The unique significance of Jerusalem in Judaism

Prof. Raphi Jospe, World Council of Churches, 1994, November 12, 2015

Chapter Eight
Preface: Jerusalem and Inter-Religious Dialogue1

Jerusalem is at the same time perhaps the best and the worst topic for inter-religious dialogue.
It is, in one sense, the best topic for inter-religious dialogue because the name “Jerusalem,” more than any other single name, symbolizes some of the greatest hopes and most sacred concepts of the three western religious tradi-tions, the monotheistic communities which see themselves as the physical and/or spiritual heirs of Abraham.
Jerusalem is, however, in another sense the worst possible topic for our in-ter-religious dialogue. For Jerusalem, whose name is often understood to mean “the city of peace,” has historically rarely been, and in our lifetime has never been, a city of true peace. Jerusalem may be the occasion or the topic of our Jewish-Christian-Muslim encounter, but we would be dishonest if we were to deny the obvious fact, that Jerusalem cannot, for the present and the foreseeable future, be the locale of our dialogue. The Jewish and Arab (whether Muslim or Christian) Jerusalemites, who may live only some hundreds of meters from each other, are far more likely to engage each other in genuine dialogue thou-sands of kilometers away from Jerusalem than they are at home. It is precisely because Jerusalem embodies some of our greatest hopes that it arouses our
Jerusalem’s Significance in Judaism
greatest passions, passions which often cloud clear judgment as well as human compassion.
The issue of compassion is not incidental here, for communities and na-tions, as well as individuals, are all too often inclined to focus exclusively on their own painful experience as victims. “Is there any pain like my pain?” cries out the author of Lamentations (1:12), in the generation after the first destruc-tion of Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon in 586 B.C.E. This attitude, that mine is the only real pain, that my tragedy is the only meaningful tragedy, how-ever understandable psychologically or historically, is an impediment to true dialogue, which must attempt to give us an understanding of the other’s heart as well as mind, and empathy for our partner’s pain if not sympathy for his or her professed opinions.
That is why this paper is entitled “Jerusalem’s Significance in Judaism” rather than “Jerusalem’s Spiritual Significance in Judaism,” because we must first recognize that Jerusalem is not merely significant to one of our traditions alone, but to all of them. At the same time, Jerusalem is of obvious and over-whelming significance in Judaism.
There need be no disloyalty, however, in recognizing that others also hold sacred a symbol from one’s own tradition. The fact that Christianity and Islam, in their own ways, have adopted and adapted aspects of the earlier Jewish sym-bolism, in this case of Jerusalem, provides for a commonality, which can be the basis either for continued rivalry and conflict, or for a new sense of mutual tol-eration and respect.
Nevertheless, an open and frank dialogue must take into account not only points of similarity, in which Judaism, Christianity and Islam parallel each other, but also points of uniqueness, where they differ, sometimes sharply, from each other. These differences do not preclude true dialogue; they render it all the more urgent and essential. A dialogue which seeks to understand rather than to overcome, will not eliminate those differences. It will enhance them with greater appreciation and respect for the other.
Jerusalem’s Significance in Judaism: Not Just Spiri-tual
That being understood, let me now attempt to set forth some features of Je-rusalem’s significance in Judaism. I must first note, however, that in the case of Judaism it is impossible to discuss “the spiritual significance of Jerusalem in Judaism” alone, as I was originally requested, because in Judaism, “the spiri-tual” is not a category unto itself, and the attempt to establish a dichotomy be-tween “spiritual” and “physical,” between the sacred and the secular, between the religious and the national, is simply false to the historic Jewish experience. In order to clarify this, permit me to digress for a moment to some general con-siderations, before returning to their implications for a proper Jewish perspec-tive on Jerusalem’s significance.
The European and American separation of church and state, for example, is a relatively recent innovation in history, going back more or less to the Treaty
Jerusalem’s Significance in Judaism
of Westphalia in 1648, ending the Thirty Years War. It is a European, Christian dichotomy that is foreign to Islam and to Judaism alike. Taking this one step further, the very dichotomy between religion, as a universalist phenomenon, and nationality, a particular phenomenon, which is found in both Christianity and Islam, is alien to Judaism. Christianity and Islam both claim to be universal religions, transcending particular nationality.2 In the case of Judaism, however, there is, and can be, no such dichotomy between religion and nation. The uni-versal and the particular are not mutually incompatible or contrary; rather, they are correlative concepts, which complement each other, like “male and female,” or “mountain and valley.” The one cannot be understood, nor can it exist, with-out the other. To attempt to force such a dichotomy onto Judaism is to falsify Jewish history and to violate the Jewish religious experience. Jewish religion is national, and Jewish nationhood is religious. As the late Rabbi Mordecai Kap-lan (1881–1983) put it, “In Judaism as a civilization, ‘belonging’ is prior to ‘believing,’ although meaningless without ‘believing’.”3
Consider, for instance, biblical Ruth. When her mother-in-law Naomi told her to return to her native Moab, she replied: “Ask me not to leave you, to turn away from you: for wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you lie down will I lie down. Your nation is my nation, and your God is my God.”4 Had Ruth not considered herself a member of the Jewish nation (`am), the God of Israel would not have been her God!
The religious and the national dimensions of Jewish existence are thus in-separable. They form an inextricable organic unity, and that organic unity typi-fies Jewish history, from its very beginnings, as well as the Jewish experience today.
Coming back to Jerusalem, then, for the Jews there is and can be no sepa-rate category of “the spiritual significance of Jerusalem,” as opposed to its his-toric and national significance. One who wishes to relate with respect to the religious or spiritual significance of Jerusalem in Judaism cannot, accordingly, ignore the historic and national dimensions of Jerusalem in Jewish life.
