How many Jerusalems are there, anyway?

Why is Yerushalayim plural,
One on high and one below?…
I want to live in one “Yerushal,”
Because I am just “I” and not “I”s.

Yehuda Amichai, “Open Closed Open”


Welcome to one of the great grammatical conundrums in the history of Jewish geography: why is the Hebrew word for Jerusalem – Yerushalayim — in the plural form?

Because, in fact, there is not one Jerusalem; there are two.

On a political level, there are two Jerusalems — the “new city” of west Jerusalem, and the Old City and eastern Jerusalem — two entities forged into one fifty years ago with the Six Day War.

On a linguistic level, there are two Jerusalems – Yerushalayim in Hebrew; al-Quds (“the holy city”) in Arabic.

Even the name of the city itself – Yerushalayim – implies that there are two Jerusalems. In Genesis 14, we meet Melchizedek, the king of Salem.

Chapters later, in Genesis 21, Abraham names the place Adonai-yireh, — or simply, Yireh.

Yireh plus Salem is Yerushalayim. The name by which it was known by a Canaanite king, and the name by which it was known by the first Jew. Two names — two realities — soldered together.

Jerusalem is the plural Yerushalayim because of a duality that permeates Jewish literature — the earthly Jerusalem (Yerushalayim shel matah) and the heavenly Jerusalem (Yerushalayim shel maalah).

The ancient sages idealized Jerusalem. For them, the mountains of Jerusalem pointed straight to heaven. They imagined Jerusalem as a place where no woman ever miscarried, where no one was ever stung by serpent or scorpion, where the fires of the altar were never doused with rain, where no wind blew the pillar of smoke over the worshipers.

The idea of a heavenly Jerusalem exists in Christianity as well.

For Christians, the earthly Jerusalem is Jewish and sinful; the heavenly Jerusalem, Christian and righteous. In the book of Revelation, John sees the New Jerusalem descending from heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband in gold and precious stones.

For Christians, the heavenly Jerusalem was not real. It was an ideal. In the Middle Ages, there were many fanciful descriptions, maps, and paintings of Jerusalem, each one showing Jerusalem as the center of the world, as the sages themselves imagined it – as axis mundi.

The idea of the heavenly Jerusalem finds its way into even the very architecture and design of the modern city of Jerusalem.

Why, for example, is Jerusalem stone the “official” building material of the city?

The idea came from Sir Ronald Storrs, the first British military governor of Jerusalem, who happened to be a vicar’s son.

He noticed that the Jerusalem sunset transforms the stone into shades of purple – what he imagined the heavenly Jerusalem must look like.

In his memoirs, he recalls the medieval hymn “Jerusalem is built in heaven/ Of living stone.” He believed that the earthly Jerusalem should be a replica of the heavenly Jerusalem

I suggest that the dual nature of Jerusalem – the earthly Jerusalem vs. the heavenly Jerusalem – is at the center of much of our current thinking about the Jewish state.

And the results of that thinking are not always pretty.

For Jerusalem is not only Jerusalem. It is Zion. It is Israel.

In the past fifty years, criticism of the state of Israel – its policies, and even its very existence – has mounted.

Some of the sharper critiques might sound anti-Semitic.

But, in fact, some are the results of a misplaced philo-semitism. It is the expectation — not that Jews are devils, but that they should be angels.

The same should be true of a Jewish state – that it should be angelic, as well.

But, here is the problem with philo-semitism.

Like anti-semitism, philo-semitism relies on distorted views of Jews and Judaism.

The liberal Christian philo-semite does not hate the Jews because the Jews rejected Jesus.

The liberal Christian philo-semite is disappointed with the Jews, because the Jews have not yet lived up to the advertisements of moral excellence that they have created for themselves.

The liberal Christian philo-semite sees the reality of the earthly Jerusalem – an Israel that must still fight, has problematic policies, where the people are far from saintly – and is disappointed that the heavenly Jerusalem is not yet here.

That disappointment with the all-too-human, realpolitik failures of the Jewish state has seeped into leftist Jewish critiques of Israel and Zionism. They are addicted to the prophetic ideal, while often forgetting that the Jews and the Jewish state have real enemies who never got that prophetic memo.

That is the paradox. In the Jewish soul, we live with the vision of a heavenly, perfect Jerusalem of our ideals.

But, in real life and in real time, we live with the imperfect, morally tainted, earthly Jerusalem.

It does not seem likely that we will solve this conundrum and this tension any time soon. Jerusalem – like all of us – is a spiritual work in progress.

Reb Naftali Zvi of Ropshitz, a Hasidic master, taught: “By our service to God, we build Jerusalem daily. One of us adds a row, another only a brick. When Jerusalem is completed, redemption will come.”

Let that be a new definition of Zionism, in our time – the work of making the earthly Jerusalem look more like the heavenly Jerusalem.


About the Author
Jeffrey K. Salkin is the rabbi of Temple Israel in West Palm Beach, Florida, and a frequent writer on Jewish and cultural matters. He also blogs frequently at Martini Judaism: for those who want to be shaken and stirred, published by Religion News Service.
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