What did the Romans destroy?

August 1, 2014 § 2 Comments

Next Tuesday is Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, when both Temples – the first and the second – fell. The First Temple fell in 586 BCE, destroyed by the Babylonians. According to the tradition, the Second Temple fell on the very same date – the ninth of Av – nearly 600 years later, in the year 70 of our secular calendar, this time at the hand of the Romans.

Up until the destruction of the Temple, the primary approach to worship in the Ancient Near East had been animal sacrifice: you bring an animal to the priest, who slaughters the animal in a ritual fashion, burns part of it, and then splits it between you two. The priest gets a portion as his fee, and you have the rest.

And the purpose of this sacrificial system, at least in its ancient form, was to maintain the order of the cosmos.

The Temple, behind the curtain of the Holy of Holies, was the point where heaven and earth meet. The priests were charged with keeping this system going, and preventing the profane elements of living from reaching the holy.

So when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, they destroyed more than a mere building – they destroyed the entire structure of Israelite worship.

And the Romans were fairly thorough in their destruction: they set it on fire, desecrated its precincts, and forbade any further use of the Temple.

If you go to the area of the southern wall excavations in Jerusalem, in fact, you will walk along the Roman street, and encounter the pile of rubble left behind from their efforts that day. In nearly 2000 years no one has cleaned it up. At this point, it is no longer possible to clean it up: those stones are our history, a moment frozen in time.

In the wake of that destruction, however, the ancient rabbis had to rebuild. They had to create a structure for worship that was not dependent upon sacrifices. They had to create a religious self-understanding that was not dependent upon being settled in the land. They had to create a pattern of observance that was not dependent upon what had been destroyed.

Now, the rabbis asked themselves, how do we continue, now that the central cult is gone?

These ancient rabbis, convening in Yavneh, on the banks of the Kinneret (also known as the Sea of Galilee) started the process of rebuilding.

They sat together and reasoned amongst themselves: God’s love for us is manifest in the commandments, right? So if we are commanded, and it is no longer possible to fulfill the commandment in its literal sense, then there must be a metaphorical way to do it. If the Temple is not standing, then we shall dress our scrolls as the High Priest. We will transform our kitchen table into the Temple altar. We will offer the words of our mouth in place of sacrificial offerings. And so on.

All of this was done in the context of the existing structure of law, faithful to its spirit yet also radically different in its execution.

Piece by piece, ritual by ritual, each new thing was mapped out, conceptually linked to the ancient practices yet also fundamentally transformed.

And this process of transformation was so successful, and so complete, that it is hard to think of Judaism as being any other way.

So much so, in fact, that later generations were prompted to ask: Why were the Israelites commanded to offer sacrifices? That is to say, if God knew that it would one day change to another form of worship, why ask for sacrifices in the beginning? Why not identify the proper form of worship and require that of the Israelites?

Consider, for example, the answer that Maimonides gives.

For Maimonides, the highest form of worship was the contemplation of God, but the level of discipline needed to accomplish it remains well outside of the capabilities of the masses.

God therefore allowed the sacrificial cult to flourish, as it provided a physical expression of what their minds could not fully grasp.

Moreover, it helped the Israelites transition from their earlier pagan customs to the correct apprehension of God.

As he argues: If God had required that the Israelites suddenly give up their sacrificial service, then “at that time this would have been similar to the appearance of a prophet in these times who, calling upon this people to worship God, would say: ‘God has given you a Law forbidding you to pray to Him, to fast, to call upon Him for help in misfortune. Your worship should consist solely in meditation without any works at all.’” The change would have been too sudden, and too difficult to accommodate––which is what prompts God to provide an alternative.

In Maimonides’ view, these older forms of prayer might be called a ‘gracious ruse’ on God’ part, for they were an accommodation to the weaknesses of human beings.

Immediately following the fall of the Second Temple, however, when the sacrificial cult was no longer operative, prayer-forms were left to the individual to create on an ad hoc basis, without a formal structure.

Thus, he argues, these new prayer-forms were created by the Men of the Great Assembly, sages who were guided by a true apprehension of reality. They created a structure that might be used by worshippers to perfect themselves, so that over the course of many years they might learn the highest form of contemplation.

