Yom Yerushalayim


L’Shana haba’a birushalayim!
Next year in Jerusalem!

We had been saying those words for 1,897 years, ever since the Romans smashed our Temple and banished us from the Holy City. In all that time, other people controlled our holiest shrine, other people told us when and how we could pray there or even walk there. Other people desecrated our cemeteries there and built latrines out of our ancestors’ gravestones. And then, in 1967, after a war we didn’t start and didn’t want, suddenly we had access, we were in charge, we had control. It was a miracle.

Stop for a moment and consider that: for 1,897 years, we were denied free access to our holiest shrine. Imagine Catholics shut out of Rome. Imagine Muslims told that they could not visit Mecca. Unthinkable!

I am a liberal Jew who prays for and works for a two-state solution. I donate regularly to Rabbis for Human Rights. But I am also a trust-but-verify Jew who has seen that when Jerusalem was an “international city” Jews had no access to our holy places. I prayed and studied in a rabbinical school building that had slit windows, for when it was built, it looked out upon the Jordanian army, there to keep Jews away from places they longed to visit.

So I hope that you will forgive me if I say that I do not want Jerusalem to be an “international city” with someone else in charge. It may have to be a divided city, divided in complex ways. But in truth it has been a divided city ever since 1948.

May Jerusalem soon come to be again the city of peace, a city where justice pours down like a mighty stream, where all can come and worship as they wish, and none hinder or harm them when they do.

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, 
let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
    above my highest joy! – Psalm 137:5-6

 (Image of the Western Wall licensed under by Marek69 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons)

Where Do You Sacrifice the Animals?

This model of 1st c. Jerusalem, complete with Temple (in the foreground) stands at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
This model of 1st c. Jerusalem, complete with Temple (in the foreground) stands at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

“Rabbi, can we see where you sacrifice the animals?”

A group from a local Christian church was touring the synagogue. I explained that we don’t sacrifice animals anymore. We haven’t sacrificed animals since the destruction of Herod’s Temple in year 70 of the common era. Our rules said we could only do that in the Temple in Jerusalem, so once that building was gone, we had to find a new way to stay connected with the Divine.

I don’t think he believed me, but it is the truth.

In a Reform synagogue, not only do we not sacrifice animals, we are no longer hoping to rebuild the Temple. We agree with Maimonides, who wrote in about 1190 in The Guide for the Perplexed that what God wanted from us was prayer, not sacrifices. The sacrifices had been instituted, he wrote, because we saw other people in the ancient world making sacrifices to their gods, and so God gave us a limited program of sacrifice: only certain animals, and only in one place. That program was meant to move us towards prayer as worship. Maimonides never wrote “so don’t bother to rebuild the Temple” but that became the position of the Reform Jews of the 19th century.

Instead of the sacrifices in the Temple, Jews say a prayer every day at the times appointed for the sacrifices. That prayer, often called “the Amidah” [standing prayer] is a series of short blessings said without a pause or interruption. Rather like the pyre on the altar that they replace, these prayers are layered one upon another in a particular prescribed order. For Orthodox Jews, the Amidah includes a prayer for rebuilding the temple, but in the Reform version, that prayer becomes a prayer that God will “pour out Your spirit” upon us, instead.

There are some people so interested in rebuilding the Temple that they have built elaborate models of it, and others who are trying to develop a red heifer so that the new Temple could be properly purified.

I think there are enough mitzvot that need doing in the world without rebuilding the Temple. I am reminded of the words of the Prophet Hosea, and other prophets as well:

For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings. – Hosea 6:6

The Temple was one of the wonders of the world in its time. Today, that space is occupied by someone else’s house of worship since the year 703. Meanwhile, Jews have moved on to a new, more portable form of worship, the layered daily Amidah, and the shorter Amidah for Shabbat. Personally, I’m glad.

What about you? Would you like to see the Temple rebuilt? Why or why not?

Full of Grief and Dread

Har Nof
The Har Nof neighborhood, seen from nearby Yad Vashem, by JuanDev

I worked late last night, and I was typing away at my table when the news came: during morning prayers at a synagogue in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem, two young Palestinian men (allegedly, men who worked in the neighborhood) entered and wounded several people, murdering four. The police arrived and had a gun battle with the attackers in the synagogue. The attackers died, and at least one policeman was severely wounded.

Photos from the synagogue show pools of blood on the floor, slowly soaking into prayer books, tallitot (prayer shawls) and tefillin.

As the news went out, celebrations began in Palestinian neighborhoods. Hamas put a cartoon on its website, celebrating the murders. Prime Minister Abbas condemned the killings but wrapped his condemnation in generalities that suggested Israelis were to blame for incitements at the Temple Mount and elsewhere.

Things readers who have not lived in Israel may want to know, to understand the news reports:

  • Har Nof is a neighborhood in West Jerusalem. It is well to the west of the so-called Green Line, the 1947 boundary established by the United Nations. In other words, in no way, shape or form is it a “settlement,” or in an area occupied by Israel since 1967. It is one of the last places I would have expected such a terror attack.
  • The synagogue on Agasi St. is like many other such places around the city. About thirty people gathered there at 7am for the morning prayers. Most were men who are devoted enough that they make it there every morning to pray, who shared the kinship of that particular minyan. Perhaps someone slightly less religious was there to fulfill the mitzvah of saying kaddish for a close relative.
  • Prayer was underway. The participants were deep into the service, eyes lowered over the prayer books, swaying gently, murmuring the words, concentrating on saying the prayers. Their left arms were wrapped in tefillin, their shawls were wrapped around their shoulders or over their heads. Those deepest in prayer were likely completely unaware of their surroundings, wrapped tightly in their prayer garb, all senses occupied with the service.
  • Two men entered the synagogue with meat cleavers and a gun. They hacked at the group of people who were deep in prayer. The attack was so savage that five people are dead now, not counting the attackers themselves, and many others are in the hospital. The synagogue floor runs with blood.
  • PM Netanyahu and his cabinet are looking into ways to defend against more such attacks. This attack will not accomplish anything other than to make matters worse.  Life in Israel is about to get more difficult for everyone.
I am full of grief and dread. The grief is for the deaths of Torah scholars, and for one more step away from anything that might be peace. The dread is that it doesn’t matter what Israel is willing to offer, nothing but the annihilation of Israel will satisfy those on the other side. I want to shriek at the people celebrating, “Don’t you realize this is just as bad for you as it is for us?”
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

What is the Kotel?

Photograph,early 1900's,by one of the American...
Photo of the Kotel in the early 1900’s by one of the American Colony Photographers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The Kotel” is one of the most famous holy places in the Jewish world.

“Kotel Ha-Ma’aravi” is Hebrew for the “Western Wall,” a retaining wall built by Herod the Great. It is all that is left of the Second Temple, built in 20 BCE (Before the Common Era) and destroyed in 70 CE by the Roman armies of Titus during their sack of Jerusalem.

Among gentiles it has sometimes been known as the “Wailing Wall” but that term has never been in common use among Jews. It got that name from the sound of the prayers of devout Jews who made pilgrimage there during the centuries of Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman rule.

Many visitors to the Kotel write prayers on scraps of paper and press the paper into the crevices in the Wall.

Today the Kotel functions as an open-air synagogue. It has been in the news because of controversy over the norms for prayer at the site. For 25 years, the Women of the Wall have pressed for the right to pray aloud, to read aloud from the Torah, and to wear tallitot (prayer shawls) at the Kotel.  Their struggle is ongoing.