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The Myth of Jerusalem

Even so sketchy a history shows that Jerusalem, with its changes of rulers and religions, does not belong exclusively to the heritage of any one religion or any one community in the city. To establish its claims, each religion and each nation competing for the city clings to a particular sequence of events inthe city’s history from the Bronze Age onward and sees it as a guide to their present-day activities, while the history of others becomes for them a black hole from which not even one ray of light can escape.

One of the principal notions that has both undergone historical transformation and caused divisiveness is the concept of holiness, which is accompanied by the idea that Jerusalem is a holy city. Different ideas of holiness have given the struggle over Jerusalem its flavor of absolutism—for example, the expression that Jerusalem is Israel’s “eternal” capital. The recurrent pattern with regard to Jerusalem is a subtle one. Each religion and each national ideology started out with deep ambivalence about the city’s importance. The attitude of each group toward the city became one of absolute commitment only as a result of rivalry and conflict with others. The religious competition for Jerusalem, and consequently the nationalist competition as well, were sustained by the idea that the city was a holy place for various religions, an idea that requires clarification.

One day, on a school outing, we went to see a model of Jerusalem at the time of the second Temple, including a model of the Temple itself. This model is located next to a hotel appropriately named the Holyland Hotel. After looking at the model we went down the hill on which the hotel is perched to a valley in which there was an area of high-tension electrical poles surrounded by a high fence with pictures of skulls and crossbones warning against trespassing in the enclosure. Our teacher then explained that this electrical sanctuary works on the same principle as the Temple. The electrical poles are the source of light and energy for the whole city, but anyone who dares to touch them is electrocuted and dies. (Our teacher had apparently been reading Rudolf Otto’s Idea of the Holy.) The holy city is indeed a place fraught with ambivalence: on the one hand, it contains a divine presence that provides it with an abundance of goodness; on the other hand, there is a constant danger of defilement that will alienate the divinity and threaten the city with a curse. This ambivalence between goodness and curse, love and fear, and especially purity and defilement, produces the religious tension expressed in the idea of the Temple as a place that is at once blessed and dangerous.

Biblical Jerusalem and the Temple itself were divided into areas of greater and lesser holiness, where the degree of holiness was reflected in the taboos applying to each area. The Temple Mount was holier than the rest of Jerusalem. No one who was ritually defiled could enter it—including persons suffering from venereal discharge, or women who had recently given birth or were menstruating. The Temple court is yet holier, and heathens were forbidden to enter it. The outer hall of the Temple was holier still, forbidden to anyone not of the priestly caste. Finally, the Holy of Holies, the inner part of the Temple, could only be entered by the High Priest, and only on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. (There has been much controversy surrounding this system of holiness. The Judean desert sect at Qumran believed that all of Jerusalem was as holy as the Temple Mount, and that it was forbidden, for example, to have sexual relations in the city. They therefore considered the priestly Jerusalem to be a defiled and dangerous city from which it was necessary to flee to the desert.)

The concept of holiness as the exclusion of the defiled had a historical significance: people who were alien were gradually included in the category of the defiled. The presence of an outsider in the city, especially near the Temple, was “anathema” in the literal sense of the word. The author of the Psalms (79:1) says, “O God, heathens have entered Your domain, defiled Your holy temple.” The Crusaders who besieged the Moslem-ruled Jerusalem adopted this verse from the Psalms as their battle cry. But the view of the alien as someone who defiles is not only something from the distant past. The British consul in Jerusalem, James Finn, reported to his Foreign Minister in England in 1848, the year of “the springtime of the nations,” that a person identified as a Jew had been found in the Latin chapel on Easter. The crowd had been about to lynch him; and only the intervention of the Turkish guards saved him, after a severe beating. Finn thenremarked that this incident was similar to what had occurred to a British doctor who had been caught in the Muslims’ Noble Sanctuary—he too had been severely beaten and rescued only with difficulty. The defiling aliens have not always been rescued, especially not in our century.

While the Temple still stood, the concept of the holy place, whether Jerusalem or the Temple, as the place free of defilement came into conflict with another concept of holiness—the concept of Jerusalem as the place of pilgrimage. The Bible commands Jews to make a pilgrimage on three holidays, Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. Hundreds of thousands of people used to come to Jerusalem on these occasions. Flavius Josephus writes about nearly three million pilgrims on one Passover. Even if we remove one zero, the number remains impressive. The vast Temple court in fact had enough room for three hundred thousand worshipers.

