Thursday, May 25, 2006

Bamidbar-Yom Yerushalayim (Psalms)

Songs of Jerusalem: Psalm 87

Today (Erev Shabbat) is Yom Yerushalayim (28 Iyyar), the anniversary of the unification of Jerusalem during the Six Day War (on the problematics of this holiday, see my essay last year, HY V: Yom Yerushalayim), and hence a suitable opportunity to discuss the image of this city in the psalms. Interestingly, while there is no psalm devoted to Eretz Yisrael per se, but at best only a few verses here and there, there are at least half a dozen if not more psalms devoted to the Holy City (including many that celebrate both the city and the Temple, or the “house of the Lord,” located therein). We will discuss several of these briefly (Psalm 48, an important Jerusalem psalm, was discussed earlier this year, HY VI: Vayigash).

One of the most interesting of these is Psalm 87, a short and to many unfamiliar psalm, which begins with the somewhat enigmatic words, yesudato beharrei kodesh, “its foundation is in the holy mountains.” Does this refer to God? To the city of Jerusalem? Or to the psalm itself, as part of its title? In any event, the uniqueness of Zion, or Jerusalem, is elaborated in the following verses, on two different levels. Verse 23 reads: “The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the other dwelling places of Jacob”—that is, there is something special about the city, even in as mundane a thing as its gates, over and above the other inhabited cities of Israel. The reason for this is given in the next verse: because it is “the city of God.” Jerusalem’s uniqueness lies in that it is more than simply a city, a place of concentration of human population, but that it has an religious aura. This is, perhaps, a hint of the tension between sanctity and urbanity, which are in some way contrasting, even contradictory concepts.

The second contrast drawn is that between Jerusalem and the great metropolises of the day. In verse 4 the psalmist lists the great cities of his day, perhaps pointing out pilgrims who have come from those places—Rahab (i.e., Egypt, which may allude, not to the country, but possibly to its major city, located on the mouth of the Nile), Philistia, Tyre, Babylon. Had our psalmist been writing today, he would no doubt have drawn the contrast to New York, London, Paris and other great cities. Today’s Jerusalem is a city of scholars and saints; true, it is also a seat of government, contains a university, museums, libraries, businesses—but compared with these other cities, with their intense, even frenetic energy, their expansive parks and gardens and public spaces, their impressive buildings and monuments and sculpture that reflect the majesty and power of a world-class metropolis, the feeling is that of a small, compact, somehow parochial, ingrown city. Jerusalem is not a city that goes “24/7.” It’s hard to find a falafel, let alone a proper meal, at 1 o’clock in the morning. Its streets may never be entirely empty—there are pubs and discos that go till the wee hours of the morning, and when the last partiers go home they are likely to encounter pious men on their way to pre-dawn prayers or studies—but it is hardly lively at that hour.

But then the psalm takes an unexpected direction. “… that one was born there [i.e., in one of the great cities mentioned]. But of Zion it is said: each man is born there, and it has been established by the Most High.” Amos Hakham reads this verse to say: no matter where a person may happen to have been born, if he comes to Jerusalem, if his greatest longing is to be part of that which is symbolized by Jerusalem—that is, the idea of a human community, a city of man, that is somehow “established “ by the Almighty—then he too is really a citizen, nay, a “native” of Zion. Zion is thus not only a holy city, a city with a Temple in its center, a city where God’s presence somehow finds an earthly dwelling place (mishkan and Shekhinah are both words relating to “dwelling”) but, for those individuals who make it so, a kind of spiritual home or birthplace.

People seek something different in Jerusalem than what they seek in New York, London, San Francisco, etc. It, too, is a site of human ingathering. There is a cosmopolitan sense to it, too, in the wide diversity of humanity encountered in its streets (certainly, there is far greater diversity than in, say, a middle-American city of comparable size). There are Jews of all sorts; Arabs; Christian pilgrims, from all over the world; people such as the Japanese Mikoya, who have their own mystical tie to Jerusalem and to the Bible, and dance through its streets every Sukkot, the festival of Jerusalem, as “the house of prayer for all nations”; there are converts to Judaism, and potential proselytes. But what all these people seek is not to acquire money, or power, or connections, or even culture (though all these are to be found here too), but something else—the sense of holiness, of Jerusalem as a kind of symbolic meeting place of heaven and earth.

Alternatively, these verses may be read as drawing a contrast between the person born in one of the great metropolises as against the one born in Zion. Verse 6, especially, may be understood this way: “God records in the register of the nations: this one was born there” —the idea being to draw a contrast between the pretentiousness of denizens of the great city, who think that they are the hub of the universe (what New Yorker, for example, has never felt that? That everything beyond the Hudson, all the way to the Pacific, is a kind of hinterland? Look at all the characters in, e.g., the films of Woody Allen, who said that he couldn’t imagine surviving outside of Manhattan Island for more than 48 hours), as against Yerushalayim, which is, in God’s reckoning, the true center. The point here is not to create a rival type of urban chauvinism; nor even the mystical notion that Jerusalem is the “foundation stone” of the universe; but that, in the final reckoning, it is the spirit, the impulse that leads to the worship of God, that is most important in human life, and not economic, political or even cultural “power” that really matter.