This Jewish perspective obviously complicates the attempt to pursue a purely religious encounter, free of the very real and present tensions attendant on the Jewish-Arab conflict of the last hundred years. Let us remember, how-ever, that unlike so many other age-old conflicts in the world, the Jewish-Arab conflict is relatively recent, and does not go back centuries. Nevertheless, in the conflict in our region, as in so many others, religion is often politicized and political strife is fueled by religious fanaticism. In our encounter, therefore, while we are all obviously aware of the political implications of our topic, we need to walk the very fine and insecure line between explicit practical politics and what may be implicit in a theoretical presentation of historic religious and national perspectives.
Jerusalem’s Significance: The Jewish Sources
A prime indicator of the significance of Jerusalem in Judaism is the prolif-eration of sources, from the Bible on, which deal with the city in one respect or another. The Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) explicitly refers to Jerusalem by name
Jerusalem’s Significance in Judaism
some 700 times, and to the corollary name Zion (which first properly indicated the Temple Mount, and later came to connote Jerusalem as the capital city, and thus eventually the Holy Land as a whole) some 150 times. But these hundreds of explicit references to Jerusalem and Zion by name are, of course, only the tip of the biblical iceberg; the implicit references cannot even be measured.
Post-biblical Jewish literature similarly reflects Jerusalem’s central signifi-cance. Rabbinic literature, the Talmud and Midrash, is replete with explicit and implicit references to Jerusalem, as is the classical Jewish liturgy. A brief pres-entation like this cannot compete with such major studies as A. S. Halkin’s Zion in Jewish Literature5 and Zev Vilnay’s Legends of Jerusalem.6 The huge vol-ume of sources is but one indication, however important, of the centrality of Jerusalem in Jewish religious concern and literary expression.
Even a brief and superficial sampling of the material at hand is more than ample to demonstrate Jerusalem’s significance and centrality in Jewish life for some 3,000 years, since David conquered the city and made it the capital of the united monarchy of Israel.
The Centrality of the Land and Jerusalem in Jewish Law
As a result of Jerusalem’s being the national capital and the site of the Temple, the only place in which the biblical sacrificial cult could thereafter properly be maintained, Jerusalem and the Temple attained a special status of sanctity in later Jewish law. Without delving into technical details, such as the intricate laws of purity relating to the city and the Temple Mount, let us exam-ine one particular aspect of Jewish law: its territorial component (what the rab-bis call “commandments dependent on the Land [of Israel]”) and its emphasis of Jerusalem.
The Halakhah (Jewish law) is ultimately based, whether directly or deriva-tively, on the written Torah, which, as the rabbis understood it, contains 6l3 mi÷vot, commandments revealed by God to Moses and the Israelites at Sinai.7 Here we come to our first clear evidence of the national character of Jewish religious life, with its central territorial component. The 613 commandments are not addressed to individual Jews alone, but collectively to the Jewish nation, the people of Israel (Benei Yisrael). Obviously the religious way of life prescribed by the 613 commandments is obligatory for individual Jews, wherever they may be and whenever they may live. Nevertheless, among the 613 command-ments, are many which are specifically national and collective in character, and which, in addition, can be performed only in the Land of Israel, or under the conditions of Jewish statehood. Some, moreover, can only be performed within the context of the priestly cult in the Temple in Jerusalem. Such religious obli-gations as settling the land, building the Temple, establishing cities of refuge for involuntary or accidental homicide, gathering the people every seven years for the public reading of the Torah by the king, etc., are national in nature: the individual Jew, by himself for herself, has no way to fulfill these obligations. The commandments relating to agriculture, the seventh year of release and the
Jerusalem’s Significance in Judaism
Jubilee, can only be performed in, and are only applicable to, the Land of Israel. The rites pertaining to purification and sacrifices (individual and national, obligatory and voluntary) as well as the pilgrimage can be performed only as part of the priestly cult which was limited to the Temple in Jerusalem.
The individual Jew outside the Land of Israel, then, is by definition inca-pable of performing personally, or even of participating in, the full regimen of religious obligations required by the Torah, no matter how personally pious he or she may be. It is only within the Lund of Israel, in the context of a Jewish State and with the priestly cult functioning in the Temple in Jerusalem, that the 613 commandments can be completely put into practice by the Jewish people us a whole.
Perhaps one of the most extreme examples of the centrality of this national-territorial component in Jewish life is the statement of the talmudic rabbis: “A person should always live in the Land of Israel, even in a city with an idolatrous majority, and should not live outside the Land, even in a city with a Jewish ma-jority, for whoever lives in the Land of Israel resembles one who has God, and whoever lives outside the Land resembles one who has no God.”8
Now there is always a gap of “cognitive dissonance” separating theoretical ideals from practical reality. Moreover, even on a theoretical level, one extreme ideal is often counter-balanced by another equally important and valid ideal. This statement is, after all, preserved in the Babylonian Talmud, and for much of Jewish history, including most of the last nineteen centuries, the overwhelm-ing majority of Jews have lived outside the Land of Israel.
Nevertheless, the Land of Israel, and specifically Jerusalem, occupy a spe-cial place in Jewish law (which, for example, regards the failure of a spouse to accompany his or her partner to Israel as grounds for divorce). As we shall see, the Jews traditionally always regarded themselves as having been involuntarily exiled from their homeland, and prayed for its and their restoration.
