Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The hermeneutics of a holy city

Attachment to Jerusalem, I’ve written elsewhere, differs in kind from tradition to tradition, group to group. Just as there’s no “essence” of Jerusalem, there’s no essential attitude or attachment. The city means different things to different people, and different people relate to it differently, though not necessarily at a lesser degree of emotional intensity. (What one actually relates to as “the city” within the larger conglomerate we call Jerusalem, also differs.)

The same is true with regard to pilgrimage. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all honor Jerusalem (Al Quds, Yerushalayim) by making pilgrimage. This has been true at least since all three traditions have been present in the city, i.e., since late antiquity. Christian pilgrimage became a mass phenomenon in the 4th century, when Constantine or his mother Helena Augusta remade Jerusalem, or rather Aelia Capitolina, as a place where one could encounter testimony to the truth of the gospel. Such testimony, other than that provided by the Holy Spirit, namely physical evidence of the resurrection as proof of our immortality, had not hitherto been widely required. Christianity had been the religion of the chosen few, a faith that rendered men and women, free-born and slaves, Jews and Greeks, rich and poor into saints, namely, those whose willingness to imitate and share the suffering of Christ made them one with their LORD. Christian pilgrimage—to the Holy City (hagiapolis hierousalem), to the graves of saints, to reliquaries of any sort, receptacles and remnants of the spiritual and eternal that had touched the material and ephemeral—always was and remains a problematic middle path between the pagan, nearly pantheistic attitude toward the divine as always residing in proximity to the natural and the gnostic attitude toward the divine as always radically opposed to the material world. Christian Orthodoxy is the embrace of the miracle of incarnation, of God becoming man, of the eternal residing in the temporal, as the church as a corpus permixtum. This is what Jerusalem represents to the Orthodox Christian: the holy city embodies and attests to the fact that God appeared (epiphainei) to the world in a particular place and at a particular time and in a particular body. But there were always equally orthodox Christians who felt faintly or strongly put off by the glorification of the mortal and material remnants of Christ, Christians who were willing to accept the historia of Scripture only if and when it could be shown to support the theoria, literally, when Scripture could be made perspicacious enough so as to enable us to see God. Those who put too much stock in the realia of Scripture, such as the Jewish birth of Christ’s body and the saints and heroes of the Old Testament were considered carnal and as “Judaizers.”

What is the Jewish attitude to pilgrimage to Jerusalem? What is it one makes pilgrimage to? Is it the token or promise of resurrection? And if so, is resurrection primarily a symbol of individual immortality or of collective restoration, as it originally is in Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones?

The normative Jewish hope, enshrined in ritual prayer recited by the ordinary Jew every day of his or her life and reiterated throughout the centuries of exile, is for the rebuilding of Jerusalem, more precisely, for the rebuilding of her walls and of the temple. If the walls represent political safety and independence, the temple represents the physical presence of God. The Jewish attachment to Jerusalem thus inevitably preserves an element of the ancient pagan belief in the proximity between God and human; in distinction to the pagan world from which it set itself apart, the Jewish God, to be sure, resides not in proximity of nature any longer (though elements of natural religion are aplenty in biblical rites and symbols) but rather in proximity to the political fate of the nation. Jewish pilgrimage to Jerusalem, though long suffused in mystical imagery of individual attachment (devekut), is ultimately a matter of forcing the hand of the divine persona to restore its strength to perform the miracle of old: the return of the Jews and the rebuilding of walls and temple. Divine perfection diminished by Jewish transgression is restored by Jewish life according to the Torah but the redemption wrought by such observance is not just personal and individual but collective, millenarian, and miraculous.

What of Muslim pilgrimage? The haj, one of the five pillars, was said to have been disrupted and diverted by the revolutionary Abd al-Malik, builder of the Dome of the Rock, for political reasons. This rationalization, forged at an age when the Umayyads had fallen out of favor with Baghdad-based Sunni theologians of (Shiites never thought of the Umayyads as legitimate successors of the Prophet), obscures that for a short period at least Muslim rulers seated in Damascus attempted to forge Islam in the image of Byzantine Christianity. Jerusalem (or rather Madinat bayt al-maqdis, city of the holy house) came in handy. Abd al-Malik—to his own mind, but also to the mind of chagrined Christians and elated Jews—rebuilt the temple of Solomon in its place, seeking to confirm the legitimacy of Islam as a restoration of Abraham’s religion. But pilgrimage remained centered in Mecca. What Roman Aelia/Byzantine Hagiapolis represented to the early Muslims was not initially a token of resurrection and judgment in the afterlife but evidence of divine sanction of rule. To visit Ilya and contemplate the truth of the Prophet’s message of submission meant to marvel at the wisdom of God and the folly of men who, even when granted divine revelation, tended to spoil it by their own pride and self-sufficiency. Jerusalem was a place to contemplate divine purpose and weigh it against human ends; a place of divine stories, rather than providential history. In this respect, Islamic attitudes toward Jerusalem (as expressed in hadith and fadail al-quds literature) resemble Jewish wisdom literature (some of which explicitly linked to King Solomon and hence to truths one could learn by living and observing actual life in Jerusalem; or any city) more than Jewish prophetic oracles about the fate of the city. The only fate that matters is expressed in the mythological account of the end: of judgment, of passage across a narrow bridge, when the wicked will fall into Jehennam forever and only the righteous will make it across to the gates of paradise, located in the cave under the rock, though now hidden  … The holy city’s place is marginal in the taxonomy of human pilgrimage as an obligation to be performed at least once in a lifetime; but it is of unsurpassed importance in the scenario of ultimate resolution: in the end Mecca will make pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the place of the final judgment, attesting to the fact that Islam is not an Arabic religion but the affirmation of a first and oldest expression of belief in a single God and creator of the universe. Jerusalem’s overcoming of Mecca is thus also Mecca’s overcoming of Jerusalem, the rationality and universality of the divine asserting itself over all historical particularity.


  1. What immensities you have here compressed into a pretty finite set of well chosen words. Thank you for this vibrant and illuminating triptych.

  2. Thank you! This was in response to a conversation with a student who's been working on anthropological approaches to pilgrimage, especially Victor Turner.

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