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East Jerusalem Encounter trip

by Talia Lavin | Published on May 22, 2008

In preparing this Dvar Torah, I couldn’t help reflecting on the places I’ve been in with Encounter: Bethlehem, Chevron, and Jerusalem. There are clearly polit­ical and prag­matic purposes for picking these loca­tions, which I’m sure Ilana could list at length, but each of these places also happens to illus­trate a complex truth about this region: the Land of Israel has the diffi­cult lot of existing both in myth and in history.

That the capital of Israel is Jerusalem, a city with an enor­mous mythos crouching behind its laun­dro­mats and falafel stands, is perhaps the most dramatic illus­tra­tion of this fact. Jerusalem is the province of any number of mystical narra­tives, but it lies at the heart of the Jewish one. In our thou­sands of years as a nation without a country, scraping by with our laws and our books, Jerusalem remained the site of our most profound nostalgia. After all, we longed for our farms and brawny king­ships, our flocks and olive presses, but most espe­cially we longed for our Temple. The glorious struc­tures of Solomon and Ezra have haunted us for thou­sands of years, and it is here, in this very city, that they were erected. It’s to here that the great throngs of Israel made their trien­nial commutes with cows and birds and bushels. The mishnah in Shekalim describes the great store­houses of the priests, supplying sacri­fi­cial flour and oil for the pilgrims. It describes the men whose profes­sions were waker of the priests, closer of the temple gates, maker of instru­ments for the Levite choir, etc. The simple and self-possessed Judaism of times past, a central rite of which involved throwing a goat off a cliff, seems far from the hyper­schol­arly and fearful Judaism of Europe, but nonethe­less we longed for it — with the old collec­tive “we” that used to kneel before the priests on the High Holy Days in the court­yard of the Temple.

Naturally, to the eter­nally harried Jew of yore, the Temple appeals as the highest symbol of Jewish autonomy, arrayed in isola­tionist splendor atop that historic hill. But with the values of Encounter in mind — humility and honesty — let’s examine this hyper-Jewish mile­stone. As Jews who are resi­dents and citi­zens of the Land of Israel, we have the freedom and the secu­rity — even in our diffi­cult times — to examine our narra­tives, both past and present, with a sharp eye.

I’ve been learning a lot about the Beit Hamikdash lately — I’m leaving Israel soon and the ques­tion of holi­ness of place is weighing heavily on my mind. I began at the begin­ning, with Solomon’s Temple as iter­ated in the Book of Melachim, kings. The Temple’s construc­tion is described in lavish and exhaus­tive detail — Solomon got slave labor from the entire region, as well as a good deal of forced labor from his subjects, in order to build this glorious behe­moth. I got through five chap­ters pretty tran­quilly. But when reading through Solomon’s forty-one-verse inau­gu­ra­tion speech, I came across some­thing that shocked and delighted me:

וְגַם, אֶל-הַנָּכְרִי, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-מֵעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל, הוּא; וּבָא מֵאֶרֶץ רְחוֹקָה, לְמַעַן שְׁמֶךָ. 41 Moreover concerning the stranger that is not of Thy people Israel, when he shall come out of a far country for Thy name’s sake–
כִּי יִשְׁמְעוּן, אֶת-שִׁמְךָ הַגָּדוֹל, וְאֶת-יָדְךָ הַחֲזָקָה, וּזְרֹעֲךָ הַנְּטוּיָה; וּבָא וְהִתְפַּלֵּל, אֶל-הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה 42 for they shall hear of Thy great name, and of Thy mighty hand, and of Thine outstretched arm–when he shall come and pray toward this house
אַתָּה תִּשְׁמַע הַשָּׁמַיִם, מְכוֹן שִׁבְתֶּךָ, וְעָשִׂיתָ, כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-יִקְרָא אֵלֶיךָ הַנָּכְרִי לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּן כָּל-עַמֵּי הָאָרֶץ אֶת-שְׁמֶךָ, לְיִרְאָה אֹתְךָ כְּעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְלָדַעַת, כִּי-שִׁמְךָ נִקְרָא עַל-הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר בָּנִיתִי. 43 hear Thou in heaven Thy dwelling-place, and do according to all that the stranger calleth to Thee for; that all the peoples of the earth may know Thy name, to fear Thee, as doth Thy people Israel, and that they may know that Thy name is called upon this house which I have built.

