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Rebuild the Temple? Not in Our Time

April 1, 2014 12:25 am 4 comments

A view of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Photo: Berthold Werner.

JNS.orgDiscussions about Jewish access to and control of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount are drawing heated responses in both Israel’s and Jordan’s parliaments, even as the idea of building a Third Temple and restoring sacrificial worship there is preposterous in the minds of the vast majority of Jews and Israelis. Yet the question of what Jews think about building a new Temple comes up with virtually every Christian group that I teach.

The idea of the Jerusalem Temple as Judaism’s ritual center and spiritual goal goes back to the Hebrew Bible. King David brought the ark to Jerusalem and longed to build a house to honor God’s presence. Solomon built that house, though according to his dedication prayer, he saw the greatest significance of the Temple as a center for prayer, not sacrifice. The poet of Lamentations expressed shock that God allowed violation of the symbol of intimacy between Israel and the Divine, but again, did not focus on the loss of sacrificial rituals as a way of expressing that intimacy.

The rabbinic model developed after the destruction of the Second Temple is the one that has set the tone for Jews, regardless of denomination, for 2,000 years. The rabbis were responsible for creating the system of Judaism that would survive and thrive without a Temple, though they insisted that the Temple and its destruction should be remembered and commemorated.

The legend tells of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai’s secret meeting with the Roman ruler Vespasian during the siege of Jerusalem around 70 CE. Vespasian offers the rabbi anything he requests, and instead of asking for Jerusalem and the Temple, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai asks for “Yavneh and its sages,” out of which grew the rabbinic body of oral law, the Mishnah and the Talmud.

That same Rabbi Yohanan comforts his student, Rabbi Joshua, a few years after the Temple’s destruction, when the latter worries that the people of Israel can no longer achieve atonement for their sins without sacrifices. Rabbi Yohanan assures Rabbi Joshua that “we have another atonement as effective as this… it is acts of lovingkindness (hesed).” Similarly, the Talmud traces the idea of praying three times daily to the sacrificial order—two daily sacrifices (morning and afternoon) and the burning of the leftover limbs and fats in the evening. In this case, the rabbis succeeded in replacing the sacrifices, while assuring their memory through the daily routine of prayer.

A midrash on the Book of Lamentations takes the memory idea one step further. Interpreting a verse which personifies Jerusalem as a woman who “weeps at night” (Lam. 1:2), the midrash suggests that the weeping be understood not only as descriptive but also as prescriptive: “Rabbi Aibu said: The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel, ‘As a reward for weeping I will restore your captivity.'” Preservation of the memory of Jerusalem and the Temple assures that in the future, there will be restoration of that which has been lost. Here the implication is that while Temple practices were replaced by prayer and hesed, restoration of the Temple was, in fact, expected.

Texts like this, without a doubt, encourage those today who wish to actively restore Temple worship. It is true, in fact, that some Jews, particularly Orthodox Jews, not only continue to pray for the rebuilding of the Temple and for the restoration of the sacrificial service, as they have for close to 2,000 years, but also that a small number of Jews study and craft the vessels that they believe will be used in the Temple once it is rebuilt. And it is even true that a few Jews have advocated and attempted to destroy the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque.

Most Jews, however, would understand such a text as a promise from God (or the rabbinic imaginings of a promise from God) that such a restoration will take place only at some point in a future messianic age. The when and how are details that will be worked out in the right time. Meanwhile, our job is to remember.

References to a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem have long been omitted from Reform liturgy. The very word “temple” was transferred to the synagogue by post-Enlightenment Jews who no longer believed in a messianic future, fully accepting the idea that prayer now replaced ancient sacrificial worship. Conservative and Orthodox liturgy retained references to the sacrifices, though the Conservative movement offers an option to refer to these sacrifices in the past tense.

So, what should we make of Jews who continue to pray for a rebuilt Temple, including a full sacrificial service? The fact that very few Jews advocate a violent overthrow of the authority of the Waqf (Muslim religious authority) over the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, and that similarly small numbers of Jews support institutions which are preparing the vessels for a Temple that they hope will be rebuilt soon, would seem to indicate that most Jews are content to leave Temple building to God.

I suspect that if one scratches the surface of this belief, even most Orthodox Jews are comfortable with the structures that have long replaced the Temple, and prefer the Judaism of today, which is centered on prayer, Torah study, and hesed, with no need for sacrificial worship.

