Jerusalem: The Eternal City of Jewish Longing

Dec. 18 2017

In a 2016 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), then-candidate Donald Trump stated his intention to “move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.” Eric Cohen, looking beyond recent policy debates, examines the meaning of the phrase “eternal capital” itself, and the ways in which Jerusalem has represented the aspirations of Jews both ancient and modern, both religious and secular:

We should have respect for the capital cities of the world, in nations large and small. Yet we would describe very few of them as “eternal.” Ottawa, Amsterdam, Caracas—most modern capitals cannot carry the civilizational weight of such a phrase. But Jerusalem is no ordinary capital. It is a political center with theological significance. . . .

For two millennia, the Jewish people were in exile. Jerusalem remained a real place—often a bloody crossroads of God, war, and politics—but it was also a dream in the Jewish mind, sustained across the generations through prayer: “Next year in Jerusalem!” . . .

The mystery and pain of Jewish history should keep us theologically modest in claiming to know God’s will or to understand the full meaning of the Jewish journey through time. But we can say this: the resurrection of Jerusalem—after centuries of wandering and after the near-death experience of the Holocaust—eludes simple rational explanation. It so defies the odds that one might understandably believe that the divine dealer knew the cards all along, even if we can never fully grasp the rules of God’s providential game.

To say that Jerusalem is the “eternal capital” of the Jews is not merely to say that it is, in this temporal world, always and forever the Jewish capital city. It is to stake a larger claim: Jerusalem is where the Jew most directly experiences eternity. In walking where the biblical ancestors walked, in praying where the ancient Israelites prayed, in governing where they governed—the Jew in a sense leaves time itself. He transcends history. Abraham and his descendants stand equidistant together before the eternal. Then becomes now, now becomes then, and the eternal mystery of God’s election of the Jewish people is experienced in the flesh.

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More about: AIPAC, Israel & Zionism, Jerusalem, Jewish history, Judaism

The Proper Jewish Response to the Pittsburgh Massacre

Nov. 21 2018

In the Jewish tradition, it is commonplace to add the words zikhronam li-vrakhah (may their memory be for a blessing) after the names of the departed, but when speaking of those who have been murdered because they were Jews, a different phrase is used: Hashem yikom damam—may God avenge their blood. Meir Soloveichik explains:

The saying reflects the fact that when it comes to mass murderers, Jews do not believe that we must love the sinner while hating the sin; in the face of egregious evil, we will not say the words ascribed to Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We believe that a man who shoots up a synagogue knows well what he does; that a murderer who sheds the blood of helpless elderly men and women knows exactly what he does; that one who brings death to those engaged in celebrating new life knows precisely what he does. To forgive in this context is to absolve; and it is, for Jews, morally unthinkable.

But the mantra for murdered Jews that is Hashem yikom damam bears a deeper message. It is a reminder to us to see the slaughter of eleven Jews in Pennsylvania not only as one terrible, tragic moment in time, but as part of the story of our people, who from the very beginning have had enemies that sought our destruction. There exists an eerie parallel between Amalek, the tribe of desert marauders that assaulted Israel immediately after the Exodus, and the Pittsburgh murderer. The Amalekites are singled out by the Bible from among the enemies of ancient Israel because in their hatred for the chosen people, they attacked the weak, the stragglers, the helpless, those who posed no threat to them in any way.

Similarly, many among the dead in Pittsburgh were elderly or disabled; the murderer smote “all that were enfeebled,” and he “feared not God.” Amalek, for Jewish tradition, embodies evil incarnate in the world; we are commanded to remember Amalek, and the Almighty’s enmity for it, because, as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explained, the biblical appellation refers not only to one tribe but also to our enemies throughout the ages who will follow the original Amalek’s example. To say “May God avenge their blood” is to remind all who hear us that there is a war against Amalek from generation to generation—and we believe that, in this war, God is not neutral.

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More about: Amalek, Anti-Semitism, Judaism, Religion & Holidays