The territorial imperative is a central feature of Jewish life from its very begin-nings in the covenant between God and Abraham and his descendants. In the words of the biblical story:
The Lord said to Abram: Go from your country, from your birthplace and from your father’s home, to the land which I will show you. I will make you a great nation. I will bless you and will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and will curse those who curse you; through you will all the families of the earth be blessed.”9
When Abram and his family then moved to the land of Canaan, “the Lord appeared to Abram and said: I will give this land to your seed.”10 Thereafter, God showed Abram the whole land and said:
I will give all the land which you see to you and to your seed forever. . . . Get up and walk through the land, its length and breadth, for I will give it to you.11
The land is also a central component of the subsequent affirmation of that promise in “the covenant between the pieces” (berit bein ha-betarim)12 as it is in God’s blessing and re-naming of Abram as Abraham:
Jerusalem’s Significance in Judaism
I will give you and your seed after you the land of your inhabitation, all the land of Canaan, as an eternal possession, and I will be their God.13
Given the centrality of the Promised Land as a whole in Israel’s covenant with God, how did Jerusalem attain its particular position of primacy? Here, again, we see how inseparable Jerusalem’s spiritual significance is from secular national considerations. To understand this gradual process of increasing pri-macy of Jerusalem as the center—national as well as religious—of Jewish life, we must briefly survey some main points in the early history of the city, during the formative biblical and rabbinic periods of Judaism.
Jerusalem: An Early Historical Survey—Formative Pe-riods of Judaism
Jerusalem plays no special role in the Patriarchal period; other Canaanite cities, including ¢evron, Be’er Sheva and Shechem are much more prominent in the stories of that time. Nevertheless, later traditions associate Jerusalem with Abraham, who was blessed by “Malki-Tzedek, king of Shalem,”14 and whose attempted sacrifice of his son Isaac15 took place on Mount Moriah, later associ-ated with Mount Zion, on which the first and second Temples stood.16
Centuries later, the Israelite tribes, led by Joshua, were unable to conquer Jerusalem, at that time a Jebusite city, which lay between the tribal territory of Judah to the south and Benjamin to the north.17 The city’s vital geographic and topographic location, astride the continental divide and the intersection of major inland highways, gave it special strategic importance in the control of the heart-land of the country, its traffic, communications and commerce.
King David, who had already served seven years as king of the southern tribe of Judah, based in ¢evron,18 recognized the importance of Jerusalem to his effort to unite the country us a whole. The Bible describes how David, with soldiers from “all of Israel” (north and south) under his command,19 was able to capture the city from within, by climbing the vertical water shaft (which still stands), which the Jebusites had carved from the Gihon spring in the Kidron valley to the city’s east, up to the center of the city on the `Ophel ridge.20 David then purchased the land immediately north of the city,21 and built an altar on the site upon which his son Solomon subsequently built the Temple.22 The Temple Mount, or Mount Zion, namely the high ground and peak of the ridge to the north of Jebusite Jerusalem, was from the perspective of the original “City of David,” the acropolis of Jerusalem.
David thus established Jerusalem, with its central but neutral location be-tween the north and south, as the new national capital (much as George Wash-ington did when proposing the site for the American capital). David’s son Solomon continued the process of political centralization by redistricting the country into twelve administrative departments, each headed by a governor (ni÷av), the boundaries of which cut across the old tribal lines (much as Napo-leon did when he redistricted France into the modern Departments).23
In both first and second Temple times, Jerusalem expanded greatly, reach-ing its apex only a few decades before its destruction by the Romans in the
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Great Jewish Revolt, in the year 70 C.E. Nevertheless, many Jews continued to live in the city, and the Romans continued to recognize the country as “Judaea” (Judah) and the city as “Hierosolyma” (Jerusalem). A generation later, how-ever, the Jewish population of the country again rebelled under the leadership of Bar Kokhba, and now the Romans, under Hadrian, decided to eliminate the Jews and Judaism. Jerusalem was plowed under with salt, and in its place the Romans built Aelia Capitolina, the walls of which serve to this day as the basis for the sixteenth-century Ottoman Turkish walls of the Old City. It was at this time (135 C.E.) that the Romans, in order to de-Judaize the country, changed its name from “Judaea” to “Palestina,” after the ancient enemies of Israel, the bib-lical Philistines, who had disappeared from the map of history centuries before.
Jerusalem thus historically symbolizes the status of the country as a whole. In all its history, the Land has been a separate and integral territory, with a dis-tinct identity and name of its own, and governed by its natives, only three times, and only at these times has Jerusalem been its capital: during the biblical period of the First Temple, during the period of the Second Temple, and since 1948.
At all other times, the country was never independent, but was a province of a larger empire, and Jerusalem was not its capital, whether in Roman times, or during the centuries of changing Islamic rule, including the Ummayads (based in Damascus), the `Abassids (based in Baghdad), the Mamlukes (based in Egypt), and the Ottoman Turks. In all these periods the country also had no distinctive identity or name of its own. In classical Arabic literature, the country is simply referred to us “A-Sham” (Syria), and the name “Filastin” is a modern version of the European “Palestina.”
Jerusalem’s Spiritual Significance
It is the centrality of Jerusalem in Jewish law and history, then, that en-dows the city with its spiritual significance in Judaism. Because of its being the capital of the country whenever it enjoyed independence, Jerusalem came to embody Jewish national aspirations. As we have seen, Jerusalem also came to symbolize Jewish fidelity to the Torah (since the 613 commandments can be fulfilled completely only within the national framework of a Jewish state in the land, end with the priestly cult functioning in the Temple in Jerusalem).
It is within this framework that we can now begin to appreciate the spiri-tual significance of the city as well. The political centralization initiated by David and Solomon was focused on Jerusalem, and was, at the same time, a religious centralization of worship in the Temple. Jerusalem thus came to repre-sent the true worship of God, in contradistinction to the popular idolatrous bamot (altars or high places) and other local shrines that continued to thrive for centuries around the country, in defiance of Jerusalem. The words of Isaiah and Micah therefore have both immediate, contemporary meaning as well as es-chatological significance: “For out of Zion will come the Torah, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”24
With the destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple by the Babyloni-ans in 586 B.C.E. (one and a half centuries after the northern kingdom of Israel, which had seceded from the united monarchy after the death of Solomon, fell to
Jerusalem’s Significance in Judaism
the Assyrians), the Jews in Babylonian exile now faced a new problem: how to survive nationally and function religiously despite the loss of Jerusalem us both their national and religious center. The problem was expressed most eloquently by the psalmist, in words which became, in subsequent centuries, a sort of Jew-ish pledge of allegiance:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and cried, as we remembered Zion. On the willows therein we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors [asked us] for mirth: sing for us some of the songs of Zion. But how can we sing the Lord’s song on foreign soil? If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand be paralyzed. Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not elevate Jerusalem above my greatest joy.25
The significance is clear: the Jews had been removed from the heart of Zion, but Zion was never removed from the Jewish heart.
