Recently the U.S. President precipitated an international stir, declaring that the United States officially recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel. Reaction was swift. Some applauded and some condemned. Some asserted that this was a needless obstacle to peacemaking while others viewed this as a critical correction in U.S. policy. Some congratulated the United States while others expressed ambivalence about a morally compromised and controversial President making a declaration to possibly mollify his political base. The political wisdom of these actions I will leave to others.
Whatever the international world thinks, Jews around the world will continue to look towards Jerusalem as our capital. However, maybe there is a more pressing question that stands before us as a people. ‘Who has jurisdiction over Jerusalem?’ should be replaced by a much more fundamental question. “How does possessing Jerusalem obligate us as a people?” For Jerusalem is not like any other city; it calls to us and makes demands upon us.
There is a city of Jerusalem, a physical place and locale. It is a place of history, of ancient ruins, and a real place of struggle throughout history. It has been the focus of the aspirations of many peoples. For fifty years of modern history Jerusalem has become a political football, a focal point of the national aspirations of two peoples. This is a Jerusalem in which a President Trump can make a declaration, a Netanyahu can applaud, an Abbas can condemn, and a U.N. can issue statements and a Nikki Haley can respond. But there also exists a more sublime Jerusalem. This Jerusalem is characterized by the promises implied by its name sake, which according to some scholars is means the ‘possession of peace’. According to our rabbis, this Jerusalem embodies seventy names, paralleling the seventy names of God, the seventy names of Israel, the seventy names of Torah and the seventy nations of the world (Bamidbar Rabbah 14:12). Among the names we give it are peace (shalem), the city of truth (Ir Ha-Emet), Faithful City (Kiryah Ne’amanah), the place where God will be seen (Adonai Yeraeh), the city of beauty (Kllilat Yofi), and the city great among the nations (Rabbati Bagoyim). This Jerusalem is inspired by the midrashic tradition that the created world unfolded from the place of the Temple and is the ‘navel’ of the world. It is located in a biblical tradition that all the life- affirming waters originate from Mount Zion, a fact which while geographically false is theologically true.
Jerusalem resides in the hearts of those looking towards a time when all people will come to Jerusalem to join in prayer to the creator of all (Isaiah 2:2-3). In a very real way, this Jerusalem belongs to no one but God, and the Jewish people are its stewards. A tall order which resides in a messianic ideal. Jerusalem is far more than a physical locale. Jerusalem embodies the dreams and ideals not only the Jewish people- both past and present, but the dreams of humanity. Jerusalem is an aspirational vision that in a very real way resides outside of history, deeply embedded in religious consciousness. Jews from time immemorial have anchored their collective dreams in this place. To defend Jerusalem is not merely to defend a place; we commit to nurture an aspirational dream of holiness, kindness, justice, and humanity.
Perhaps this is why we refer to Jerusalem in the dual form in Hebrew- Yerushalayim (‘two Jerusalems’) and not the early tradition Yerushalem. When gazing upon the city, we gaze upon two cities simultaneously. Unlike Augustine’s heavenly Jerusalem however, the Jewish Jerusalem links the physical and the spiritual, the historical with the eschatological, the mundane and the sublime. To declare sovereignty over Jerusalem is not to claim ownership of a mid-size dusty city with archaeological finds, but to stay faithful to a vision. To live in Jerusalem is to embody the higher Jerusalem as well through living the life of a people who position themselves in the light of eternal values. Yehuda Amichai expresses Jerusalem’s paradox in a wonderful poem. Why is Jerusalem in the dual form?/The Jerusalem above and the Jerusalem below?/I desire to live in the Jerusalem in the middle/ Without banging my head above, or wounding my feet below (Translation mine.)
Rav Abraham Isaac Kook in his book Olot Re’iyah noted that the holiday we just completed is named Chanukah- meaning dedicated or initiated, a passive verb construction. He asked a fascinating question. Why didn’t the rabbis name the festival using the active tense, Chinuch (dedicating/ initiating the Temple)? He answers that to initiate a process one sets the tone for an unfolding future. To use a botanical metaphor, we hope that through planting a seed that it will germinate and flower. However, Rav Kook notes, the Hasmoneans did not initiate anything. It was God who gave the Temple Mount and by extension Jerusalem its great spiritual gifts. Those gifts were always present, even if humanity was not yet ready to receive its exalted nature. Therefore Jerusalem and its Temple was already dedicated (Chanukah) when the Hasmoneans arrived. For Rav Kook, Jerusalem’s true nature will be realized in an exalted future time, illuminated by the light of God- a future time when all will recognize the Divine vitality which flows through the world from this place. By declaring Jerusalem as our capitol, we commit ourselves in the way we live our lives both individually and collectively to work towards this vision. The Hasmoneans were a step in the process, unleashing the Divine light which flowing from this place.
Until the last century, the battles of the Maccabees were largely forgotten. In fact, the great Judah Maccabee is not even mentioned once in classic rabbinic literature. Instead, the great military victories are completely overshadowed by the rededication of the Temple and the lighting of the menorah. Only in modern times have Jews focused on the great battles for Jewish independence, and for obvious reasons having to do with the history of Zionism.
This is a relevant story to tell our children. The twentieth century taught us that a Jerusalem of dreams does not protect us from persecution or even genocide. We demand to be included as a sovereign nation with a sovereign capitol; we have gained this right through our very real political and military struggle. For many, this is the story of Chanukah- a story of independence and self-determination. This is the story of the earthly Jerusalem.
Yet we can never allow this to exhaust the meaning of our struggle. The Hasmoneans did not initially wage a battle for independence, but as a reaction to forces that attempted to destroy the Jewish religion and the Jewish spirit. Chanukah ultimately does not celebrate independence, but the rededication of the Temple, the kindling of the Jewish spirit, represented by the glimmer of light in the Temple. On Chanukah, every Jewish family imitates the priests in the Temple, as we also light the dark places around us. Perhaps this is why we add a candle every day, for we ‘ascend in holiness’. The lights of Chanukah serve as a template for history, charging us to become agents with God in uncovering the light which pervades this universe, a light which is represented in microcosm in the Temple of Jerusalem.
In declaring our sovereignty over Jerusalem, let us not feel victorious but humbled. Let us accept this gift as a sacred responsibility, and an aspirational goal of which we need to be worthy. In a paradoxical way, the minute we think we possess Jerusalem all we have possessed is a dusty city, for like Rav Kook taught, the real potency of Jerusalem will only be experienced in the future. In a very real way when we declare sovereignty over Jerusalem we declare that we are stewards of a vision and a dream not only for ourselves, but all humanity.