Sunday, March 21, 2010

Holy to Three Faiths

There is certain statement, actually a cliché: Jerusalem, we are often told, is “holy to three faiths.” It is holy, we might say, to Judaism and to every other religion derived from it. That’s correct, isn’t it—and even obvious? Muslims don’t avoid pork, pray towards the east, name their children the Arabic versions of Abraham, David, and Solomon, and practice circumcision by accident, do they?

There are various other ways to paraphrase that statement. If I were in the mood to really offend people, I could state Jerusalem is holy to all true Judaisms (all one of them) and a great many pseudo-Judaisms. Not a terribly diplomatic thing to say, is it? They say it about Jews all the time, however. Many religions assert that Abraham had a certain relationship to G-d and his descendants did also and then at some point something went wrong. The relationship was taken away and given to somebody else. And who might the “somebody else” be? Whatever successor religion is making the assertion at the time, of course: Xianity, Mormonism, Islam, whatever. According to the Wikipedia entry on the Baha’i faith:
In the Bahá'í Faith, religious history is seen to have unfolded through a series of divine messengers, each of whom established a religion that was suited to the needs of the time and the capacity of the people. These messengers have included Abraham, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad and others, and most recently . . .
And most recently their guy, of course. That’s how it always is. They are currently catching hell in Iran for including Muhammed in this parade of the now-replaced.

The replacement assertion takes different forms, but somehow all these religions assert themselves to be in possession of a truth that used to be in the Torah. The latest, greatest prophet arrived to announce the new dispensation, the Torah was revealed to have been changed by the Jews to cover up the fact that Ishmael was really the one bound to the altar, the Torah was revealed to be figuratively rather than literally true, etc. Whatever form the assertion takes, Judaism is held to have a successor or a reversion to what it originally was, or something that is somehow the true identity of the now false Judaism.

So all those replacement theologians want to stake out Judaism’s spiritual turf in some way. In fact, all those successor religions think of Judaism itself as a pseudo-Judaism. It's really quite perverse. Why would the true Judaism be anything else but, well, Judaism? Would anybody believe that the “Old Testament” is really a bunch of allusions to somebody or that Abraham sacrificed Ishmael on the altar if not for the demands of this or that replacement theology?

Besides the spiritual territory of Judaism (in which various groups claim to be the new residents), Judaism happens to maintain a relationship with a certain physical territory, especially Jerusalem. Jerusalem is more than merely holy to Judaism. The word "essential" comes to mind. A great deal of the Jewish religion can only be practiced there. The bitter herbs we eat nowadays at a Passover seder are not Biblical bitter herbs. The Bible commands somebody (the Jews perhaps?) to eat a Passover offering with bitter herbs. Jews are not currently able to prepare a Passover offering because that requires a Temple in Jerusalem. The bitter herbs we eat now are a Rabbinically enacted commemoration of the Biblical bitter herbs.

As far as I know, Jerusalem is not crucial in this way to the other two of the “three faiths.” In fact, this aspect of Jerusalem was de-emphasized or dismantled in Islam and Xianity, precisely, as near as I can tell, to put distance between Judaism and the later faiths. Mecca now plays a comparable (and surely derivative) role in Islam. Jerusalem was the “first Qibla” of Islam, the direction one faced for prayer. Not anymore. Jerusalem remains the center of Xian symbolism, Blake wanted to build Jerusalem in England’s pleasant shores, but I don’t think Jerusalem is actually necessary for any practical act of observance that individual Xians in the world at large are required to perform. In Islam and Xianity, Jerusalem was demoted from crucially and practically holy to merely holy, as in, well, “holy to three faiths.”

Did you know that besides practicing a Jerusalem-centered religion for over 3000 years, Jews have been the majority population of Jerusalem for all of the last century and most of the one before that? This has been true since before “living memory,” meaning that there is nobody alive who remembers when it wasn’t so. This state of affairs came about when no Zionist olim had yet arrived and when the Jews of Jerusalem were impoverished and politically vulnerable. What political conclusions should you draw from all this? Whichever ones you like. However, the next time you hear that Jerusalem is “holy to three faiths,” notice how lacking in nuance the statement is. That will do for now.

Crossposted on Soccer Dad

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