The Jewish liturgy—study and prayer—of the new institution of the syna-gogue (a miqdash me`at, a miniature Temple) gradually began to evolve in Babylonian exile to fill the vacuum created by the loss of the sacrificial cult in the Jerusalem Temple, and continued in Second Temple times to serve as a sur-rogate for the Temple cult for Jews who lived outside the Land, and even in the Land. By the time of the destruction of the Second Temple and Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E., the synagogue liturgy had attained the basic classical structure that has survived and is still used in traditional Jewish worship today.
The restoration of Jerusalem, as both a national and religious center, thus became a dominant theme in much of Jewish worship and ritual, and came to symbolize both Jewish national survival and fidelity to the Torah, and indeed eventually the hopes for the messianic era, when the Jews would be restored to Zion and Zion to the Jews.
This is why the two most sacred ceremonies of the Jewish calendar, the fast day of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) and the seder (the order of the ser-vice) on the evening of Passover, conclude with the works, La-Shanah Ha-Ba’ah Bi-Yerushalayim (“Next year in Jerusalem”). This also is why, to this day, the Jews, wherever in the world they may be, turn in prayer towards Jeru-salem. The ruins of ancient synagogues (such us the one on Masada and others in the Galilee) provide material evidence of the antiquity of this orientation towards Jerusalem in prayer.
The Multi-Faceted Symbolism of Jerusalem
Jerusalem, then, came progressively to symbolize ever more levels of meaning in Judaism. First, of course, it represented the political union of the country as its national capital. Then—although this process was gradual and encountered popular resistance—Jerusalem came to represent the true worship of God, as the idolatrous bamot (high places, altars) eventually were sup-pressed. When Jerusalem was destroyed and could no longer effectively serve as an actual religious center for the Jews in exile, it came to serve as a spiritual
Jerusalem’s Significance in Judaism
center, symbolizing their fidelity to the Torah and their yearning for national and religious restoration. The memory of the past fueled the hopes for the fu-ture, and Jerusalem thus came to be associated with, and to epitomize, Israel’s messianic expectations. The identification of Jerusalem with the messianic fu-ture, in turn, led to a vision of the ideal, heavenly Jerusalem—yerushalayim shel ma`alah—in contrast with the desolate, real earthly Jerusalem—yerushalayim shel matah. Jerusalem the ideal thus took on universalist connota-tions and even cosmic significance, reflected in popular legends, far transcend-ing its particular connotations as Israel’s national and religious center.
This progression of levels of meaning, however, is a logical construct and not an actual chronological development. The levels of meaning are often inter-twined, representing congruent dimensions of Jewish life. Moreover, depending on their spiritual temperament or disposition, people might find more meaning in one level than the other. Thus, towards the end of the Second Temple period, the corruption of the political and religious leadership in Jerusalem under Ro-man occupation led some Jews, notably in the Dead Sea communities and among the early Jewish-Christians, to secessionist apocalyptic emphasis of the ideal heavenly Jerusalem, whereas others, notably in the Great Jewish Revolt (66–70 C.E.) and the Bar Kokhba Rebellion (132–135 C.E.), opted for military confrontation with Rome in the name of messianic expectations of Jerusalem’s national restoration, both before and after its actual destruction in 70 C.E.
Jerusalem's Symbolism in Jewish Liturgy And Ritual
One of the primary areas in which the traditional symbolism of Jerusalem is expressed is Jewish liturgy and rituals For example, among the “seven bless-ings” invoked at the Jewish wedding ceremony, the symbolism of Jerusalem is prominent:
May she who is childless be happy and glad as her children are gathered to-gether in her midst in joy. Blessed are you, Lord, who makes Zion rejoice in her children. . . . Soon, Lord our God, may there be heard in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem, the sound of gladness and the sound of rejoic-ing, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride.
The wedding ceremony traditionally then ends as the groom breaks a glass in commemoration of the destruction of Jerusalem, so that even at this moment of supreme joy, the words of the psalmist are fulfilled: “if I do not elevate Jeru-salem above my greatest joy.”
The joy of a new couple building a new “household in Israel” is thus ex-plicitly linked to the joy of the rebuilding of Zion as the national home. This may explain the custom in talmudic times of Jewish husbands (a notable exam-ple is Rabbi Akiba, who suffered a martyr’s death in the Bar Kokhba Rebel-lion), who gave their wives a “Jerusalem of Gold” (yerushalayim shel zahav), a golden pendant in the shape of the city.26
Conversely, on the other end of the spectrum of Jewish rites of passage, a person mourning the death of a member of the family is traditionally comforted
Jerusalem’s Significance in Judaism
by visitors who greet him or her with the words: “May God console you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
The standard, regular daily liturgy is similarly replete with references to the return to Zion and the restoration of Jerusalem. The morning service introduces the Shema’ Yisrael,27 proclaiming the unity of God, with the hope that God may “shine a new light on Zion,” and “bring us in peace from the four corners of the earth, and cause us to walk sovereignly in our land.” The central prayer recited thrice daily includes such phrases as:
Return compassionately to Jerusalem, your city. . . . Rebuild it as an eternal building soon in our day. . . . Blessed are you, Lord, the builder of Jerusalem. . . . May our eyes behold your compassionate return to Zion. Blessed are you, Lord, who restores his presence to Zion.
