Whose Jerusalem ?

Whose Jerusalem ?

Whose Land ?


by Prof. R.J. Zwi Werblowsky

One way in which people have experienced and, as it were, crystallized their sense of holiness, was in their relation to space.(1)

There are holy lands - that is lands that are considered holy by virtue of the bond that binds human groups to the earth on which they live. It is a bond of gratitude and love that frequently, and at times imperceptibly, turns into veneration. Some of you may have visited the temple in Benares in which the object of worship is a map of Mother India. There are holy places as distinct from holy lands, places where the divine became manifest, in one way or another, to the eyes of believing men and women, and which were cherished or revered as concrete, tangible; spatially defined testimonies to the reality of the divine as it had become visible in experiences or traditions of theophanies, revelations, miracles, or the lives of saintly men. There are holy cities as distinct from holy places: cities that acquired their holiness as a result of historical circumstances and events, or cities that are holy because either in theory or in actual fact they were constructed so as to reflect cosmic reality - a kind of microcosmic spatial reflection of the cosmos and its underlying divine ground as conceived and spelled out in mythological tradition.(2)

There are cities which are holy because they harbour and possess a holy object or shrine. We think of Mecca, Benaes, Lhasa, Angkor, Rome and many others. As a modern example we may instance Tenri (near Nara, in Japan), which is a holy city not only because it is built around the "navel of the earth", the sacred kanrodai, but also because it is constructed according to a divine path.

This paper will deal with one city only, but one to which three major, and related, religions are bound by bonds of veneration and love. We shall try to understand what Jerusalem has meant to Jews, Christians and Muslims, and what it means to them today. We shall attempt to see the differences in the nature of the bond, in the origins of the sacred character, and in the quality and functions of the holiness involved.

Let me turn to Islam first because here the problem is, in some respects, the most intriguing. The sanctity of Jerusalem in Islam is a fact. Jerusalem is al-Kuds ("the Holy One"), or al-Kuds al-sharifa ("the noble holy one") as it was referred to by medieval Arab travellers and writers. The problem that interests us here is how the city came to acquire that place in Muslim consciousness, and in a religion the founder of which exercised his ministry in south-western Arabi. (To obviate any possible misunderstandings, permit me to add here a parenthesis to the effect that I shall address myself to this problem as an "unbeliever". What are facts to the believing Muslim, are not necessarily so to the critical historian and student of Comparative Religion.) The general outline of the answer is simple and obvious enough, though the details prove to be more complex. There is little doubt - in the eyes of the aforementioned unbelieving historian - that the Prophet Muhammad never was in Jerusalem. It is equally beyond doubt that the Prophet and his message were profoundly indebted to Christian and Jewish influences. Scholarly opinion differs regarding the extent and the relative contributions of the Jewish and Christian influences respectively, as well as regarding the forms of Judaism and Christianity which the Prophet encountered during his formative years when his message, as it were, incubated and matured. Was it, for instance, the "normative" Judaism which we know from the classical sources of the period, or some form of local or sectarian Judaism? This, incidentally, might also explain the "garbled" versions in which some Jewish and Christian, including Biblical, traditions re-appear in the Kur'an. But be that as it may, there is little doubt that for many of his central ideas (e.g. monotheism, the day of judgment, man's moral responsibility for his actions) the Prophet was indebted to a Christian and Jewish legacy.

The holiness of Jerusalem was part of that legacy, and indeed the original direction of prayer (qibla) was not to Mecca but to Jerusalem - 'ula al-qiblatheyn ("the first of the two qiblas"). This is not the occasion to discuss the origin of this first qibla and the reasons for the subsequent change to the direction of Mecca and the Ka'aba (cf. Kur'an, Sura 2:136 f.). There is an abundant literature on the subject, both historical and theological, which I need not summarize here.

Nevertheless we must turn our attention, however briefly, to the famous passage in the Kur'an, Sura 17:1 "Praise be to Allah who brought his servant at night from the Holy Mosque to the Remote Mosque, the precincts of which we have bless". Again we need not discuss here the original meaning of this verse, though I for one am convinced that the reference is to an extatic viz. visionary ascent to a heavenly sanctuary.(3)

The idea of a heavenly sanctuary too is well-known in Jewish and Christian tradition where, however, this notion was sometimes associated with that of a heavenly Jerusalem. Hence some scholars have persuasively argued that even the original meaning of the kur'anic text implied some kind of reference to Jerusalem, albeit the celestial one.

It is, however, not the debated original meaning of the kur'anic passage which must claim our attention here, but the interpretation which it was given already in early Islam. According to this interpretation, the Prophet Muhammad was miraculously transported from Mecca to Jerusalem, and it was from there that he made his ascent to heaven, the mi'radj (the references to revelations granted to the Prophet and described Kur'an, Sura 81:19 ff. and 53:1 ff., were consequently merged with the journey referred to in Sura 17:1). The events of this nocturnal journey (the isra') were subsequently embellished by a luxuriant growth of legend, which included the Prophet's miraculous winged mount, al-Buraq, and many more picturesque details. But the gist of the story - as relevant to our purpose - is simple, and if I may put it, somewhat irreverently, into the language of modern air travel, it is this: there are no direct flights from Mecca to Heaven; you have to make a stopover in Jerusalem. By this interpretation and by this fusion of the isra' and the mi'radj, Islam linked itself to the traditional holiness of Jerusalem in Christianity and Judaism, and integrated this legacy into its own religious system.

