“Rejoice with Jerusalem,” says the prophet Isaiah. Recall its destruction whenever you celebrate, says the Psalmist. In two months time we’ll mourn its destruction with the fast of the Ninth of Av; today is Jerusalem Day, Israel’s celebration of its capital city. Both ancient texts and modern realities force us to conceive of the Holy City with the ambiguity of joy and sorrow and the complexities of war and peace.
If you’re a religious Jew, Jerusalem is not just another city. If you are an Israeli, you can’t not share the elation of that day in June 1967 when the Old City, blocked to Jews for 19 years, became accessible again. If you live in Jerusalem today, with your eyes open, you can’t help but see how disunited the city is, its Arab neighborhoods alien and invisible to its Jewish inhabitants.
Most religious Jews seek to make Jerusalem Day a triumphant reaffirmation of the Jewish people’s eternal right to exert political control over a Jerusalem whose boundaries they define according to their own convenience. But I also know many, on the other side of the political spectrum, who refuse to celebrate the day on just those grounds. It’s a holiday of occupation, they claim, a celebration that disregards the rights and wishes of a third of the city’s inhabitants.
On page 5b of the Talmud’s Megilla tractate, Rabbi Elazar says in the name of Rabbi Hanina that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (known simply as “Rabi”) sought to “uproot” the fast of the Ninth of Av-the anniversary of the Temple’s destruction. Rabi, compiler of the Mishna, was both the secular and religious leader of the Jewish community in Israel in the generation after the catastrophe of the messianic Bar-Kochba rebellion. After the rebellion, the Romans forbade Jews to live in Jerusalem and built a pagan Roman city on its ruins. Why should a Jewish leader have sought to cancel the fast that reminded the Jewish people of the loss of their holiest site, the Temple, and of their political independence?
Rabbi Abba bar Zabda, the Talmud continues, says that Rabi was addressing a specific case-that year, the Ninth of Av fell on the Sabbath. The practice then, as today, was to put off the fast by a day, to Sunday. (Fasting is prohibited on the Sabbath; as one of the central commandments, the rules of the Sabbath take precedence over other strictures.) Rabi was not advocating the cancellation of the observance; rather, he said, in years when that date fell on the Sabbath, it could be allowed to pass unmarked by fasting.
The Talmud tells us that the other sages rejected Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s initiative, and subsequent commentators, have struggled to understand his purpose.
One possibility is that he wanted to demonstrate that the spiritual and political mandates of his time were different from those of the previous generation. While the Jews and their land remained under Roman rule, the community had a great deal of autonomy. Jews were free to practice their religion, and they were prospering economically. In such times, Rabi perhaps wanted to say, one could occasionally have a Ninth of Av on which the Jews rested and enjoyed the gift of the Sabbath; Jerusalem and the Temple could be honored in this way as well.
I find in this Talmudic passage authority for my own ambiguous attitude to Jerusalem Day. I celebrate, but with a heavy heart. I can’t not rejoice in all of Jerusalem being open to me; I can’t help being disturbed by the fact that the unification of the city under Israeli rule has caused injustice to its large Palestinian minority. And I can’t help but be aware that peace, if it comes, will require the redivision of the city.
Israel’s official rabbinate has mandated the recitation of Hallel on Jerusalem Day. Hallel is a set of festive psalms recited joyfully on holidays, hymns of praise for the miracles God has done for the Jewish people. At my synagogue, Kehilat Yedidya, we recite the “half Hallel,” the shorter version of this cycle, on Jerusalem Day. The shorter version is also recited on the last six days of Pesach, and one of the reasons the rabbis offer for this practice is that the Exodus, the greatest of God’s miracles, nevertheless came along with death and suffering for the Egyptians. We cannot fully rejoice even when our enemies suffer, but neither can we allow that suffering to overshadow the fact that we must rejoice.