The ‘New Jerusalem’: Axis Mundi or Litmus Test?
—Copyright Daniel Waterman. Jan. 2018.
This article is dedicated to Gilad Atzmon, author, critic and musician extraordinaire, not because it is a response to anything he has written, but in the hope that it usefully complements his musings, sometimes chaotic and speculative, sometimes bitingly sharp about the history and possible future(s) of Judaism and Israel. These things present, in the Jewish imagination, as in the discourses of a multitude of historical and political critics, competing notions of spiritual salvation and realpolitikal solutions to a crisis of Western culture itself.
Could, should & ought?
I would like to begin by quoting from my current favourite philosopher and critic, Slavoj Žižek;
“The choice between the blue or the red pill [in the film The Matrix] is not really a choice between illusion and reality. Of course The Matrix is a machine for fictions, but these are fictions which already structure our reality. If you take away from our reality the symbolic fictions that regulate it, you lose reality itself. (…) I want a third pill. So what is the third pill? Definitely not some kind of transcendental pill which enables a fake fast food religious experience, but a pill which would enable me to perceive not the reality behind the illusion, but reality in illusion itself. (…) Our fundamental delusion today is not believing in what is only a fiction, to take fictions too seriously – on the contrary, it is not taking fictions seriously enough.” (1)
Žižek appears to suggest that we pay close attention to the significance of the imaginary, that what we refer to as ‘imaginary’ actually has manifold roots in the personal and collective conscious and unconscious as well as in cultural narratives that directly shape the behaviour and strategic alliances that, without accounting for the imaginary, remain indecipherable and impenetrable to critical inquiry. What am I trying to say? That we must consider the symbolic significance of Jerusalem, not just to Jews but especially in the Western collective imagination, to understand its strategic significance as a contested geographical location within the Western ‘sphere of influence’.
The question I seek to answer in what follows is what role there might be for ‘could, should and ought to do’ with respect to Israeli national aspirations and whether the answer to such questions could, possibly, open new possibilities in a discourse that seems permanently lodged and blocked down in standard, unimaginative polemics on “Western ‘civilization’ versus Islam” “two-state versus one-state” solutions, historical contingency, and paranoid apocalyptic scenarios.
All eyes on Jerusalem.
Despite a huge amount of interference by various parties, most notably the USA with its massive loans to the Israeli government and its military and political support for the state, the attitude of the Western world towards “Jerusalem” can be characterized as one of “expectation”. This expectation is rooted in two complementary discourses; the one, founded in Biblical texts looks to Jerusalem as a future world centre, the source of the Christian faith and thus of salvation for all mankind. The second of these is rooted in history, particularly the Genocide to which European Jews were subjected under the Nazi’s and proposes that the solution to the “Jewish question” lies only in the creation of a national homeland with a powerful army.
Many authors have already pointed out the obvious that the Western world’s uncritical support for Israel is rooted in guilt feelings about the failure to prevent the slaughter that occurred all throughout Europe during the Second World War. As Atzmon and a host of other writers have pointed out, that guilt has been heavily overplayed by Jewish organisations seeking to exploit it for their own interests.
However, I propose that the policy of non-interference is more in line with a sense that, owing to their experiences during the Second World War, Jews, of all people, should be able to resolve their dispute with the Palestinians on their own because doing so is, so to speak, written into their manifest destiny. In other words, that, irrespective of Biblical narratives of “chosenness” Jews could plausibly be the first people on earth to consciously integrate the Biblical teachings through the lessons of the Second World War, by actualizing the prophecy of the New Jerusalem (Rather than the apocalypse, which we should note, refers in its original Greek meaning to the ‘lifting of a veil’ i.e. of illusion). This is exactly where Biblical prophesy intersects with unconscious expectations about the ‘purifying effects’ of suffering and injustice as preludes to the fulfilment of prophecy.
The purpose of Theology
Jewish and Christian theological discourses are largely attempts to explore the meaning of religious texts and are therefore highly subject to the influence of current concerns so that we cannot speak of ‘authoritative’ interpretation without attention to the context within which theologies ‘make sense’. Without further ado, I would like to add my own two cents by summarizing my understanding of some core religious texts central to both Jewish and Christian theological discourses. The importance of the interpretations I propose is that they impart meaning to concepts such as “New Jerusalem” and “Am Israel” that may clarify the importance of these ideas in the symbolic currency of narratives like those expounded by religious fundamentalists, Zionists, but also Western political alliances.
The story of Genesis occupies an exceptional place within the Bible because it is a discussion that equates origins with meaning —an attempt to blend the two together or to reconcile them in a moral narrative. The story is however full of inconsistencies that seem incongruous with an undertaking of such singular importance, for, the entire Biblical narrative is grounded in the belief in a moral creation.
