The Place that God Chose
In past and present discussions about how the State of Israel is to make peace with the Palestinians, the question of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount always arises. Obviously the city and site are holy to both Jews and Moslems (and to many Christians as well). But to those who know and love the Jewish tradition, and have a strong sense of Jewish history, it is often enraging to hear voices in the Palestinian community claiming that Jews have no history in Jerusalem or claim to the Temple Mount. It is also disturbing to hear fellow Jews — though well—intentioned in their peace efforts — say things like “well, if we just gave them East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount [among other territorial concessions] it would solve the problem.” To my mind’s eye such comments reveal a painful lack of knowledge about the centrality of Jerusalem and the sanctity and historical significance of the Temple. Both of those issues are addressed in our parashah this week.
In Chapter 12 of the book of Deuteronomy, God warns the Israelites not to worship God as the pagans do (in numerous open—air sanctuaries with altars, sacred pillars and images) “but look only to the site that the Lord your God will choose amidst all your tribes as His habitation, to establish His name there. There you are to go, and there you are to bring your burnt offerings and other sacrifices… Together with your households, you shall feast there before the Lord your God…” (Deuteronomy 12:5—7).
These verses and others like them in the parashah point to the centralization of the sacrificial cult and public worship in “the site that the Lord your God will choose”. As the Etz Hayim Humash explains: “The reason for restricting sacrifice to a single place is not explicitly explained. The Torah appears to view multiple sacrificial sites as inherently pagan. This limitation is unique to Deuteronomy and its most far—reaching law. It affected the religious life of every Israelite, involving the sacrificial system, the celebration of festivals, the economic status of the Levites, and even the judicial system” (1063). From the time of King David (10th century B.C.E.), Jerusalem became “the site that the Lord your God will choose.” And though scholars dispute exactly when such a complete centralization took place, King Solomon and all the Kings of Judah maintained their throne and God’s Temple in Jerusalem until 586 B.C.E. when the Jews were exiled. Upon their return from Babylonian exile in 538 B.C.E., they again established their capital, and rebuilt God’s Temple, in Jerusalem. And thus it remained until the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE by the Romans. Jewish life — religious, economic, social and legal — centered around the Temple in Jerusalem for nearly a thousand years. And even after it was permanently destroyed, the Temple and Jerusalem remained central to the Jewish psyche, in its poetry, in its halakhic (legal) literature and in its prayers. One has only to open up a traditional Jewish prayer book to see prayers for Jerusalem and worship in the Sanctuary to be recited three times each weekday. Each Shabbat and Festival have their special references to the worship in the Temple. These prayers have continued and connected the Jewish people to Jerusalem and the Temple for almost 2000 years — in whatever lands they have resided.
Thus, it is facile to believe that giving up part of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount will be easily or painlessly done, if at all. The Jewish people have a deep and rich history in Jerusalem, which no well—intentioned Jewish peace advocate can ignore, and which no Palestinian can deny. It is my hope that “speedily in our days”, we will see a peaceful resolution of the Israeli—Palestinian conflict which takes into consideration the sincere and real religious and historical roots of each people.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.