Dialogue at the Dead Sea

I believe that the definition of dialogue encompasses the following ideas: Everyone must listen and observe, at the same time as everyone allows themselves to change, growing in understanding and affection.  While dialoging, no one is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; no one ‘wins’ or ‘loses’ – and finally, we love our neighbors as ourselves.

Our interfaith journey to Israel — members of the congregations of the Reform Jewish temple and the UCC church in my town — was an ocean of dialogue made up of many small drops, the kind of experience that cemented the bonds of affection among us.

On the day we swam in the Dead Sea, we had spent a hot, bright day in the desert. Our bus left Jerusalem on the road that would have been the setting of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Scenes ranged from the Biblical to the current political situation and encompassed the not always harmonious intersection of the three Abrahamic faiths: the Judaean Desert where Christ wandered in the Wilderness, the concrete security wall, Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a Bedouin encampment, and Jericho, where the children of Israel first entered the Promised Land, now controlled by the Palestinian Authority, accessible only by passing through checkpoints watched by armed guards. We stopped at Qumran, ancient refuge of the Essenes, an ascetic Jewish sect that flourished in Roman Judea, and saw the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, then moved on to Masada, the spectacular isolated plateau fortified by Herod the Great and the site where a band of Jewish rebels committed mass suicide rather than capitulate to Roman siege in 72 A.D.

Masada was intense, hot, dry and bustling with visitors who had either hiked up or taken the funicular. Schoolchildren were enacting scenes from history; guides were pointing out Roman mosaics; the former synagogue had been transformed to a scriptorium where scribes were hand-copying Torah scrolls. The view of sun and shadow on the desert and the Dead Sea was stunning. We spent a long time there and left tired and sated with history and sun.

Time for a swim. Fortunately our next stop was a spa at Ein Gedi, an oasis on the Dead Sea. After lunch, we changed into bathing suits. It was February, so the locals were not swimming, but some of the intrepid New Englanders in the group were not going to miss the opportunity to swim in the Dead Sea. First, the mud baths. Aaahhh. The Dead Sea is famous for its mud and minerals with health and cosmetic properties. It had been a long morning, filled with history and politics, but it was no longer possible to be serious while smearing oneself with black mud in the company of new-found companions and friends. We showered off most of the mud, then jumped on the little shuttle to the beach. Who would have imagined a beach made entirely of salt crystal? Hobbling barefoot was out of the question. Some of us tried to crawl and quickly gave up as hands and knees began to bleed. Those who had held back began tossing sneakers and shoes to those who were determined to swim. I had worn flip-flops and was glad indeed as I waded into the warm, salty water and swam away from the shore. If you can call it swimming. The water is so buoyant that you can’t really get your arms and legs underwater. Swimming in the Dead Sea is rather like I imagine walking in zero gravity would be. Not a familiar form of propulsion. More laughter. More amazement as we floated about, arms and legs in the air. Very carefully, I tasted the water. Bitterly salty. And then swam back to shore, extra careful not to scrape against the bottom as the water became shallow close to shore.

“Wear your shoes! You have to wear your shoes!” the early comers shouted to those who had lingered at the mud pools. Many pairs of shoes were sacrificed to the Dead Sea that day.

There was still more after the mud and the salt: the mineral-rich sulfur pools were a warm, odiferous finish. We emerged with smooth and glowing skin. These pools are said to reduce the blood pressure and promote relaxation. The expressions of pure bliss on the faces of the group as we sat on the steps of the spa waiting for the bus were evidence of the truth of the assertion. Some of us were sipping beers and I do believe the rabbi and the reverend were passing nips of vodka back and forth. We were tired and content as our bus brought us back to Jerusalem. Watching the full moon rising as the sun set over the Dead Sea, we drifted off to sleep in puddles of tranquility.

Had dialogue occurred?

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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2 thoughts on “Dialogue at the Dead Sea

  1. The story of your trip in and of itself evokes a sense of both conflict and camaraderie that would, on its own, serve as fodder for fruitful introspection—I admit I had a smile on my face by the end of your account of swimming (or at least floating) in the Dead Sea, thinking of my own experiences, albeit in different settings, of community. However, your framing mechanism of the concept of dialogue adds such a profound layer to your account; it so poignantly underscores whether intentionality breeds dialogue, and whether words are necessary for meaningful dialogue to take place. We spend so much time, in so many arenas, planning and orchestrating dialogue; if indeed dialogue took place with laughter and liquor and lost shoes and mud, then perhaps we need to take more into account than the simple facilitation of conversation when we look to expand our capacity for fostering dialogue in all areas of our lives.

  2. Thank you, Katelynn. While I am totally in favor of planned and orchestrated dialogue, I do think that less formal opportunities for people of different faiths to be together in work, play, and pilgrimage are memorable and effective. More usually in Israel, the Jews do the “Jewish tour” and the Christians do the “Christian tour.” On this trip, everyone did everything, and we shared worship on Shabbat and Sunday. It was gorgeous.

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