A (Somewhat) Secular Case for Mourning the Temple

I once regretted that we ever dirtied our hands with the barbaric practice of animal sacrifice at the Temple. But now each Tisha B'Av, I relive the place's destruction all again

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'The destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem,' a 1638 painting by Nicolas Poussin. 'At the end of my prayers, I do something I never thought I would do: I ask the Messiah to come and speedily rebuild the Temple.'
'The destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem,' by Nicolas Poussin. 'At the end of my prayers, I do something I never thought I would do: I ask the Messiah to come and speedily rebuild the Temple.'Credit: Nicolas Poussin
Matthew Schultz
Matthew Schultz

My friends in Tel Aviv are no strangers to odd rituals. Some partake in Theta Healing. Some eat only paleo or ketogenic. Some are yogis, or Radical Faeries, or self-declared witches, or neo-pagans.

But this?

This crossed the line.

At first, I kept it all a secret. After all, who would understand? What I was doing was strange. Unheard of. Kinky. Perhaps even unspeakable. And yet — I couldn’t get enough.

Each day I would slink into the synagogue, looking over my shoulder as I entered to make sure no one had seen me.

>> Read more: Tisha B'Av 101: A guide to the restrictions, customs and historical significance of the saddest day on the Jewish calendar

After I had draped myself in a tallit and bound myself with tefillin, it was time to begin.

A secular-style bar at the Great Synagogue compound in Tel Aviv. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Beseeching the Messiah to rebuild the Temple, we would detail the rituals of the sacrificial service. In hushed tones we recalled the slaughtering of the offerings and the sprinkling of their blood upon the altar.

I know how it sounds — but it all started innocently enough. I wanted to learn more about Jewish prayer. That’s all.

Little did I know how much Jewish prayer centers around the sacrificial service of the ancient Temple — the Beit Hamikdash.

Little did I know how much I would love it.

Reform movement's powerful message

A model of the Third Temple at the Hebrew Music Museum in Jerusalem, Israel.Credit: Lior Liner

Growing up in a Reform Jewish household, I knew what “Temple” was but had no idea what “the Temple” was. Temple was a place in Concord, Massachusetts, where we went on the High Holy Days. The Temple, on the other hand, didn’t exist for us.

The Reform movement’s decision to call its houses of prayer “temples” was a deliberate theological statement. Until then, the term “Temple” referred to one of three structures — the First Temple of Jerusalem (destroyed in 586 B.C.E.), the Second Temple of Jerusalem (destroyed in 70) or the Third Temple of Jerusalem (to be rebuilt by the Messiah).

By calling their houses of prayer “temples,” the Reform movement sent a powerful message: No longer would we await a Messiah to rebuild the Temple. Wherever we gathered would be our holy place.

This message has lost much of its impact with the passing of the decades. To play with an idea — to reject it, to subvert it — one must understand it. But in today’s Reform Jewish landscape, temple and synagogue have become synonyms. The memory of the ancient Temple, the one Orthodox Jews mourn on the holy day of Tisha B’Av, has been lost.

Naturally, if I didn’t know what the Temple was when I was growing up, I was also unfamiliar with Tisha B’Av, the day on which religious Jews mourn the destruction of the Temple. I was 19 when I came to Israel for the first time and learned that Yom Kippur was not Judaism’s only fast day.

Until that point, Judaism had seemed like a fairly intelligible religion. A blessing before eating an apple? Sure, that’s a mindfulness practice. Sukkot? A great time to reflect on impermanence and connect with nature. But Tisha B’Av?

It was bad enough that the Temple had ever existed — that we had ever dirtied our hands with the barbaric practice of animal sacrifice. Did we now have to debase ourselves further by mourning its destruction?

But that was 10 years ago.

As I have mentioned, my views have changed.

Each morning I relive it all again. The washing of the limbs. The slaughtering of the lambs. The grinding of the spices and the lighting of the incense. Each day I enter mentally into that imagined Temple to administer its rites. It stands in stark contrast to all that is abstract — to all that can be reasoned away or reduced to metaphor.

At the end of my prayers, I do something I never thought I would do: I ask the Messiah to come and speedily rebuild the Temple. And this year, for the first time, I will be fasting on Tisha B’Av as well.

None of this should be taken to mean that I have become an Orthodox Jew. Despite my love of ritual, I don’t consider myself religious. Nonetheless, I have fallen in love with precisely those elements of Judaism that I can’t justify as a mindfulness exercise, that I can’t explain away with New Age terms learned from Oprah or Deepak Chopra, and that ring in my ears for their strangeness and visceral power.

Fastidious God

“And let them make Me a sanctuary …”

In some senses, the work of Rabbinic Judaism has been the labor of taking the literal and making it metaphorical. God did not walk in the Garden of Eden. He delivered us from Egypt, yes, but not with an outstretched arm.

Such anthropomorphic talk troubled the sages. And so they spent centuries untangling it, translating it, insisting it was not what it seemed.

If the secular aversion to the Temple is rooted in its perceived barbarousness, the religious aversion (yes, this exists) is based in its literalness. The implication that God needs a house, or that He requires offerings, didn’t match the infinite and abstracted deity the sages had created.

They made the case that the Temple was never for God but for man. After the sin of the Golden Calf, God saw that our faith was weak. We needed visual aids. The Temple was thus a transitional item, designed to ease our growing pains as we went from idol worshippers to abstraction worshippers.

But if this is true, why was God so fastidious in His instructions? So exacting with His measurements? So exuberant with His aesthetics? Is it really possible to believe that it was all for us? That He didn’t get a kick out it Himself?

Let’s not forget who we’re talking about here. This is the same God who designed orchids and oranges, dragonflies and deserts, the moon and the stars, rainbows and peacocks, thunder and lightning.

A universe of over-the-top, unrestrained design choices. The Temple reflected this.

Why did the sages find it so troubling that God could be found in material? And why did I, at age 19, find it so disturbing?

In the Holy Temple, animals without blemish were sacrificed before God. Music was played jubilantly on shining horns and bedazzled lyres. Spices were burned to create a pleasing odor for the Lord. Loaves of mystic bread — the bread of the Presence — were baked and laid out on golden racks. The priestly garments were decked out with colored threads, jewels and dangling bells. There were golden calyxes and embroidered pomegranates, towering harps and gleaming censers. In this fun house, the senses, not the mind, were the true gates to heaven.

A few short centuries later, however, and Rabbi Yaakov is quoted in Pirkei Avot saying that a man who interrupts his study to admire a beautiful tree is a man who has committed a deadly sin.

What happened between these two points in history?

What was it that taught the Jews that it is always safer to love an abstraction than a place, and that only an idea can never be taken from you?

Tisha B’Av is what happened.

The walls of the city were breached.

The Temple was ransacked. Desecrated. Utterly destroyed.

Do I want Judaism to go back in time? To rebuild the sanctuary and resume the sacrifices?

Hell no.

But this Tisha B’Av, I will abstain from food and drink.

I will pour out prayers in sorrow for the ruining of that ancient structure.

Most of all, I will grieve as I think back on that time in our history when God loved what was beautiful and so did mankind.

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