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The Navel of the World – Jerusalem as a Symbol of Detachment, Difference and Variety

mascettiBy Yaakov Mascetti*

These are times of childish narratives, characterized by waves of infantile religious geist , and immature lexica fill the mouths of leaders and of those who are led. As Netanyahu cheers the Jewish state law as a ‘pivotal moment’ in Zionist history, and other politicians and members of the government look to the Temple Mount as to the center of the Jewish nation and the source of our historical consciousness, there are few who see in all this urge for centralized narratives and geographical foundationalism a clear demonstration of political insecurity and of cultural immaturity. And although I usually try not to engage matters of political actuality in this column, I do wish to address this tendency or trend from a theological and partly psychological perspective.

As my friend and colleague William Kolbrener has wrote on Haaretz on June 11th 2018, “self-confident Jews don’t feel the need to push legislation for menorahs to monopolize the Israeli public square, to institute segregation, to marginalize other faiths and to celebrate exclusion and intolerance.” The fact that a right wing government, regularly voted by the majority of Israeli voters and thus legally leading the country under the constant check on an inexistent left-wing opposition, felt the need to pass and then enforce a law defining Israel as a “Jewish State” may, indeed, be a matter of self-confidence and, I might add, maturity. Defining Jerusalem as the foundation of the Jewish national consciousness, looking to the material sphere of the land for a source of absolute and immutable truth, entails, as Tehilla Friedman Nahalon argued months ago in a Facebook post she wrote, a regression to the childishness of those who present this city (in line with a Talmudic conception) as the world’s navel. Of course, this is imprecise, because the Gemara in Sanhedrin 37a presents the Temple of Jerusalem as the world’s navel. Let’s take a quick look at this passage:

GEMARA: The mishna teaches that the Sanhedrin would sit in a semicircle. The Gemara asks: From where are these matters derived? Rabbi Aḥa bar Ḥanina says: As the verse states: “Your navel is like a round goblet, let no mingled wine be wanting; your belly is like a heap of wheat set about with lilies” (Song of Songs 7:3). This verse is interpreted as referring to the members of the Sanhedrin, who sit in a semicircle. “Your navel”; this is an allusion to the Sanhedrin. And why is it called by way of allusion “your navel”? It is because it sits in the navel of the world, in the Temple. “Goblet [aggan]”; this teaches that the Sanhedrin protects [meginna] the entire world with its merit. “Round [hassahar]”; this teaches that the Sanhedrin is similar to the moon [sahar]. The court sits in a semicircle, like the shape of the moon. [translation from Sefaria.org]

The Sanhedrin, the supreme court of justice of the Jewish tradition which sat in the Temple, is interpreted here as the navel of the nation, as the ortho-practical epicenter of the Jewish people. As far as the geopolitical foundationalism is concerned, the Temple is only defined as the navel as a consequence of the Sanhedrin’s presence within its perimeter – and because justice, or tzedek , is done there, the “navel” becomes, by synecdoche, representative of the whole Temple. And yet the Temple is not to be seen here, in its material semiotics, as the tangible foundation of the universe, but rather as a framework for something else happening within it, by far more important. Of course, in the Treatise of Yoma, the Gemara reports another tradition which points to the stone upon which lies the whole Temple as “even ha-shetiyah.”

The mishna taught that a stone sat in the Holy of Holies and it was called the foundation [shetiyya] rock. A Sage taught in the Tosefta: Why was it called shetiyya? It is because the world was created [hushtat] from it. The Gemara comments: We learned the mishna in accordance with the opinion of the one who said that the world was created from Zion. As it was taught in a baraita that Rabbi Eliezer says: The world was created from its center, as it is stated: “When the dust runs into a mass, and the clods cleave fast together” (Job 38:38). The world was created by adding matter to the center, like the formation of clumps of earth. [Yoma, 54b]

If we take these two traditions and we try to understand how we, as modern and independently thinking individuals, may digest the extreme foundationalism of these passages, we may want to state, again echoing Tehilla Friedman Nahalon, that the navel, or belly button, is not only the center of the human body, but it also represents a point of detachment from the motherly figure. God creates man, God creates the world, the universe, and then, as I have written in this column in the past, leaves it to grow, giving it its independence. When a child is born, the mother delivers the infant and in the very first moments the two are still connected, immanently and undeniably, by the umbilical cord. Upon cutting the umbilical cord, the baby remains, so to speak, maimed for life with the sign of what once was a point of connection, the spot where everything began, but which symbolizes, from a more mature perspective, the need for the child to grow and move away from the mother / God.

So what can we say about the state of our culture today, seeing how our leaders enforce staunch conceptions of identity and demonstrate what to me is a ludicrous insecurity? We can say the following – it is essential that we, as a people, cut that umbilical cord and re-elaborate our relationship with God and the Land in different terms, less immediate, and more the result of a tension. The navel symbolizes not connection but detachment, and points to the fact that the Israelites are not bound to God by a continuum (the umbilical cord) but, as John Milton wrote in Areopagitica, as a contiguity:

And when every stone is laid artfully together, it cannot be united into a continuity, it can but be contiguous in this world; neither can every peece of the building be of one form; nay rather the perfection consists in this, that out of many moderat varieties and brotherly dissimilitudes that are not vastly disproportionall arises the goodly and the gracefull symmetry that commends the whole pile and structure.

We need variety, we need difference, we need displacement, and we need dispute. We must yearn for others to be different from us, and we must respond to the undeniable call of the Other and cry “Hineni” – we are what we are not only because we can legislate a ridiculous law defining the Jewish State, but mostly because there are minorities of peoples requiring us to acknowledge them. The very temple of Jerusalem, a symbol of the Jewish independence, is built not as a continuum, (one people for one land), but as the artful laying of contiguous stones one next to the other. It is from variety and differences that we will see rise, hopefully, the glorious symmetry of the whole structure.

*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.