (and perhaps, an answer) to the question of identity that we have been debating since we returned to history, and even more so since we established an independent Jewish state: Who are we? Is the State of Israel a living continuation of the ancient kingdom of Israel? Are the Jews of the 21st century continuing the people whose high priests walked on those wonderful floor tiles? In the words of literary researcher and critic Baruch Kurzweil: Are we a continuation or a revolution?
The Palestinian Authority is investing herculean efforts in erasing the Jewish history of the land of Israel and instilling in its place the history of the Palestinians. A lecturer at Birzeit University near Ramallah called our connection to the land of Israel "a myth, a story that has no value, like the story of 1,001 Arabian nights." He added: "After 60 years of excavations they haven't found anything, not a water jug, not a coin, not a pottery vessel, not a bronze weapon, not a piece of metal: nothing from that myth. Because it's a myth and a lie. These digs didn't leave a single meter unexcavated, but turned up nothing."
The Palestinians routinely refer to the Jewish Temple as "imagined" and the stories of the Bible as "imaginary." (See the excellent watchdog site Palestinian Media Watch.) The reason for their efforts is clear: If there is no historic link between the Jewish people and this land, then we are foreign invaders who took control of a country that wasn't ours.
But we don't live by what the Palestinians say. Just as the Hebrew language is treated as something important, so is becoming acquainted with the archaeological discoveries of our past important to strengthening our identity as a people and our ties to the land of Israel. The "iron wall" that Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky sought to erect between us and our enemies, so that they would despair of ever driving us out, is not just a literal iron wall of defense. First and foremost, it is an iron wall of consciousness.
3. The vast majority of Jews in Israel and worldwide are to some extent familiar with the archaeological finds from our past up to the time of Jerusalem, from the 10th century BCE, the kingdoms of David and Solomon, and on. The City of David excavations these past 25 years have helped deepen our knowledge. But everything having to do with the pre-monarchy period -- the crossing of the Jordan River and the arrival of the Israelite tribes at the end of the 13th century BCE, the settlement of the Jordan Valley and the expansion westward to the hills and south past Shiloh -- is a black hole for most Jews.
Soon we will mark a year since the death of Adam Zertal, one of the greatest biblical archaeologists of the 20th century. The Israel Hayom weekend supplement was privileged to publish some of his great discoveries about Gilgalim, places named in the Bible where the Israelite tribes camped and worshipped God after crossing the Jordan River, long before Jerusalem or Shiloh existed. Zertal found six enclosures that contained similar characteristics and shards of pottery from the Israelite period. On Mount Ebal, he was privileged to find the Holy Grail of biblical archaeologists: an Israelite sacrificial altar that dated back to the 12th century BCE and amazingly fit the description of the altar on that same mountain found in the book of Joshua (8:30-35).
During 35 years of an archaeological survey of Samaria, Zertal and his team found some 1,500 sites, about 90% of which were previously unknown. Some 450 of them dated to Iron Age I, or the time when the tribes of Israel were settling the land and the time of the First Temple. This changes everything that science knew about the Bible and our history. Israeli students and Jews all over the world need to know about this. It is a definitive part of our insurance policy.
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