Jerusalem Is Not a Settlement

How the sacred city has kept the Jews united through exile and beyond.

Israel celebrated “Jerusalem Day” last week, which commemorates the 1967 reunification of the city following the Six Day War.  The celebrations and speeches were especially poignant in view of the Obama Administration’s decree that Israel must cease building in Jerusalem.

For Jews, Jerusalem is, has been, and always will be the symbol and the heart and soul of their national identity.  Jerusalem is mentioned almost 900 times in the Bible (767 in the King James Version and not a single mention of the city in the Koran) including Psalms (“If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning” - Psalm 137:5) and in the Passover Haggadah with the words “Next Year in Jerusalem” concluding the Passover service.  Through pilgrimages and prayers, Jews have demonstrated their love and yearning for Jerusalem for more than two millennia.  Zionism, the Jewish national liberation movement, is derived from Zion, another name for Jerusalem.

King David made Jerusalem his capital in 1000 BCE and unified the nation around it.  The city became the political and spiritual center of Jewish life, with the Temple at its heart.  But it took one of King David descendants, King Josiah, crowned 2650 years ago, to fortify the Jewish nation with a memory of Jerusalem that has kept the Jewish people united together during the Babylonian exile and beyond.

At the age of twenty, King Josiah understood that the assimilation of Jews into the idol-worshipping cultures that surrounded them might doom his kingdom and his people. He, therefore, enacted religious and political reforms aimed at establishing a unified national and religious worship.

The struggle between Jewish particularism and universalism is as long as Jewish history itself.  On one side, there were those who sought to assimilate into the neighboring (or prevailing) culture and on the other side, there were those who were dedicated to preserving the Jewish particularistic nature. We all know the story of Hanukkah and the Maccabean revolt against Greek rule and their agents from within. It was King Josiah, whose father King Amon was an idol-worshipper, who helped to create a Zion-oriented, national and religious Jewish particularism.

Following King Solomon’s death, the unified kingdom of Israel split up.  The Kingdom of Israel turned its back on Jerusalem and adopted the idol-worshipping universalist culture of the surrounding lands.  It did not survive.  Conversely, the Kingdom of Judea, with Jerusalem as its capital, survived for almost a century-and-a-half thereafter.  Josiah’s particularistic Jewish kingdom prepared the Judeans and future generations against ultimate defeat and exile by rededicating the lost Book of Deuteronomy to the people.

Josiah’s revolutionary actions were based on shifting the focus of religious worship from the physical domain (sacrifices) to the spiritual domain with the reading of the Torah.  Josiah did in his time what Martin Luther did in 16th century Europe.  By removing the exclusivity of the priests (in sacrifices) and the scribes, who read for the entire community, the common people were now compelled to learn how to read, altering their role as passive participants.

The Book - The Torah, which maintained a unitary focus on Zion, had a centralizing impact on Judaism.  Whereas sacrifices could be made at any place and for all “gods” or sovereigns, Josiah provided the Jews with a particularistic culture that is eternal and accessible to all the people.   Josiah was in a sense fulfilling Moses’ command in the Book of Deuteronomy 31:19, “Now therefore write ye this song for you, and teach it to the Children of Israel: put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the Children of Israel.”

Josiah’s great achievement is in facilitating the rise of the synagogue as a replacement for the destroyed Jerusalem Temple.  The practice of reading from the Torah began with Josiah and continues to this day among all Jews. King Josiah was greatly aided and strengthened by the Prophet Jeremiah who preached during his reign.  Jeremiah tied together the notion that worshipping God in the City of David (Jerusalem) and the freedom from foreign oppressors the city afforded them, are connected by an unbreakable chain.  It was an essential Zionist message.

The full extent and meaning of Josiah’s revolution is seen with the returnees from the Babylonian exile, Ezra and Nehemiah.  While they were dedicated to the rebuilding of the Second Temple, they understood that the essence of public worship was concentrated in public prayer.  Ezra stood on top of a wooden platform and opened the book while the masses of Jews rose to their feet; he read from the Torah and translated it to the masses (many of whom had lapsed in their practice of Judaism in the absence of strong Jewish leadership following the general expulsion to Babylon.)

The sacrificial alters (used by Jews and idol-worshippers alike) were replaced by a new institution, namely the synagogue, where Jews assembled for worship without the sole orchestration of priests who came from Aaron’s lineage (Moses’ brother). Instead, they were led by scribes from all walks of life and from any tribe.

Josiah’s contribution to Judaism and Zionism is in having forged an intellectual revolution based on three elements: Concentrating the kingdom (nation) around Jerusalem or Zion, from which all spirituality emanates; abolishing the foreign idol-worshipping and foreign cultural influences that erode the national and religious strength; and transferring the centrality of religious worship from the physical (sacrifices of animals) to a spiritual and intellectual worship.

Modern celebrations of Jerusalem serve a two-fold purpose: to remember that 2000 CE Jerusalem marked its 3000 birthday and 2010 marked the 43rd anniversary of the reunification of city.

The Obama administration’s attempted imposition of a building halt in Jerusalem and his anticipated division of the city is once again pitting universalist Jews (those who seek to be accepted and liked by the world) against particularistic Jews, (who see Jerusalem as the heart and soul of Jewish sovereignty and faith).  The Netanyahu government is currently in the midst of a debate on the building freeze.  In Prime Minister Netanyahu’s “Jerusalem Day” speech he vowed never to allow the division of Jerusalem. It remains to be seen, however, whether Netanyahu will follow the particularistic actions of King Josiah or succumb to the universalist culture and accept Obama’s foreign idols.