When the Torah scroll is removed from the ark for public reading, a colla-tion of biblical verses is recited, including:
Compassionate father, benefit Zion with your favor; rebuild the walls of Jeru-salem.28 . . . For out of Zion will come the Torah, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.29
The Sabbath and especially the major seasonal festivals were times of mass pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The additional special prayers recited on these occa-sions reflect the focus on Jerusalem that is felt with particular intensity at these times:
On account of our sins were we exiled from our country and taken far away from our land, so that we are not able to make the pilgrimage and to appear and bow down before you and to fulfill our obligations in your chosen [Tem-ple], that great and sacred house which is called by your name, because of the hand which was sent against your sanctuary. May it be favorable to you, Lord our God and the God of our ancestors . . . to return and have compassion for us and for your sanctuary. . . . Rebuild it quickly. . . . Bring near those of us who are scattered from among the nations, and gather together those of us who are dispersed from the corners of the earth. Bring us to Zion your city in glad song, and to Jerusalem the site of your Temple in eternal joy.
One of the most expressive phrases is found in the prayer which asks God to “have compassion on Zion, for it is the home of our life,” encapsulating the significance of Jerusalem in Judaism: The rabbis felt, in a very real sense, that it is beit ²ayyenu, “the home of our life,” however far removed they were from Jerusalem geographically.
Because Jerusalem was felt to be the ultimate Jewish home, its destruction was, and still is among traditionally observant Jews, mourned so deeply. With the exception of Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement,” on which the total fast of more than 24 hours serves the aim of purity and repentance, the other fasts in the Jewish calendar generally serve to mourn progressive stages in the destruc-tion of Jerusalem. Minor daytime fasts commemorate, for example the siege of Jerusalem and the breaching of its walls, and culminate in the only other 24
Jerusalem’s Significance in Judaism
hour fast in Jewish practice, on the ninth day of the summer month of Av, on which day, over six hundred years apart, both the First and Second Temples fell.
However, in the words of the prophet Isaiah 66:10:
Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad in her, all who love her; be joyful with her in joy, all who mourn for her.
Those who mourned all their lives for the ancient destruction of Jerusalem hoped to share in the joy of her restoration. That is why, in the sixteenth cen-tury, the poet and mystic Shelomo Alkabetz could explicitly link the theme of Jerusalem’s desolation and restoration to the transition from the mundane sor-rows and worries of the workday week to the joyful pleasures of the Sabbath, which in rabbinic lore is a “foretaste of the world to come.” Six of the nine stanzas of Alkabetz’s beautiful poem, “Lekha Dodi” (“Come, my lover”), which was adopted by all Jewish communities for the Friday sunset service welcoming the Sabbath, deal with Jerusalem. For example:
Come, my lover, to meet the bride, let us welcome the Sabbath. . . . Sanctuary of the king, royal city / Arise and get out of your ruins. Long have you sat in the valley of weeping / He will show you compassion.
Shake off your dust and arise / Put on your glorious clothes, my people. Be near to my soul and redeem it / through [David] the son of Jesse, the Bethle-hemite.
Awake, awake / for your light has come, arise and shine! Waken, waken, sing a song / The glory of the Lord is revealed to you.
Those who despoil you will become a spoil / and those who would master you will be distant.
Your God will rejoice over you / As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride.
The last verse, based on Isaiah 62:5, again makes the explicit analogy be-tween the joyous restoration of Jerusalem and the joy of bride and groom. The circle of symbolism is thus complete: Jerusalem restored is irrevocably linked in the historic Jewish imagination with the sacred joys of marriage, the Sabbath, and the messianic era.
The Love of Zion in Medieval Hebrew Literature: Judah Ha-Levi
In the post-talmudic literature of the Middle Ages, the love of Zion, and the mourning for its destruction and desolation and for the Jewish people’s exile, were perhaps expressed most beautifully and poignantly by the poet and phi-losopher Judah Ha-Levi (Spain, 1085–1141) in his exquisite Hebrew poetry.30
Jerusalem’s Significance in Judaism
(His poem on “Zion” was incorporated into the liturgy of the Ninth of Av by many Jewish communities).
Ha-Levi had no illusions that in his day the Land in general, and Jerusalem in particular, were, in the biblical phrase, “flowing with milk and honey.” In one of his most famous poems, “My Heart is in the East,” Ha-Levi compares his situation, in Islamic Spain, to that of Zion, which in his day was the “Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem” as a result of the first Crusade.
My heart is in the east, and I am in the farthest west. / How can I taste what-ever I eat, and how can it be pleasing? / How can I fulfill my vows and my pledges, while / Zion is in the territory of Edom, and I am in the chains of Arabia? / It would be easy for me to abandon all the goodness of Spain, / just as it would be precious for me to see the dust of the desolate Temple.
“Zion is in the territory of Edom,” Edom being the rabbinic code-word for Rome, and Rome, of course, symbolizing the Church, whose Crusadors had conquered parts of the Land. Ha-Levi is “in the chains of Arabia,” in Islamic Spain, but he is not hungry. In this, the “golden age” of Spanish Jewry under Islamic rule, his hunger is spiritual, not physical: how can he enjoy “all the goodness of Spain” while he and Zion respectively are prisoners? Better, then, the “dust of the desolate Temple” than “all the goodness of Spain.”
In another poem, “Beautiful Vista, Joy of the Earth,” which incorporates and plays lovingly with biblical imagery, especially from the Psalms, Ha-Levi similarly yearns for Zion:
Beautiful vista, joy of the earth, city of the great king. / My soul longs for you from the corners of the west. / . . . Shall I not cherish your stones and kiss them? / The taste of your clods of earth will be more pleasing to my mouth than honey.