For the historian there arises the problem how to account for the growth of these beliefs and traditions. Why, where, and when exactly did they develop? It matters little for our purpose that not all Muslim traditions are unanimous on the subject, that some of these traditions are patently late fabrications, and that even in later times some audacious and near-heretical spirits actually denied the literal occurrence of these events, either by flat rationalist rejection or by mystical allegorization. We are interested here in the central, orthodox, "mainline" tradition of Islam for which al-mi'radj haqq, the tale of Muhammad's ascent to heaven, including the preceding nocturnal journey to Jerusalem, is literally true. This belief has nourished Muslim dogmatics, piety and devotion for centuries, although in this respect too tensions and struggles are evident.

For there had occurred an important event that decisively affected and changed the status of Jerusalem, and influenced its consolidation as a centre of Muslim devotion. That was the conquest of the city by the Khalif Omar in or about the year 638. Unlike the early days of the Medinese period, when Jerusalem was outside the orbit of Muslim society, and the original qibla was due to purely ideological factors, Jerusalem was now part of the dar al-Islam, the Muslim oikoumene. The many Christian churches and places of pilgrimage in the city (including the traditional site of Christ's ascension), and its role as a centre of Christian devotion and piety, could not but act as a challenge to the Muslims. Jewish influences too may have played a part, as evidenced by traditions such as that concerning the dialogue between the conqueror of Jerusalem, the Khalif Omar ibn al-Khattab, and Ka'ab al-al-Akhbar, a Jewish convert to Islam, as recounted by the 10th century historian al-Tabari. Indeed, attempts to extol the sanctity of Jerusalem in such manner as might seem to make the city compete with Mecca or Medina, were more than once branded by opponents as "Jewish".(4)

The Khalif Omar seems to have erected a house of prayer near the holy sakhra (the "rock") on the site of the former Jewish temple, and about fifty years later, in the year 691, the Umayyad khalif Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan built the mosque (falsely called the Mosque of Omar in popular parlance) which to this day is one of the glories not only of Islam but of religious architecture in general. The Jewish word for the Temple became one of the Arabic designations of Jerusalem: Beyt al-Makdis (or Beyt al-Mukaddis), shar-rafahu Allah - "the House of the Sanctuary, may Allah glorify it".

The history of the mosque, its repairs and renovations, need not detain us here. What matters is the fact that when Abd al-Malik (or his son al-Walid) built the large mosque at the southern end of the Haram and this mosque came to be called al-Aksa ("the Remote Mosque"), the identification of the site with the "farthest (or remote Mosque" in the kur'anic account of the isra' was definitive and complete. For a long time scholars have held the growing emphasis on the sanctity of Jerusalem to have been due mainly to pragmatic considerations of Umayyad politics, and even the eminent Goldziher(5)

lent the weight of his great authority to this view. Abd al-Malik, it was asserted, was interested in boosting the sanctity of Jerusalem in order to neutralize the influence of the rebellious counter-khalif in Mecca, ibn Zubayr, Modern scholarship - and I am in private duty bound to emphasize the contribution of scholars from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in this matter - has abandoned this interpretation, and tends to accept the testimony of the ancient Muslim writers to the effect that the underlying motives were essentially religious.(6)

Jerusalem had begun to play an increasingly important role in Muslim piety, and if there was an element of competition, it was not so much with ibn Zubayr and Mecca as with the Christian churches in Jerusalem and especially the noble dome of the Anastasis (unfortunately known in western Christendom under the name of the "Holy Sepulchre"), the splendour of which the Muslims wanted to outdo with an even more glorious sanctuary. This is explicitly stated by a great lover of Jerusalem and an illustrious fellow-Jerusalemite (though he lived a thousand years ago), the 10th century Arab geographer and historian al-Mukaddasi, and I see no reason to disbelieve his testimony.

The sanctity of this holy site acted like a magnet, and an increasing number of cosmological, eschatological,(7)

and legendary-historical beliefs as well as devout practices came to be associated with it. After the conquest of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, a new kind of - one is tempted to call it "Zionist" - literature began to flourish in the Islamic world: the fadha'il al-Kuds, tracts singing the praises and virtues of Jerusalem. It will not do to describe this genre litteraire simply as propaganda designed to rouse enthusiasm for a Muslim reconquista. No doubt this factor helps to explain the quantity and dissemination of this kind of literature, but its existence as such and the underlying ideas belong to the sphere of Muslim piety and devotion. As a matter of fact, the fadha'il literature, though it flourished in the Crusader period,(8)

actually had its beginnings before the Crusades. When a modern Muslim scholar asserts that "the earliest work of this class is by a contemporary of Saladin"(9)

then I am pleased to point to the work of scholars at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which has definitely established the earlier date of some fadha'il al-Kuds compositions.(10)

