There's no getting around it. The Essenes—heroic for saving the book, stirring in how they remind us of the dawn of our civilization—were some very weird cats. The tourist terminology for them is sect, but the right word is cult. They followed a "teacher of righteousness" to this godforsaken slab of barren rock to wait for the apocalypse. They surrendered all their possessions, took vows of celibacy, and engaged in religious practices that are suspiciously reminiscent of obsessive-compulsive disorder. They took ritual baths all the time—Qumran has more bathrooms per square foot than a McMansion in Phoenix. They were freaky about urine and excrement. They did not relieve themselves on the Sabbath—at all! And they wouldn't relieve themselves inside the city walls, meaning they schlepped up the hill behind a big pile of rocks to do their business. This, Ian says, may have been a dreadful mistake. Unlike the Bedouins of the area, who leave their excrement uncovered to dry out in the desert, the Essenes buried theirs in the hill above the town. But because they buried it, the parasites in the feces lived longer. When the rains came, those parasites were washed downslope into the ritual bathtubs. According to recent research, Ian says, the Essenes had much shorter life expectancies than their neighbors, probably because their habitual washing and crazy toilet habits made them so sick.For the latrine at Qumran, see here, here, and here.
Masada and Qumran were inhospitable, miserable, sulfurous, barren, and terrifying, populated by strange people with stranger ideas, and destroyed by a Roman Empire that was by any measure more civilized. Yet at Qumran and Masada today, we can recognize the beginning of Jewish identity. In Masada, Jews mourning the destruction of their last temple made a final stand and gave modern Jews a model of Jews as warriors. In the caves of Qumran, Jews safeguarded for 2,000 years our rituals and books, the foundations of Jewish civilization. These were defeats that became victories.
Sunday, January 20, 2008
DAVID PLOTZ does the Shrine of the Book, Qumran, and Masada. Here's his take on the Qumran sectarians (whom he identifies with the Essenes without mentioning any of the complexities involved):