Finally, in a long poem called “Zion,” Ha-Levi, who never reached Israel (he set out from Spain in 1141, and reached Egypt, but probably died before reaching Israel),31 lovingly depicts in his imagination place after place in the land, each with its biblical associations. The poem begins thus:
Zion, will you not seek the peace of your prisoners,/ Who seek your peace, they who are the remnants of your flocks? / From west and east, from north and south, Peace! / From far and near, bear from every side. / The peace of the prisoner is the desire, to shed his tears like the dew / of the Hermon, longing to let them fall on your hills. / I am the jackal to cry for your affliction. But when I dream / of the return of your captivity, I am the harp for your songs.
The Jews, who are prisoners for Zion’s sake, seek nothing more than the peace of Zion, and to water its soil with their tears. Borrowing in the last two lines from Psalm 126, (“A Psalm of ascents. When the Lord returned the captiv-ity of Zion, we were like dreamers”), Ha-Levi can see himself as the harp for Zion’s songs.
Jerusalem’s Significance in Judaism
In turn, hundreds of years later, in 1967, the Israeli poet and song-writer Naomi Shemer could compose a song about Jerusalem, “the city which dwells alone, and in its heart is a wall.” The refrain then continues:
Jerusalem of gold, of copper and of light, / Am I not the harp for all your songs?
Given the traditional attachment to Zion as “the home of our life,” it was natural for Judah Ha-Levi to borrow images from the Psalms of David, and for Naomi Shemer, in turn, to borrow from Judah Ha-Levi, when singing of the City of David, and for her to name her song “Jerusalem of Gold,” after the gift that husbands like Rabbi Akiba would give their wives.
Jerusalem’s power as a symbol of Jewish commitment, loyalty and fidelity however, transcends the particulars of Jewish partisanship and sectarianism. All sides, regardless of ideology, identified their Jewish ideals with Jerusalem. Je-rusalem’s transcending power as such a symbol has continued to permeate Jew-ish life in the modern world as well.
The modern movement of the Jewish people to restore itself to nationhood in its ancestral homeland is not coincidentally called “Zionism,” and its nine-teenth century Russian precursor was not accidentally called “¢ibbat /iyon” (“the love of Zion”).32
Jerusalem, however paradoxically, was also the symbol of the beginnings of modern Jewish thought in eighteenth century Germany, a trend often, but unfairly and inaccurately, thought of as promoting Jewish assimilation. The first “modern” Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn (Germany, 1729–1786) was challenged in 1782 by an anonymous “Searcher for Light and Right” to abandon his traditional Jewish way of life as incompatible with modernity, in favor of a universalistic religion of reason, which, in the words of the New Tes-tament, “will worship the Father neither on this mountain (Samaria) nor in Jeru-salem.”33 Mendelssohn’s response was a philosophic defense of traditional Ju-daism as fully consistent with modern concepts of liberty, political toleration and religious pluralism, and that defense was defiantly named “Jerusalem.”34
Jerusalem: Heavenly and Earthly, Universal and Par-ticular
One might be tempted to suggest that, after so many centuries of separation from Zion, the Jerusalem referred to in these prayers and literature is less the real, earthly Jerusalem, the “lower Jerusalem” (yerushalayim shel matah) than the ideal, heavenly Jerusalem, the “upper Jerusalem” (yerushalayim shel ma`alah). Indeed, the mystical tradition saw in the dual form of the name yerushalayim an allusion to the two Jerusalems, the upper and the lower.
It is true, of course, that it was their separation and distance from the lower, earthly Jerusalem which permitted Jews to imagine and depict more freely the ideal, heavenly Jerusalem in their literature and legends, much as Christian art-ists could idealize it from as great a distance in their paintings. However, there was nevertheless, an essential difference: for the Jews, the ideal or allegorical
Jerusalem’s Significance in Judaism
meaning could never supplant, but could only supplement and enhance, the real or the literal meaning.
Even the romantic poet of the twelfth century, Judah Ha-Levi, had no illu-sions about the earthly Jerusalem, which in its desolation could not possibly compete on a material level with “all the goodness of Spain.” But his love of Zion, however romantic end idealized, never lost sight of “the dust of the ru-ined Temple.”
We began this paper by rejecting as impossible in a Jewish context any di-chotomy between the spiritual and the physical, the sacred and the secular, the religious and the national dimensions of life.
Here, too, we must reject the facile dichotomy between the upper, heavenly Jerusalem and the lower, earthly Jerusalem. Without the cosmic, universal vi-sion of the upper Jerusalem, the earthly Jerusalem can never be restored. But without the particular earthly Jerusalem, the universal heavenly vision cannot be implemented.
The universal ideal can only give direction to the real particular by tran-scending it. But the universal needs the particular no less than the particular needs the universal, for without the particular, the universal has no foundation in concrete reality, and could therefore never transform it by transcending it.
When the Jews imagined the heavenly Jerusalem, it was thus to give direc-tion and meaning to their hopes for the restoration of the earthly Jerusalem. Therefore, when the Jews hoped for the restoration of the earthly Jerusalem, they saw it as the first and necessary component of the fulfillment of their uni-versal messianic expectations. The eschatological tomorrow, after all, begins with today.
Jerusalem thus signifies in Judaism both the national restoration of the Jewish people in Israel, and the universal era of peace and justice associated with the days of the Messiah.
And yet, no one knows as much as a Jerusalemite, especially in these diffi-cult days, how very great the gap is between what we have in reality and what we hope for ideally. Jerusalem is anything but the “city of peace.” Its imperfec-tions and troubles are myriad.
The vision of Jerusalem, what it can and should be, is what keeps Jerusa-lemites going. When the prophet Zechariah saw a vision of Jerusalem welcom-ing all the nations who would come to worship God each year during the fall festival,35 he first saw a bloody struggle for the city. I hope he was wrong, al-though sometimes I fear he may have been all too correct.
