This Shabbat’s Torah reading is the last one of a whole series about the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. The portion ends with the stunning moment when God’s presence fills the Mishkan.
The building of the Mishkan is an important part of our annual Torah reading, which Jews all over the world have studied during the last weeks. We have dealt with the meaning of the Mishkan, the portable place where God could be found, and of course with the Temple, which replaced the Tabernacle in later times, and gave God a more permanent dwelling place.
And as Progressive Jews, we may have added our very own views to these discussions on the Temple. As Reform Jews we do not longer believe in a need for a Temple, a centralized “holy place” for worship and sacrifices.
In fact, most references to the temple and its cult have been removed even from our liturgy. We don’t pray for the rebuilding of the temple any longer, we deleted the parts referring to the burnt offerings, following the prophetic words that God is with us, wherever we are, and that prayers are the offerings, God favors most.
There are good arguments for this position. The Torah portion two weeks ago, Ki Tissa, with the story about the Golden Calf, is a good example, and reflects beautifully on the concept that Judaism is a “religion in progress”, and that it is important to understand the needs of people and to develop concepts of worshipping God, which may differ in time and depend on a certain environment and place.
The Israelites, who had just left slavery in Egypt, couldn’t understand the concept of an untouchable, invisible and abstract God.
And even though the Golden Calf may not be what God had in mind as a proper answer to the needs of the people, with the two cherubim, the cloud and the ‘pillar of fire‘, the Israelites got something they could relate to.
Centuries later, the Temple with its cult was another and important step in this process of transition and progress. That time, the temple played a major role in forming the Jewish Kingdom, and had an important function in centralizing the cult.
With the destruction of the first Temple an important change took place in Jewish practice. More fixed payers replaced the daily offerings, and paved the ground for the Rabbinic shift after the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE, when prayers replaced the animal sacrifices totally.
Rabbi Shmuel ben Rabbi Isaac, who lived in the third-century, explained that a synagogue, where people come together for payers, should be considered “a minor Temple” (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 29a). Together with the transformation of Temple practices towards the synagogue setting (such as the use of the shofar, lulav, and etrog), and the ritualized memories of the former Temple ceremonies into synagogue liturgy, such as the recital of the order of the sacrifices, the Rabbis were comforting the people.
With the development of Reform Judaism in Germany by Geiger, Jacobson and others, the Temple finally lost its ritual function, even in the figurative sense. The concept of a Temple was perceived as old fashioned, preventing Jews from an intellectual, enlightened Judaism, based on reason and science.
Jews had proven over centuries that the covenant with God doesn’t need a Temple. Jews could and can practice Judaism in a meaningful and rich way everywhere in the world.
I can relate to this concept. I fact, that’s why I think any return to a former stage would be a step backwards – instead of coming closer to God, we would depart ourselves from the Eternal again.
I can’t see any sense in the concept of rebuilding the Temple, and more so, I am opposed to the idea. I personally, have decided for myself even, not to go up to the Temple mount in Jerusalem. Today, it’s a holy site for Muslims, and as long as it is a place with so many tensions, we should minimize any conflict – especially because the site has no ritual purpose for us nowadays.
„But tell me one thing Rabbi,“ a congregant asked me during one of the last Torah studies, when I had explained my position, “If you are so against the Temple, why do you support the Women of the Wall and the campaign for an egalitarian Kotel / Western Wall? Why should Progressive Jews or Jews at all pray there?“
This was a very good point. I liked the question, because I had to define my arguments more clearly. My perspective may look a bit ambivalent or even schizophrenic at first glance, but I think it reflects a very specific situation within Judaism.
From a religious point of view, I stick to the position I just explained. And I would strongly argue that Jews don’t need the Western Wall to encounter the Eternal. As I said, I believe that we can meet God at any place in this world.
But Judaism is not a Religion alone; it is so much more than that. It is a covenant between individuals as well – we are one people – “Am Israel“. We all share a common history and common values. We are all connected in an invisible chain from the past to the future – “Le Dor va Dor“.
Our Sages, who transformed Judaism after the destruction of the Temple into a religion without sacrifices and without the temple cult, did an amazing job. They detached “religion“ from the place, but kept the people connected through and to this place. Even though they turned Judaism up side down, they kept Jerusalem as the center of Judaism. Not as a place where God should be worshiped alone, but as the center of our hope and of our people, to get through all difficulties in Jewish history.
The Western Wall is a symbol for this, it is the central point of the Jewish People, and belongs therefore to all Jews, no matter where we are, and what we are.
Our Torah portion ends with the powerful image when God took possession of the new Mishkan.
For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Eternal rested by day, and the fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.
The Tabernacle was the center of the camp in the desert, visible for all Israelites. It was the stronghold of the people, giving them hope and much more, security, a sense of belonging-together, not being alone.
Today, we don’t have the Mishkan; we don’t have a cloud hovering above the Temple mount. But we have us.
As long as we all are facing Jerusalem in prayers, songs and thoughts, we are also facing one another. Jews from all corners of the world are still connected through this center, they do belong together, in one covenant – throughout their journeys.
Rabbi Adrian Michael Schell – Shabbat Shekalim 5774
@ Bet David, Johannesburg ZA