The Talmud reports that there were thirteen synagogues in Tiberias, an important city in the Galilee. Indeed, Tiberias, which had been a primarily Roman city, had become an important center of Jewish life starting in about the third century. According to the Talmud, it was to a cave outside of Tiberias that Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai and his son fled after Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai had committed the sin of insulting the Romans, and for that sin he had been sentenced to death. The Talmud also tells us that Tiberias was the final seat of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court which had been moving around the north of Israel since the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. But the end of the Sanhedrin in the fourth century was not the end of Jewish life in Tiberias. Indeed, Jewish life continued to flourish in this town on the edge of the Kinneret for many more centuries, as I inadvertently discovered this evening when I stumbled on an archeological park in the midst of the modern city.
The park itself is almost hidden away, dwarfed by a giant hotel on one side, and bounded by a busy roadway on the other. There are signs in the park that are faded and little cared for. It is obvious this particular place is not really a tourist destination, not a spot even the most hardened history seekers would visit. Trash was littered about the park, and I was the only person there. But in this faded park were the remains of an ancient synagogue, adorned with a mosaic floor, the remaining piece of which shows a lulav along with a Greek inscription. The park’s somewhat poorly translated sign said that the synagogue dated to the sixth century and that it had been in use as a synagogue until the eleventh century. That is, the place where I was standing had been a center of Jewish life, prayer and learning for at least five hundred years. The modern city of Tiberias had risen around it, and had, finally, all but obliterated the site. And yet there it stood, a hanger-on of history, unwilling to relinquish the reminder of what had been.
Five hundred years of Jewish history in that place. The length of time is almost unfathomable, especially in American Judaism, where we celebrate fifty and a hundred years of a community’s life with the fanfare born of a short historical perspective. And even in contemplating the tremendous span of Jewish history, we tend to focus on the places where the big events happen: on Jerusalem in 70 CE, on Spain in the fifteenth century, on Poland in the bloody twentieth. We can forget the times between the Times. Tiberias was famous when Rabbi Shimeon bar Yocahai could see it from his cave, or when the Sanhedrin came at last to rest in its picturesque location. It is famous too, as the final resting place of Maimonides, the greatest of all Jewish scholars. These are great men and great moments, but most of Jewish history is made in and around such historic personages and inflection points. Most of Jewish history is made in the homes and synagogues and shops of the millions upon millions of Jews whose names we do not know, who lived in places and times we no longer remember. Some of those Jews prayed in that synagogue in Tiberias, looking out onto the sea and hoping for the same peace and prosperity for which we pray in our synagogues today. For five hundred years or more Jews came to that place, and though they are nameless to us now, their commitments to Jewish life, and the commitments of countless nameless others have possible our contemporary religious existence. We cannot remember every person and every place, we cannot honor every time and every space, there have simply been too many Jews in too many places and spaces and times for that. Besides, that much past would bury us, and we do not desire burial. But when we stumble upon the forgotten moments, the unremembered fragments of the millennia of Jewish life, it is wise to pause for a moment, even as the rushing city of contemporary Jewish life bustles around us. Tiberias is no longer the city of that forgotten synagogue, nor is it the city of Rabbi Shimeon Bar Yochai or the Sanhedrin, but all had their part to play in making the city of Tiberias today, just as all had their part to play in making us the Jews we are today. Some are famous, most are not. Some are honored, most are lost to us. But they are all our ancestors, and we hope our modern expression of their beloved Jewish life does honor to the lives they lived, even those lives now forever lost to our collective memory.