Islam, therefore, provides us with perhaps the most impressive example of how a holy city can acquire a specific holiness on the basis of what - to the unbelieving outsider at least - is mere legend, superimposed, no doubt, on an earlier, traditional, sanctity of the place. Whereas in the case of Christianity historic facts (i.e., the life and death of Jesus) created religious facts (e.g., the resurrection and ascension), and both combined to create "holy places", the Islamic case is the exact opposite. Beliefs and piety created religious facts and these, in their run, produced historic facts which, for the contemporary student of religion, culture and even politics, must be deemed, to all practical intents and purposes, as real as any other kind of "hard" fact. Certainly in Islam, which does not make the distinction between the religious and the secular (including the political) spheres in the way Christianity has made it, religious facts have implications which legitimately spill over into the political sphere. This remains true even where the religious dimension is subject to abuse and manipulation by purely political interests.

I have just mentioned the fadha'il al-Kuds literature and its remarkable flowering during the Crusader period, i.e. at a time when Christian longing for the Holy Land and the terrestrial Jerusalem - as well as some other, less laudable and less Christian, impulses - had reached fever pitch. Christian enthusiasm for the Holy City celebrated its most un-Christian triumph in the Crusader conquest of Jerusalem in the year 1099. Muslim enthusiasm in turn triumphed with Saladin's reconquest of the city and the removal of the golden cross from the top of the dome where the Crusaders had planted it. But the Christian attitude to the Holy Land and to the Holy City is far more complex, and was not always and unequivocally of the crusading type. To illustrate this ambiguity, let me begin with an incident from the times of the Second Crusade.

In the year 1129 or thereabouts, an English clerk by name of Philip from the diocese of Lincoln set out on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On his way to Jerusalem he stopped at Clairvaux. Shortly afterwards the Bishop of Lincoln received a letter from the Abbot of Clairvaux, announcing the good tidings that Philip had arrived safely and very quickly at his destination, and that he intended to remain there permanently. "He has entered the holy city and has chosen his heritage... He is no longer an inquisitive onlooker but a devout inhabitant and an enrolled citizen of Jerusalem". But this Jerusalem, "if you want to know, is Clairvaux. She is the Jerusalem united to the one in heaven by whole-hearted devotion, by conformity of life, and by a certain spiritual affinity".(11)

The true home of the Christian - according to the medieval conception - is the heavenly Jerusalem. Not that he must despise the terrestrial Jerusalem, but the true terrestrial Jerusalem which is "united to the one in heaven" is wherever the perfect Christian life is lived. We recognize in this letter the voice of the same Abbot of Clairvaux who refused the offer, in 1131, by the Crusader King of Jerusalem, Baldwin II, of the site of St. Samuel (also known as Mountjoy or Mons Gaudii) northwest of Jerusalem, and who encouraged the Premonstratensians to establish themselves there instead of the Cistercians. Yet the same Bernard also preached the Second Crusade and helped to establish the new order of the Knights Temlars.

Here we have, in a nutshell, the late medieval version of what is a fundamental Christian ambiguity or, stated otherwise, dialectics.

Indeed, for many centuries Christianity had been caught between the horns of the dilemma of the heavenly versus the earthly Jerusalem.(12)

The New Testament itself exhibits a marked tendency towards what might be called a "de-territoialization" of the concept of holiness, and a consequent dissolution of spatially localized notions. It is not the Temple and its Holy of Holies that is the centre, but Christ; it is not the Holy City or Land that constitute the "area" of holiness, but the new community, the body of Christ.(13)

Yet for later generations of Christians, the land in general and Jerusalem in particular were the scene on which the most uniquely momentous events of history had been enacted. The mystery of the incarnation and redemption had taken place here. The divine act of salvation, in spite of its universal - and according to some early fathers, cosmic - significance, here had its local habitation and incarnate manifestation. The nativity and the events preceding it, Christ's childhood and manhood, his ministry and preaching, the consummation of this ministry in his passion, resurrection and ascension, the birth of the Church on Pentecost and the beginnings of the first Christian community - all these took place on definite spots in this particular city and land, no matter whether the sites associated with these events by later tradition were historically "authentic" or not.

Small wonder, then, that Christians have always cherished Palestine as a "holy land", and Jerusalem as a "holy city", and that pilgrims have at all times come to visit the sites associated with the mystery of salvation and to permeate their souls with the blessings of this mystery at the very place of its earthly and historical manifestation. Yet at the same time the aforementioned "de-territorializing" tendency also asserted itself, and many of the great spiritual figures in the history of Christianity expressed doubts about what seemed to them an at least potentially crude, unspiritual, and hence unsound approach to the mystery. Commenting on the words of Jesus "if any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink" (John 7:37), St. Augustine wrote:(14)

When we thirst, then we should come - not with our feet but rather with our feelings; we should come not by wandering but by loving. In an inward way to love is to wander. It is one thing to wander with the body, and a different thing to wander with the heart. He who wanders with the body, changes his place by the motion of the body; he who wanders with the heart, changes his feelings by the motion of the heart.