Among the pilgrims in the period before the Temple was destroyed were many who came from different foreign countries with different languages. Only thus can we understand the miracle of “speaking in tongues” which occurred on the famous Pentecost described in Acts 2. At any rate, the Temple priests accepted sacrifices as well as other presents from gentiles, even though there were some sages—perhaps influenced by the Judean desert sect—who demanded that such sacrifices not be allowed. With such a large number of visitors, it was very difficult to make sure of everyone’s purity.

Amos Elon, in his wonderful book about Jerusalem,2 summarizes his description of the pilgrimages from all parts of the world by calling Jerusalem “a cosmopolitan city.” But Jerusalem, as my friend the philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser once put it, is at the same time the most international and the least cosmopolitan city in the world. People from many different nations have always lived in Jerusalem, and in this sense it has an international flavor; but to be cosmopolitan requires that a stranger’s presence should not only be tolerable but natural and welcome. In this sense Jerusalem is not cosmopolitan in the least but is sectarian in the extreme—and with a large number of sects. These sects live side by side, not together. They are each shut up in their own quarters and courtyards, sometimes behind walls and locked gates.

Jerusalem as a holy city of pilgrimages is common to all three religions, but one sense of pilgrimage is mainly the heritage of Jews and Muslims—the sense of going to Jerusalem in order to be buried there in the belief that when the dead are resurrected those buried in Jerusalem will be resurrected first. This idea is conceived so literally that the grave plots on the Mount of Olives (where Robert Maxwell was recently buried) that are nearer to the Golden Gate, through which the Messiah is expected to pass, are more expensive than those further away. The nearer one is to the gate, the closer one will be to the head of the line at the time of the resurrection. At any rate, Jerusalem is surrounded by a huge necropolis, and the dead can’t be ignored in any vote about Jerusalem’s future.

The war between Islam and Christianity at the time of the Crusades defined Jerusalem as a holy city whose conquerors could claim that their own religion was chosen by God. At first glance it seems as though the holiness of Jerusalem for Christianity is obvious. The Christian drama of part of Jesus’s life and, above all, his death and resurrection, took place in Jerusalem. The “holy archeology” of the Byzantines also guaranteed that every biblical event has a place in the city attached to it. In holy archeology, there are no misses. One digs and one finds. Constantine found Golgotha and the holy cross and built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre there.

However, during the Byzantine period Christianity spoke more of holy places than of a holy city. The idea of the Holy Land, and to some degree of the holy city as well, comes from the Crusaders. The difficulty for “learned” Christianity (as opposed to folk Christianity, which is attached to holy relics) is the Pauline doctrine that sees the earthly Jerusalem as a Jewish Jerusalem, a Jerusalem bound to the Law (“the bondsmaid Hagar”), as opposed to the heavenly Jerusalem, which is a Jerusalem freed from the Law (“the lady Sarah”). This approach, which is based on Jesus’s prophecy that no stone structure will remain whole in Jerusalem, as well as on the establishment ofthe church in Rome, cast some doubt on the status of Jerusalem. The triumph of the Crusaders relieved Christianity of its ambivalence toward Jerusalem. Spirituality can be a matter of geography. When the earthly Jerusalem is within reach, its value rises; when one is far away from the earthly Jerusalem, the heavenly one gains more importance. The Crusaders saw themselves as vassals coming to liberate the domain of their Lord, Jesus; and with respect to Judaism, they presented themselves as the spiritual, and therefore the true Israel—that is, the legitimate heir to Jerusalem.

Muslims, too, were ambivalent about Jerusalem’s holiness, for they saw the city as a possible rival for the holy status of Mecca and Medina. According to the Koran the people who first became Muslims prayed toward Jerusalem; but the prophet tested his followers and demanded that they pray toward Mecca. The ideological basis of Jerusalem’s holiness for Islam is found in the traditional interpretation of the account (in Sura 17) of the night journey of God’s servant from the sanctified mosque to the mosque at what was called “the remote end.” This interpretation identified God’s servant with Muhammad, who went from the Ka’bah in Mecca to Jerusalem. The Muslim tradition also sees Jerusalem as the place to which Muhammad went on his wondrous horse Burak. It seems that this interpretation is based on the Talmudic tale (Sanhedrin 98) about the horse (“Susia Burka”) which the King of Persia offers for the Messiah to ride. That is, the night journey to the Temple Mount is the journey of the successor religion (Islam succeeding Judaism and Christianity), where Muhammad is the rider of the Messiah’s horse, which is contrasted with the donkey of Jesus, the poor Messiah.

  1. 2

    Jerusalem: City of Mirrors (Little, Brown, 1989).

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