CHAPTER 2 - THE PILGRIMAGE BEGINS
The divorce was caused by my book about the Nazarene. When I wrote The Great Christ Debate, A Quest for the Theological Reconciliation of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all I wanted to know was the truth. The hope was that it would help my mixed marriage to work. I never thought that if my conclusions were contrary to standard Christian doctrine, my wife would leave.
In those days in 1979 I loved to take my two-year old to the beach on Key Biscayne. But April 2nd was different.
“Bobby,” I said with a lump in my throat, “Daddy is going far away. I still love you, and I’ll come back to visit as often as possible.”
The boy’s only response was to cling tightly to me. I tried to rationalize that ever since my separation from Maria five months earlier, I’d been given little time with him anyway.
The night before my flight to Israel was a restless one. I kept seeing his face. It didn’t help to rationalize about how difficult it was for a man to gain custody, or about the fact that my lawyer had advised me to not even waste money thinking about it. I felt guilty about running off and leaving the boy like that. When the sun came up, I changed my mind about a permanent move. Still, I was still determined to go away for a while to calm my nerves and sound out the ideas espoused in my book. The problem with getting access to Bobby had to be put on hold until my return.
The flight over was unlike any I had experienced before. I joined a group of Hasidic Jews for evening prayers in the aisles soon after the plane was airborne, and, though then not yet a daily habit, donned tephillin (Biblically prescribed prayer boxes bound to the head and arm by leather straps) with them the following morning. At last, after what seemed like an endless flight, the coast of Israel appeared. Cheering broke out among the 350 passengers, but I was disappointed with my initial glimpse of Tel Aviv. Except for pollution rising from a power plant below, the scene was much like the Miami Beach left behind. What I wanted wasn’t a jet flight to another modern resort, but a time machine to whisk me into the distant past, to the very roots of my people.
The ride from the airport initially didn’t lift my spirits because much of the terrain was flat and depressingly boring. But with time, the land began to rise and take on a more rocky appearance. The highway was dotted with wrecks left over from past wars. Each of the tall pines that lined the road seemed to beckon the limousine on to greater heights and to point the way to the City of God.
Finally, Jerusalem itself was in view. We could make out a few mosque towers, and at last there was a brief glimpse of the old city’s wall that I had sketched in my mind and heart countless times before.
Exhausted, I found a cheap room at the old Orgil Hotel, a beat-up place - easy on the budget. When I awoke at night, I could see the lights of the Old City. It was an inspiring sight, but I felt lonely. The nearest person I knew was on the other side of the world and already I was missing my son, even though I had been seeing the boy only four hours per week before departure.
At daybreak I put on a warm flight jacket, took two copies of my book, and after a quick breakfast, set off on foot for the Old City. Upon entering the walled-in town through the Damascus Gate, I felt that I had found my time machine. Arabs rode about on donkeys. Spices filled the air. The Muslim call to prayer could be heard as a sea of tourists and religious pilgrims pressed to make their way through the crowded market place. Only Uzi machine guns sported by so many Israeli soldiers served notice that I was still held captive by the twentieth century.
After wandering through the colorful bazaars, I found an exhibit portraying the Shroud of Turin in the Christian quarter of the city. This was before a 1988 Carbon 14 test that confirmed Bishop Henri de Poitiers’ 1357 pronouncement that the shroud was a forgery. The curator and I discussed my book briefly, but the thrust of my work was directed more at Islam, so I headed for the Dome of the Rock Mosque. Alas, it was Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, and infidels weren’t permitted in, so I called the sister of an acquaintance from Miami and made arrangements for my first Sabbath in the holy city.
“It sounds like you really hate Theresa,” Miriam noted.
“Actually I used to enjoy discussing things more with her than I did with my wife. For years while she thought there was some hope for converting me, she was a pleasure to have around. In fact, she even lived with us for a while. But when Bobby was born, Maria and I entered him into the Jewish Covenant with a brith milah at his circumcision. A year later Theresa demanded that he be baptized Catholic. Things got nasty. I threw her out of our house, bags and all,” I told her.
“I’ll bet that did wonders for your marriage," Miriam quipped.
“Quite. Still, I never thought Maria was serious about pulling out. I assumed Bobby would be enough to keep us together. What a mistake. I’ve got to figure out how to get my kid back.”
That Sunday I set out for the Dome of the Rock again. On the way I toured the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at Golgotha in the Christian quarter of the Old City. The church is built over the alleged site of the Crucifixion. A Muslim guarded its entrance. The church itself was divided up into five regions, somewhat symbolic of the division that reigned after the life of Jesus. There were painted borderlines to show the territories of the Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Abyssinian Coptics and Syrian Orthodox Churches. A lack of agreement between the various sects kept the place from having any single architectural style though the mixture seemed to be primarily Frankish and Byzantine. The building had twice been destroyed by earthquakes, once in the 12th century and again in 1927.
After visiting Calvary in the church, it was surprising to find that the tomb where Jesus is said to have been laid to rest was in the same edifice only a few dozen feet away. Entrance was via a double set of low openings, each designed to make the visitor bow when entering. The inner one was lower than the outer. Muslims went in backwards to keep from worshipping someone they didn’t consider to be God. Not wishing to offend the Christians, nor wanting to worship the Nazarene, I bent sideways. A Christian, stationed next to the marble slab on which the famous body may once have lain, asked for a donation. I gave none, pretending to not notice the fellow. Instead, aware of the Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin’s charge that, “Jesus the Nazarene practiced magic and led Israel astray,” I examined the room to see if he might have found escape possible. There were windows present. It wasn’t until a later trip that I learned the issue was mute. The tomb was really built in 1822.