There is a long and venerated Jewish tradition to hope for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. There is also a long and venerated Jewish tradition of living without a Temple. With the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks under way, there has been agitation from some Jews to assert more control over the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, with accompanying Muslim voices of concern that their authority will be eroded.

Muslim fears about Jewish access to the Temple Mount reflect their feeling that just permitting prayer there would be the first step toward building a new Temple. For me, though no place within Israel should be banned to Jewish prayer, now is not the time to reinstate that practice on the Temple Mount. And in the talks about the Temple Mount’s status we must keep in mind that for most Jews, the status quo of Jewish practice without a Temple is the tried and true—or even preferred—model. Perhaps emphasizing that could allay Muslim concerns and lead to a breakthrough in understanding.

Dr. Marcie Lenk is the Co-Director of the New Paths: Christians Engaging Israel project (newpaths.org.il) of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and a scholar of early Christianity.

4 Comments

  • I know that what is being argued reflects only the Jewish position with an eye toward appeasing Muslims. As a born-again Christian I am not interested in appeasing anyone. The only opinion I care about is God’s. Although neither Jews nor Muslims accept that Jesus is the Son of God and the Messiah, the fact remains that scripture calls for the rebuilding of the temple before Jesus comes (again), and for sacrifices to resume. It may sound like a terrible idea in this age of PETA and other such liberal groups who refuse to take the Bible as the literal Word of God, but facts are facts. God allowed Solomon (a man) to build His temple. It was destroyed because of the sins of God’s people. God allowed Nehemiah (a man) to direct it’s rebuilding. It was destroyed again in 70 AD by Rome because of sin. And John reveals in the book of Revelation that there will be sacrifices (not just a prayer routine) again which will be stopped by the Beast, who will install the Abomination of Desolation in the temple. Men built the temple in the past at God’s direction, and it will happen the same way in the future. Very near future? No one knows except God. But before much longer. Something will happen, something undeniable except by those whose hearts have been turned to stone, and the remnant of Israel will understand that Jesus is the Messiah, and will turn their hearts to Him. Even if you do not (yet) accept that Jesus is the promised Messiah, study ALL the scriptures before making too many proclaims without all the facts. I say this all with Christs’s love, for God is not willing that any should perish.

  • I am a believer and follower of Yeshua, The Messiah. I know that very soon He will be putting His feet on the mount Of Olives. Do you realize the miracles that took place in Israel in 1948 And 1967?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oairG6bbQ5U

  • Ward Gillett

    I’m a born again minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ and I believe their is a day coming soon with the construction of the temple the scriptures tell us in Paul’s writings 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 Let no man deceive you by any means for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first (professing not possessing believers) those who say they are Christian but in truth their not they have not the Holy Spirit: and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God (this would be Satan Himself). this is really exciting times for both the Jew and the Christian because my Lord and your Messiah Jesus Christ will come in his glory and take vengeance on the ungodly and save all Israel then will the millennial age begin what a time it will be I pray often for the peace of Jerusalem and for my Lord’s people because he commands us to and I love his people the Jew and my brethren the Christians those that are of the Church that living organism that preaches and teaches Jesus Christ Crucified you will see one day its going to be glorious.

  • It appears allaying Moslem concerns and the obvious fear of their violent reaction to the building of the Temple (or even praying on the Temple Mount) is your bottom line. I seem to remember that Haman was set to annihilate the Jewish people because Mordecai would not bow before him. Yet Mordecai exhibited faith in the face of the anti-semitic enemy and did not appease him, even when Haman wrote the command to destroy all the Jews.

    But speaking of the Temple, I remember that Nehemiah faced many, many obstacles in the rebuilding, but did not fear the anti-semitic enemies, and was faithful to God.

    Leaders are rare, but God is faithful to his word, and will supply ones who have faith in Him and do not fear the anti-semites nor their Gods.

    The Bible is filled not only with the history of such faithful people, but with nonbelievers also, both Jew and gentile. As we look around today we must recognize and support the faithful and share God’s word to encourage the unbeliever and fearful.

    To sum up the Moslems and their god must leave the Temple Mount. The God of Israel is raising up leaders and moving nations to accomplish what he has promised. With grace I encourage you to join the faithful.

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