Why I Pray for a Third Temple

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In a recent, and fascinating, article for Haaretz, Shany Littman described her fly-on-the-wall experience of the joint directorate of the Temple Movements, and her trip to the Temple Mount with a religious bride on her wedding day .

From Littman’s description, most of these people came across as nave in their contention that the building of a temple on the Temple Mount is an eventuality that is eminently and immanently possible. They came across as dangerous because of their lack of sensitivity in what must be one of the most politically volatile issues in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

But I fear that most readers of Littman’s article will also come away thinking that the very desire to establish a third temple is, irrespective of the political obstacles, an absurd, outdated and extremist desire, worthy of no rational person in this enlightened age. That is a view, not made explicit by Littman herself, that I would like to challenge.

The Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Sacks, wrote compellingly in his masterly book, "To Heal a Fractured World," of the intellectual revolution instigated by the Hebrew prophets as they introduced the idea of peace into the world. In those ancient times, cultures generally looked at warfare as the crucible for the creation of bravery, courage and chivalry. When mankind engaged in battle, they thought that they were emulating their gods who endlessly waged war upon one another in the heavens. According to Lord Sacks, the Hebrew prophets were the first to envisage a God of peace who makes peace in high places and who yearns for us to make peace here on earth.

They foresaw a time when men would no longer wage war and would stand united in a shared faith – eventually, all people will proclaim the unity of God, and the family of humanity will unite in their shared recognition of God’s unity. It’s a beautiful image, but it amounts to the claim that there can only be peace when we all believe in Judaism.

Christians, who inherited the vision of the Hebrew prophets, sought to spread universal peace by killing thousands of Jews and Muslims in a"holy" crusade to spread God’s word. Islamic attempts to convert the infidel by the sword constitute another example of the attempt to force a prophetic peace..

The greatness of the Rabbis, Lord Sacks explains, was their eventual realisation that the peace described by the prophets was the peace that will endure after history; after the coming of the messiah. Any attempt to force the end of time – any attempt to impose messianic peace upon this pre-messianic world – could only result in disaster. For this reason, the rabbis developed the notion of darkei shalom – the ways of peace. This all too overlooked rabbinic notion demands that we Jews engage in acts of loving kindness towards non-Jews, irrespective of their beliefs. This pre-messianic notion of peace is a compromise, but it avoids bloodshed and it promotes love. It’s a step in the right direction.

The desire to run up on to the Temple Mount, to demolish a mosque and a shrine, and to force our temple in to its place, is the desire to force the end; it is the desire to insert messianic notions of peace into our pre-messianic world. It can only result in evil and bloodshed and runs against the probing insight of the Talmudic sages. So, I can agree with readers of Haaretz if they conclude that Littman’s subjects are dangerous, fringe and extreme.

But I cannot agree that the very notion of a third temple is outmoded and absurd, nor is it extreme. In fact, it is mainstream. Every Jew who ever says the central Amida prayer, or recites a traditional Grace After Meals, prays for the rebuilding of the temple. To jettison the idea is to place yourself outside of the mainstream, and onthe extreme.

What does it mean to desire a third temple? It does not mean the reinstitution of animal sacrifices. Generations of scholars, from Maimonides to Rabbi Kook, have indicated that the next temple will be a completely vegetarian affair. The desire to build a third temple isn’t even the desire to impose Judaism upon others. The prophetic image of the messianic temple is that of a ‘house of prayer for all peoples’ (Isaiah 56:7). Thus, Rabbi Nebenzahl, the saintly Rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem, has said that there can, of course, continue to be a mosque on the temple mount even once our temple is rebuilt. The prophets foresaw that we’d all be worshipping one God, but not necessarily in the same way. Perhaps the third temple complex will be a veritable interfaith fair where all of the monotheists of the world – including Hindu and Sikh monotheists – will converge in their diversity, retaining their distinct communal identity whilst directing prayers from the same place to the same God in different languages and modes.

Yes, it’s a dream. It’s a certain vision of a utopia. It isn’t to be forced upon anybody, but, progressive politics is all about dreams and aspirations. The dream that one day, amidst our religious diversity, the people of the world will be able to celebrate one another’s cultures and to pray together; the dream that one day, no religion will own the Temple Mount, forcing others not to pray within its precincts; that’s a dream that a progressive audience should embrace rather than ridicule. It’s a vision that has sustained the Jewish people for millennia.

Dr. Samuel Lebens studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion, holds a PhD in metaphysics and logic from the University of London, and is the chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.

The Temple Mount. Credit: Nir Kafri