Re-envisioning the Temple Mount (and Reclaiming That Vision)

As Reconstructionist Jews, we often do not think much about the Temple Mount and the Jewish Temples that once stood there in Jerusalem. I mean this in more ways than one. We generally do not think frequently about them, and when we do, we often do not think favorably about them. Most of us probably do not look wistfully towards the re-institution of animal sacrifices. Nor do we likely pine for the assertive re-invigoration of the priestly caste system. I would think none of us want to see the rise of a Jewish spiritual institution in the hands of a governmentally empowered priestly system that could come to demonstrate as much corruption as we have seen within the bureaucratic structures of the Israeli chief rabbinate. And we certainly do not want to risk seeing a war between Israel and the Islamic world over the status of the Temple Mount — a risk that some Orthodox Jewish religious nationalists seem quite willing to take. For all these reasons, and perhaps more, Reconstructionist and other non-Orthodox Jews are not generally reciting prayers in our synagogues for the rebuilding of the Temple, and we are not thinking much about the Temple or the Temple Mount.

Yet, there are some ways that we still do think about the Temple. There are important reasons why we should think about the Temple. And there are ways that we could.

Even though we do not think much about the Temple, we generally do stand facing Jerusalem when we recite the Amidah, the central prayer of our worship services, traditionally said three times a day on weekdays, and even four times on Shabbat and Festivals. Usually, we know that we are facing Jerusalem during these central prayers because Jerusalem is where the Temple stood. But we may not have actually stopped to think about what it means to us that we are facing the place where the Temple stood.

One explanation of the timing of daily Jewish services is so that they correspond to the times of the sacrifices that used to be offered in the Temple. The Amidah itself is explained within tradition as being recited in place of the Temple sacrifices, those very sacrifices most of us do not want to see reinstated. We are affirming that connection when we face Jerusalem, and in one of the blessings of the Amidah itself, which speaks of God’s Presence returning to Zion. It seems like some sort of cognitive dissonance for us to engage in this ritualized continuation of the Temple sacrifices if we do not think much about the Temple or the Temple sacrifices.

Many of us also seem to think or feel that the Kotel, or Western Wall, in Jerusalem holds a special place in our hearts. The Kotel is a small part of the ancient Temple complex. Its special place in the emotional and spiritual life of our People is because it is part of that Temple complex we often do not think much of. These two examples alone (and there are others) illustrate that the Temple and the Temple Mount are actually part of our spiritual and emotional life as Jews, even as Reconstructionist Jews.

There are reasons that we should think more about the Temple Mount and ways that we would benefit. Thinking more about the Temple could provide us with an opportunity for a stronger shared spiritual centering within our tradition and our community. Since the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, we Jews have been largely a diaspora people. Along with the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians, the center of Jewish life was moved temporarily (that is for a number of generations) to Babylon. Eventually, some Jews (or Judeans, which in Hebrew is the same word) were permitted to come back to Jerusalem to build the Second Temple.

Since that time, Jews have not all been gathered in one land around one physical space. Yet, for these thousands of years wherever Jews have wandered, we have always retained a communal geographic center in our hearts. That center has been the Land of Israel, but especially Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. This has been, and continues to be, a powerful point of communal unity for us as a people in all our wanderings. Wherever we were living, our prayers and holidays were connected to the seasons of the year — the seasons as they are experienced in the Land of Israel rather than in the land where our own particular Jewish community was settled in our particular generation. By holding in our hearts a permanent and shared communal geographical center, we retained for ourselves a powerful cultural force for communal unity. We reinforce the unifying impact of this shared communal geographic center every time we say our prayers facing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

By affirming this shared communal geographic center, we also affirm our connection to the Torah and TaNaKh (Jewish Bible). The Land of Israel is the geographical center point of the activity depicted in the Torah and TaNaKh. Most of the narrative takes place in the Land of Israel, and those parts that do not are infused with a sense of longing to be once again in the Land of Israel. In this way, both the Torah and the rest of the TaNaKh reflect the diaspora experience of our people — a people who are either in the Land of Israel or are scattered in other places with lives that somehow still center on the Land of Israel. Maintaining a focus on our central spiritual texts has helped keep us emotionally and spiritually connected to the Land of Israel, Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.