Maimonides retains a certain nostalgia for the ancient prayer-forms, but one also senses from his text that these newer innovations are in many ways better than what had gone before, in that they are less visceral and more intellectual.

Looking at it from the perspective of the ancient rabbis, these changes to the ritual and theology of Judaism took an enormous leap of faith: where did they find the courage to make such changes?

Looking at it from the perspective of the later rabbis, however, these changes were not changes at all: they were simply what Judaism must be. It is hard to conceive of Judaism as looking any different than it does now.

Thus the interesting thing in all of this, of course, is how different it really has become: the worship of the heart is a far cry from the physicality of cutting animals to dash their blood on the altar and burn their entrails.

I would argue, therefore, that the strength of Judaism lies in our ability and willingness to adapt. We bewail the awful events in our past – these events have shaped us, and are part of our identity – but they do not define us.

We are able to create and build anew. We continuously construct a Jewish self-understanding that is both wildly different than what came before yet also very much its fullest expression. And in this ongoing process we are ever renewed.

What’s wrong with ethnic jokes?

April 25, 2014 § 2 Comments

When I was an undergraduate, I spent a semester abroad in Germany. I was there, of course, to learn German: that was the express purpose of the trip. But I also had felt a need to go there to find out whether Germans were a different kind of people. I wanted to see if there was some kind of obvious reason for the Holocaust.

And what I found was that Germans are not particularly different. The German university students I met were much like the students I met in the U.S. Maybe they were a little more focused, on the account of the fact that they were older. The German university system is organized a bit differently than ours. But otherwise they were thoroughly normal. You might even say: depressingly so.

The Holocaust would be easier to fathom if the Germans appeared to be a different kind of human, wholly unlike us.

While I was living there, I hung out with a group of students from a diverse list of nations: some Americans, a Spaniard, some Brits, and a German. One night we’d had dinner together and were hanging out in the dorm kitchen telling jokes in English. And so one of the students made a tasteless ethnic joke, the kind of joke that starts: “A Jew, a Frenchman and an Arab…”

So he told the joke and almost everyone laughed — or at least groaned — except for Bernd, the German man in our group. He was very quiet, and very still. Thinking that Bernd did not understand the joke – for humor is indeed difficult to translate – the joke-teller proceeded to tell the joke again. This time, Bernd slammed his fist down on the table: “I understood it the first time.”

We were stunned: where was his anger coming from?

He calmed himself and explained: “In Germany, we have a saying. Asylanten, as you know, are asylum-seekers, refugees. Ausländer are foreigners. And a Witz is a joke. So this is the saying: Asylantenwitz… Ausländerwitz… Auschwitz.

I learned something that day.

Words matter. The names we use when we talk about each other matter. Our jokes matter. We should be careful not to hurt one another, and careful to avoid marginalizing each other.

There is, as you know, a backlash in this country to the whole concept of ‘political correctness.’ It has become popular to express disdain for those who would ask that we modify our language. Political correctness is perceived as a form of whiny victimhood.

But I disagree. To the contrary: I think, for example, that the Redskins should change their name, in deference to the repeated requests by Native American groups, because ‘Redskin’ is not meant as a compliment.

I object to the Redskin name for the same reason I object to the misuse of Holocaust imagery. I object to the Redskin name for the same reason I object to ethnic jokes.

Atrocities happen in places where it is acceptable to marginalize the other. If you can joke about a group as being stupid, foolish, or undeserving, they will be treated as such. Yes, there is a major difference between naming your sports team after an ethnic slur and committing atrocities on the basis of that slur. But, as the German example shows, it’s nonetheless entirely too close for comfort.

In other words, when it comes to hurting others, I really don’t have much of a sense of humor. We can and should do better.

On this Shabbat before Yom Hashoah, I’d like to share with you the reflection I delivered at the Days of Remembrance program in the Feinberg Library at SUNY Plattsburgh:

We approach the enormity of the Holocaust with a sense of rupture. We have this sense of rupture because the Holocaust alters our view of what can possibly happen.

Even a nation as cultured as Germany can descend into brutality, and even a people as acculturated as the German Jews can be targeted for genocide.

