Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Fetishization of Jerusalem

With its multiple destructions, Jerusalem became a unique object of veneration—beyond the ordinary veneration afforded an ancient royal city. (I am referring to 586 BCE and 70CE. It was destroyed twice.) Its destructions are the condition for the transformation of the city itself into an object of desire. The city takes on what was originally perhaps attached to the temple; Psalms of pilgrimage give lyrical voice to a longing to “see God,” to “reside in his forecourts forever,” rather than merely to “appear before God” as tersely commanded in the Pentateuch. Originally this language reflects a cultic longing (or the promotion of such longing) attached to the sanctuary and its festivals. With the absence of such a sanctuary and its replacement with mere commemorative shrines (and with the absence of national sovereignty this destruction of the temple signified to the ancient Jews) the semantics of these well known phrases changed and they continue to change.

Today we have a new situation. Jews have regained sovereignty, de facto, if not de jure, even in East Jerusalem, but the temple is still absent. For reasons to be parsed and motives to be considered carefully, this absence of the temple has begun to mean something new and different today. It has certainly fuelled a reinvestment in realistic projects of preparation for the imminent reinauguration of a building that only exists in the scriptural imagination of a few. What was, until recently, a devotion to the ruins of the temple (over the last centuries focusing on the Western or Wailing Wall) has, since 1967, turned into a devotion to making arrangements for the imminent rebuilding of the temple. Secular Zionism does not know of such anticipations. This is the difference between secular and religious Zionism. Where secular Zionism seems to have fulfilled itself in the heroic act of capturing Jerusalem (and has been celebrating in Tel Aviv ever since), religious Zionism captivates the imagination of those who feel that the establishment of a state was merely, in the words of Rav Kook, “the beginng of redemption.” To escape the ennui of the new Israeli materialism and to justify the continued contest with Palestinian nationalism, religious Zionism can plausibly claim that essential work remains to be done.

Jerusalem’s standing as a city protected by God is enshrined in the historiography of the first monarchy (i.e., the Book(s) of Kings). A city once captured for reasons of state (to create an independent stronghold for the upstart David; or for reasons unkown to us), Jerusalem came to represent the spirit of Judahite independence. The moment of salvation at the time of Hezekiah’s rebellion against the Assyrian Empire was enshrined in 2 Kings 19:35-37 as a providential indicator, a moment when divine protection of the city had become manifest (the angel of death wreaking havoc in the Assyrian camp, forcing Sennaherib to lift the siege; 701 BCE). Yet this remained ambiguous since it engendered a superstitious belief in the inviolate status of the royal city, a delusion (as in the German Wahn) insightfully scolded by prophets a few generations later when this superstition blinded the Judahites to the harbingers of change that required prudence and realistic adaptation to a shift in the regional balance of power (I am referring to the rise of the neo-Babylonian Empire, in 609 BCE; prophet Jeremiah was famously jailed for counselling submission to the new hegemon). While the biblical prophets were realists, the land-owning class, backbone of the royal economy, were ever ready to invoke the glorious past in the belief that it guaranteed divine protection of their independence in the future.

Then and now, religious faith and political pride tend to combine with the result of making Jerusalem not just a prized possession, but a fetish. Fetishization, as the German philosopher Immanuel Kant defined it, entails the making of natural means that have the purpose of reminding us of our moral duty into ends in themselves. Among such natural means are the many symbols and rituals that make up the alphabet of our religious languages. Bowing down or praying in a particular direction, baptizing with water, and any number of other rituals have the effect of helping us reflect on why we are here and what we ought to do as we restrain our bodies and train our minds to pay attention to the ritual performance itself. Jerusalem has long functioned both as a symbol in its own right, as a point of spatial orientation, and as the locale of particular shrines. The monotheistic religions, as Ludwig Feuerbach argued, have the tendency of transcending the real in favor of the imagined. In this case, real access to the city of longing gives rise to renewed longing for a better, more Jewish city, confusing more Jewish (i.e., more resembling one’s scriptural phantasies) with more godly.

What one may learn from this is that the mission of secular Zionism is not complete; it is time for the celebrants in Tel Aviv to sober up and remind themselves that the task of the state cannot be limited to its own founding and to the securing of its military and economic well-being. As long as the religious future of the state is delegated to the religious Zionists and to the ultra-orthodox fringe, the secular state is complicit in its own undoing. Wake up, Tel Aviv!

No comments:

Post a Comment