Note again, however, that in the prophecies of Zechariah and the other an-cient prophets of Israel, there is no dichotomy between the particular and the universal, between the national and the spiritual. Universal justice cannot be attained without particular national justice, and the notion that all nations will one day come to know the divine truth is inseparable, for the biblical prophets as for later rabbinic Judaism, from the notion that it is the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, which will be the focus of devotion for all peo-ple, Jews and non-Jews alike. It would falsify the message of the prophets if we restricted their moral concern to Israel alone, but it would pervert their message if we ignored its Jewish national foundation.
Jerusalem’s Significance in Judaism
Jerusalem is thus simultaneously a universal human symbol and a particu-lar Jewish symbol. As such, it deserves the dual form of its name Yerushalayim. Because Jerusalem signifies both universal, true worship of God and the messi-anic fulfillment of history, as well as particular Jewish sovereignty, which are seen as inherently correlated, it is Jerusalem which symbolizes the eschatologi-cal hopes of the prophets of Israel. There is no inconsistency here between the prophets’ particular concern for their nation, Israel, and their correlative univer-sal concern for all humanity.
Both elements—the particular and the universal—are reflected in the words of Isaiah:
For the sake of Zion I will not be silent, and for the sake of Jerusalem I will not be still, until her righteousness go forth like light, and her salvation like a burning torch.36
Universal humanity is constructed from particular units—family, nation, etc.—and to deny those units is to preclude the existence of a pluralistic human-ity. For Jews, their particular nationhood is a building-block of a larger human-ity, through which it fulfills its covenantal role—a covenant which, however, cannot exist independently of the nation bearing its responsibilities. The spirit of the covenant of Israel, with all its universalism, cannot exist without the body of the Jewish people.
Conversely, a particular ideology, whether national or religious or political, which precludes the dignity of all human beings, is a denial both of the God who created us all, and of the divine image in which we were created and which it is our task to perfect.
In conclusion, then, from a Jewish perspective, Jerusalem has simultaneous universal spiritual significance to all for whom the ultimate truth is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and particular national significance for the people of Israel. These dimensions of Jerusalem’s significance are ultimately correlative, inseparable and inextricable.
That is why the prophet Isaiah (and also the prophet Micah, in almost iden-tical words) could have a vision of Jerusalem that is both heavenly and earthly, ideal and real: heavenly and ideal in its direction and goal, but earthly and real in that it is here and now that we must begin to implement it.
It will come to be at the end of days, that the mountain of the house of the Lord will be established at the top of the mountains, and will be raised above the hills; and all the nations will flow to it. Many peoples will go and say: Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths. For out of Zion will come the Torah, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.37
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1. All translations from the Hebrew are by the author. This paper was originally deliv-ered at a colloquium in Glion, Switzerland (2–6 May, 1993) convened by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the Holy See’s Com-mission for Religious Relations with the Jews, and the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, and was subsequently published in The Spiritual Significance of Jerusalem for Jews, Christians and Muslims, ed. Hans Ucko (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1994), pp. 38–56. Among the vast English literature on Jeru-salem, the following articles are particularly noteworthy for inter-religious perspec-tives: R.J. Zwi Werblowsky, “Jerusalem: Holy City of Three Religions in Jaar-bericht—Ex Oriente Lux, No. 23 (1973–1974), pp. 423–439; reprinted by the Jerusalem Committee (1973); Shelomo Dov Goitein, “The Sanctity of Jerusalem and Palestine in Early Islam,” in Studies in Islamic History and Institutions (Lei-den, 1966), ch. 7, pp. 135–148; Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Jerusalem—A Charis-matic City,” in Israel: An Echo of Eternity (New York, 1969), pp. 5–38; Emanuel Sivan, “The Beginnings of the Fada’il Al-Quds Literature,” in Israel Oriental Stud-ies, Vol. 1 (1971), pp. 263–271; Hava Lazarus-Yafeh, “The Sanctity of Jerusalem in Islam,” in Some Religious Aspects of Islam (Leiden l981), pp. 58–71. The He-brew reader is referred to Jerusalem Through the Ages (Jerusalem, 1968), espe-cially the articles by Ephraim Urbach, “Heavenly and Earthly Jerusalem;” R.J. Zwi Werblowsky, “Jerusalem—The Metropolis of All the Countries;” and Joshua Prawer, “Christianity Between Heavenly and Earthly Jerusalem.”
2. Only some 20% of the world’s Muslims are Arabs, and in the Middle East alone, including Israel, there are tens or hundreds of thousands of non-Arab Muslims and non-Muslim Arabs. Arab nationality and Islamic religion are not to be confused.
3. Personal correspondence with the author.
4. Ruth 1:16.
5. Abraham Solomon Halkin, Zion in Jewish Literature (Philadelphia: Jewish Publica-tion Society, 1964).
6. Zev Vilnay, Legends of Jerusalem (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1973). The volume is part of a larger work, The Legends of the Holy Land, origi-nally published in Hebrew. The volume on Jerusalem contains over 300 legends, the overwhelming majority of which are of Jewish origin, but which also include some legends originating with local Arab sources or with Christian pilgrims.
7. In this inter-religious context, it is interesting to note that the term halakhah, which denotes Jewish law but literally means “the way,” is paralleled in Islam by shari`ah, also meaning “the way.” Similarly, aggadah, narrative lore in Judaism, is paralleled by ²adith (also meaning narrative) in Islam.
8. Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot l00b.