In confronting the Holocaust, then, we find that we have to let go of the sense that culture will serve as a brake against the worst in human nature.

Speaking from the Jewish perspective, I can tell you this: the Holocaust has forced us to reconsider our theology and worldview. What is and is not preventable? What can and cannot happen? What might we reasonably expect from God?

On the other hand, I also can tell you this: the Holocaust is not the first time that we have had to reconsider our God-concept in the face of tragedy. The destruction of the Second Temple, for example, created a similar difficulty of how to relate to God in the absence of the Temple cult.

In that context, the question was not merely the ritual problem but also a theological problem: won’t the world come apart if the sacrifices are not offered on time and in the right manner?

And the answer is no. The world won’t come apart if we don’t offer the sacrifices on time and in the right manner. The world shrugs and continues, even after tragedy, and the sun dawns again.

Yet we simply cannot abandon the project. We cannot leave the past in a clean break without finding points of continuity. We are still very much a part and product of our world. We must mourn and we must build again.

So, in the wake of the Holocaust, that means that we live with the awareness that our narrow range of experience does not predict the full range of what is possible. Humans are infinitely clever.

In the negative sense, that awareness means that we must acknowledge that the world can slip into unimaginable brutality in the course of a generation. Let me say that again: the world can slip into unimaginable brutality in the course of a generation.

In the positive sense, however, the reverse is also true.

What is needed, therefore, is a cautious but tenacious idealism: we should not let what ‘is’ eclipse the view of what ‘ought’ to be.

Blessed is the Lord, our God, who gives us the power to transcend ourselves.

 

Vayikra — sacrifices

March 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

Why were the Israelites commanded to offer sacrifices? I mean, if God knew that it would one day change to another form of worship, why ask for sacrifices in the beginning? Why not identify the proper form of worship and require that of the Israelites?

As I explained last week, in the 12th century Maimonides argued that the sacrificial system was absolutely necessary: if God had required that the Israelites suddenly give up their sacrificial service, then “at that time this would have been similar to the appearance of a prophet in these times who, calling upon this people to worship God, would say: ‘God has given you a Law forbidding you to pray to Him, to fast, to call upon Him for help in misfortune. Your worship should consist solely in meditation without any works at all.’”[1]

The change would have been too sudden, and too difficult to accommodate––which is what prompted God to provide an alternative:

“Therefore He, may He be exalted, suffered the above-mentioned kinds of worship to remain, but transferred them from created or imaginary and unreal things to His own name, may He be exalted, commanding us to practice them with regard to Him, may He be exalted.”[2] 

This early form of worship might be called a ‘gracious ruse’ on God’s part, for it was an accommodation to the weakness of human beings. 

This week I’d like to look at someone from the 19th century, someone who read Maimonides and agreed with him, someone who attempted to extend and update Maimonides’ medieval arguments so that they might be more in line with the philosophy of modernity.

Hermann Cohen was a philosopher and academic who was the chair of the philosophy department at Phillips University Marburg at the end of the 19th century into the start of the 20th. He was also proud participant in the Reform movement. In his major philosophical treatise, Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism, Cohen argued that the sacrificial system was an important step in the development of rational religion.

In his view, the sacrifices were the first step in the evolution of prayer.

Cohen argues that the catalyst for this evolution – from physical sacrifice to verbal prayer – was the searing words of the prophets, who would vocally criticize the sacrificial cult. Consider, for example, the following passage from the first chapter of Isaiah:

“The multitude of your sacrifices, what are they to me? – says the Lord –
I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before Me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to Me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all My being. They have become a burden to Me;
I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide My eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.’”

And why is God not listening, you ask? The next verse provides the reason, along with its remedy:

“Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.”

When we see this kind of criticism, it is possible to understand how the Israelites were able to let go of the sacrificial system when the Temple was destroyed. Isaiah and like-minded prophets emphasized the need to engage in ethical behavior, rather than the need to engage in meticulous observance of Temple ritual. Even without the Temple, it was indeed still possible to act in an ethical manner. So his words provided a clue as to how to respond when the Temple was no longer standing.

But that still leaves us with our initial set of questions: what was the act of sacrifice trying to accomplish? And why is it no longer necessary?