There were other voices warning against pilgrimages, and casting doubt on their value. St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote in one of his letters(15)

"advise therefore the brethren to ascend from the body to God, rather than from Cappadocia to Palestine", but he himself did make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. St. Jerome, although he chose to spend the better part of his life in Bethlehem, declared(16)

"the heavenly sanctuary is open from Britain no less than from Jerusalem, for the Kingdom of God is within you", and many later mystical writers suggested that pilgrimages were not always or necessarily conducive to sanctification. Protestantism has taken up this strand in the Christian tradition, emphasizing and elaborating it, and I need not remind you of the Puritan poet's jeer in his description of the paradise of fools,(17)

Here Pilgrims roam, that stray'd so far to seek

In Golgotha him dead, who lives in Heav'n.

Others dreamed of a terrestrial but omnipresent Jerusalem, a Jerusalem that could be built "in England's green and pleasant land". But again, as if to illustrate the aforementioned built-in Christian ambivalence in this matter, it was Protestant scholarship which gave the main impetus to the modern study of biblical archeology and antiquities.(18)

By and large, however, Christian piety has acted on the assumption that the movement of the body and that of the heart were not incompatible and that, on the contrary, the former could stimulate and promote the latter. But this is only part - and perhaps the lesser part - of the story. We already encountered one main Christian Leitmotiv in St. Bernard's letter to the Bishop of Lincoln: the idea of the heavenly Jerusalem, which is the real and essential one, and of which any possible earthly Jerusalem is but a pale terrestrial reflection. The origins of this notion of a heavenly Jerusalem go back to the Judaism of the Second Temple period, and I shall soon have to say a word on this, as well as on the development of this idea in post-Temple, Tannaitic and Amoraic (i.e., rabbinic) Judaism.(19)

Mount Zion and the city of the living God are explicitly identified with the heavenly Jerusalem in the Epistle to the Hebrews 12:22, and there is no need for me to quote at length from the apocalyptic vision of the glorious celestial Jerusalem, shining with gold and studded with sapphires, as described in ch. 21 of the Revelation of St. John. This chapter has had a lasting influence on Christian symbolism, but one may perhaps venture to generalize by saying that this influence exerted itself mainly in line with the aforementioned spiritualizing and de-territorializing tendency. Jerusalem is essentially the heavenly Jerusalem, and the heavenly Jerusalem is the archetype of the Church. Like every city which is a metropolis, i.e. in both the literal and the archetypal sense a mother to her children,(20)

so the heavenly Jerusalem too, "the Jerusalem which is above", is, in the words of the Apostle Paul (Gal. 4:26), "the mother of us all". In fact, the city as the mother, i.e., the celestial Jerusalem which is the mother of us all, is identical with the mater ecclesia. The liquidation, to all practical intents and purposes, of concrete historical eschatology in the centuries between Revelation and St. Augustine, produced a Christian image of the heavenly Jerusalem which is purely spiritual. This heavenly, spiritual entity, of which the Church in this world is an earthly reflection, is the abode of God who dwells in the midst of his faithful and sanctified people. This spiritual view of humanity united to God, expressed largely in allegorical and homiletical imagery, was only partly counterbalanced by the traditions of popular piety, pilgrimages, and such outbursts of enthusiasm as witnessed by the Crusader period.

It would be a worthy subject of a special paper to examine the songs of Zion in Christian poetry. Who has not listened with emotion and a pounding heart to the yearning for salvation voiced in many a Negro spiritual that sings of Jerusalem; or has not felt an elation of spirit at listening to the strains of the German chorale Jerusalem, Du hochgebaute Stadt? And as for Jerusalem the Golden, associated in the minds of most Israelis with Naomi Shemer's wonderful song which since 1967 has become an even more genuine expression of Israeli feeling than the national anthem, few of them, I suspect, are aware that a poem of that name is an old favourite in the hymn book of the Anglican Church, going back, in its turn, to a more ancient medieval hymn. Whenever a new church is consecrated - for a church is meant to reflect that heavenly church in which all the children of God are assembled - the following beautiful hymn is sung in the Latin rite: Urbs Jerusalem beata

Dicta pacis visio

Quae construitur in colis

Vivis ex lapidibus


Plateae et muri ejus

Ex auro purissimo.

But perhaps the most beautiful and moving of all Christian poetry on the subject is a song Abelard wrote, not in honour of Heloise, but in honour of that perfect day which is eternal Sabbath and eternal joy. This ultimate Sabbath day, Abelard identified, in the wake of traditional symbolism, with the heavenly Jerusalem, the one serving as a cosmi-temporal, the other as a cosmic-spatial symbol of ultimate bliss and perfection:

O quanta qualia

Sunt illa sabbata

Quae semper celebrat

Superna curia

Quae fessis requies

Quae merces fortibus

Cum erit omnia

Deus in omnibus

Vera Jerusalem

Est illa civitas

Cujus pax iugis est

Summa iucunditas.