We reinforce the unifying impact of this shared communal geographic center every time we say our prayers facing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

At the same time, our shared focus on the Land of Israel, Jerusalem and the Temple Mount gave us keys for entering spiritually into our sacred texts. Most of the ritual practices that Jewish communities have lived out over the past 2,000 years in our homes and synagogues are not described in any great detail within the Sefer Torah. Prayer, for example, is not a major mode of regular communal worship heavily featured in the Torah. The synagogue rituals of daily prayer are not to be found in the text. But daily Temple sacrifices certainly are, and in practice, regular communal prayer became the ongoing reenactment of Temple sacrifices. In this spirit, synagogues sometimes were referred to each as a Mikdash Me’at” a “little Temple.” One Midrash describes how when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, stones from the Temple were scattered throughout the world, and wherever a stone landed, there a synagogue was built. This teaching may not be literally true, but it is figuratively true. After the destruction of the Temple, Jews were scattered throughout the world. Wherever Jews went they carried the Temple with them as a communal spiritual and geographic center. So wherever Jews landed, they eventually built a synagogue in which to gather as community to recite prayers facing the Temple Mount, in place of the Temple sacrifices.

By directing their prayers towards the Temple Mount, Jews have connected their prayers to the sacrifices described in the Torah. Together, this is a powerful cultural source of Jewish unity.

Reclaiming our focus on the Temple Mount therefore would benefit us by providing us with a powerful force for Jewish connection across time and space. In addition, though, there are important political and social justice reasons why we should re-engage a commitment to the Temple Mount. The most base and crass reason is because there are many others in the world who are claiming a vision of the Temple Mount in ways that are very harmful to the causes of peace and justice. In many ways, silence is not an option for us. Other groups, both Jewish and not Jewish, are claiming something that is part of our heritage and utilizing it as a dangerous platform. On the one hand, we have the Islamic Waqf that, by permission of the Israeli and Jordanian governments, has administrative authority over the Temple Mount in our days. They, and some other Islamic groups, claim the Temple Mount as an exclusively Muslim site. No one else is allowed to pray there because praying there seems to be seen as a declaration of possession of the site itself. The site is used to whip up right-wing religious frenzy among the Muslim faithful in service of a conflict with the Israeli government, all in the name of God. Some might say this use of the Temple mount to create anger and disassociate Jews from our own history is in and of itself a desecration of the Name of God.

There are many others in the world who claim a vision of the Temple Mount in ways that are very harmful to the causes of peace and justice.

On the other hand, we have various right-wing religious nationalist Jewish groups who also claim the Temple Mount for themselves. They are claiming that the Temple Mount is an exclusively Jewish site and that the Muslims have no right to be there. Some of these Jewish groups are actively training priests in the details of performing sacrifices in a rebuilt Third Temple. The mere suggestion of building a Third Jewish Temple on the site of what Islamic authorities claim to be a Mosque is enough to raise talk of a religious war over the future of the Temple site. Yet Jewish tradition itself claims that King David did not merit to build the First Temple because he was a man of war, and that no iron was to be used in building the Temple because iron was a tool of war. In other words, the Temple was not even to be marginally associated with war. Certainly, then, causing a war in order to rebuild the Temple would be a huge Desecration of God’s Name and everything the Temple is supposed to stand for.

We are living in a world where quite a number of people who call themselves “religious” — Muslim, Jewish, Christian — and are seen by others to be “religious” seem to have no compunction about risking an eventual war over the future of the Temple Mount. At the same time, many non-Orthodox Jews are altogether not religious and have no particular vision of their own to articulate for the Temple Mount. At most, it seems they might say “War is bad; leave the Mount alone.” I do think war is bad, but I do not think “Leave the Mount alone” is an alternative vision powerful and resonant enough to compete with the vision that religious nationalists are putting forth. We need an alternative religious vision that is rooted within our own Jewish tradition, history and heritage. Under these circumstances, it seems deeply irresponsible then for Reconstructionist and other liberal Jews to be silent about our own vision of the Temple Mount. Our own silence enables the destructive visions to gain hold. Silence is not an option.

Speaking forth a vision of the Temple Mount is a morally important act not only for crass political reasons, though, or as a means to counteract the harmful behavior of others. It is also an opportunity for us as Reconstructionist Jews to give voice to a religiously-based vision rooted in Jewish tradition of what the world should be. Historically, images of a reclaimed and rebuilt Jewish Temple are intertwined with Jewish visions of redemption at the End of Days. In some way or form, when the world is redeemed the Temple will be rebuilt. Our own effort to re-envision a way of reclaiming the Temple mount is an opportunity for us to express an alternative and very Jewish vision of redeeming the world.

The book of Isaiah, in Chapter 2, provides a starting point for re-envisioning the Temple Mount and its place in a redeemed world:

2:2 And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the ETERNAL’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.

2:3 And many people shall go and say, Come! Let us go up to the mountain of the ETERNAL, to the house of the God of Jacob who will teach us God’s ways, and we will walk in God’s paths: for out of Zion shall go forth Torah, and the word of the ETERNAL from Jerusalem.

