The 2016 Mekudeshet Festival – Social, Political Agendas Cloaked in Spirituality

Jews, Arabs and Christians play and sing at the "Amen" event, part of Mekudeshet 2016 festival in Gehinnom, Jerusalem, September 7, 2016 (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

For a festival described as “sacred, set apart for God” (the meaning of the Hebrew word “mekudeshet“), there could hardly have been a more mixed message.  Much of the confusion centered on the interfaith Amen House of Prayer, which organizers proclaimed as a one-week “spiritual gathering of Christians, Jews and Muslims”. This led evangelical observers to either comment positively about the harmonious rapport among “the Abrahamic faiths“, or issue a warning about another exhibition of the emerging “one-world religion“. The truth was more complex… and more disturbing.

The Mekudeshet event schedule, running from September 4-23, revealed only a superficial layer of spirituality. Words like “prophet” and “priest” were liberally applied to musicians, but these were obviously glamorous metaphors. Words like “magic” and “goddess” were used as well, but again only for the marketing effect. In some cases, the monotheist rhetoric was dropped in order to announce the presence of “sacred music from across the globe. Artists and audiences from all over the world will ascend to Jerusalem and sound, with us, a universal message of unity and inclusivity.” Yet that “inclusivity” had notable absences: no Wiccan, Druid, Hindu, Shinto or Buddhist performances, which one would expect at a festival of world spirituality. The global scope was also questionable, since the Mekudeshet line-up was limited to third-world and Sephardic (Spanish-Jewish) culture. Although ethnically rich, it was clearly not “from all over the world“.

So all that one-world spirit-talk was more froth than substance, which might come as a relief to KNI readers. But don’t relax yet! Just below the murky surface was a multi-layered agenda, technically earth-bound but spiritually inspired.

One example was “About Life and Death“, a presentation hosted at St. Andrew’s Scottish church, which promised “an eye-opening collection of stories” suggesting various after-death scenarios, from reincarnation to “the victory of technology over biology“. To call the latter a “spiritual” concept is a stretch to begin with. But more bizarre was the prominence given to the legal struggle of 80-something Shlomo Avni for the right to be thrown into the sea after his death, so that he could let the sharks and other marine scavengers feast on his remains. His original request, to “die like a dog” [sic] and let Israel’s wildlife devour his exposed corpse, was rejected in 2009 by Israel’s Supreme Court as an assault on “the sanctity” of human life… supposedly the theme of this Festival. After revising his last wishes to a request for a sea dump, Mr. Avni finally won permission in 2014, albeit outside of Israeli territorial waters.

Yet for anyone who truly wants “to provide sustenance to the same animals and plants that allowed me to live,” the standard Jewish burial is already perfect. As J-Post blogger Ira Sharkansky noted back in 2012 in response to the Avni case, “Israeli burials occur without the chemicals and containers meant to preserve the body… from the crawly things that are no less natural than distant cousins that prowl the land or swim in the sea.” The Mekudeshet presentation not only romanticized Mr. Avni’s 5-year court case as a fight against non-existent “religious taboos” in Israel against the natural decay of the human body; it also acknowledged Mr. Avni as an unbeliever in life after death. This raises the twin questions of why his story should be accepted as either spiritually OR environmentally inspiring.  

The tip-off that these were not priorities was in the trailer, which distilled the presentation’s message down to two challenges (translated from Hebrew): “What is so scary about death? And what the hell is so sacred about life?

The suggestion that human life is NOT sacred runs roughshod over the full range of monotheistic Jewish and Christian values. (Muslims as a group have yet to demonstrate a regard for the sanctity of non-Muslim human life.) The idea that death is not an enemy to avoid, but a friend to embrace, is naked propaganda from the New Age movement, which has long advocated the global cleansing of humans from ‘Mother Earth’. Both of these notions are politically driving the euthanasia industry, which is slowly taking over Europe, has ended many lives without patients’ consent, and has begun to include children of any age.

At the other extreme, Mekudeshet offered an audio soap-opera called “Jerusalem Confessions“, in which actors read out literal confessions from “the secret lives of dozens” of anonymous Jerusalem residents. While the revelation of someone’s private thoughts can inspire introspection, the emphasis here was on vicarious thrills, promising “a labyrinth of emotions and sensations” while the “ceremony leaders will ply you with wine” to loosen your inhibitions.

After an obligatory nod to spirituality (“They have told us about themselves and their god…” [sic]) came the juicy stuff: “…about their relationships with their boss, about clothing and sex, about their experiences in the army and in school, about the hatred that burns within them, about their unspoken yearnings, about their moral low points, about perversions they believe are theirs alone, and about their great unrequited loves.

