On Wednesday night, a conflict that has been brewing for several months, exploded as Jews and Christians clashed at the Stella Maris church in Haifa, leading police to briefly block the road leading to the site. Several dozen Jews belonging to the Hasidic Breslov sect arrived and attempted to enter the church. The incident coincided with the Jewish holy day of Tisha B’Av, commemorating the destruction of the Jewish Temples in Jerusalem.
A rally protesting the visits by the Hassidim was held on Thursday night, the second in less than one month.
The Stella Maris church in southwestern Haifa is a Catholic monastery for Discalced Carmelite monks, located on the slopes of Mount Carmel in Haifa.The main church inside the Stella Maris Monastery is said to contain the Cave of Elijah, a grotto where according to the Old Testament, the Prophet Elijah lived for some time. Inside the cave, there is an altar carved in the rock, with a small statue of the Prophet. The current church and monastery, built under the orders of Brother Cassini of the Order, was opened in 1836.
According to Jewish tradition, first recorded in writing in the 13th century and later records, the tomb in the grotto in the church, is the tomb of Elisha the prophet, student of Elijah the prophet.
The entrance to the grotto is inside the church. This makes it problematic for Jews to access the site as it is forbidden to enter places where idols, icons, or religious statues are found. Praying at gravesites even those of Biblical characters is not a commandment and even if it were, there is a religious axiom that a mitzvah (Biblical commandment) cannot be performed by transgressing a Biblical prohibition.
Beginning in May, Orthodox Jews adhering to the Brezolv Hasidic sect began to arrive at the Stella Maris Church, attempting to enter the grotto.
Last month, about 300 members of the Christian-Catholic community in Haifa, including Hadash chairman Ayman Odeh, participated in a rally protesting the arrival of Breslav Hasidim to pray at the Stella Maris Monastery. They called the police to prevent the worshipers from entering the site.
A week prior, police arrested a 53-year-old Arab resident of Haifa on suspicion of having attacked a Jew and expelling him from the monastery when he came to pray there.
Two weeks before this incident, a video was published on social media in which Hasidic Jews were seen on the monastery’s grounds, next to a caption in Arabic that read: “Dozens of religious Jewish settlers entered the church square and began to pray. This is aggression and a break-in to one of the holiest places for the Christian community.”
Many, though not all, of the Jewish visitors to the site are students of Rabbi Eliezer Berland at Shuvu Achim Yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem. They are doing so in the belief that they are emulating Rabbi Nathan of Breslov (1780-1844), one of the main disciples of Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, the founder of Breslov Chassidus. In his writings, Rabbi Nathan describes a joyous visit to the site in 1823, in between the period when it was dismantled in 1821 and rebuilding was begun in 1836. The church at the site was in ruins at the time of his visit with no icons or states, making it halachically permissible for him to access the site.
Mgr. Rafic Nahra, the patriarchal vicar for Israel, was concerned that if the situation continued, it could ruin religious coexistence.
“The students of Rabbi Berland began arriving in May in small groups, two or three at a time,” Mgr. Nahra told Israel365 News. “Our churches are open to all who come in a respectful manner. We have no problem if Jews or Muslims come.”
“It seems that they suddenly awoke to the fact that this is a holy site. But it seems that they are not coming to pray but are here for some other purpose.”
Mgr. Nahra has studied Jewish thought and philosophy and respects it greatly, but felt that the actions of these Jews who came to the church did not reflect that.
“Thiswas not prayer,” he said. “They were intentionally provocative and confrontational. More and more people came, even buses of 50 or more. They prayed in an exceptionally loud manner that did not permit others to pray and would even come in the middle of the night at the most difficult hours.”
“We do not want this to turn a holy site into a confrontation. The police and municipality are being helpful. Haifa is a wonderful example of religious coexistence. It is a pity to destroy that.”
David Nekrutman, the Executive Director of The Isaiah Projects and an Orthodox Jewish theologian, noted that by acting disrespectfully at the church, the Breslov Hasidim were acting in a manner that violated Jewish precepts.
From the Jewish side of law, we would have expected the Jewish visitors to be guided by derech eretz (the respect of a fellow human being) as the standard before going ahead into a known Christian holy site,” Nekrutman said. “Guided by this axion, they should show the proper respect and follow the protocols. We know that the people who are the stewards of that site have no problems with any visitor coming in a respectful manner and at a respectful time, as is the case with any other tourist site or any site with religious significance anywhere in Israel. For some reason, this teaching within Breslov has become popular in the last few months even though we’ve never heard of it before. This should not preclude treating others with respect and this is especially true for citizens of the state. In Jewish tradition, treating others with disrespect and causing trouble at these sites is referred to as a chillul hashem, a desanctification of God’s name. “
The Shuvu Achim Yeshiva did not respond to inquiries and it is unclear why the attempts to visit the site only began a few months ago.During a visit by the Minister of Religion Yitzhak Vakhnin in 2019, Rabbi Dov Kook, a renowned kabbalist from Tiberias, made a special request that the cross over the burial site of Elisha be removed. The cross is situated in such a way that people passing through the especially low entrance of the cave are required to bow down. Implicit in Rabbi Kook’s request is the understanding that if the cross is removed, Jews are permitted to enter the site. It should be emphasized that this does not represent a definitive rabbinic ruling and is only one possible understanding.