2:4 And God shall judge among the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

This is a beautiful image of the End of Days and an image clearly from deep within Jewish tradition. It is an image that involves the Temple Mount specifically, and indicates that in a redeemed time of the future, the Mountain of the God of Israel will be a focal point for many nations of the world, not only Jews. Accompanying this moment will also be a time of peace, not war. To be sure, there still will be conflict among peoples and among nations. But those conflicts will be settled by adjudication on the basis of justice.

The Jewish world should lift up this vision of the prophet Isaiah in front of all the world. We should utilize that vision to oppose the vision of war and exclusive possession that religious fundamentalists on all sides are selling. Most importantly, we should realize that in one important respect this vision of Isaiah is almost right in front of us. The Temple Mount today indeed is a mountain towards which “all nations flow,” or at least many do. Jews, Christians and Muslims all look towards that Mount as a Holy Site. Their claims to the mount may seem to contradict each other, but Isaiah’s vision acknowledges there will still be conflict. The point is to resolve that contradiction peaceably.

We should lift up Isaiah’s vision to oppose the vision of war and exclusive possession that religious fundamentalists on all sides are selling.

A re-envisioning of the Temple Mount is more a change of perspective than a change of situation. The re-envisioning of the Temple Mount which I am suggesting would not include any attempt to tear down structures currently on the Mount. But let us engage in an enthusiastic re-embracing of the Temple Mount as a powerful image of spiritual centering for the Jewish People, and as a symbol of a vision of world redemption that is grounded in tradition and supportive of justice, peace and pluralism.

To start, we need to recognize that the Temple in Jerusalem from its very beginning, after all, was not physically what it claimed to be spiritually. The Temple, as the House of God, was not where God resided. Sacrifices were offered there, but most Jews lived far away and likely were never there. Most Jews therefore likely related to the Temple as a focal point for prayer, not a setting in which they entered to pray. In a word, the Temple from its beginning was more of a symbol than a venue. In describing the Temple this way, I am returning to an ancient vision of the Temple recorded in TaNaKh as part of King Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the First Temple in Jerusalem which he built. The words are found both in First Kings 8:27-30 and Second Chronicles 6:18-21:

27 But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You; how much less this house that I have built! 28 Yet You turn unto the prayer and supplication of Your servant, ETERNAL my God, to hear the cry and the prayer which Your servant prays before You this day; 29 that Your eyes may be open toward this house night and day, even toward the place of which You have said: My name shall be there; to hear the prayer which Your servant shall pray toward this place. 30 And may You hear the supplication of Your servant, and of Your people Israel, when they shall pray toward this place; may You hear in heaven Your dwelling-place; and when You hear, forgive.

What we see here is an early and ancient description of the Temple in Jerusalem as a symbol. It is a House of God, but everything about God is so much bigger than the Temple. The Temple does not contain anything of importance that is not already outside the Temple. Nor does it exist for the sake of God. The Temple exists for the sake of the people, so that the people can pray towards it and through it to God. It is a focal point for the community, a spiritual centering point for the people.

This early and ancient view of the Temple must be elevated for modern times. It tells us that the Temple has an important spiritual and cultural role to play in the life of the people which, however, is not dependent on the physicality of anything to do with the structure. In fact, as a physical entity, the Temple is totally and by definition inadequate to the task. It is a representation of something much bigger than itself. It is pointing us towards something of transcendent importance, but we should not think that it in itself is equivalent to that transcendent importance.

We must emphasize the same point today. The Temple and the Temple Mount are important to us as a spiritual centering point and as a symbol of a vision of world redemption that affirms the coexistence of many nations affirming each other, living in peace and solving conflict by non-violent means. The Temple Mount is important to us because of what it represents — not because of who owns it, who holds it or who manages it.

At the same time, I am not suggesting a de-Judaization of the Temple Mount. What I am suggesting is an affirmation of the fullness of the Jewish vision of the Temple Mount. It is not non-Jewish. Neither is it exclusively Jewish. It is actually “Jewish and.” Jewish and Christian. Jewish and Muslim. Jewish and anyone else who is drawn to embrace the universality of the God we call the God of Israel. As it is stated in Psalms 15:

15:1 ETERNAL, who shall abide in your tabernacle? Who shall dwell in your holy mountain?

15:2 Those who walk uprightly, and work righteousness, and speak the truth in their heart.

15:3 Who do not backbite with their tongue, nor do evil to their neighbor, nor take up a reproach against their neighbor.

15:4 In whose eyes a vile person is contemned; but who honor them that revere the ETERNAL. Who swear to their own hurt, yet do not change.

