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Heavenly Jerusalem, Earthly Jerusalem

Never has a city been so beautiful and so blemished, so revered and so reviled, so easy to love and so hard to live in.
Dr. Rani Jaeger is a Research Fellow of the Kogod Research Center and founder of Tanakh Initiative at the Shalom Hartman Institute, where he currently leads the  Tanakh Initiative Alumni Network. He was also one of the founders of the Institute’s Be’eri Program for Pluralistic Jewish-Israeli Identity Education. Rani received his doctorate from Bar-Ilan University on Jewish-Israeli culture as perceived by the poet Avraham Shlonsky. He was a participant in the first cohort of the Beit Midrash

“Said God: I will not enter heavenly Jerusalem until I enter earthly Jerusalem.” (Midrash Ps. 122)

Jerusalem. Never has a city been so heavenly and so earthly, so revered and so reviled, so easy to love and so hard to live in. In the 2,000 years of exile, Jerusalem always stood at the heart of our yearning. We sat and wept, remembering Zion. We longed for Jerusalem, prayed to Jerusalem, sang about Jerusalem. It was a place of holiness and beauty, of splendor and enchantment, of majesty and mystique. And it was far, far away.

Forty one years ago, our prayers were answered. We returned to Jerusalem and tried to make her our home. And, as every marriage effectively ends the romance of courtship, the reunification of the city brought an end to our infatuation. As long as our hearts were in the East, and we were at the ends of the West, Jerusalem was an ideal and unblemished bride. Up close, she became a lot more difficult to love.

There were many who left. Disillusioned and bitterly disappointed, they couldn’t stand the sight of the poverty, the crumbling edifices, the unkempt neighborhoods. They struggled against low wages and inflated rents. They couldn’t find a playground or public library for their children. Above all, they resented the polarization, the extreme factionalism tearing at the population, the religious wars and political strife.

So they moved. To Tel Aviv, to the Galilee, to the Negev. To any place where opportunities were bigger and life less intense, where the surrounding hills were replaced by a broader horizon, where the air may not be as sweet as wine – but the breathing was certainly easier. Jerusalem, for them, was altogether too earthly and best loved from afar.

On the other hand, there were those who strove to preserve the romanticized image of Jerusalem – however incongruous. Those who preferred myth to reality, who still sang “Next year in Jerusalem”, even when in their homes in Katamon. Willfully blind to the city’s faults and failings, they continued to believe that “There is no beauty as the beauty of Jerusalem” (Kidushin 49b), overlooking the rubbish in the streets; that “Ten measures of wisdom entered the world, nine in Jerusalem and one in the rest of the world” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 48), ignoring the critical dearth of cultural venues; that “Jerusalem… is a city which makes friends of all of Israel” (Hagiga 3:6), forgetting that no other place ever caused so much controversy. Jerusalem, for them, is heavenly, a place of divine majesty and perfection, where all is immaculate and nothing need be remedied.

Neither group, of course, does the city justice. Jerusalem must not be deprecated beyond hope, nor praised beyond reason. She must be loved for what she is: a beautiful, complicated city, where the challenges are great but the rewards even greater. A place where the holy and the mundane, the present and the past, the cosmopolitan and the provincial come together in an irresistible celebration of life. Where ancient fortresses and synagogues are interspersed by a growing number of museums and art galleries, where the sounds of prayer blend with the cries of market vendors, where people of different ethnicities, religious beliefs and political ideologies walk the same streets and ride the same buses. Jerusalem is, in this sense, a true microcosm of Israel.

Forty one years after the reunification of the city’s east and west, it is time to unify heavenly Jerusalem and earthly Jerusalem. We must temper our veneration with criticism, and our criticism with veneration, neither glorifying the city so much we cannot see her flaws, nor deploring her so much we have no desire to correct them. Only once we stop loving Jerusalem from afar, once we eradicate the barriers of idealized images and disappointed dreams, will the 2,000-year exile from the city really come to an end. Only then will Jerusalem become our home.

Written with Gila Fine

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