Sunday, July 27, 2008

Reflections on the Third Temple

I was raised in a conservative household and spent some time in an orthodox youth group. My earliest years, we lived in a suburb that had very few Jews, all of my classmates were Christian. Our teacher in Kindergarten had us write letters to Santa Claus. Mine, if I could ever get the "S" right would tell Santa to stay away from our house because we were Jewish. I learned quickly though, that Santa was a ruse, a game Christian parents played with their children.

At Passover, I had a sneaking suspicion the we Jews were playing a similar game - it was called "opening the door for Elijah the Prophet." This suspicion was confirmed for me when I saw my father quaffing Elijah's cup after the Seder. It wasn't a moment of great disillusionment or anything - I just acknowledged that Elijah is our Santa Claus and that is that.

Once on a retreat with my Orthodox youth group, we were studying the commandment of the Red-Heifer. Now, by this point in my life I was already a little rationalist, I already believed that whether we knew it or not there were reasons behind commandments, and as we discussed the notion of the חוק, the just because commandment, I sat there thinking "nah, we just haven't figured it out yet."

So now I think I have it figured out: There is a war being waged today between heaven and earth. On Earth, there are zealots attempting to breed a red heifer that meets the halachic standard for being without blemish. And in heaven, there is God who needs only to strike two or three hair follicles on said heifer to keep those zealots from trying to take the temple mount. And God has consistently done so.

And therein, lies the reason for the commandment of the Red Heifer. God meant, when he commanded that it be "without blemish" that you couldn't use a three-legged, or one-eyed red heifer. But He also knew that humans would set a standard so high under rabbinic Judaism, that the inability to produce one would prevent our rebuilding the temple.

I think this is the reason because I do not believe that the destruction of either temple was a punishment for sin, necessarily, but rather an attempt to wean the set of humans that He had chosen for particular interest, from animal sacrifice altogether, that animal sacrifice was not something God particularly wanted from us, but that He had to allow early in our history, because if He did not provide a tactile mode of interaction for us, we would come up with things like the Golden Calf.

So the development of Rabbinic Judaism was a step toward God's original desires for the Jewish People, and that, were we to reinstitute animal sacrifice God would greet the prospect with the same distress as a mother, having just celebrated her son becoming Bar-Mitzvah, would experience watching that son return to the use of the pacifier.

The destruction of the temple is something that we should commemorate because so many Jews lost their lives, but, painful as it was, it forced us to grow into a more spiritually focussed people, which I suspect is one of the goals of Torah anyway.

And as prayers for Elijah the Prophet, and the Rebuilding of Jerusalem insinuate themselves back into Reform liturgy I think we owe it to ourselves to ask how we can hope to remain a progressive movement if we undertake to pray for regression.