Digging Deeper: Archaeology and Interfaith Community

As the sun spilled over the Galilee hills in the distance, I paused for a moment, straightening up from over my pickaxe and squinting into the east. The sky had been lightening for the past thirty minutes, but only now was the full scene illuminated before me. About forty college and graduate students moved like busy worker bees in and around their squares, 5×5 meter areas which they were responsible for excavating that summer. Supervisors patrolled the border, taking notes and calling to each other in rapid Hebrew. From the light brown soil, the tips of rocks peeked out—were they just mixed in with the fill, or tempting glimpses at columns or walls buried beneath? Only time and toil would reveal the answer. The bleating of a herd of goats passing me by startled me out of my reverie, and I lifted my pickaxe once again. It was only 5:30 AM, and there were several more hours of work to be done before these archaeologists could call it a day.

Mornings like this were typical for me during the month of June, when I participated in the 2015 season of the Huqoq Excavation Project. Since 2011, Dr. Jodi Magness of UNC-Chapel Hill has led excavations at this site, located in the Galilee region of Israel about three miles west of Capernaum and Migdal. Hoping to uncover a late Roman/Byzantine-era synagogue attested in the literature to exist in that location, Magness and her team revealed a synagogue, and more, over the next few seasons: on the floor of the synagogue, they discovered mosaics of high artistic quality, which depicted (among other things) scenes of Samson from the biblical book of Judges. It was a keen interest in these examples of early Jewish art that led me to Huqoq for the 2015 season.

Olive Tree at Huqoq
Olive Tree at Huqoq

In this task, I was joined by a wide variety of students: many from UNC-Chapel Hill, a scattering from the University of Toronto and Baylor University, and others, like me, lone wolves from various schools throughout the U.S. and beyond. On the surface, we were not a greatly diverse bunch, especially in terms of religion. Most students self-identified as Christian, others, Catholic, and there were a few Jews, like myself. Those labels, however, belied the true diversity of our persuasions. Among the Christians, for example, one student wrestled with how to reconcile his faith in science with his family’s faith in G-d. Another was a devout believer, and an enthusiastic participant in her church back home. Another was a member of a denomination called Christadelphian, which I, despite having attended divinity school, had never heard of! Not one of our backgrounds was the same, and we all were moved by different forces, both faith-based and otherwise, to come to Israel to dig.

According to the seminal essay by philosopher and rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, it is an exercise in futility for two persons to attempt to truly know each other: “For, in all personal unions such as marriage, friendship, or comradeship, however strong the bonds uniting two individuals, the modi existentiae remain totally unique and hence, incongruous, at both levels, the ontological and the experiential…In each to whom I relate as a human being, I find a friend, for we have many things in common, as well as a stranger, for each of us is unique and wholly other. This otherness stands in the way of complete mutual understanding.”[1] Similarly, two faith communities can never truly understand each other, because “Each faith community is engaged in a singular normative gesture reflecting the numinous nature of the act of faith itself, and it is futile to try to find common denominators.”[2] Yet, this separation on the ontological and experiential levels does not doom two persons, nor two faith communities, to perpetual isolation from each other. Two parties with unique beliefs and practices can encounter each other in a real and genuine way—on the “mundane human level.”[3] Rather than attempting to reconcile inner differences, “The relationship between two communities must be outer-directed and related to the secular orders with which men of faith come face to face. In the secular sphere, we may discuss positions to be taken, ideas to be evolved, and plans to be formulated. In these matters, religious communities may together recommend action to be developed and may seize the initiative to be implemented later by general society.”[4] Interfaith relationships, in other words, can and should be built upon common goals and common actions.

Nowhere was Rabbi Soloveitchik’s recommendation more perceptible than in the field at Huqoq. While, in the quiet afternoons at the kibbutz where we stayed, we enthusiastically discussed our various ideas, beliefs, and personal struggles, in the field we were united in one purpose: archaeological excavation. Lapsed Catholics passed buckets of soil to Jewish converts, agnostics sledgehammered large rocks whose pieces would be carted away by evangelical Christians. On this “mundane human level,” no person was superior to another, and no community was marginalized. In the sweat, dirt, and sunshine, we were all equal. And how appropriate that this encounter happened in the land of Israel, which has witnessed, perhaps more than any other place on earth, people of different faiths confront each other and struggle to live in peace. As we dug deeper into the earth, through modern Arab, medieval, and Jewish layers of occupation, through creation and destruction and creation again, we were keenly reminded that the future of this land, just like its past, belongs to all of us.

[1] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Confrontation,” Tradition 6, no. 2 (1964), 15.

[2] Ibid., 18-19.

[3] Ibid., 24.

[4] Ibid.

Images are owned by the author.

 

For more information on Huqoq, see:

http://huqoqexcavationproject.org/

and

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/07/150717-mosaics-synagogue-israel-magness-discovery-archaeology/

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