On a certain level, the idea of a sacred city is somehow a contradiction in terms. The whole idea of the city is of a community, gathered together to serve human needs. Augustine’s work, The City of God, was entitled such in awareness of this paradox, just as Harvey Cox wrote The Secular City as the model for a certain kind of modern consciousness. And yet, Jerusalem somehow holds out the idea of the city as a place which is human, and yet “founded by the Almighty.”

“Each man who was born there…” A cousin of mine used to say that there was something special, even for the secularist Israeli, in being a Yerushalmi, in being born and growing up in this city. For Israelis of a certain age, Jerusalem symbolized, perhaps, a certain strange mélange of provincialism and urbanity: a city that was small enough to be intimate, non-alienated, but still a city—and one rooted in millennia of history, so that one grew up knowing that every step one took was somehow connected to that special something. I also once knew a young woman who told me that she felt she couldn’t be secular in Jerusalem; whenever she wanted to do something not quite kosher, she would go to Tel Aviv, because even though she didn’t consider herself ‘religious,” she felt a certain sense of shame and embarrassment in being less than holy while in Jerusalem.

Psalm 122: “A City United Together”

Psalm 122 is a more conventional pilgrim’s psalm: “I rejoiced when they said to me: let us go up to the house of the Lord.” Here, Jerusalem is seen, first and foremost, as the Temple city, as the place where all Israel are united in pilgrimage.

What is meant by “a city united together” (v. 3)? This might refer to the compactness of Jerusalem, or it may refer to the uniting of separate neighborhoods at a certain time. A glance at the history of Jerusalem reveals that the ancient “city of David” was a relatively small town, on the slopes southeast of the Temple Mount going down towards the Gihon spring, near today’s Silwan. Only later was the Upper City (today’s Jewish Quarter) added, and still later the New City (Muslim and Christian Quarters). Archeologists have discovered three sets of walls, partly concentric, partially overlapping. Might this psalm have been written to celebrate the unification of the Lower and Upper cities? Interestingly, the Talmud describes a ceremony whereby one would formally sanctify additional areas added to the Temple precincts, or annex new areas that acquired the special holiness of Jerusalem (see Shavuot 15a; and the biblical source in Nehemiah 12:27ff.). Or yet again, “a city united together” may refer to the next verse, “for there the tribes of Yah went up to give praise to the name of the Lord”—that is, that it is a city which unites together the entire people, as a site of pilgrimage, and as a focus of thoughts and prayers and longings when not physically in the city.

Psalm 132: David’s Travails

A third psalm about Jerusalem—and a second one within that group carrying the title Shir ha-Ma’alot—speaks of David’s longing to see the Temple built. He had a peculiar relation to the Temple, and it was one of the great frustrations of his life. On the one hand, he wanted to build “a house for the God of Jacob”; so much so, that he swore that he would know no rest—in hyperbole, that he would not lie down on his bed or allow himself to sleep (vv. 2-5)—till it was built. “How can I dwell in a fancy house of cedar wood while God’s ark is kept in a tent thrown together out of shmattes?” (my free translation of the sense of 1 Sam 7:2) Yet he was told by God, in no uncertain terms, that he was not destined to be the one to build the Temple. Nevertheless, he is promised (v. 11: God even takes an oath; incidentally, what does this mean theologically? By whom can God swear?) that his son and his descendants thereafter—at least so long as they observe the covenant – will sit on his throne, and that his son and progeny after him will build God’s dwelling place in Zion.

The source for this is 2 Samuel 7:12-17 and the parallel in 1 Chronicles 17, where the prophet Nathan brings David this tiding. Interestingly, in 1 Chr 22:8, when David himself relates this conversation to his son Solomon, he adds the reason given for this: “you have spilled much blood and made many wars.” This explanation in itself raises some interesting questions: is some kind of pacifist message implied here? Is there some kind of reservation about the military life, even though warfare is permitted and even commanded? Was David somehow too deeply involved in such thinking? (Did the noted solder and commander Arik Sharon—whose yearning for holiness, mamash like the author of Psalm 42 or 63, is well-known—fail to understand this when he ascended the Temple Mount, with an entourage of 1000 or so armed police, two days before Rosh Hashanah 2000?)

In any event—and may readers pardon my earlier sarcasm—the central idea of this psalm is that the Jerusalem Temple and the Davidic line are somehow interrelated, and support one another. This too is interesting: on the one hand, in Judaism priesthood and monarchy are separate from one another (the great failing of the Hasmonean line, which ultimately became corrupted and hellenized, was that they united the two); on the other, the fullness of national existence is somehow symbolized by the presence of both the religious center and the monarchy—by the upright ruler, guided by righteousness and justice—in the same city. This is suggested by the idiom mikdash melekh—“The Temple of the king.” But in Amos 7:13, where it first appears in the mouth of King Amaziah, it is quoted ironically, although in later liturgy (Lekha Dodi) it becomes something to be sought. The Gentile nations have the idea of a king having a private chapel or sanctuary; that the priests are those that anoint and in some cases may even have the final say in naming the king, e.g., in the Anglican Church.

How do we deal with this is in a world which sees democracy as the ideal? And what do we do with the monarchical component in our messianic longings? There are some people in Israel are actively thinking about and drawing up plans as to how they think a future “halakhic state” should look. The role of the king is a central question there. Is this the Jewish ideal? But I cannot elaborate now.


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