I was just cleaning the refrigerator for Pessach when it »plinged« and an SMS came in on my iPhone. A friend had sent me a photo of Notre-Dame – on fire! I first didn’t understand what I was looking at, and immediately checked the internet for the breaking news of the tragic events that were in the middle of unfolding in the heart of Paris.
europe on fire
Notre-Dame was on fire. The spire had already collapsed. I had no clue what had happened, but I felt a very direct and immediate pain at the sight of the burning cathedral. It wasn’t for any religious reasons (usually I try to stay away from churches), but rather artistic ones. After all, the famous rose windows are among the most beautiful in the world. The whole building is an amazingly impressive testimony of European Gothic art, architecture, culture, and history. And it was about to be consumed by a raging fire, its cause still unknown today.
On Facebook and other social media outlets, people expressed their feelings of shock, pain, and sorrow. Almost everybody had a personal story attached to this unique cathedral – and the world was worried and concerned it might collapse completely.
While some expressed melancholy and sadness, others were eager to spread first conspiracy theories, already marking it an Islamic terror attack before anybody knew anything …
a deeper truth
But somewhere in between all this hysteria, shock, malice, hate and propaganda, there was something more precious I felt: people were reminded of who they are. It was obvious that there was more burning than only a historic building.
In a time when Europe is on a worrisome path of losing a piece of its identity (and unfortunately was never really well equipped to defend it), it almost felt as if there was a piece of people’s hearts burning as well …
La Catedral | Agustin Barrios-Mangore (1885–1944) | John Williams
Gothic buildings from the Middle Ages like Notre-Dame are a twisted topic from a Jewish perspective. They are constant reminders of a time of Jewish suffering and persecution by a church that was aiming to either destroy and kill or convert the Jewish people. Until this day, this Christian Anti-Judaism is still carved into stone on the outside facade of Notre-Dame.
These two statues, Ecclesia on the left and Synagoga on the right, are a common motif in medieval art and represent a Christian theological concept known as supersessionism, the theology of replacement, whereby the Church is triumphant while the Synagogue and the Jews were defeated and became obsolete. Just like the so-called »Judensau« (Jews’ sow) that also can be found on church facades throughout Europe till this day, for Jews, they are ever-present witnesses of a painful history. Even more so in a time of rising Antisemitism throughout all of Europe.
But Notre-Dame was also a place of reconciliation and building bridges when Jewish writer and historian Arno Lustiger read Kaddish (the Jewish prayer for the dead) in Notre-Dame for his cousin, the late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, who had converted to Catholicism as a young man.
A complicated relationship indeed.
we all need beauty
So, I was standing in my Pessach cleaning-chaos here in Israel, felt this Jewish twist, felt the pain of a European artist but also felt a deep cry going through Europe. In the days to come, many people complained about it, complained about people crying over a fire in a church, complained about financial donations for rebuilding Notre-Dame while there is so much suffering in the world. A very strange form of Whataboutism in my eyes.
Notre-Dame is a piece of European art and culture that represents growingly unpopular qualities in the 21st century: beauty, art, faith, spirituality and the idea of a reality that reaches beyond the obvious. What, if not a cathedral represents all of that.
The fire of Notre-Dame was conquered, the main building could be saved. However, I am not sure if Europe can be …
Pessach is a time when the Jewish people are reminded of who we are – as a people and as individuals. We call it “The Time of our Freedom”, a time to reflect where we are still enslaved in Egypt and where we are free, what freedom means altogether and which responsibilities come along with it. It might be a coincidence that the fire of Notre-Dame happened now, in the days before Pessach and Easter, but it certainly can be a great opportunity for Europe to ponder about who and what it is – and where its future is heading.
I would not like to live in a world without cathedrals. I need their beauty and grandeur, I need them against the vulgarity of the world. I want to let myself be wrapped in the austere coolness of the churches. I need their imperious silence. I need it against the witless bellowing of the barracks yard and the witty chatter of the yes-man. I love praying people. I need the sight of them. I need it against the malicious poison of the superficial and the thoughtless. I want to read the powerful words of the Bible. I need the unreal force of their poetry. I need it against the dilapidation of the language and the dictatorship of slogans. A world without these things would be a world I would not like to live in.
—Pascal Mercier, Night Train to Lissabon