I do not know what Abelard would have said had he known that this combination of the symbolism of Jerusalem and the Sabbath, coming to him from the treasury of Christian imagery, would later produce some very off sectarian phenomena. The great revival that swept many Bantu tribes in South Africa (and about which Bishop Begt Sundkler has given us such a fine book,(21)

) produced hundreds of churches and sects which in part have the word Zion in their name, and in part even use the sixpointed "Star of David" as a symbol, some of them carrying such curious names as "The Apostolic Jerusalem Church in Sabbath in Zion". This aspect of the matter does not come within the scope of the present paper.

Christian hymnology is almost exclusively heavenly. In the words of the medieval poet, Jerusalem is the Urbs Sion unica, mansio mystica, condita coelo.

To the extent that Jerusalem also has a terrestrial, geographical dimension as a holy city, it is mainly in its quality of a memento of holy events that occurred at certain places - "holy places" therein.

The Jewish tradition is very different. I need not go here into the question of the pre-history of Jerusalem, the "foundation of (the deity) Shalem", and its role as a holy city viz. cultic centre in pre-Israelite, Jebusite and even pre-Jebusite times. For our present purpose it suffices to remind ourselves of the fact that Jerusalem does not form part of the earliest Israelite traditions as reflected in the corresponding strata of the biblical record. Jerusalem was not the major cultic centre of either the patriarchal or the early Israelite period after the conquest. There were Shilo, Beth El, Shechem and others. The episode of the meeting of Abraham with Melchisedek, the priest-King of Shalem (Ge. 14), probably reflects later, post-Davidic ideology, bent on cementing the association of the Holy City with the ancestor of the nation. Jerusalem entered Israelite history and historico-religious consciousness under David. The story of the conquest of the city, as well as the reasons that prompted David to turn her into a symbolic centre - ritually as well as politically - are too well known to require rehearsing here. Suffice it to say that David made Jerusalem the cornerstone of the religious and cultic, as well as the national unification of Israel. In the words of Prof. Shemaryahu Talmon,(22)

"Jerusalem thus became the symbol and the most significant expression of the transition from 'peoplehood' to the formation of a 'nation' and a 'state'. But it was never completely subservient to, or identified with, the new social phenomenon and hence, when the state ceased to exist. Jerusalem did not lose is importance and symbolic value for the Jewish people. The city which in antiquity had undergone one decisive transformation of her significance, could easily adapt and readjust to ensuing diverse historical situations. She has, in fact, done so for many hundred years without losing her prestige and the symbolic value that had been conferred on her by David". Indeed, the amazing and historically crucial aspect of the story is the depth and tenacity with which the "Jerusalem consciousness" (as I would call it) has struck roots in Israelite feeling, belief and theology. Jerusalem was the city which God had chosen, and the chosenness of this city was as much part of God's covenant with his people as his covenant with David and his seed, and it was as permanent as his covenant with Nature (cf. Jeremiah 31:34-39; 33:14-26).

The meaning of Jerusalem as it subsequently determined Jewish self-understanding and historic consciousness is spelled out in the Prophets and in the Book of Psalms. Jerusalem and Zion are synonymous, and they came to mean not only the city but the land as a whole and the Jewish people (viz. its remnant) as a whole. When the author of Lamentations bewails the destruction of the "daughter of Jerusalem" and the exile of the "children of Zion" he obviously means the people; and when the prophet known as the Second Isaiah rhapsodically exults in the rejoicing of Zion as her sons return unto her from the dispersion, he clearly means the people and the land as historic entities. City, land and people become one in a grand symbolic fusion. Zion, viz. Jerusalem, is the "Mother" also in Jewish symbolic language, and the same figures of speech which Christian idiom uses in connection with the mater ecclesia, are used by the ancient rabbis of keneseth Yisra'el, identified with Zion and Jerusalem as the mother. These symbolic equations are a permanent feature of Jewish experience since the days of the Psalmist. The identification of Zion and Jerusalem with the widowed, sorrowful and mourning mother, who one day will exult and rejoice again as her children are gathered back unto her, is one of the main motives of traditional Jewish imagery since that pattern was set by the Second Isaiah. The talmudic sages merely spelled out more explicitly in their many dicta on the subject that which was already implicit in the prophets and in many Psalms.

The prophet's word (Is. 49:14) "And Zion said 'the Lord has forsaken me' " is paraphrased in the Talmud(23)

- as a matter of course - "the congregation of Israel said... ". The perfect liturgical expression of this symbolism occurs in the Jewish wedding service, where one of the liturgical benedictions reads "May she who was barren (scil. Zion) be exceedingly glad and exult when her children are gathered within her in joy. Blessed art thou, o Lord, who makest Zion joyful through her children". Another version of the same benediction has the closing words "who makest Zion joyful and rebuildest Jerusalem". Similarly one of the benedictions recited every Sabbath after the reading of the prophetic lesson says: "Have pity on Zion which is the home of our life... Blessed are thou, o Lord, who makest Zion rejoice in her children".

