Discussions 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 Mishna 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 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. A few Jews have even 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 — even most Orthodox Jews — are content to leave Temple building to God.
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. I believe that no place within Israel should be banned to Jewish prayer, but that 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.