Yes, that’s right. It appears that our isola­tionist Jewish paradise was the site of pilgrimage for more than just Yiddin. And this isn’t a bedieved, unde­sired phenom­enon! In fact, as Shlomo declares before his entire people, the glory of God is actu­ally furthered when the prayers of non-Jews are answered. Solomon is a radical, it seems. But this isn’t just some eccen­tricity of Solomon’s; it’s enshrined within halacha. In the mishnah of Shekalim, some clear guide­lines are laid out:

הנוכרי והכותי ששקלו, אין מקבלין מידם.אין מקבלין מידם קיני זבים, קיני זבות, קיני יולדות. חטאות ואשמות, מקבלין מידם. זה הכלל–כל שהוא נידר ונידב, מקבלין מידם; וכל שאינו לא נידר ולא נידב, אין מקבלין מידם. The stranger and the Samaritan (a people indige­nous to the Land of Israel that prac­ticed a sort of Judaism were not consid­ered Jews) that attempt to give the half-shekel required of all Jews once yearly, is not permitted, nor birds given in order to purify the impure, nor a woman’s sacri­fice after giving birth; but sin-offerings and guilt-offerings, we accept from their hands. The general rule: any sacri­fice given by impulse or as the result of a personal vow, we accept from their hands; any sacri­fice that is not given volun­tarily or by vow, we don’t accept.

Though the mishnah clas­si­fies korbanot chatat and asham in this case as volun­tary sacri­fices, korbanot n’dava, they are usually clas­si­fied as korbanot chova, or oblig­a­tory sacri­fices. Regardless, they are permitted to the non-Jews. The Rambam backs this up in his hilchot shkalim, codi­fying it in halacha for posterity. In my amateur work as a halachic detec­tive, I noticed that the dona­tions specif­i­cally mentioned by the mishnah as forbidden — the half-shekel, the puri­fying birds, and the post-partum sacri­fice — all had in common the effect of affirming the giver’s place within the commu­nity of Israel. The half-shekel financed the daily sacri­fice on behalf of the nation, the birds puri­fied the giver and made him able to enter the Beit Hamikdash and partake of sacri­fi­cial meat, as did the post-birth sacri­fice. The other kinds of sacri­fice had no such affir­ma­tion attached to them — the giver of these does not expect to be ushered into the Beit Hamikdash or to be consid­ered part of the Nation of Israel, nor is he neces­sarily granted such a status.

And so it’s clear that while non-Jews were not allowed to partic­i­pate in activ­i­ties unique to the commu­nity of Klal Yisra’el, they were embraced by its greatest king and gave sacri­fices in both our Temples for the glory of God. In light of this, the role of the “other” in Jewish narra­tive suddenly changes: the other is not merely an oppressor, but becomes a co-worshiper of sorts. This may be more impor­tant than it appears. After all, if we are a light unto the nations, there must be some willing to receive us, or we aren’t doing our job correctly.

So as we stand here in the metaphor­ical shadow of the Temple Mount under the auspices of an orga­ni­za­tion founded on prin­ci­ples of accep­tance of the “other”, let’s take a moment to think about the unlikely open­ness of our Temple. It’s a quality we as a people may have lost for some time over our harrowing progress through time and endless places, over all the ends of the earth. But today we have returned to Jerusalem. In fact, we live here. So when we engage in collec­tive nostalgia, let’s long for more than golden altars and progres­sions of cattle. Let’s long for a Judaism, an Israel, a Jerusalem that is strong enough to accept the “other” into its very heart and keep itself whole.

Talia Lavin is an under­grad­uate at Harvard University, studying Comparative Literature. She still considers Encounter one of her most impor­tant life experiences.

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