The scope of this paper does not permit even a cursory review of the role of Zion, or Jerusalem, in the daily liturgy, in the grace after every meal, and in the poetry and homiletical writings of medieval Judaism. The point which I wish to emphasize here is the semantic role of a geographical term for naming an historical entity, but in such a way that history remains anchored in a concrete, geographical centre, in terms both of origin (the covenant of the promised land and the chosen city) and subsequent catastrophe and suffering (exile, dispersion), and of eschatology (restitution and future return). Rabbinic tradition took up and developed in its own peculiar way the notion of a heavenly Jerusalem that had begun to evolve in the inter-teramentary period. But the rabbinic priorities are reversed when compared to the Christian scheme, where the symbolism of the heavenly Jerusalem tends to dominate. Liturgical devotion, popular piety, religious symbolism, and messianic hope - also in its 19th and 20th century secularized forms - are directed first and foremost to the earthly Jerusalem as a symbol of the ingathering, on this earth, of the people to their promised land. A most striking rabbinic saying almost goes out of its way to invert the usual apocalyptic cosmology, according to which the earthly Jerusalem is but a reflection of the heavenly one. According to this midrash(24)

"you also find that there is a Jerusalem above, corresponding to the Jerusalem below. For sheer love of the earthly Jerusalem, God made himself one above". In other words, the earthly Jerusalem does not reflect a heavenly archetype, nor does it derive it significance from the fact that it mirrors a celestial reality. It is a value in itself, and as such serves as the archetype of God's heavenly Jerusalem. According to this tradition, spiritual fullness can never be attained by playing down the historical sphere with its material, social and political realities. The ideal, restored Jerusalem of Jeremiah's vision is a city, nay a political centre, bustling with life and with people: "For if ye do these things indeed, then shall there enter by the gates of his house (i.e. city) kings sitting upon the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, he and his servants, and his people" (Jer. 22:4). We may note in passing the plural "kings sitting upon the throne" in Jeremiah's utopia. The eschatological notion of the one messianic Son of David had not yet evolved. To quote Prof. Shemaryahu Talmon once more: "Nevertheless, also at the height of its development, the idea of the celestial Jerusalem as it was conceived by Jewish thinkers, and even by mystic fancy, never lost its touch with down-to-earth reality. A definite strand of this-worldiness... seems to permeate normative Jewish religion in all its ramifications").(25)

The earliest reference to a heavenly Jerusalem in talmudic literature(26)

puts the following, somewhat surprising, words into the mouth of God himself, who is made to say: "I will not enter the heavenly Jerusalem, until I have entered the earthly Jerusalem first".

If it is true, as I have suggested, that the synonymous terms Jerusalem and Zion have symbolized the historical reality of a people and of its bond to a land, then we may, perhaps, also come closer to an understanding (though not necessarily to an affirmation) of the modern, secularized stages of this history. The modern Jewish national movement took its name not from that of a country or a people, but from that of a city: Zionism. The hymn of the Zionist movement, which in 1948 became the national anthem of Israel, speaks of the "eye that looks toward Zion" and of the millenial hope of a return to "the land of Zion and Jerusalem". The anthem, known as ha-Tiqvah ("Hope"), is very poor poetry indeed, but in all its awkwardness and sentimentality it somehow catches the essential awareness of the Jewish people that at it centre there is an indissoluble bond with the land, and that at the centre of this centre is Zion, the City of David. Jerusalem and Zion are geographical terms beyond mere geography, but not without geography: they are "the local habitation and the name" for an historic existence and its continuity - an existence which for the religious Jews has religious dimensions and which for the secular Jew is capable of a secularized re-formulation.

In conclusion, I would like to reflect on the practical, even political implications of what has been said so far. Jerusalem, which popular etymology has interpreted, surely with laudable intentions but with little philological or, for that matter, historical justification, as the "city of peace", has seen more bloodshed, warfare, hatred, conquests and internecine strife than perhaps any other city. Today too, in this allegedly secularized age, religious arguments and symbols are marshalled and pressed into the service of political aspirations and the clash of conflicting nationalisms. Surely the student of Comparative Religion should beware of playing into the hands of partisan politics and propaganda. No religious or historic experience, however authentic and genuine, and however normative for the group that affirms it, can claim normative value and validity for the bearers of other experiences possessing their own and distinct symbolic articulations. But Comparative Religion can help us to understand: to understand the varieties and depths of emotions; the distinct types of symbolic and mythical realities involved; and the options, possibilities and limits which each religious group experiences within its own symbolic framework.

In one important respect there seems to be a crucial difference between the Jewish relationship to Jerusalem on the one hand, and that of Christianity and Islam on the other. The difference has, I think, been most lucidly expressed by Prof. Krister Stendahl, when he wrote:(27)

"For Christians and Muslims that term (scil. holy sites) is an adequate expression of what matters. Here are sacred places, hallowed by the most holy events, here are the places for pilgrimage, the very focus of highest devotion... But Judaism is different... The sites sacred to Judaism have no shrines. Its religion is not tied to "sites" but to the land, not to what happened in Jerusalem but to Jerusalem itself."

