Sunday, November 26, 2006

City on a hill I

I recently had the sudden thought that Haifa is a holy city. This is not a common conclusion regarding Haifa - at least if you ignore the Bahai aspect, which I did. In fact my rabbi in yeshiva had called Haifa "Sin City" and with good reason. I'm sure Haifans are nice people, but not too many of them have any religious identification, and to my knowledge they are no more honest or altruistic than people elsewhere. So what could possibly lead me to call Haifa holy?

After reflecting, I reached the conclusion that I would consider any city in Israel with hundreds of thousands of Jewish inhabitants to be holy. But this conclusion is perhaps even harder to explain.

One possibility immediately suggested itself. In the last couple years I have been exposed to Rav Kook's idea that every Jew, no matter how anti-religious he thinks he is, makes a positive contribution to God's plan. Thus, everyone in Haifa (and elsewhere) is fundamentally a holy person. I have trouble accepting this idea. If you rebel against and try to undermine Judaism, I can't believe that your actions are Jewishly valid. I can only understand Rav Kook as talking about a limmud zechut, an attempt to judge favorably someone who appears to be acting unconscionably. And a limmud zechut does not exactly get you to the level of holiness.

After a while I came up with a better answer. Haifa's holiness does not depend on the behavior of its residents, which is apparently not exceptional. Rather, the fact that Haifa exists is what creates holiness. What is holiness, after all? According to my computer's dictionary, "Something that is holy is regarded with the highest reverence because of its connection with God or a god." And I think that Haifa's existence indicate a clear connection with God. The very fact that hundreds of thousands of Jews are living in a city in Israel - so unimaginable a century or two ago - is the realization of Biblical promises made thousands of years ago. Walking around Haifa, you are made vividly aware that God has fulfilled these promises. The fact of Haifa's existence connects you to God. On an emotional as well as a logical level, Haifa is therefore holy.

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