Historicity versus Symbolism
In Entheogens, Society & Law, Casey William Hardison and myself proposed an ‘entheogenic’ interpretation of Genesis based on an examination of its symbolism and its organization. Rather than accepting the account a historical ‘truth’ something that religious fundamentalists insist upon, we proposed that its apparent inconsistencies stem from the way Genesis relates insights about the origins of human consciousness and spiritual awareness. The basic idea is that the entire story of Genesis can be read as a metaphor for the subjective experience of birth, and we hold that this is how the allegory was originally understood, before its interpretation became subservient to other objectives, most notably, when Augustine interpreted the “eating of the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge” as the origin of “Sin”.
The significance of the ‘entheogenic’ interpretation of the eating of the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is that it refers symbolically to an act that alters the relationship of human to divine and that this act involves a change of consciousness that results in ‘separation’. The obvious source for this allegory is birth itself: for the first 9 months human beings are literally ‘one with their creator’ after which they become separated by birth. There is nothing especially mystical about this way of understanding birth; there are plenty of other examples of poetic license and symbolism infusing early human narratives. But this account is exceptional in one way; it relates the subjective experience and existential transformation from the perspective of the child.
Based on our much more extensive exploration of this subject in ESL we conjectured that the idea of God as a paternal supernatural deity emerged gradually as a consequence of power differentials surrounding the authority of scriptural interpretation. We thus conclude that the more authoritative interpretation, the one that makes most sense in the comparative study of world religions, is the one in which the ‘original act of creation is one of birth’ and that the ‘sky God’ only emerges from an attempt to balance the quite obvious power of women with that of men.
Following from this interpretation we argue that the notion of the divine actually refers to something deep within the human psyche, to a subjective state, or dialogue within the individual. Based on this idea it is possible to suggest that the religious idea of a human union with the divine, the Am Israel, actually refers less to a particular people than to the embodiment of a specific ‘moral state’ — itself the product of Tikkun Olam, the restoration of the original union with the divine, which again, based on the ideas outlined above, symbolizes the reintegration of the human subject with his or her own ‘divine self’ (Greek: Daemon). This suggests that the idea of a “New Jerusalem” actually also refers to a similar state, one predicated on the assimilation of all Abrahamic, or even all religious viewpoints into a new order in which man has finally achieved full unity of purpose with the divine order, which we understand as emanating not from a supernatural realm, but from within.
At this point I would like to propose the idea that the “New Jerusalem”, actually occupies that space in popular imaginations where ideas of a Tikkun Olam, a new moral order, a ‘final clash of civilizations’ seek resolution. This is of course a very tall order for Jews to fulfil, yet I find the argument certainly may have merit insofar as it might both account for the obvious failure to resolve the “Israeli Palestinian conflict” as well as for the ways in which we might be able to conceive such a resolution “above and beyond” the conventional “flight of fantasy” indulged in by right-wing politicians, and the “realpolitik” of the so-called liberal left.
The problem is that neither of these political strains actually engages with the (unconscious) symbolic meanings of Jerusalem. In other words, neither of them takes the fantasy of a ‘heavenly city occupied by the purified and righteous’ seriously, and consequently, neither of them is able to properly engage with the motives underpinning the stance of the most powerful party to this conflict. Jewish Zionists are unwilling to acknowledge the all too apparent discrepancies between Jewish nationalism and the idea of a common Jewish destiny based ultimately on a fantasy, albeit a powerful one. Jewish leftists follow a realpolitik that sees the creation of a Jewish homeland in purely materialist terms. Jewish right-wingers and Christian Zionists view Israel as a bastion of Western civilization in an epic struggle that exists only in their own imagination. In sum, non of these parties actually engage seriously with the possibility that the fantasy itself offers.
That possibility is implicit in the idea of the “New Jerusalem” as a litmus test of our ability to resolve our differences not through divine intervention but by embracing the notion of the divine ‘incarnate’ within every human being. The great thing about this idea is that it locates the source of ultimate authority within individuals. It is in this sense the exact opposite of the concentration of religious and secular authority in the hands of a few. To realize the New Jerusalem requires us to acknowledge the divine dialogue as emanating not from a single, supernatural cause, but from within each individual.
The implications of this notion of the New Jerusalem as an organizing principle for a Pax Mundi are beyond the scope of this text so I leave them to the readers imagination. I would like to suggest however that the prominent place of Jerusalem-Al Quds, both geopolitically and in the media, and in the public imagination, imbues every development there with a significance beyond the city’s actual importance. As such, the “New Jerusalem” serves as the ultimate litmus test of our dedication to world peace and our ability to ‘think outside the box’ on this subject. It is not surprising that all eyes are fixed on the city and the powers that rule it. Whether one identifies as a Jew, sees Jerusalem or Al Quds as the symbolic or political capital of a future nation state or not, it is certainly a place in which a lot of hope has been vested throughout the ages. These hopes have less to do with the ‘reality of the place’ than with the fantasies vested in it. The question we must ask is which of these is more powerful and more inspiring?
—Copyright: Daniel Waterman, Jan. 2018