The Christian tradition has, indeed, preserved much of the amplitude and many of the biblical resonances of the word Jerusalem, though these have been muted by the specifically Christian "de-territoialization" of the concept, a shift from a geographical to a personal centre, and - more generally - an orientation towards the universal categories of persons and community. Moreover, the spiritual emphasis came to be focused on the heavenly Jerusalem, with the earthly Jerusalem being not much more than a memento of the holy events enacted there. Hence no political issue can possible arise - unless the churches relapse into a Crusader mentality, into an antiquated triumphalism that mistakes its political ambitions for "spiritual interests", or into sheer hypocrisy that tries to make political profit from a symbolism and message that are alleged to be purely religious and universal.

The case of Islam is different again. The fact that a non-Muslim critical historian will consider the Muslim bond to al-Kuds as based on pure legend is, as I have argued before, utterly irrelevant. Al-Kuds, together with the traditions of the isra' and the mi'radj, is firmly rooted in the very heart of Muslim belief and piety. It is part of the supreme event in religious history: the ministry of Muhammad as Allah's messenger and the seal of prophecy. But this fact also has political implications; for Islam, taken on its own terms, never claimed to make the same kind of distinctions between the religious and the secular sphere that are so characteristic of the Christian tradition. Hence Muslim political interests in Jerusalem never have the unpleasant overtones of hypocrisy which Christian claims on the Holy City so frequently have. It is true that for Islam Jerusalem is not a holy city in the Jewish sense of that expression. Strictly speaking it is a question of a holy site in Jerusalem. But the very fact that the noble haram, "the surroundings of which we have blessed", is there, creates an almost natural presumption that it should be part of the dar al-Islam. The nature of this presumptive right may, perhaps, require reexamination in the light of the self-confessed secular quality of modern Arab nationalism that is shared by Muslim, anti-Muslim revolutionary, and Christian Arabs alike. But although the argument may have lost much of its genuinely religious dimension, the appeal to the sanctity of Jerusalem is still powerful enough to arouse enthusiasms and to inflame passions.

For the Jewish people, as we have seen, Jerusalem is not a city containing holy places or commemorating holy events. The city as such is holy and has, for at least two and a half millennia, served as the symbol of the historic existence of a people hunted, humiliated, massacred, but never despairing of the promise of its ultimate restoration. Jerusalem and Zion have, as I said before, become "the local habitation and the name" for the hope and meaning of Jewish existence, and of its continuity from the days when, according to the authors of the biblical books, God spoke of a certain place that he would choose, to the days of the return which - however improbable it might seem - was never in doubt for the Jew. Understanding the symbolic function of Jerusalem in Jewish tradition, we come to see that even the avowed secularist's use of this symbol has a measure of legitimacy about it, unparalleled in other traditions. When Jewish secularists say "Jerusalem", it is, mutatis mutandis, like the opening word of General de Gaulle's famous speech after the liberation of Paris: Paris - where Paris meant France and the French people, their history, their agony, and their liberation. There is, of course, the not insignificant difference that "Jerusalem" has far deeper roots in the Jewish soul, and as a symbol has a certain transcendental reference, unlike anything comparable in other societies.

Nevertheless I have chosen this last example advisedly, because there is something profoundly disturbing about it. Can we, should we, in the second half of this 20th century, make use of religious and/or secularized symbols that easily become catchwords drawing a dubious vitality from their mythological roots? Can we engage in constructive and morally responsible politics by making ourselves prisoners of symbolisms, however venerable and hallowed? Can we bring holiness into our personal lives and into our collective living by a mythology of holiness which all too easily degenerates into partisan sloganeering? These are questions not easy to answer, for symbols cannot always be dismissed with a cavalier wave of the hands as "mere" slogans or mythological anachronisms. Sometimes they are the repositories of both the conscious and the unconscious life-giving truths of a community. Today, whilst life in Jerusalem is normal and even shows signs of growing amity, on the personal level, between the different sections of the population; on the international and political level Jerusalem is not so much a symbol of holiness and of peace, as of strife and conflicting aspirations. Those who love Jerusalem and seek its peace, and in the first place all those that like to call themselves children of Abraham and for whom the word "Jerusalem" is still pregnant with meaning, will surely not forget that part of this meaning was expressed more than two and a half millennia ago by the Prophet Isaiah (1:27): "Zion will be redeemed by justice, and its inhabitants by righteousness".

1. 1 Cf. e/g/. <Mircea Eliade. The Sacred and the Profane (1959), ch. 1 "Sacred Space and Making the World Sacred".

2. 2 Cf. Werner Muller, Die heilige Stadt (1961). Muller's erudite study is interesting and stimulating in many way, but many of his assertions and theories on the subject of Der Berg Zion und der Schopfungsfelsen (179 ff.) are wrong and utterly untenable.

3. 3 This thesis was put forward by I. Horovitz in several papers as well as in his art. Mi'raj in the first ed. of the Encyclopaedia of Islam. The literature on the role of Jerusalem in Islam is immense. More or less complete bibliographies can be found in the relevant encyclopaedias (and especially the Encyclopaedia of Islam) s.vv. al-Kuds, Isra', and Mi'radj, as well as in the articles referred to below, notes 7, 9 and 11. To these should be added M.J. Kister's erudite and extremely illuminating study "You shall set out for three Mosques" - A Study of an Early Tradition", in Le Museon 82 (1969), 173 -196. Lest anyone think that the Hebrew public in Israel needs enlightenment on the subject, I would refer here - among the more recent publications - to the two excellent (Hebrew) articles by H.Z. Hirschberg, "The Temple Mount in the Arab period (638 - 1099) in Jewish and Muslim Traditions, and in Historical Reality", in Jerusalem through the Ages (Proceedings of the 25th Archaeological Convention of the Israel Exploration Society (Jerusalem, 1968), 109-119, and by H. Lazarus-Yaffeh, "The Sanctity of Jerusalem in Muslim Tradition" in Molad, N.S. 4, no. 21 (August-September 1971), 219-227.

