Would that the Walls were Holy

by Rabbi Michael Schwartz
JERUSALEM – The Jewish, Christian, and Muslim spiritual imaginations vortex around Jerusalem, the holy city. Yet realpolitik and real estate claims converge with equal force and passion on the city. Day-to-day terrestrial life still affords occasional glimpses of heaven here, but the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians over Jerusalem so dominates the landscape that it nearly blinds us to the horizon of holiness that makes Jerusalem the sacred city it has yet to become.

To the naked eye, for example, the Separation Barrier running in, around, and through Jerusalem has a far more profound presence on the landscape than the Old City walls, the domes and the crosses, or the Western Wall plaza. The thin, massive grey wall catches and reflects none of Jerusalem's golden light. It sits impassive and expressionless between people on either side, some who cannot see that the wall was raised to save lives, others who are blind to the demeaning human rights violations raised by it.

Whether by design or default, temporary or permanent, the Separation Barrier forms Jerusalem's new city walls. For the Jewish People, walls are more than stone and concrete constructions. Walls are sources of wisdom with a grand political and historical record, and they have essential religious significance:

The Torah demands that we build a ma'ake, a railing around our rooftops to guarantee the safety of others as well as ourselves; It is forbidden to put a micshol, or barrier, in front of the blind; The rabbis instituted many siag l'torah, enclosures, or fences, around the Torah to help Jews avoid incidental transgressions against the law; To leave the norms of Judaism, then, is called lifrotz gader—to break through the barrier.

And then there are chomot Yerushalayim, the walls of Jerusalem. Ever since King David infiltrated the walls more than 3,000 years ago, the walls of Jerusalem have demarcated the most beloved spot on earth for the Jewish People. When Nehemia rebuilt Jerusalem's walls 2,500 years ago, there was a political firestorm of, literally, Biblical proportions. But on those walls was established the Second commonwealth of the Jewish People in the Land of Israel. The walls of Jerusalem mark spheres of holiness in this world (Kelim 1:6-8).

The walls of Jerusalem, therefore, must be built in particular holiness. Jews recite a line from Psalm 51 whenever we prepare to read from the Torah scroll, a prayer to God to "Do good in Your favour unto Zion, Build the walls of Jerusalem." Central to Jewish religious life, then, is asking God to teach us through Torah how to cleanse our souls, restore our uprightness, and purify our hearts (in the spirit of Psalm 51) on the way to re-establish Jerusalem's walls.

Viewed from the Israeli side, the Separation Barrier saves lives, a sacred task. No wall is one-sided, though, and every wall under the sun casts a shadow. For this to be a wholly holy wall, we must also see the Barrier from the Palestinian side: The route of the Barrier restricts Palestinians' access to schools and health care, to places of worship and family homes, to fields, to livelihood. It demeans dignity and oppresses lives.

Jerusalem's walls, if they are to be holy, must meet the Torah's demand not to wrong or oppress a stranger, for we too were strangers in the land of Egypt. The leading orthodox rabbi of the 19th century, Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, read this passage as applying literally to the Jewish State: "…the admonition against differentiating against strangers is directed primarily to the State as such…[oppressing a stranger means] primarily a restricting of space—you shall not restrict him." (Hirsch's commentary to Exodus 22:20).

By insisting on the distinction between Israel's strict security needs and its political interests, Israel's High Court has ruled in the spirit of "From Zion the Torah shall come forth and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem." The Court has relocated the Barrier in some places, as in Beit Sourik Village v. The Government of Israel, on the grounds that "only a separation fence built on a base of law will grant security to the state and its citizens. Only a separation route based on the path of law, will lead the state to the security so yearned for." (HCJ 2056/04, 30 June 2004).

This ruling reminds us that building walls is also about setting limits for ourselves, demarcating who we are and what we stand for. It reminds us that the Torah is more concerned for the moral quality of those who live on the Land of Israel than for the quantity of land on which they live. Indeed, the Promised Land is uniquely burdened with moral conditions for those who inherit it: even under the most challenging of circumstances, we Israelis must rule ourselves before we can rule the Land. The nature of the Holy Land demands that to merit our own State here we must maintain our moral fitness. If – sadly – we need walls in Jerusalem until true peace is established, we must ensure that they are walls of holiness.


* Rabbi Michael Schwartz is director of resources and development for Rabbis for Human Rights. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service, and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

This article is part of a special series on the psychology of separation, which examines the psychological, spiritual, and political implications of physical and emotional barriers.

Source: Common Ground News Service, 20 December 2007, www.commongroundnews.com.
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In the shadow of Zion
Like the Berlin Wall…
A tool of survival?
Healing Separation
Share space, defy the wall
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Other articles in this series

In the shadow of Zion by Rabbi Tirzah Firestone
Like the Berlin Wall… by Ghiath Nasser
A tool of survival? by Dr. Eran Lerman
Healing Separation by Lila Sophia Tresemer
Share space, defy the wall by Mohammed Abu-Nimer