15:5 Who do not lend money at usurious rates, nor take reward against the innocent. Those that do these things shall never be moved.

The Temple and the Temple Mount are a celebration of personal and communal integrity, and of that day when God is One and God’s Name is One; for this is the place where God’s Name dwells; for everyone, especially everyone who wants to envision such a day. And that according to the Books of Isaiah and Psalms is a Jewish vision.

Just as the Second Temple was not exactly like the First Temple, so also a Third Temple would not be exactly like the Second Temple. The First Temple, as is recorded, contained the Ark of the Covenant within the Holy of Holies. By the time the Second Temple was built, the Ark of the Covenant could no longer be found. So, while sacrifices were resumed, the Holy of Holies remained empty. This would have been a significant change at the time. An empty Holy of Holies would have symbolized that God is beyond anything the Temple itself could be. It would have been a physical representation of a Divine Name that was hardly ever uttered, a clear statement that God is more than anything we can build or say.

A Third Temple would need to be even more different. In the Second Temple, the Ark of the Covenant was represented by empty space, signifying that the God of Israel could not be portrayed by any object of with any image. A Third Temple could itself be represented by empty space, signifying in the words of Solomon that “behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You; how much less this house that I have built!”

There really does not need to be a structure on the Temple Mount for the Temple to be the symbol it always was to us from the days of King Solomon. We can direct our prayers towards that space, as Solomon suggests and as we do even to this day, without the space being framed in by walls. Any walls put up in that space would detract from the vision of a God that cannot even be contained by all the universe. And all the conflicts about who owns and operates the structure would remain, forever detracting from the message of peace and wholeness that the Temple is meant to represent.

Without an actual structure there would be no place for animal sacrifices and without clear knowledge of the location of the Holy of Holies, it would be most appropriate for the Mount to remain absolutely an empty space. No one should go up there.

There would be no need to affect any change to the physical structures on the Temple Mount. The building known as the Dome of the Rock could be seen by Jews as a symbol of a Holy Mountain to which all nations flow. It is, after all, built on a Jewish site, so no doubt on a Jewish foundation and perhaps a Jebusite foundation before that; upon which was built a Roman Temple, then a church and then a mosque. Precisely because of all these different attempts to frame sacred space on this site, the particular super-structure currently visible, without itself being heir to Solomon’s Temple, is in itself a testimony to how many nations desire to flow to the mountain of God. As such it is a perfect Jewish symbol of Isaiah’s vision of what the Temple Mount should be.

Contrast this to the super-structure that was likely visible on the Temple Mount when the Romans destroyed it in 70 C.E. That structure was built by King Herod, a murderer who built structures to honor himself. Herod and his buildings are hardly worthy of marking our People’s holiest space. What is far more appropriate for us is a universalistic symbol built upon a foundation that we can know is particular to us.

If Jews were to embrace the structure currently visible as a Jewish symbol, there is not much that others could do about it either. Jews do not have to tear down the Islamic structures on the Temple Mount in order to claim the structures up there as Jewish symbols. We just have to decide they are Jewish symbols that represent everything our Temple Mount is about. At that point, no matter how much any Waqf (or other) authorities objected to Jews seeing the structures as Jewish symbols, they would not be able to do too much about it. And then we can celebrate the fact that so many other nations recognize the holiness of our holy site as well. Someday, though, maybe those currently maintaining the Temple Mount will also come to see that this Sacred Space is meant to be a House of Prayer for all peoples.

And what do we Reconstructionist Jews do about the fact that neither those Islamic authorities who actually hold administrative power over the Temple Mount, nor most Jews who intensely care about the Temple Mount, may seem now to hold to this vision? My answer is: Pray — and advocate — with the understanding that prayer and advocacy are two aspects of the same act. Both prayer and advocacy are acts of expressing the desires of the heart and speaking them into the world. Both prayer and advocacy are part of the process of making an ideal into a reality. And prayer, in particular, as King Solomon voices at the dedication of the First Temple, is at the center of what the Temple in Jerusalem is all about.

So we should re-envision our Temple in modern times on the basis of its image as was expressed in our texts of our most ancient times: as a focal point of prayer around which our community and all nations of the world can organize themselves in a common quest for truth, justice and peace. And we should hold out hope through our prayers and advocacy that others, too, will grow into such a state of spiritual maturity.

One Response

  1. Thank you so much for this detailed article and especially the scriptural references. I wonder if you are familiar with any ancient (or present day) Jewish prayer rituals where in celebrants entered into prayer and in a Visionary experience rebuilt the temple? I appreciate any comments or understandings you’re able to offer very much!

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