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Celebrating and sanctifying Jerusalem

The very fact that some perceive the teens who bang on doors and sing racist songs on Jerusalem Day as threatening is why it's wrong
Illustrative. Thousands of young Jewish boys wave Israeli flags as they celebrate Jerusalem Day, dancing and marching their way through Damascus Gate on the way to the Western Wall of Jerusalem's Old City, June 5, 2016. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative. Thousands of young Jewish boys wave Israeli flags as they celebrate Jerusalem Day, dancing and marching their way through Damascus Gate on the way to the Western Wall of Jerusalem's Old City, June 5, 2016. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Around 3,000 years ago, King David conquered the Jebusite city and declared Jerusalem the capital of his kingdom. “The king and his men set out for Jerusalem against the Jebusites who inhabited the region. David was told, ‘You will never get in here! Even the blind and the lame will turn you back.’ But David captured the stronghold of Zion; it is now the City of David” (II Samuel 5:6-7).

The Jewish connection goes back even further. According to rabbinic legend, Abraham sacrificed Isaac upon Mount Moriah, the future base of both Jewish Temples.  Not only that, but Jewish tradition even claims that the Temple sat on the very foundation stone of the world itself. Since King David, Jerusalem has remained the capital of the Jewish people.

Despite its conquest by Babylonians, and Seleucids, Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Crusaders, Mamelukes, Turks, the British, and finally the Jordanians, it has always been at the very heart of Judaism.

According to Maimonides, even when the rest of the land of Israel may have lost its sacred status to a degree, Jerusalem’s holiness remained.

“Why do I say that the original consecration sanctified the Temple and Jerusalem for eternity, while in regard to the consecration of the remainder of Eretz Yisrael, in the context of the Sabbatical year, tithes, and other similar [agricultural] laws, [the original consecration] did not sanctify it for eternity?

Because the sanctity of the Temple and Jerusalem stems from the Divine Presence, and the Divine Presence can never be nullified.  Therefore, [Leviticus 26:31] states: “I will lay waste to your Sanctuaries.” The Sages declared: “Even though they have been devastated, their sanctity remains.” (Hil. Beit HaBechira 6:15)

Three times a day, Jews have turned towards Jerusalem to pray for the right to return and dwell there. In Spanish courts and Italian Ghettos, in Iraq and Syria, Berlin and Warsaw, Shanghai and New York, Jewish synagogues faced Jerusalem. On the ninth day of the month of Av, Jews worldwide have mourned the city’s destruction and despite the difficulties throughout the generations, some our greatest sages crossed oceans and deserts to try to resettle the holy city.

On June 7, 1967 Lt. Gen. Motta Gur arrived with IDF Paratroopers and declared, “The Temple Mount is in our hands.” The Chief Rabbinate and shortly afterward the Knesset would designate the 28th of the Hebrew Month of Iyyar a holiday (Yom Yerushalayim — Jerusalem Day), commemorating the return, after 2,000 years, of Jewish sovereignty to King David’s city.

For the Jewish people, there is much to celebrate. As important as a celebration is how we celebrate the holiday must also be considered.

One of the more famous and in many ways beautiful events on Yom Yerushalayim is the “rikud degalim” or flag march. Beginning around 3 p.m. this Sunday, roads throughout the Israeli capital will be closed to traffic. People, especially youth, will march through the various streets to Jerusalem winding around until they reach the Kotel or Western Wall. At 8 p.m., numerous marchers will meet in a sea of blue and white singing and dancing in the Kotel plaza. At first blush, this seems, and in many ways is, a beautiful and appropriate way to celebrate the reunification of Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty.

However, when one looks at the broader picture, there are other factors worth considering.

The Ir Amim organization petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to prohibit revelers from marching through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. The march, which used to take place in the middle of the night, has — for years — moved through the Muslim Quarter. Residents of Muslim areas see the events above differently. Moreover, this year, an additional factor is that the march coincides with the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Yet, the Supreme Court rejected the petition, presuming that the city’s police force can control the crowds and calm tension.

I have many friends who support the present route and others who are against the entire march. Each side has legal and emotional arguments. The court sided with those who favor keeping the course as it is.

Like many, I see the events of the Six Day War as nothing short of miraculous. I rejoice in our access to the Kotel just as almost every other Jewish religious group from Orthodox to Reform and Secular do. This attitude is evident by the continued push on both sides to have the right to pray at the Kotel.

I have also witnessed some expressions of joy which have crept towards something close to violence. I have seen how some young people bang on shops, act in ways which could easily be interpreted as threatening to the Arabs living in the Old City and heard people express violent, racist language. What should be pristine and beautiful too quickly can slide into something ugly and inappropriate.

I tend towards conservatism regarding free speech and appreciate and honor the sentiments of the Supreme Court, yet I do see a higher court of justice watching over our actions. Here again, Maimonides is helpful. He writes,

“There are other deeds which are also a desecration of [God’s] name if performed by a person of great Torah stature who is renowned for his piety – i.e., deeds which, although they are not transgressions, [will cause] people to speak disparagingly of him. This also constitutes the desecration of [God’s] name.

For example, a person who purchases [merchandise] and does not pay for it immediately, although he possesses the money…or whose conduct with other people is not gentle and he does not receive them with a pleasant countenance, but rather contests with them and vents his anger; and the like. Everything depends on the stature of the sage. (Hil. Yesodei HaTorah 5:11)

Some accuse Maimonides of being elitist. His Guide to the Perplexed is especially singled out at times for such criticism; however, one of my teachers, Prof. Isadore Twersky z” l, remarked that the above passage was Maimonides’ most elite position. A person must act in accordance to the way others judge his actions, be those actions legitimate or not. In other words, even if one can argue that acting in a particular manner or taking a specific action is not intrinsically problematic, the fact that others will see his actions as disagreeable must be considered. Banging on doors, singing racist songs, and acting in a perceived threatening manner is indefensible, I would hope, according to everyone. That some religious youth act that way elevates the actions, according to Maimonides, to profaning God’s name.

I am not suggesting that Jews should be barred from walking through parts of Jerusalem. What I’m suggesting is that the manner people march is critical. If it is impossible to prevent some teenagers from acting in threatening ways, then it’s best not to march through the Muslim Quarter.  When my students ask for my opinion, I tell them they should opt to go a different route and not get caught up in the fray.

Maimonides, in typical rabbinic fashion, ends on a positive note. He continues,

[The converse is] also [true]. When a sage is stringent with himself, speaks pleasantly with others, his social conduct is [attractive] to others, he receives them pleasantly, he is humbled by them and does not humble them in return, he honors them – even though they disrespect him – he does business faithfully, … and at all times is seen … carrying out all his deeds beyond the measure of the law  … to the extent that all praise him, love him, and find his deeds attractive – such a person sanctifies [God’s] name. The verse [Isaiah 49:3]: “And He said to me: `Israel, you are My servant, in whom I will be glorified’  “refers to him.”

There are times when legal rights may be one thing, and when doing what is right is entirely different. We can celebrate what appears to many, myself included, as an open miracle in a manner which goes “beyond the measure of the law” and the ruling of the Supreme Court. By celebrating in a way which takes into consideration the feelings of others, “even though they disrespect [us],” we can elevate singing and dancing with Israeli flags to an act of glorifying Jerusalem by sanctifying God’s name.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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