My Turn: Misconceptions about Jerusalem

Thursday, February 01, 2018

A newly minted Jewish husband and wife embrace in unbreakable marital covenant, then, the shattering of glass reminds all present of a different covenant — the one with God. The shards of glass lying splintered on the floor reflect the rubble of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after its destruction, whose scattered stones contain the sundered hopes and forlorn longing that has characterized Judaism for the past two millennia.

The message is clear: Do not allow the covenant to be broken again. For the new couple, this means faithfulness to one another and keeping the family together; for all Jews, doing everything in their power to retain Jerusalem.

The recent United States decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is a pivotal moment in Jewish history. To Jews, it comes not as a cynical geopolitical maneuver, but as an acknowledgment of a millennia-spanning history from the Exodus through the Holocaust to the first kibbutz, and as an affirmation of their religion.

Jews practice a faith of action centered around land. At the time of its conception, Judaism revolutionized religion forever by postulating the existence of a moral, omnipotent deity with whom one could maintain a personal relationship through a covenant — a contract with God. According to the clauses of this contract, God promised the Jews Israel if they upheld their end of the bargain and lived in accordance with His laws. Hence, Israel must not be understood as the controversial state of modern day international politics, but rather as a part of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. Essentially, Israel is the final destination of the Jewish religious odyssey and at its center lies Jerusalem, where redemption may be found.

“If I forget thee Oh Jerusalem, let my right hand wither, let my tongue stick to my palate if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my greatest joy” states Psalm 137. Imagine if the same applied to geography class whenever an unfortunate student forgot the unrecognized capital of a country. Yet, to the Jews, Psalm 137 rings as just, as leniently even, for, to them, to forget Jerusalem means to fall into sin.

Jewish history is marked by a cycle of sin and redemption. Whenever the people strayed from God’s path, they lost Jerusalem and needed a special person — a prophet — to lead them back into the covenant spiritually, and to Jerusalem physically. The Exodus inadvertently comes to mind. What seems like Moses and his people’s break from the Pharaoh’s servitude, however, is just a figment of Jewish history, replayed over and over again, with the latest recasting being the founding of the state of Israel.

Despite having come back into the covenant following the ordeals of the Holocaust, the Jewish people are kept from redemption. Jerusalem is artificially splintered like the little pieces of glass at their weddings, and Judaism’s historical and religious claim to the only capital it has ever had goes largely unrecognized. Images of Jews placing their temples in prayer on the brittle surface of the Western Wall abound, leading us to think them satisfied and their odyssey fulfilled. Yet, the Western Wall is not Judaism’s holiest site.

That is the Temple Mount, located on the eastern side of the city, which international law refuses to recognize as Israeli land. Jews are also strictly forbidden from praying at the Temple Mount, and permitted to visit only once a year as tourists. All those heads bowed before the Western Wall belong not to spiritually fulfilled souls, but to faithful men and women stranded on the edge of Canaan.

In 2 Chronicles 6:5-6, King Solomon quotes God as saying, “Since the day that I brought my people out of the land of Egypt, I chose no city in all the tribes of Israel in which to build a house, that my name might be there, and I chose no man as prince over my people Israel; but I have chosen Jerusalem that my name may be there and I have chosen David to be over my people Israel.”

The Bible establishes Israel as a tripartite entity encapsulating all dimensions of Judaism: David, a descendent of Jacob, who later adopts the name Israel, is elected to rule over the people called Israel who, in turn, God allots the land called Israel whose eternal capital is Jerusalem. Israel — the land, people and individual — encapsulates everything that Judaism is, and the capital of this everything is Jerusalem.

The recognition of Jerusalem, as popular opinion holds, is really just a conflict over land but, to the Jews, the land under contention captures the essence of their spirituality and history, while the city’s preservation as the Jewish state’s capital constitutes a symbol for maintaining a meaningful relationship with God through the Covenant. To deny Jews Jerusalem as their capital is tantamount to expelling them from heaven and forfeiting them salvation. Conversely, the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state of Israel is to affirm the right of Jews to their religion and history. At the same time, recognition entails no sacrilege to any other religion (as long as worshippers’ right of access to holy places is maintained) because no other faith lays claim to the city as its de facto capital.

So, upon the dawn of the day “when old men and old women will populate the streets of Jerusalem … And the streets of the city will fill with boys and girls at play” (Zecariah, 8:4), the only question left is whether the modern-day state of Israel can live up to Biblical expectations.

Greg Berces is a student at Deerfield Academy, Class of 2019.