The description excused and even glorified the vice of voyeurism (secretly spying on others): “In an evening that wavers between theatre and ceremony, with no prying or judging, you will be privy to the most intimate thoughts of people you will never meet.” Or, put more bluntly:  you can “sneak a peek without hurting anyone.” However, after being treated to this mental peep-show, participants were expected to repay the favor by providing their own alcohol-enhanced confessions to “the complete strangers who are sitting opposite you at the table.” The same “spiritual” benefits can be gotten from an episode of reality-TV, without the self-humiliation.

For those seeking the spiritual essence of historical Jerusalem, Mekudeshet did include a sprinkling of religious musicians. Haredi cantor Ziv Yehezkel chose to sing classic Arabic music, and Rabbi Hacham David Menachem celebrated his Torah heritage by partnering with Sufi (mystical Muslim) musician Kudsi Erguner. That’s about it.

Christian contributions were even harder to find. They appeared to be confined to the heavily promoted “Amen House of Prayer for All Believers“, described as “a temporary home for the three religions that share Jerusalem and for all those who wish to dwell under the wings of the Almighty… For one week we will come together—Muslims, Jews, and Christians who believe.” It reportedly took “extraordinary cooperation between [the Jewish synagogue] Kehilat Zion, Christian and Muslim religious leaders” to map out a way to “come together“. The results of that cooperation appeared to be motivated less by monotheism or even ecumenism, and more by political tiptoeing around Muslim sensitivities.

The synagogue and church participating in the Amen initiative published their “welcome” services, in accordance with the pledge to create “a spiritual and physical space which embraces commonality instead of sanctifying walls and divisions.” Yet there was no corresponding welcome from any of the 39 mosques in Jerusalem; the mosque where Friday Muslim prayers were open to Amen participants was hidden behind a wall of anonymity, which even a direct query to Mekudeshet organizers failed to breach.

The Amen House was hosted by the Alpert Youth Music Center in the Hinnom Valley, to provide “a shared experience that our forefathers invented.” So said one of the Jewish participants, who neglected to name those inventive Jewish “forefathers“. And from there, the explanations went downhill. One of the Amen organizers denied the universality expressed in the Mekudeshet promotions (“There is nothing new age about this“), declaring that the experiment “is based on Isaiah’s prophecy, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations.’” In the same interview, another organizer insisted that the Amen House was not dedicated to Isaiah’s God, or even to the worship of one God; it “belongs to any sort of religious people, not just believers.”   

Rabbi Hacham Menachem, the Sufi-compatible musician, also participated in the Amen House. Speaking to the Jerusalem Post two years ago, Rabbi Menachem urged Jews to feel at ease with other faiths: “We have to understand that Judaism is strong enough – especially now that we are no longer scattered in the Diaspora – that nothing threatens us anymore. So this is the right time to speak with others.” He includes Christians in that dialog, but only if they agree to redefine their faith to his liking. As he explained to Israel Hayom during the 2016 Festival: “Our relationship to Christianity must be clarified. Christianity is Judaism that joined with the Greek spirit and created idols. If we remove the Greek mythological basis of Christianity, we can talk about Jesus as a wise scholar rather than as God.” Perhaps this is why the “shared House of Prayer” arranged for the Christians to conduct their mass elsewhere.

But it was odd that the Jews had their Shabbat service elsewhere as well. The only autonomous worship in this “house of prayer for all believers” was the Islamic Sufi ceremony. Likewise, the only study session on prayer in which the teacher did not share the microphone was Sufi. (The other studies were balanced between Christians and Jews, or shared by all three faiths.)  But even that favoritism was misleading; allowing the pantheistic-gnostic Sufi beliefs to represent the Islamic world is like allowing the Jehovah’s Witnesses to represent the Christian world.

This lopsided, contradictory presentation of “the three religions that share Jerusalem“, together with the total absence of mainstream Islam, showed that the “sacred” value on display at Amen House was political correctness.

It should be noted that Mekudeshet was sponsored by the Jerusalem Season of Culture (JSOC), a privately funded organization working with the Jerusalem Municipality and city museums. Despite the fanfare about its uniqueness, this Festival has appeared annually for the past five years. Only then it was simply the 4-day “Festival of Sacred Music”, one of many cultural events offered across Jerusalem. The difference this year was that JSOC cancelled all its other “Season of Culture” events and invested heavily in an expanded three-week, one-theme festival of Sacred Music, renamed in Hebrew. JSOC presents itself as “the go-to organization for many of the city’s political, social and cultural leaders“, which helps explain why the re-branding of the Festival as spiritual was unsuccessful.  

In short, the anticipated manifestation of the one-world religion at Mekudeshet failed to materialize. But its presence was still felt. Messages that downgrade the value of human life, celebrate the invasion of personal privacy, and surrender Israel’s Biblical heritage to Islamic Gnosticism in return for social inclusion, are also spiritual attacks. On the other hand, using the religious history of Jerusalem to disguise these social-political agendas as forms of spiritual exploration was a clever cloaking strategy. The name “Mekudeshet” promised holiness and delivered the opposite. That alone is enough to identify the inspiration behind the Festival.