9. Genesis 12:1–3. For discussions of the concept of covenant and Israel’s chosen-ness, see my articles: “The Concept of the Chosen People,” in Judaism 170 (Spring, 1994), pp. 127–148; “Educating for Interreligious Responsibility: Ritual Exclusivity vs. Spiritual Inclusivity,” in Caring for Future Generations: Jewish, Christian and Islamic Perspectives, ed. Emmanuel Agius and Lionel Chircop (Twickenham: Admantine Press, 1998), pp. 20–41; “Chosenness in Judaism: Ex-clusivity vs. Inclusivity,” in Covenant and Chosenness in Judaism and Mormonism, ed. R. Jospe, T. Madsen, S. Ward (Madison and Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson Uni-versity Press—Associated University Presses, 2001), pp. 173–194.
10. Genesis 12:7.
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11. Genesis 13:15–17.
12. Genesis 15.
13. Genesis 17:8.
14. Genesis 14:18–20.
15. Genesis 22.
16. In II Chronicles 3:1, the association of the Temple Mount with Mount Moriah is explicit: “Solomon began to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah.”
17. In Joshua 15, the boundaries of Judah circumvented Jebusite Jerusalem and ap-proached “the ridge of the Jebusite, which is Jerusalem, from the south” (Joshua 15:8). “The children of Judah were unable to expel to Jebusites who inhabited Jeru-salem, and the Jebusites dwelled with the children of Judah in Jerusalem until this day” (Joshua 15:63). Thus also the boundaries of Benjamin, which skirted the city from the north (Joshua 18:16, 27). In Joshua 10, we see that the Israelite forces led by Joshua defeated the alliance of five Canaanite kings led by Adoni-Tzedek, king of Jerusalem and killed the kings, but the city of Jerusalem itself was not con-quered. Cf. Joshua 12:10.
18. Cf. II Samuel 5:1–5 and I Chronicles 11:1–3.
19. I Chronicles 11:4 specifies that “David and all of Israel went to Jerusalem.” The version of the story in II Samuel 5:6 says that “David and his men went to Jerusa-lem,” but does not specify that the men were southern Judeans.
20. This shaft (the ÷innor referred to in II Samuel 5:8) seems to have been regarded by the Jebusites as impregnable, and was therefore either unguarded or guarded by “the blind and lame,” who were described as mocking David from the Jebusite heights: “David will not enter here” (II Samuel 5:6). In II Samuel 5:7–9 the story continues: “David captured the fortress of Zion, which is the city of David. . . . David dwelled in the fortress and called it the city of David.” The parallel version in I Chronicles 11:4–7 differs slightly: “David captured the fortress of Zion, which is the city of David. . . . David dwelled in the fortress; therefore they called it the city of David.” On the water system and the Jebusite shaft, see Zvi Abells, Jerusa-lem’s Water Supply: From the 18th Century B.C.E. to the Present (Jerusalem: 1993); Zvi Abells and Asher Arbit, The City of David Water Systems (Jerusalem, 1994). For a different interpretation, cf. Dan Bahat, The Atlas of Biblical Jerusalem (Jerusalem: Carta, 1994).
21. Cf. II Samuel 24:18 ff. and I Chronicles 21:18 ff. It is highly significant that David, having conquered the city, refused to confiscate this land. The site for divine wor-ship had to be purchased fairly in peace, and could not be taken in war.
22. Cf. II Chronicles 3:1. In this verse the site is explicitly identified as Mount Moriah.
23. The twelve governors and their respective districts are enumerated in I Kings 4:7 ff.
24. Isaiah 2:3 and Micah 4:2.
25. Psalm 137:1–6.
26. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 59a and Nedarim 50a.
27. Deuteronomy 6:4–9; Deuteronomy 11:13–21; Numbers 15:37–41.
28. Psalm 51:20.
29. Isaiah 2:3 and Micah 4:2.
30. Cf. Selected Poems of Jehudah Halevi, with English translation and notes by Nina Salaman (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1928).
31. For pertinent biographical information on the last period of Ha-Levi’s life, cf. Shelomo Dov Goitein, “The Biography of Rabbi Judah Ha-Levi in the Light of the Cairo Geniza Documents,” in Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, Vol. 28. 1959, pp. 41–56. For an explication of aspects of Ha-Levi’s thought, cf. Section I of Volume Two: ch. 1, “Teaching Judah Ha-Levi: Defining
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and Shattering Myths in Jewish Philosophy”; ch. 2, “Jewish Particularity from Judah Ha-Levi to Mordecai Kaplan: Implications for Defining Jewish Philosophy”; and ch. 3, “The Superiority of Oral over Written Communication in Judah Ha-Levi’s Kuzari and Modern Jewish Thought.”
32. In his Introduction to his anthology, The Zionist Idea (New York: Doubleday, 1959), Arthur Hertzberg suggests that Zionism cannot be understood as typical na-tionalism in the nineteenth and twentieth century European pattern, since both fun-damental components of European nationalism—common land and common lan-guage—were lacking in the case of the Jews, who wanted to return to their ancestral land and to revive Hebrew as a spoken, secular language. Instead, Hertz-berg argues, Zionism should be understood as “secular Messianism,” i.e., as a mod-ern secular implementation of the age-old messianic impulse in Judaism.
33. John 4:21.
34. On Mendelssohn, see ch. 10 of Volume Two, “Moses Mendelssohn: A Medieval Modernist,” and ch. 3 in this volume, “Sa`adiah Ga’on and Moses Mendelssohn: Pioneers of Jewish Philosophy.” Cf. Alfred Jospe (ed.). Mendelssohn: Jerusalem and Other Jewish Writings (New York: Schocken, 1969); Mendelssohn, Jerusalem, translated by Allan Arkush, with Introduction and Commentary by Alexander Altmann (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1983); Moses Mendelssohn: Selections from His Writings, ed. Eva Jospe (New York: Viking, 1975); Alexander Altmann, Moses Mendelssohn: A Biographical Study (University of Alabama, 1973).
35. Zechariah 14:16.
36. Isaiah 62:1.
37. Isaiah 2:2–3 and Micah 4:1–3.