Tradition Today: The meaning of Jerusalem

Jerusalem is never mentioned by name in the Torah, Judaism's most ancient book.

Jerusalem Walls 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Jerusalem Walls 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
As we celebrate Jerusalem Day, we are acutely aware of the fact that Jerusalem is the center of a heated political dispute concerning its future. Unfortunately that dispute has resulted in accusations that Jerusalem and especially the Temple Mount are not really central to Judaism. This goes so far as to claim that there never was a Jewish temple on the Temple Mount. These statements are absurd. No matter what one thinks concerning the future of Jerusalem, the fact of its centrality to Judaism is so blatant that it should need no reiteration. The existence of the Temple on the Temple Mount is so well attested by historical evidence, Jewish and non-Jewish, that one wonders how anyone could possible deny it. True, Jerusalem is a Johnny-come-lately on the scene of Jewish history. It is never mentioned by name in the Torah, Judaism's most ancient book. There is however, reference to "Salem," shalem, which, with good reason, we assume is an ancient name of Jerusalem (Genesis 14:18). Strangely enough even the story of the akeida (the binding of Isaac) is told with no specific reference to Jerusalem, although it seems obvious from the conclusion of the story - "and Abraham named that site Adonai-yireh [the Lord will see], hence the present saying, 'On the mount of the Lord there is vision'" (Gen. 22:14) - that the reference is to a place that had sacred ritual significance. Later on, in II Chronicles 3:1, the Temple Mount is specifically identified as Mount Moriah, the site of the akeida. Deuteronomy refers constantly to "the place that I will choose" but does not tell us where that is. It is only with David's conquest that Jerusalem comes into our history. Quite rightly it is known as "the city of David" since he made it the royal capital. See II Samuel 5:6-9. More importantly, he also insured its centrality by bringing the Ark to Jerusalem (II Samuel 6:12-18). The Ark, the throne of God, the symbol of God's presence, had always moved from place to place. Giving it a permanent resting place in Jerusalem transformed a political capital into a religious site of the first importance. The mountain on which the Ark sat, Mount Zion, became the equivalent of Mount Sinai and from then on was known as the "Mountain of the Lord." Solomon's building of the Temple, a permanent building to replace the portable tent, reinforced the concept of Jerusalem as God's dwelling - "city of the Great King" - as the psalmist phrased it (Psalm 48). How anyone can possibly ignore the numerous biblical references is difficult to understand. The Christian Bible as well testifies to the existence of the Temple on its mountain. Indeed without that the Gospel stories make no sense. As for as Islam is concerned, if there was no sacredness to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount why did Muhammad - according to its tradition - come there and why was the Dome of the Rock built? That shrine is built on the rock that was considered sacred because of the sacrifice that took place there - even if its tradition records a different son being offered up and because that rock was thought to be the very foundation of the creation. Several years ago, when doing research for a book about Jerusalem, I came across a letter from a group of rabbis in Jerusalem which was found in the Cairo Geniza describing exactly the relationship between the Dome of the Rock and the Temple. According to that letter the Muslims, under the Caliph Omar I, came to the Jews and asked them to "show them the site of the Temple." The Jews were ordered to clear the mount of the rubbish that had accumulated there and to identify "the stone known as the Foundation Stone." When it was uncovered Omar ordered that "the sanctuary and a dome be erected over the stone." As a reward for their assistance 70 households of Jews were permitted to return to Jerusalem and dwell "near the site of the Temple and its gates" (The Jerusalem Anthology, page 159). The connection of our people to Jerusalem in the past is beyond question, as is the identity of the Temple Mount. What matters now is the meaning that Jerusalem has for us today and will have in the future. The prophets gave Jerusalem not only a past but also a future. The time will come, they taught, when "the mountain of the Lord's House shall stand firm above the mountains and tower above the hills and all the nations shall gaze upon it with joy. And many peoples shall go and say: Come, let us go up to the Mount of the Lord... that He may instruct us in His ways... For instruction shall go forth from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem... And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war" (Isaiah 2:2-4). This vision was the most exalted vision that anyone has ever had. Jerusalem is the symbol of that wondrous time when peace - shalom - a word that is embedded in the name Yerushalayim - will prevail. To be worthy of that is our task. That is its meaning for us today and the challenge that Jerusalem sets for us and for all humanity. The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.