Why is Yerushalayim plural,
One on high and one below?…
I want to live in one “Yerushal,”
Because I am just “I” and not “I”s.
—- Yehuda Amichai, “Open Closed Open”
Welcome to one of the great grammatical conundrums in the history of Jewish geography: why is the Hebrew word for Jerusalem – Yerushalayim — in the plural form?
Because, in fact, there is not one Jerusalem; there are two.
On a political level, there are two Jerusalems — the “new city” of west Jerusalem, and the Old City and eastern Jerusalem — two entities forged into one fifty years ago with the Six Day War.
On a linguistic level, there are two Jerusalems – Yerushalayim in Hebrew; al-Quds (“the holy city”) in Arabic.
On a geographical level, there are two Jerusalems. Jerusalem is on the border between the coastal plain that leads to Tel Aviv, and the wilderness that begins to its east. As soon as you leave Jerusalem, and head east, the Asian desert begins. Jerusalem, therefore, is at the nexus point of a Mediterranean climate and central Asian climate.
What is the origin of the “two Jerusalem” theory?
The first mention of Jerusalem in the Hebrew Bible is in Genesis 14, in the account of Abram’s war against the kings.
There Abram encounters Melchizedek, who is both the king of Salem and a priest of the Canaanite god El Elyon, God Most High. Melchizedek greets Abram with bread and wine and blesses him in the name of El Elyon. It is the first interfaith dialogue in history. There, the place is called Salem, or Shalem.
A few chapters later, in Genesis 21, Abraham returns to that place. He brings his son, Isaac, to “the land of Moriah” as a potential sacrifice.
Abraham calls the place Adonai-yireh, “God will see” — or simply, Yireh.
Abraham named the place Yireh, and Melchizedek knew it as Shalem. Yireh-Shalem becomes Yerushalayim. Those two names are soldered together: One name, given to it by a pagan king who blesses Abraham — representing the possibility of peace; and another name, given to it by Abraham himself, representing the presence of God and the sacrificial offerings that will be there at that place.
Peace between people and peace with God — wedded together in one name. A promise and a goad. A duality.
But, there is far more than this; as the late poet, Yehuda Amichai, intimates, there is a spiritual duality as well.
Jerusalem is Yerushalayim because of a subtle duality that is nevertheless omnipresent in our literature and thinking — the earthly Jerusalem (Yerushalayim shel matah) and the heavenly Jerusalem (Yerushalayim shel maalah).
Where does one begin on this quest for the heavenly Jerusalem and the earthly Jerusalem?
The idea of a supernal Jerusalem begins in Isaiah 6. The prophet has a vision of God in a supernal temple, surrounded by angelic beings, each one chanting “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts.”
The rabbis imagined that the heavenly Jerusalem served as an alternative and antidote to the real, imperfect Jerusalem. Their fantasies took on new fervor after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. They believed that the heavenly Jerusalem had its own temple with its own elite of priests and prophets.
Resh Lakish said: There are seven firmaments, and in one of those firmaments there is a place where millstones grind manna for the righteous, and in one of those firmaments there is a place where the heavenly Jerusalem, and the Temple, and the very altar are built, where the angel Michael stands and every day brings an offering.
The Rabbis idealized Jerusalem, twisting it beyond its own reality. For them, the mountains of Jerusalem pointed straight to heaven. They imagined Jerusalem as a place where no woman ever miscarried, where no one was ever stung by serpent or scorpion, where the fires of the altar were never doused with rain, where no wind blew the pillar of smoke over the worshipers.
The idea of a heavenly Jerusalem exists in Christianity as well.
For Christians, the earthly Jerusalem is Jewish and sinful; the heavenly Jerusalem, Christian and righteous. The heavenly Jerusalem is the place of the new covenant sealed through the blood of Jesus.
But you are come unto mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant. (Hebrews 12:22-24)
The ultimate vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem comes from Revelations. John sees the New Jerusalem descending from heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband in gold and precious stones.
I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is the new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name…And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. (Revelations 3;12)
For Christians, the heavenly Jerusalem was not real. It was an ideal. In the Middle Ages, there were many fanciful descriptions, maps, and paintings of Jerusalem, each one showing Jerusalem as the center of the world, as the sages themselves imagined it – as axis mundi.
The idea of the heavenly Jerusalem finds its way into even the very architecture and design of the modern city of Jerusalem.
Anyone who has been to Jerusalem marvels at the beauty of Jerusalem stone as a building material.
The man who first figured this out was Sir Ronald Storrs, the first British military governor of Jerusalem, and a vicar’s son. He enacted a law that permitted only Jerusalem stone to be used as a building material used in construction in Jerusalem. In his memoirs recalls the medieval hymn “Jerusalem is built in heaven/ Of living stone.” He believed that the earthly Jerusalem should be a replica of the heavenly Jerusalem.
By contrast, the Jewish view of the heavenly Jerusalem is that it is actually not entirely in heaven.