4. 4 To call something "Jewish was, in medieval usage, one of the most convenient methods of discrediting it; cf. the habit of orthodox Christian writers of denouncing millenarian tendencies as reprehensible "judaizing".

5. 5 I. Goldziher, Muhammedanische Studien ii (1890), 35 f.

6. 6 S.D. Goitein, "The Sanctity of Jerusalem and Palestine in Early Islam", in Studies in Islamic History and Institutions (Leiden, 1996), 135-148 , summarizing his many earlier researches and publications (mainly in Hebrew) on the subject.

7. 7 This aspect of the matter deserves, perhaps, greater emphasis than it is usually given. The role of Jerusalem in Muslim belief and feeling I s not exhaustively accounted for by exclusive reference to certain miraculous events in the Prophet's life. Jerusalem is also the place of the final denouement of the history of this world; it is the centre and locus on which all eschatological beliefs and ideas are focused. The eschatological associations are perhaps no less important - for the ordinary Muslim believer - than the "historical" associations with the Prophet's ministry.

8. 8 Cf. E. Sivan, "Le caractère sacré de Jérusalem dans l'Islam aux XIIe-XIIIe siècles", in Studia Islamica 27 (1967), 149-182, especially 152 f.

9. 9 A.L. Tibawi, "Jerusalem: its place in Islam and Arab History" in The Islamic Quarterly 12 (1968), 185-218. The quotation is from p. 196.

10. 10 Prof. M. Kister has discovered a MS. of what may well be the earliest work of this genre in a mosque in Acre. The tract (the existence of which had been known before, since it is mentioned by the 14th century author al-Maqdisi) was composed in Jerusalem not later than 410 H/1019-1020. Al-Wasiti's text is currently being prepared for publication (as an M.A. thesis for The Hebrew University of Jerusalem) by Mr. Y. Hason. See also E. Sivan, "The Beginnings of the Fada'il Al-Quds Literature" in Israel Oriental Studies 1 (1971), 263-271.

11. 11 Letter 64 in the Benedictine ed. (P.L. vol. 182, coll. 169-70); English translation in Bruno Scott James, The Letters of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, 1953, 90-92.

12. 12 Cf. J. Prawer's (Hebrew) article "Christianity between the Heavenly and the Earthly Jerusalem" in the volume Jerusalem through the Ages (See above, note 4), 179-192.

13. 13 On this subject see W.D. Davies, "Jerusalem and the land: the Christian Tradition" in M.M. Tanenbaum and R.J.Z. Werblowsky (edd.), The Jerusalem Colloquium on Religion, Peoplehood, Nation and Land (Jerusalem, 1972), 115-154; cf. also the contribution of Canon M. Warren in the same volume, 187 ff.

14. 14 In Ioannis Evangelium, Tract xxxii (P.L. vol. 35, col. 1642).

15. 15 P.G. vol. 46, col. 1013.

16. 16 Epistle 58 (P.L. vol. 22, col. 581).

17. 17 John Milton, Paradise Lost iii, 476-7.

18. 18 J. Pawer, in the article cited above, note 13.

19. 19 See my article "Jerusalem - Metropolis of all the Lands" in the volume Jerusalem through the Ages (see above, note 4), 172-178, and E.E. Urbach, "The heavenly and the Earthly Jerusalem in Rabbinic Thought", ibid., 156-171. The latter article also has a full bibliography.

20. 20 Cf. Lewis Mumford, The City in History (1961), 8-10 and 12-13, especially p. 13: "House and village, eventually the town itself, are women writ large. ... 'house' or 'town' may stand as symbols for 'mother'."

21. 21 B. Sundkler, Bantu Prophets in South Africa, 1948 (2nd, augmented ed. Oxford, 1961).

22. 22 S. Talmon, "Die Bedeutung Jerusalems in der Bibel" in W.P. Eckert, N.P. Levinson and M. Stohr (edd.), Judisches Volk - Gelobtes Land (1970), 135-132. The article has also appeared in an English version in The Journal of Ecumenical Studies 8 (1971), 300-316. The quotations in the present paper have been translated directly from the German original. The passage quoted is from p. 142 in the German text.

23. 23 B. Berakhoth 32b.

24. 24 Midrash Tanhumah, beginning of section Pequdey.

25. 25 Loc. cit., p. 144.

26. 26 B. Ta'anith 5b.

27. 27 Krister Stendahl, in Harvard Divinity Bulletin, autumn 1967.

Return to Home Page... Return to Whose Jerusalem
Recommended Links
Share meme