Friday, May 02, 2008

Threatened By Symbolism

A cardinal, an archbishop and a moderator walk into Jerusalem and the bartender says, cover up them crosses, lads, you're in Jewish territory now.

Or something to that effect.

A group of Irish church leaders, including Cardinal Sean Brady, Church of Ireland Archbishop Alan Harper, Presbyterian moderator John Finlay and Methodist moderator Roy Cooper, were on a visit to Israel. They called on the grandson of Ireland's first chief rabbi, and Isaac Herzog suggested that they stop at the Wailing Wall. Welcome any time, he assured them, and when the clergymen found that they had a bit of time to kill between meetings, they took Mr. Herzog up on the offer.

Sure it was all a misunderstanding. The security guards weren't in sync with the spirit of cead mile failte. They got one look at the crosses worn by the four clerics, and it was Katie bar the door.

To say the least, Mr. Herzog was embarrassed, having invited guests who were then turned away. He's apologized, of course, and isn't it all the worse that the Irish group had just come from calling on the Al Aqsa mosque when they arrived at the Wailing Wall? The Muslims let them in to their holy site, and the Jews said no? As a PR move, it was a disaster.

Cardinal Brady has been magnanimous about the misunderstanding. Asking a clergyman to take off his cross might have been a grand faux pas, but these things happen in these touchy days. No harm done, and if the quartet had not been pressed for time, they would have waited for officials to sort out the confusion.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, whose territory includes the Western Wall, was not so apologetic. He was less than pleased that the clergymen refused to take off their crosses out of respect for a Jewish holy place. Why, a Jew wouldn't wear his prayer shawl when entering a Christian holy place, would he now?

Hard to imagine the average Christian telling a rabbi he couldn't come in to the Pro-Cathedral with his prayer shawl draped over his shoulders. It would result in a different misunderstanding, in which the Christian would be trying to raise the heat in the church because the visitor was so cold that he was wearing a wool blanket. Not all symbols get interpreted in the right way if you don't know what it is that's supposed to be getting symbolized.

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