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Galilee Diary: Jerusalem Day

Galilee Diary: Jerusalem Day

Pray for the well-being of Jerusalem; may those who love you be at peace. May there be well-being within your ramparts, peace in your citadels.
    –Psalm 122:6-7

The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE was seen at the time as a trauma of cosmic proportions, cutting off the Jewish people's access to God. While over time we created alternative forms of connection (primarily prayer, individually and in the synagogue), nevertheless, the sense of loss - and the hope and expectation of restoration - remained central pillars of Jewish belief, no matter how good or how bad our situation was in exile. This expectation led to a whole string of false messiahs, some of whom, like Bar Kochba in the second century and Shabbetai Tzvi in the 17th, generated new catastrophes in their own time. This belief tangled together religion and nationality: The hope for restoration of the Temple was inseparable from the hope for restoration of national sovereignty. David's dynasty would rule, and Aaron's dynasty would officiate at the sacrifices, and all would be right with the world.

In the 19th century, the Reform movement questioned this expectation, and suggested that the status quo was actually a higher spiritual stage than what we had lost, and that we should re-imagine the utopia to which we look forward, to encompass a universal human society in which we Jews would be integrated, no longer waiting for either a state or for the revival of animal sacrifice.

This universalistic dream was derailed by the rise of nationalism in 20th century Europe, and Zionism arose as a synthesis of our traditional hope with humanism and nationalism. In other words, religion and nationalism became re-entangled, leaving us with a number of difficult questions; for example:

  • Is Israel holy land? Is Jerusalem holier than, say, Tel Aviv? Is the Temple mount - or the Western Wall, or the plaza in front of it - holier than other spots in Jerusalem?
  • What does it mean to say that a piece of land, or a wall, is holy? Does it mean that we should strive to possess it? Does it mean that God relates to it in a special way?
  • Were the division of Jerusalem in 1948 and the conquest of the Old City by Israel in 1967 religious events, or mere geopolitical ones?

For many people in Israel and the Jewish world, the emotional impact of the 1967 conquest of the Old City (including the Temple Mount and its western retaining wall) has taken on religious significance, evidence of progress toward messianic redemption. Hence, the anniversary of that conquest, the 28th of Iyyar, has become a day of celebration and pilgrimage, characterized by expressions of triumphalist nationalism that leave many citizens, who wonder about the above questions, feeling uncomfortable, especially in view of the problems the city faces in providing proper representation and services for all its inhabitants, Jewish and Arab.

This year, the staff at HUC in Jerusalem decided to make a statement: an alternative observance of Jerusalem Day. A committee of Jewish and Arab workers at the college invited everyone on the staff to submit photographs showing "my Jerusalem" - a scene or a detail or an event that symbolizes for them the Jerusalem that is their home. There was a great response, and the committee enlarged a selection of the photos with commentary, and mounted an exhibition in the foyer of the college - a colorful, multi-cultural look at the real Jerusalem, not the symbolic one. A festive opening was held, to which workers and their families were invited. It was a rare and inspiring opportunity for professors and office and maintenance workers to work together as equals across the divisions of ethnicity, religion, and class. And the event drew sympathetic front page coverage from the local press.

I was particularly proud of this event, as a demonstration of what our movement has to say here, not just about ourselves, but about the nature of the state we are trying to build.

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