The rabbinic system, according to the esteemed professor Shaye Cohen, is one that perpetually declares itself inadequate. Built into our prayers, laws, and customs, is a pervasive theme of mourning for Jerusalem, and of prayer for a future time, when Jerusalem will be reinhabited, the Temple rebuilt, and the Jewish people forever free of suffering and oppression.
Today, we live in a time when the model of the Jewish future on which the rabbinic paradigm is based has been shattered. History has presented us with a paradox: a national homeland with Jerusalem as its capital, but no return to Temple worship and no end of suffering in sight. What are the implications of this situation for modern Judaism? Must we abandon the rabbinic myth, or can it be effectively reinterpreted? I raised similar questions around this time last year. Below is a summary of some of the approaches that I and others suggested then, and the reasons why I find them all ultimately unsatisfactory.
1. The establishment of the State of Israel was a mistake, and has nothing to do with ancient Jewish dream, which will be fulfilled in the future by supernatural, rather than human, means. This is the predominant anti-Zionist Orthodox approach. It is not very popular nowadays, and probably has no adherents among readers of this blog. Therefore, instead of taking the time and energy to dispute it rationally, I will simply remind you all of an old joke about a man who put his faith in God.
2. The rebuilding of the physical Jerusalem is incomplete. According to this perspective, when we mourn Jerusalem, we are actually mourning the Temple, which, when rebuilt, will usher in the true messianic age, and with it, the fulfillment of our people's dreams. This is the predominant approach among Orthodox Zionists, for obvious reasons. It maintains the traditional myth virtually intact, only drawing its fulfillment out for a somewhat longer period than our ancestors might have imagined.
My primary objection to this approach is historical. The existence of the modern state of Israel provides us with an opportunity for re-examining the past in light of the present, and realizing that, while there are many advantages to national autonomy, autonomous periods in Israel's history have never been utopian. This was equally the case whether or not a temple stood in Jerusalem.
A second objection is the implication that the type of worship that took place in the Temple would be appropriate outside an ancient context. Animal sacrifice was very common at the time that the Israelites practiced it, but most modern Jews would, I think, agree that its replacement with prayer was a change for the better. Further, we may reasonably question whether centralized theocracy should be regarded as an ideal form of government (this book notwithstanding). Again, in the ancient world it may have seemed the only option. But times have changed.
3. The emphasis that we place on the physical city of Jerusalem in an error. Instead, we should focus on the ideas with which Jerusalem has traditionally been associated. My understanding is that the Jewish version of this idea originated in pre-Zionist times,* but it continues to have adherents. Rachel Barenblat's "Diaspora Grrl" is a particularly thoughtful contemporary articulation.
While Rachel does not advocate ignoring or abandoning the physical city of Jerusalem, her philosophy would logically seem to lead to that approach, which makes me uneasy. I was educated in a strongly Zionist tradition, and in spite of everything that has been going on in Israel lately, I still believe that the existence of a Jewish state is integral to the well-being of Jewry as a whole. For this reason, it seems to me that it would be worthwhile for the idea of a Jewish homeland to remain a part of Jewish mythology.
4. The Book of Lamentations and the kinot that we recite on Tisha B'Av focus primarily on human suffering. For Jews, the destruction of Jerusalem is paradigmatic of human cruelty and suffering, and that is what “mourning for Jerusalem” is really about. I made this suggestion last year, and I still think that there is something to it. Still, I've come to find it dissatisfying for the same reason that I find the previous approach dissatisfying: it undermines the significance of Jerusalem itself.
Perhaps what we really ought to be mourning is the lost dream of a simple, complete, glorious redemption, both physical and spiritual. We should mourn the fact that the physical Jerusalem has turned out to be so unlike the Jerusalem of Jewish dreams, and that the world after the creation of the Jewish state is so unlike the messianic age that we long envisioned. And we can ask ourselves what we can do in this imperfect world of ours to bring the Jerusalem of our people's dreams closer to reality, both in the physical city of Jerusalem and elsewhere.
*For some reason, I associate it with Martin Buber, but then it wouldn't be pre-Zionist. Maybe it was Mendelsson's idea? Maybe I'm really mixed up and should do some more reading...