Jerusalem the unifying city – COVID-19 Musings

If we wish to protect Jerusalem, it is imperative to change the prevailing culture of divisive and disrespectful discourse. Op-ed.

Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth ,

Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth
Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth
Gil Eliyahu

The celebration of Yom Yerushalayim 2020 will be very different, without the colorful parades and joyful happenings that usually take place in Jerusalem, and without the Israel Parade in Manhattan. So, perhaps this is an opportunity to emphasize and celebrate the inner meaning of this special day, in light of what we have experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

53 years ago, we merited to see the reunification of Jerusalem, along with the great miracles of the Six-Day War. I wish to claim that Jerusalem is not merely the United City but essentially the Uniting City:

“The built-up Jerusalem is like a city that is united together” (Tehilim 122)

“Said Rabbi Yehushua Ben Levi: A city that makes all Israel chaverim (friends) ” (Jerusalem Talmud, Hagigah 2:6)

The secret power of Jerusalem is its historical role. Jerusalem was designated to be an apolitical city, above any dispute or conflict. We are told (Yoma 12a): “Jerusalem was not divided among the tribes”; it was given to all the tribes collectively. When the Torah describes the tribes, it highlights the special traits of each tribe because it is necessary to have different tribes with diversity of opinion to create a multicultural Jewish society. Nonetheless, there should be one fixed point, one eternal value, that will serve as a source of unity for Am Israel. Jerusalem is supposed to play that role and is designated to be “public domain” – a place that will provide spiritual inspiration to the entire nation without any discrimination or favoritism.

The fact that Jerusalem was not given to any specific tribe grants it the dimension of unity and wholeness that is symbolized in its name – shalem (whole). This concept is reflected in the verses of the psalm of Jerusalem (Tehilim 122): “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; those who love you will be serene. May there be peace within your walls, serenity within your palaces.”

What is the difference between peace (shalom) and serenity (shalva)?

The 19th century commentator Malbim has a very interesting insight into the essence of these words. 'Peace' refers to the external security and safety of Jerusalem; it is the peace we make with our foes and enemies. 'Serenity' relates to the internal unity and calmness of the Jewish nation, or in other words. The security and safety of Jerusalem are both directly affected by our internal affairs. When there is peace among the Jews, Jerusalem can fulfill its role as a uniting city.

Right now, hatred among Jews is posing a severe danger to our peace and safety. This fact has been proven on several occasions in Jewish history. Our Sages say that the destruction of the First Temple lasted for only 70 years because there was unity among Am Israel, the People of Israel. But the destruction of the Second Temple has lasted 2000 years so far, due to the baseless hatred that is still a problem for us.

Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Neriah, the founder of Yeshivot Bnei Akiva, articulated his reflections on the Six-Day War in a similar vein in 1967: “Why did we, inexplicably, lose Jerusalem in 1948, but now reacquire it miraculously? The answer can be found in the statement of the Sages: ‘The rebuilt Jerusalem is like a city that is united together; a city that unites all of Israel together.' Nineteen years before (in 1948), the Palmach penetrated the Old City through the Zion Gate while the Etzel Brigade was about to penetrate the walls through the Shechem Gate. We were divided and alienated. Jerusalem could have become a source of dispute and conflict, but because “Jerusalem was not divided among the tribes” – it will never become the source of dispute. Jerusalem is supposed to spread peace in the world. Only now, when we have all entered through one gate, the Lions Gate, when we stood united with a national unity government and with a united national army (the IDF), with all the Jews in the Diaspora standing behind us; only now we have deserved this great miracle. The One who brought back his Divine Presence to Zion brought us back to Jerusalem…”

We have always been our own greatest enemy. The biggest destruction that befell our nation was caused by baseless hatred. If we wish to protect Jerusalem, it is imperative to change the prevailing culture of divisive and disrespectful discourse.