To answer those questions, Cohen cites a Talmudic concept: shegagah, the accidental or unintentional sin. Specifically, he is referring to the idea that an intentional sin might be reckoned by God to be accidental if a person makes a concerted and whole-hearted attempt at repentance.[3] In Cohen’s words:

“To err, to go astray, is humanity’s lot, but therefore shegagah is the limit of one’s fault. Whenever this limit is overstepped, only God knows what happens to someone. Human wisdom is at a loss in the presence of the possibility of evil in humanity.” We don’t know how to respond to evil, and furthermore, we don’t know how to forgive sins.

Thus, Cohen argues, “The Day of Atonement maintains the fiction of the unshakable moral preservation of everything human: all human sin is shegagah. Therefore God can forgive without relinquishing God’s justice.”[4]

Let me explain what that last line means. If God were always merciful, there would be no justice in the world because all things would be permitted. On the other hand, if God were always just, there would be no repentance, because nothing would ever be forgiven. So, to preserve both justice and mercy, one should say that all human sin is shegagah, accidental sin. Yes, it is a sin – hence the need for justice – but it is also an accident – hence the need for mercy. Is that a fiction? Of course: but it is a necessary one for moving forward with repentance.

It’s a radical idea that he is proposing here: God’s love is such that any sins we might commit should be reckoned as accidental. All we need to do is turn and repent.

But it’s one he firmly believes. As Cohen writes, “It is the essence of God to forgive the sins of humanity. This is the most important content of the correlation of God and humanity.”[5] This is how God relates to the world.

We are, in essence, already forgiven, even before the act of turning toward God.

We are in need of rituals, however. A sinner is unable to achieve a sense of expiation and forgiveness through his or her own efforts alone.

Let me explain: if you have done something wrong, you want to make it right. But even after you have apologized and righted the wrong, there is this lingering sense of not-rightness. You need to be forgiven. For this reason, Cohen argues, you need a congregation and a ritual. As Cohen writes, “The individual needs the congregation for his or her confession, and within the congregation, sacrifice.”[6]

Thus, the great glory of the sacrificial system was that it established the custom of public worship involving a set ritual. That’s a necessary step in the evolution of religious understanding.

But, to fully understand how this process evolved, it is also important to note here that the priest was not the one granting atonement. Rather, God was the one granting atonement, and doing so in response to a ritual act.

So when it was not possible for the priest to engage in this ritual anymore – after the Second Temple was destroyed – it was entirely possible that a different kind of ritual could be substituted for the sacrificial act. If it is God who is granting atonement, then the priest is helpful but ultimately unnecessary.

So, for example, in the case of the Day of Atonement, it was possible to replace the sacrificial system with the recitation of words – which is precisely what happened.

It was possible for the Israelites to change from one form of worship form to another in the wake of the destruction because the necessary theological structures were already in place. The prophets declared that ethical behavior was more important than ritual behavior. And the priests were clearly acting as a go-between rather than a replacement for God. So without the Temple, what is needed? The answer is clear: ethical behavior plus a ritual for achieving atonement.

What should we make of this evolution now? And what does it tell us about ourselves?

Prayer forms are always changing, and appropriately so. Our prayer looks different than it did a hundred years ago. At the same time, prayer must include elements from the past. Even when our needs change, we crave continuity. Our prayer has a lot in common with the prayers of a hundred years ago.

We also learn from this example that we are not so different from our ancient forebears. We need a ritual to release ourselves of that sense of wrongdoing. We are forgiven, of course, even before we ask: but we need some way of expressing our sorrow, our sense of wrongdoing, and our intention to make things right.

So, when we read the book of Leviticus, we ought to read it with that frame of mind: this is not an ancient book of Temple procedures; it is, rather, the timeless expression of our longing for God. 

 


[1] Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, Shlomo Pines, transl. (Chicago, IL and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1963), III:32, p. 526.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See the Bavli: Rosh Hashanah 17b and Yoma 86b.

[4] Hermann Cohen, Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism (Simon Kaplan, transl. Oxford and New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 223. I have changed the translation here to make it gender-neutral.

[5] Ibid., p. 213.

[6] Ibid., p. 200.

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