I'm Sorry, But King Solomon Makes Me Sick
By Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank
Dear Cyber Rav,
Recently I have been exploring and experiencing a lot more Jewish culture because my soul longs for this experience as it is part of who I am-my ancestors live through me now and have so much to teach me and I love that. On the other hand, as I read the Tanakh it sounds so suppressive towards people and makes me want to vomit! I am reading the part now about Solomon building a beautiful temple for the Lord-sure sounds great, yet part of his plan is to make everyone living in Israel slaves for this project. And this sacred wall still standing in Jerusalem-is it part of that sacred temple? I'm not sure. It seems to connect with what I had learned in Hebrew school. Anyway, this symbolizes the work of over 100,000 people. When else today have you heard of 100,000 workers working on one building!
All these ancient buildings, pyramids, etc., have so much powerful energy surrounding them. Is it because over 100,000 or 200,000 people have put their souls, love, sweat, energy, thoughts, prayers, work, ideas, etc. into one standing piece of matter, so that this matter is, in essence, an extension of all their souls...? Okay, so what is my point? That the building is not merely sacred because it was built for God, but because it was built by over 100,000 of God's hands. But what also gets to me is that a lot of these hands were suffering. In the stones of the wailing wall lives the wailing of the slaves that built it. The energy that lives in the wall is the truth about our history, and I believe God is protecting this body of truth to teach us about the reality of our own emotions and the reality of our ability to create an existence where no one needs to be suppressed and made to suffer.
Saddened by Our History
The thing about history is it does tend to be brutal and strips us of our most cherished illusions about the past. So whenever we delve into history, we have to approach it cautiously, knowing that we may never return from it the same.
Solomon was a great builder. And as such, he needed workers whom he secured through the institution of the corvee or forced labor. This was not an uncommon practice in ancient times. So how should we read it-shall we read it as slavery or as employment? Has Solomon enslaved the masses or provided jobs? We tend to think of slavery as an ultimate evil of sorts, but the fact is that it was an accepted form of labor for thousands of years and our disillusionment with it is only about 300 years old-and only about 150 years old in America. The Torah has very extensive rules about how to treat slaves. The idea was to humanize and civilize an aspect of economic reality that virtually everyone accepted as a fact of life.
This is not a defense of slavery. I, like you, am a child of the anti-slavery movement of modern times, but to read what goes on in ancient times through our contemporary eyes, and then to judge it, is really not fair to our ancestors. They were unaware of capitalism, or communism, or even currency as we know it today. Their world was a very different world from ours. Were slaves abused? Of course, they were. And workers in modern times are also abused. But my suspicion is that our ancestors-even the slaves themselves accepted the system as an opportunity to feed themselves and possibly their families. The Tanakh describes Solomon's reign as a time of relative prosperity All the days of Solomon, Judah and Israel from Dan to Beer-Sheba dwelt in safety, everyone under his own vine and under his own fig tree" (I Kings 5:5).
That might be a bit of an exaggeration, and we certainly know that by the time of Solomon's death, the Northern tribes were unhappy with Solomon, and they approached Rehoboam, Solomon's son, in hopes of resolving their differences. Those differences revolved around labor that was too difficult (understandable-this time period is about 1800 years before labor unions) and high taxation (and we haven't yet resolved that problem till this day!). My point is this-the problems of Israel in the past are not unlike the problems of life. The Tanakh does not present us with a fairy tale-but with the complexities, injustices, struggles, and victories, of our people.
Nothing of Solomon's Temple stands today. The Western wall was not part of the Temple wall. It was a retaining wall built by Herod in the first century BCE and was used to simply retain earth that had been hauled up to the mountain to establish a much larger court area in which the second Temple stood. But Solomon's Temple fell to the Babylonians around 586 BCE. When we talk about the "wailing wall," we really refer not to the wailing of the slaves who built it, but to the wailing of Jews who lost it, and lost Jerusalem, and lost Israel. I pray that we always have the courage to protect the miracle of Israel's rebirth.
The CyberRav is Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank
Spiritual Leader of Midway Jewish Center--Syosset, NY
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