Thursday, May 25, 2006

Yom Yerushalayim (Rambam)

Yesterday, Wednesday the 28th of Iyyar, was the holiday known as Yom Yerushalayim, or “Jerusalem Liberation Day,” the anniversary of the day during the Six Day War on which the IDF conquered the Old City of Jerusalem and liberated the Western Wall. Over the past few years, I have found myself increasingly unable to identify with the festivities of this day. Already six or seven years ago I ceased reciting Hallel (festive psalms) during the Morning Service of that day, and this year I decided to recite Tahanun, marking it as an ordinary week-day in every respect. (Let me add the caveat, that what I write here does not represent anyone else—even my closest family.)

First of all, to put it quite simply, this day has not caught on among the rank and file of the Israeli people in the same way as has Yom ha-Atzmaut, a holiday that unites everybody: left and right, old and young, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, secular and religious. The feeling I get is that Yom Yerushalayim is celebrated by a very specific sector, the “so-called “Religious-Zionist” or “national-religious” community. Among that group, and among some Haredim, there are even some who say that this holiday is even greater than Israel Independence Day, as the latter celebrates a purely secular event—the creation of the state—while the former marks an event of potential messianic purport—the return of Jewish sovereignty, so to speak, to the Temple Mount (in the hopes that this may be the first step toward the eventual rebuilding of the Temple?). I find something a bit artificial and forced about the festivities, that seem largely organized from above by various institutions and offshoots of the party, and that carry an unmistakable political sub-text: the ideology of the “Greater Land of Israel” movement, which has in recent years become increasingly beleaguered and defensive.

Moreover, I find it difficult to separate the liberation of Jerusalem from the other consequences of the 1967 war—the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, with their population of millions of people who have been forced to live, by now for nearly two full generations, in a kind of political and national limbo; the settlers movement and the controversy surrounding it; and the increasingly violent confrontations with the Palestinians, with their international repercussions, etc. I do not want to enter into a political harangue and go into what I believe to be our contribution to the present situation (without in any way downplaying the savagery of Palestinian terror tactics, Arafat’s duplicity, etc.), but simply state that the West Bank and Gaza are a thorn in Israel’s side. Had all this never happened, or if our leaders would have had the wisdom to somehow separate from the territories peacefully long ago, it would have been better for Israel. Thus, rather than a day of joy, I see this day as a Day of National Blindness, or even as a Day of National Hubris.

But there is a far deeper reason to have second thoughts about a day that celebrates the military conquest of Jerusalem as a religiously significant event. Such an approach is based on a misunderstanding of the very nature of Jerusalem and of its holiness. In its root, Jerusalem—or at least its heart, the Temple Mount and the site of the altar—cannot, by their very nature, be subject to any form of human sovereignty. Let us turn briefly, as we have been doing this year, to the Rambam. At the very beginning of Sefer Avodah, he presents the laws of the construction of the Temple. Chapter 2 of Hilkhot Beit ha-Behirah opens:

1. The location of the altar is most precise, and one is never ever to change its place. As is said, “this is the burnt-offering altar for Israel” [1 Chr 22:1], and Isaac was bound on the Temple [site], as is said, “Get thee to the Land of Moriah” [Gen 22:2]; and it says in the Book of Chronicles, “And Solomon began to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem, on Mount Moriah, which was shown to David his father, at the place which David had prepared on the threshing floor of Arnon the Jebusite” [2 Chr 3:1].

2. And there is a tradition known to all that the place where David and Solomon built the altar on the threshing floor of Arvanah was the very place where Abraham built the altar and bound Isaac thereupon. And it is the place where Noah built [an altar] when he left the ark. And it is the altar upon which Cain and Abel offered. And there Adam offered an offering when he was created, and from there he was created. Our Sages said, that Adam was created from the very place of his atonement.

This is an extraordinary passage, based on a mélange of midrashim. Rambam begins by drawing a direct connection between the altar in the Temple and the Binding of Isaac (this may be the reason why many people recite the chapter of the Akedah daily, introductory to the section of the prayers devoted to Korbanot, recalling the Temple worship). But then he takes us even further back in time: to Noah, to Cain and Abel, and to Adam himself (!). As if to say: the system of offerings in the Jerusalem Talmud are linked, by the very place, to these biblical paradigms: Abraham’s heroic act of obedience; Noah’s gesture of gratitude after the harrowing ordeal of the Flood, and his beginning a new life on a desolate earth; and the sacrifice of the two brothers (with its disastrous aftermath), as a simple sign of gratitude to God for the fruits of their labors.

But while these are all mentioned in the biblical text, the notion that one of Adam’s first actions after being created was to make an offering to God is not (its source is Gen. Rab. 14.8 and j. Nazir Ch. 7). It is a striking image, as if to say: the primal religious impulse, the impulse to offer to God, is fundamental to the nature of man.

But there is more. The statement that “Adam was created from the place of his atonement” is not merely a halakhic description, but expresses two ideas. First, that the human being is created with a certain inclination or tendency to sin, so that his existential situation is one of being in (constant?) need of atonement, of seeking restoration of his relationship with God. He is always striving to do good, always in some failing, always engaged in repentance, always living in a kind of post-Edenic, “second consciousness”—and, it would seem, he was somehow predestined to do so. But secondly, the fact that he was “created from the place of his atonement” means that God, because He loves humankind and has compassion for their inevitable shortcomings and failures, prepares in advance the means for its atonement, through “the site of the altar.” And it was for that reason that the Jews promenaded around the altar during the festival of Sukkot, adorning it with willow branches and shouting, “Beauty to you, o altar”—because it was the fount of Israel’s atonement.

Reading all this, I am reminded of the more strictly halakhic background as well. A well-known sugya in the Talmud, at Arkhin 32a, discusses the origin of the holiness of the Land of Israel. The “first holiness,” that which originated in Joshua’s conquest of the land, was not permanent; by contrast, the “second holiness,” that created by the settlement by Ezra and the other exiles who came up from Babylonia, was lasting.

But all this only applies to the land of Israel—to the “hinterland” of Jerusalem, so to speak, to the wide and broad territories intended as a homeland, as an area on which people built houses and planted orchards and vineyards and raised families. The “holiness” of this part of the land was expressed primarily through the agricultural mitzvot: the requirement to bring gifts to the priests and Levites from a portion of what grew thereon—tithes and heave–offerings (terumot and ma’asrot), first fruits; to set aside certain portions for the poor; to leave the land fallow every seven years; etc.

The sanctity of Jerusalem is different. It is metaphysical: the earthly home for the Divine Presence—Kedushat Shekhinah, as I once heard it phrased by the Rav. As such, it is not intended for human ownership; nay, it is logically absurd and a contradiction in terms to speak of any kind of human sovereignty over the Temple Mount. Even the kohanim, when they Temple stood, were mere custodians of the place (gizbarim), guarding it, protecting its holiness, offering the daily and other sacrifices, and so forth. The various gifts they received—animals, money, and miscellaneous goods—were given in the name of hekdesh, the Divine ”bank account,” so to speak. Any trespass or appropriation of things belonging to hekdesh was an extremely grave offense, with severe sanctions attached.

What has all this to do with flag waving, triumphant street marches, or commemoration of a military victory? With calling it a national symbol, with politicians solemnly declaring it “the rock of our existence” or “the heart of the nation,” without which our national existence is somehow diminished. With groups calling themselves “Temple Mount Faithful” ascending the Temple Mount as a gesture of national pride and right?

Last I heard, the Shekhinah hadn't taken out citizenship in any country on the face of this earth.


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