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November 18, 2014 8:01 pm

Prayer on the Temple Mount Isn’t Necessary

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avatar by Albert Wachtel

Temple Mount. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The rebirth of Israel, 2000 years after Rome undertook to destroy the nation by calling it Palestine, deserves celebration. And now, in the face of destructive and unrelenting attack – most recently the Muslim terrorist murders of five innocents at prayer in a Jerusalem synagogue – Israel needs and has powerful defenders.

That said, we should not keep fighting over the Temple Mount. It has been magnified out of proportion – by Palestinian Arabs, who are always looking for a cause, by Jordanian authorities who want to be seen as defenders of their faith, and by religious Jews who have not looked with objective eyes at the Hebrew Bible.

Zion, because of its past religious significance, is very important to Jews. But a careful review of its history reveals that the Temple Mount is not religiously central to Judaism. Solomon, who built the First Temple, also defiled it – worshiping the pagan gods of his foreign wives. For those sins, 1 Kings observes, the divinity decided to divide Israel into two kingdoms, with Solomon’s son Rehoboam keeping control of Judea, inhabited by the tribes of Judah and Benjamin – and Jeroboam, Solomon’s most gifted associate, embraced as king by the ten northern tribes, which kept the name of David’s formerly united kingdom, Israel.

Within the lifetime of the king who built the Temple, worship there was already compromised. Thereafter, a series of prophets including Isaiah condemned Temple worship. Righteousness, they tell us, not burnt offerings, is what divinity seeks.

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That is true from the start of the Torah, in which Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise because of their disobedience and in which Noah was given basic rules of human morality (that most of subsequent humanity has failed to follow).

Jeremiah, after the ten northern tribes fell and before the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple, told Judea that sacrifice by people who are moral failures was useless: “Your burnt offerings are not acceptable. Nor your sacrifices pleasing unto me.” It is true that he anticipates a time when decent Jews will once again sacrifice in a Jerusalem Temple, but the essential value is human virtue.

That same requirement inspired the writings of Hosea, Joel, Amos (who points out that the people who left Egypt with Moses were sustained without sacrifices) and even Jonah, in whose book honorable pagan sailors, intent on saving the prophet, offer sacrifices that are not rewarded. Micah deplores lavish offerings when made in the context of moral depravity, and Malachi declares that both damaged and “pure oblations” are rejected on moral grounds.

Such recognitions led the Pharisees – the New Testament’s misrepresentations of them notwithstanding – to oppose Temple worship and to stress human decency, characterized by prayer, obedience to Mosaic laws, and the study of the Torah and Talmud. That vision, embraced by the Diaspora, insured Jewish survival, and it should now inform Israel’s relation to its geography.

The Jewish people have returned to their place of origin and prospered. But it is crucial for them to recognize that, just as slipping paper wishes between the stones of the Western Wall is of no religious value, prayer on the Temple Mount is not more valuable than other prayer. What is crucial is decency, and this is what Israel must focus on.

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