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Judah Kerbel

R. Aharon Lichtenstein’s Ever Relevant Message for Yom Yerushalayim

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l and Rav Yehuda Amital zt”l used Yom Haatzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim as opportunities to demonstrate gratitude, to provide introspection, and to dream for the future during these important holidays. Their talks are now printed in B’shuvecha L’Tziyon, published by Yedioth Achronoth Books in 2022 (Dr. Kalman Neuman was the editor of the compilation).

Being that 28 Iyar (5693, ninety years ago) was Rav Lichtenstein’s birthday, I wanted to look at some of his sichot for Yom Yerushalayim. Two talks given in consecutive years point to a similar theme, and one that is ever important today. We must find a way to be passionate about our principles in terms of the holiness of Yerushalayim and the signifcance of Yom Yerushalayim, while simultaneously ensuring that we are able to remain connected with a segment of the Jewish people that does not connect in this fashion.

In 1997, thirty years after the Six Day War, Rav Lichtenstein addressed the status of Yom Yerushalayim (p. 326). How does the Jewish people approach this day spiritually/emotionally as well as in practice? There is somewhat of a division among our people. To illustrate this point, he uses the case of Purim, as explained by Ramban in his commentary to Masechet Megillah. Ramban says that when the story of Purim took place, all Jews celebrated and made a holiday; after all, they were all part of a miracle. Subsequently, however, things change. Most of the cities, which were not walled, continued to observe Purim, still sensing the magnitude of the miracle that they were able to defeat their enemies (they still had to defend themselves, despite Achashverosh annulling Haman’s decree). Walled cities, however, started to fell that the miracle was not as big and worthy of celebration for them. The residents of cities that were not walled were more vulnerable, but the residents of walled cities were less vulnerable, so they thought their miracle was not as significant, and it was enough that they celebrated when it happened. It was at that point that Mordechai and Esther established Purim as a holiday for generations.

As far as Yom Yerushalayim is concerned, at the time of the Six Day War in 1967, most if not all Israelis shared a sense of relief and euphoria about the victory. After worrying about destruction, Israel was anything but destroyed. This was a point of unity. As time went on, however, a gap developed among our people. For many Israelis, especially but not exclusively those in the Religious Zionist world, Yom Yerushalayim is a very important holiday. Being able to regain access to the Old City and the Kotel was a great miracle after nineteen years of staring from a distance. Not to mention that the war itself constituted a tremendous miracle. However, after some historical approaches began to claim that the war was not so miraculous after all and we were not in that great of danger, the war was less of a big deal. Rav Lichtenstein accuses that approach of egregious ingratitude. Differing opinions about the territory conquered contributed to the divide. On top of that, the capturing of the Old City faded in importance for those who were physically and ideologically farther away from the religious center of Israel.

While Rav Lichtenstein bemoaned the divide, he did not take that as a reason to advance an agenda of exploiting that gap. On the contrary, he urged his students to take responsibility for bridging the gap and bringing together distant worlds, without compromising on their principles. This is an important mission. We are intertwined in our fate with all Israelis, and therefore, while we double down on the importance of unified Yerushalayim, we must act in a way that builds bridges.

The next year, Rav Lichtenstein (on p. 329) compared two ways of looking at Yerushalayim (based on Psalms 122). On the one hand, Yerushalayim is the site of Hashem’s presence. It is the center of holiness. On the other hand, Yerushalayim is the national capital, belonging to the entire Jewish people. These two foci can clash. Holiness means that access may be limited. Those who are impure may not enter the Mikdash. Still, the goal of the pilgrimage festivals is to bring the Jewish people together, to unite in Yerushalayim. This can be illustrated in comparing “Jerusalem of gold” to “Jerusalem of copper” (ירושלים של זהב, ירושלים של נחושת). Gold is expensive and less accessible, but that gives it its great value and significance. Copper, however, is widely available but is less prestigious. While we may want the “Jerusalem of gold,” in terms of our religious ideals, what about the “Jerusalem of copper,” that makes it feel like all can take part in it? There is tension between sanctity and accessibility.

According to Rav Lichtenstein, this analysis of Yerushalayim was (and still is) relevant to the tension among Israeli people. Some might want Yerushalayim to be a holy city to the point that it is a place only for those who embody the principles of holiness and follow its dictates. Yet, do we really want everyone outside of that circle to feel disconnected from Yerushalayim? We must assert in certain ways that Yerushalayim is a unique city and represents our yearning for the Jewish people to follow Torah and mitzvot, we cannot give up on those who do not take part. Yerushalayim still needs to be the capital, the home, of the entire Jewish people.

The messages of these two sichot from 1997 and 1998 are one and the same, and they are ever relevant today. Yerushalayim is ir she-chubra lah yachdav, it is a city that brings people together, even as it is the focal point for the Divine Presence. While at one point, I might have thought that secular and religious divisions were becoming less relevant classifications, I worry. I worry that the more zealots take prominence and pronounce their religious principles without nuance, those who are not as observant (whether traditional, secular) will not want to be associated or to engage with such people. This can have effects on the entire religious world, even if it is only some who do not convey Torah as ways of peace. They will see the “Jerusalem” agenda, so to speak, as being counter to their values. Religion will be considered a threat to democracy, individuality, and rights, from this perspective. Whether or not religious zealots are correct in their presentations and agendas, such zealotry is counterproductive. Our goal is not to be “right,” even if one thinks are values are being subverted by the public. The concern about maintaining our values, on the contrary, mandates that we continue to reach out and try to find common ground, yes, in our holy city. These concerns apply to America as well. Culture wars are making it too difficult for us to find the right sound among the noise of these battles. Instead of doubling down on our “rightness” and the other side’s “wrongness,” we need to find ways to hold to principles while still leaving the door open for others to want to converse with us.

Yerushalayim must be holy, Judaism must be holy, but once we have alieanted others from connecting with us, we have lost sight of what is truly important. Shavuot is coming – we received the Torah “k’ish echad b’lev echad,” as one person with one heart. It is not always possible to be singleminded in the full sense of it, but I hope this coming week, we will look for what unites us more than for what divides us.

About the Author
Judah Kerbel is the rabbi of Queens Jewish Center and a development associate for the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He received his rabbinic ordination from RIETS and an MA in medieval Jewish history from the Bernard Revel Graduate School. He serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America.
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