Drash on Parashat Re'eh
Rabbi Jeffrey B Kamins
Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, NSW
The centrality of the Temple
The book of Deuteronomy in general and this week’s parasha Re’eh in particular discusses the centrality of Jerusalem and the Beit HaMikdash (Temple), highlighting our historic connection with the land. This week’s teaching opens and closes with a singular message: the centralisation of the worship in “the place that God shall choose.” For Moses and our ancestors, having one central place of worship transformed disparate communities into a unified nation. The Torah’s “place that God shall choose” becomes clearly identified in the rest of the Bible as the Temple in Jerusalem. Recently, in an act of blatant antisemitism, UNESCO has denied that connection; all who do not acknowledge the history of the First and Second Temple and our ancestral connection with the land are equally guilty of antisemitism and contributing to a nasty attempt of cultural genocide.
Unfortunately, we as a people have not fully understood the significance of the ancient Temple – especially in terms of modern day Zionism. Ironically, it was the early 19th century Reformers who began the universalisation of the Temple, as part of their commitment to being “a light among the nations” and their embrace of universalism over nationalism. They blurred the boundary between Temple and synagogue by beginning to call our synagogues “Temples” and rejecting the messianic idea of rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. But the synagogue and Temple are two distinct institutions, and the long-term impact of confusing the two has been to undermine our history in the land and our people’s connection to it.
According to scholars, when the First Temple was destroyed and 80% of our ancestors were exiled, a new institution, the synagogue, began. The prophet Ezekiel, who lived at this time, speaks in chapter 11:16 of the “little sanctuary”, understood by the rabbis of the Talmud (Megillah 29a) as a reference to the synagogue. (In Hebrew, the synagogue is referred to as a Beit Knesset, a house of gathering. The word synagogue derives from a Greek word meaning “meeting”.) The synagogue had leadership based upon learning and enabled people to worship God in the absence of the Temple. Synagogues continued to exist during the time of the Second Temple, and began to flourish after its destruction in the year 70CE. Distinct to the Beit Knesset was another institution of learning known as the Beit Midrash, or house of learning, where the students would also pray at the appropriate times. Today, for a synagogue to thrive it must incorporate all these elements – meeting, learning and praying. For 2,000 years, as Jews met and learned, they continued to pray for the rebuilding of the Temple, for it was the Temple in Jerusalem that provided a consciousness of the Jewish nation, a central focus for all the scattered communities.
When the Reformers of the 19th century changed the prayers in the Amidah to remove all mention of the Temple and changed the names of their synagogues to Temple, they did so specifically to eradicate Jewish national consciousness and turn Judaism into a matter of faith, like Christianity. We were to be “Germans of the Jewish persuasion”, and so forth. Jews of the 21st century, living after the Shoah and the rebirth of the nation of Israel must re-visit this 19th century decision. It is difficult to escape the core notion of the Bible: that we are a historic people, the children of Israel, sharing the language of Hebrew, and destined to live in the land of Israel. There we are to be a model nation or risk exile for failure to live up to that challenge. The teachings of the rabbis, from the Siddur through commentary on the Bible, reinforce that message. Especially in these times when our continued connection to the land is challenged, we must educate ourselves and others as to the history of our presence there. I believe that Jerusalem can be shared among the different nations and faiths, and I do not advocate the rebuilding of a third Temple – but I also believe we should not eviscerate its central role in our narrative. Confusing our synagogues with the Temple risks diffusion of our people and our narrative.
We of this period in time, so gifted in understanding the richness of symbolism and allegory should be able to think of the future Temple within those terms: not necessarily as a real building where priests sacrifice animals as in the past, but as a focal point reminding us we are more than a religion, we are a faith nation. The Temple stands distinct from any synagogue, and erasing its sacred uniqueness (kedushah as in Beit HaMikdash) vitiates its role, highlighted in this week’s parasha. Just as the synagogue provides space for our communal consciousness, the Temple holds our national consciousness, crucial for our calling as a “light to the nations.”