In fact, the heavenly Jerusalem is adjacent to the earthly Jerusalem.
Towards where should we pray? Rabbi Hiyya said: Toward the heavenly Holy of Holies. Rabbi Simeon ben Halafta said: Toward the earthly Holy of Holies. Rabbi Pinchas said: There is no disagreement here. The earthly holy of holies is directly opposite the heavenly Holy of Holies. (Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 4:5).
Jerusalem represents the revealed presence of God in human history. In the liturgy, in seder kriat ha-Torah (the service for the reading of the Torah), you would expect references to the place from which Torah came – Sinai.
Not so. Instead, Jerusalem has a starring role. As we take the Torah from the ark, we echo the plaintive cry of Jews in Jerusalem during Crusader times: “Rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.” “For out of Zion Torah goes forth, and the word of God from Jerusalem.” In fact, the revelation at Sinai is absent; instead, the Torah service asks us to remember and dramatize the first time that Ezra read the Torah to the returning exiles at the newly built, makeshift second Temple.
Jerusalem represents the homecoming of the soul. At the end of Neilah, as well as at the end of Pesach seder: “Next year in Jerusalem!”
We can understand singing those words at the end of the seder; we have just imagined ourselves leaving Egypt, and about to trek into the wilderness on our way to the land of Israel/
But, why do we say those words at the end of the Day of Atonement? Because, here, Jerusalem is not “really” Jerusalem. It is a metaphor for inner wholeness, forgiveness, and redemption.
Jerusalem ultimately represents God. The Jerusalem Talmud says that in days to come, the name of the city will be “Adonai is there.” “Do not read ‘shama,’ there, but rather, shemah — her name.”
Jerusalem and God will have the same name.
Let us not read this as the deification of a city.
Rather, let us read this as the urbanization of an ideal of holiness.
Let us return to the Christian perception of the heavenly Jerusalem.
Because Jerusalem is not just Jerusalem. It is, properly, Zion – and beyond that, it is the state of Israel itself.
A theology is only as good as the implications that flow from it. Were it not for Christian (more precisely, British) philo-semitism of the nineteenth century, Zionism could never have come into existence. Sir Ronald Storrs – but not only Storrs, Balfour himself – personified that thrust. Christian Zionism is itself a child of this phenomenon – an over-idealization of the Jews and their land.
Over the last fifty years, since the Six Day War, criticism of the state of Israel – its policies, and even its very existence – has mounted. While some of the sharper, more pointed critiques verge on anti-Semitism, not all of them do.
Some, in fact, are the results of a welcome, but ultimately misplaced, philo-semitism. It is the expectation — not that Jews are devils, but that they should be angels. The same should be true of a Jewish state – that it should be angelic, perfect, beyond reproach.
Christian perceptions of the heavenly Jerusalem crowd into the public imagination. It is the problem of a misplaced philo-semitism. Like anti-semitism, philo-semitism relies on distorted, fantastical views of Jews and Judaism. Philo-semitism can become a malevolence, masked in benevolence. In fact, this love-hate relationship with Jews and Judaism is one of the most pre-dominant themes in Christian history.
Philo-semitism is the hope – even the expectation – of the moral excellence of the Jewish people. It is a moral excellence that has yet to be achieved.
The liberal Christian philo-semite does not hate the Jew because the Jew has rejected Jesus. The liberal Christian philo-semite is merely disappointed with the Jew because the Jews have not yet lived up to the advertisements of moral excellence that they have created for themselves. The liberal Christian philo-semite sees the reality of the earthly Jerusalem – an Israel that must still fight, has problematic policies, where the people are far from saintly – and is disappointed, sometimes, radically disappointed — that the heavenly Jerusalem is not yet here. They are not like the fabled Southern anti-semites who used to look for the horns on the Jews they met. They are looking for angel’s wings. And when they do not find those wings, the disappointment can become anger, can become hatred.
That disappointment with the all-too-human, realpolitik failures of the Jewish state has seeped into leftist Jewish critiques of Israel and Zionism. They are addicted to the prophetic ideal, while often forgetting that the Jews and the Jewish state have real enemies who never got that prophetic memo.
That is the paradox. In the Jewish soul, we live with the vision of a heavenly, perfect Jerusalem of our ideals. But, in real life and in real time, we live with the imperfect, morally tainted, earthly Jerusalem. The tension is built into Zionism, and Jewish historical longing – the struggle between being a “light to the nations” or “like all the nations.”
It does not seem likely that we will solve this conundrum and this tension any time soon. Jerusalem – like all of us – is a spiritual work in progress. Reb Naftali of Ropschitz, a Hasidic master, taught: “By our service to God, we build Jerusalem daily. One of us adds a row, another only a brick. When Jerusalem is completed, redemption will come.”
Let that be a new definition of Zionism, in our time – the work of making the earthly Jerusalem look more like the heavenly Jerusalem.