Belmonte preserves the moving history of the local Jewish community. After the harsh royal decision of 1496 that expelled the Jews, the Belmonte Jews were those who, while appearing to convert to Christianity in order to be tolerated, still kept their faith and condition in secret. What was new and surprising was to know that in Belmonte that clandestine existence continued until about fifty years ago – and official Jewish recognition only occurred in 1989 -, so that it lasted about 470 years, longer that the exile of the people of Israel in Egypt. A visit to Belmonte Jewish Museum is a must, for it testifies to this community’s resilience.
Now, the surprising resilience of the people of Israel is precisely one of the brushstrokes of a very special portrait, making this people “a unique people among all peoples”.
It is the people that God instituted and accompanied century after century, generation after generation, in a wavering yet continuous connection of prophets, judges and kings.
God set up home in the midst of this people, the first inhabitant in the central tent in the middle of the camp in the nomadic space, later in the most sacred place of the only temple that was built in a place with materials and methods as described in detail in God’s communications and taken down in the scriptures.
The God of Israel opened up to communication with his people and told them the great narrative of the meaning of existence and history, from the dawn of the universe to the end of the world. Additionally, God let it be known that his heart harbours inexhaustible love for the man he created, even when that man overtly turns his back on him: “I will not execute my burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” God was listened to by men, both through the art of prayer performed in the great school of psalms and through the priestly lineage he instituted and to whom he gave detailed instructions on the right ways for joyful worship to be performed in the only temple, so that they might adore, petition, make amends to and thank him.
He asked each Jew for individual and family forms of prayer, with circumcision, rules on food and prescriptions of legal purity. Of particular significance is the Sabbath, lived as a time of reclusion, prayer and memory of God’s actions with his people, a day in which apparent inactivity conceals major affirmation of the rule of God.
God also gave his people moral laws and criminal precepts with the detail of a farsighted legislator.
God also made it increasingly clear that in the long trajectory of human history, man’s freedom to disobey God’s requests from the very beginning made profanity, lies and arrogance enter the world. However, this weight of malice and suffering will be remedied with the coming of someone whom God will anoint with oil, like priests, prophets and kings, as a sign of his unique mission. He will be the anointed one, the Messiah.
The imprecise allusions of the scripture regarding the profile of this Messiah appear to be attempts at an approximation. We have, among others, the portrait of the prophet Isaiah: “And he shall judge among the nations and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” We have the portrait produced by that great Moses, who said: “The Lord, your God, will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers. You must listen to him.“ What was so unusual about Moses? Deuteronomy explains: “Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face,” Speaking to God face to face enhances the human experience.
To this “unique people among all people”, God in his covenant with Abraham, also promised: “To your descendants I have given this land from the river of Egypt to the great River Euphrates”.
As the repository of so many attentions and duties on the part of God, which were corresponded to waveringly, either with faithfulness or faithlessness by a people that – symptomatically but as a symbol of humanity – is called “he who struggles with God” (Yisrael), we might ask what was the great mission of the people of Israel, that the whole world should feel indebted? One possible answer might be: it was and is to give a unique God to the world.
Divinity ceased to be a vague notion or some sort of energy. We can no longer say simply that the ultimate basis of all things is inaccessible; there are now many signs suggesting that at the root of all things is not blind force, distracted chance, randomness or any malign genius. There is, in fact, a face that says with meaning: “I am who I am”. And that “I am” came close to the ephemeral being that is each man, so as to tell him, or her, that he or she is neither ephemeral nor irrelevant.
Rightly did God say to Abraham: “And through your offspring all nations of the Earth will be blessed”.
We then have the crucial question: is this foundational “narrative” of Israel a mythical or historical “narrative? Are we talking of events that really happened or are they merely legends?
This is not a minor detail. To have happened, or not – to be or not to be – that is the question to end all questions.
Today, even in Israel, there is a strong tendency to consider all this to be legend. Indeed, the newspaper Haaretz in its 14 April 2015 issue writes that a WIN/Gallup poll noted that two out of every three Israelis said they were atheists or non-religious.
If the existence of a people with a real and special relationship with God can generate understandable surprise, perplexity and many questions, it is also true that to consider the moving and extremely harsh history of the surviving people of Israel as being founded in a mythical story with no truth in it causes even more understandable surprise, perplexity and many questions.
Is the question to end all questions, in more or less subtle form, present or not in the many attacks on the Jewish people, from the forced conversion of Jews to the quite incomprehensible and brutal “Shoah”?
In the last years, I lived two intense experiences: I went to the Holy Land, to places where God showed himself, and where there are increasing traces proving the history of God with Israel; and I experienced the faith, commitment and prayer of Jews for whom Shema Israel is the prayer not only on their lips but above all in their hearts and lives.
The testimony of people touched by God – and of the peoples touched by God – is urgent today. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said, in a Christian context: “In our time, when faith in many parts of the Earth is in danger of becoming extinguished like a flame starved of air, the first of all priorities is to make God present in this world and make God accessible to men. Not any god, but the God who spoke on Sinai; the God whose face we recognise in the love elevated to its highest meaning in Jesus Christ who was crucified and rose again. The real problem at this moment in our history is that God might disappear from the horizon of men and, if the light from God is extinguished, humanity may be surprised by the lack of guidance, whose destructive effects are increasingly manifested.”
At a time in which God’s things are not a priority for most men and women, and when even believers such as us easily relegate the things of God to later, or even put them last on the list of priorities, we are also in sore need of the testimony of the believers of Israel to remind us, on doorjambs and on doors, in arms, in phylacteries, while seated at home, walking, going to bed and rising in the morning: “Hear, O Israel! Adonai is our God! Adonai is One! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”