Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple, after the Syrians desecrated it and the Maccabees regained control of it. Many years later, that same Second Temple would be destroyed by the Romans. That event is embedded into our liturgy; and within the Jewish consciousness is the desire to rebuild the Temple as a sign of maintaining our Jewish heritage. In reality, the idea of building a Third Temple, and reinstituting Temple practices seem to be not only remote, but archaic. Or so one might think.
One day during my trip to Israel, as our small group navigated the narrow streets of Jerusalem, we came upon what we thought was a museum of the Second Temple. I was particularly interested in seeing the display; I wanted to further understand the workings of the Temple. We paid our eight shekles and were escorted into the first of several rooms, with vivid paintings depicting the Temple as well as a beautiful model of the Temple in the center of the room. The voiceover began to explain the paintings and what they represented, the various activities and personalities involved in the Temple service.
The second room, however, made it clear where we REALLY were. We had stumbled into the Temple Institute Museum, established to educate people about the Second Temple, but mostly to raise funds and support for the building of the Third Temple. As we sat along the raised risers in the room, our attention was called to the priests’ garb, the musical instruments, the large menorah and the tools used for animal sacrifices. The narrator proudly pointed out that all of these were developed according to Leviticus, and ready for use in the Third Temple. As liberal Jews our jaws collectively dropped.
When the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., many Jews despaired of ever gaining forgiveness for their sins; there was now no place, after all, where they could offer sacrifices. The great first-century Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai revolutionized Jewish thinking with his pronouncement “that acts of loving-kindness now superseded sacrifices as the preferred way of attaining G-d’s forgiveness.” In addition to deeds of loving-kindness, the Talmud later taught that “studying of Torah is a greater act than bringing daily sacrifices” (Megillah 3b).
Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher, believed that animal sacrifices were instituted to wean people from the ancient and horrific practice of human sacrifice. Remember Genesis 22;11-13 when Abraham sacrificed a ram instead of Isaac? The Jewish philosopher Abarbanel reinforced Maimonides’ argument. He cited a Midrash that indicated that the Jews had become accustomed to sacrifices in Egypt. To wean them from these idolatrous practices, G-d tolerated the sacrifices but commanded that they be offered in only one central sanctuary, thereby limiting their number.
An article on the Jewish Virtual Library website reports that, “Many Jewish scholars, such as Rabbi Kook believe that animal sacrifices will not be reinstated in messianic times, even with the reestablishment of the Temple.” Yet the hope is expressed in our liturgy.
However, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism has dropped reference to Temple sacrifices from their siddurim (prayer books), asserting that sacrifices represent a primitive stage in Jewish religious development. The Conservative prayer book, while supporting the building of the Third Temple, changed all future references to sacrifices to the past tense and expresses no desire to have them reinstituted. All Orthodox or traditional prayer books, on the other hand, repeatedly reiterates the hope that the Temple will be rebuilt, and sacrifices offered there again.
Despite traditional Jewish theology committing Orthodox Jews to pray for the reinstitution of sacrifices, many are ambivalent about the prospect of again publicly slaughtering and sacrificing animals. However, in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, other religious Jews established the Ateret Kohanim Yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem. One of the school’s primary curricular concerns is the laws of sacrifices, and preparing the Kohanim among its students to resume their functions at a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem.
As reported by Adam E. Berkowitz on the website Breaking Israel News, Rabbi Chaim Richman, the International Director of the Temple Institute, recently announced “The Temple Institute has initiated the second stage towards building the Temple, compiling a list of Jewish priests who will be eligible to prepare the red heifer and serve in the Temple. The registry will include men who have a clear patriarchal heritage from the priestly class (descendants of Aaron), were born and raised in Israel, and have observed the laws of purity incumbent upon priests. This includes not coming into proximity with the dead, so priests or Kohanim, who were born in hospitals, have visited hospitals, or have entered cemeteries are not eligible.” Once identified, they will be trained in the proper way of dealing with the hefarot.
While the vision of a Third Temple on the Temple Mount has existed since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, no such construction has begun. And, politically speaking, any change in the present arrangement of holy sites on the Temple Mount is implausible. But is this the time to look back to ancient practices? While the majority of Orthodox rabbis and scholars still embrace the rebuilding of the Third Temple and reintroducing all its rituals, most liberal and even conservative rabbis believe these goals are completely out of touch with Jewish values.
After all, our long tradition teaches that there are other ways to expiate our sins rather than killing animals.
Florence L. Dann, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.