A significant portion of my new book, "The Narrow Halakhic Bridge: A Vision of Jewish Law in the Post-Modern Age ", is dedicated to the discussion of possible ways to change the culture of destructive disputes, and to adapt strategies to conduct Makhloket Le'Shem Shamayim - disputes for the sake of Heaven. One of the letters that I quote from in the book, entitled “I Seek My Brothers”, was disseminated by Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah HaKohen Kook in November 1948. This letter was a response to the growing hatred within the Jewish settlement in Israel during the days prior to the establishment of the State:

“My brothers and sisters from all parts of our nation, from all of the parties and all of the organizations… Have mercy on your souls and the souls of our entire nation…Let us not cause the desecration of God’s name. None of us, no party or organization who seeks the best for our nation and the re-establishment of our State, should decide that all the truth lies only with them. No one should desire or attempt, in these terrible times, to impose their opinion forcefully on their fellow; no one should forget out of holy ideological fervor that their opinion will not be reinforced in this way, but rather will be weakened and undermined.

"Let us not sully our public freedom with opinions, thoughts, aspirations or plans that cross the line of using physical force and implanting hatred and derision in our hearts. Let us remember that ‘one who raises his hand against his fellow is called wicked,’ and that negative actions will always be reciprocated endlessly between people. We will limit our public disagreement to verbal and written disputes, and to their direct applications, and we will not degrade them by the aggression of the fist or the poison of negativity. We must remember the true, idealistic intentions of each and every one of us, and find the proper way to manage our relationships.”

Even today, it is crucial to heed the powerful words of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook. Over the past few years, the world and Jewish society have experienced an extreme level of divisiveness, polarization, and hatred. Public discourse has become disrespectful and violent, and people have started to attack anyone who disagrees with their views. People have forgtten how to "respectfully disagree".


The unprecedented sight of non-religious soldiers working together with the haredi community in Bnei Brak, helping local volunteers in love and harmony, is just one example of what Israeli society has experienced.
During the times of COVID-19, despite or perhaps because of the intense experience of quarantine and isolation, we have encountered a tremendous degree of unity, solidarity, and tolerance. This tiny virus – the joint enemy of all of humanity – has forced us all to abandon these divisive behaviors, realizing how much we are all dependent on one another. Demonstrations of solidarity in Jewish society have crossed the boundaries between all sectors and denominations. Jewish communities in America went out of their way to organize acts of enormous chessed by helping Jews and non-Jews alike.

The unprecedented sight of non-religious soldiers working together with the haredi community in Bnei Brak, helping local volunteers in love and harmony, is just one example of what Israeli society has experienced. It is very symbolic that, just a week before Yom Yerushalayim, a united government has finally been formed in Israel, after three very ugly election campaigns. We hope that this political unity will help to heal our society from the deep wounds of divisiveness and hatred.

With an upsurge in vicious anti-Semitism online and around the world, it is more important than ever that we reach out in brotherhood and solidarity to our fellow Jews and to the wider communities that host us.

Yom Yerushalayim 2020 is an opportunity for us to contemplate and reflect on the impact of COVID-19. We constantly need to remind ourselves that the simple eternal message of unity is the crucial foundation of the Jewish people, as Rabbi Elazar HaKappar said: “Peace is so important that, even if the Jews practice Avodah Zara (idol worship) but do it in fellowship, the attribute of strict justice will not harm them.” (Derech Eretz Zuta 9:2) Perhaps because this message seems so simple and even banal, we tend to forget it.

This is the eternal and profound message of Yom Yerushalayim. Disunity is extremely hazardous to Jerusalem and to the Jewish people all over the world. Only by all of us standing together, without any exceptions, only then we can overcome the enormous challenges that we are currently confronting. Let us hope and pray that we can find the courage and strength to continue this solidarity even after we have emerged from the COVID-19 crisis, to form a better society based on kindness and mutual respect.

Rav Ronen Neuwirth, formerly Rav of the Ohel Ari Congregation in Ra'anana, is author of “The Narrow Halakhic Bridge: A Vision of Jewish Law in the Post-Modern Age”, published this month by Urim Publications.




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