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Rabbinical School Divrei Torah Environmental Reflections Relating to the Destruction of the Temple

By Ebn Leader

What has our religious life lost with the destruction of the Temple? Most of the people that I speak to in our liberal communities seem to feel that we have not lost much. Overall we seem to have accepted the position of the 19th century reformers that saw the temple as an expression of primitive religiosity that we had no reason to long for having gone through the enlightenment.

There is definitely some truth to that claim. However, like with any religious phenomenon, understanding the temple in Jerusalem is an extremely complex undertaking. Of course, the fact that it has persisted as a living symbol 2000 years after its destruction and that the particular location is the site of interreligious and political conflict does not make the project any simpler. Still, without negating the fact that certain aspects of the Jerusalem Temple may be well worth leaving behind, I would like to highlight a certain aspect of Temple religion which I think contemporary Judaism should engage with.

I must also say that I am not making any historical claims. The description I offer is based on rabbinic texts, mostly written many years after the destruction of the Temple. It is probably more accurate to say that I am writing about a certain understanding of the religious meaning of the Temple in rabbinic literature rather than about the Temple itself. Many rabbinic texts dealing with the religious significance of the Temple were gathered by Raphael Patai in his 1947 book Man and the Temple, which is an excellent starting point for thinking about a Jewish religious experience revolving around the Temple.


Once upon a time Jews were an indigenous people. This means that they lived in a particular place, interacted with and depended on its natural cycles and understood their own identity as inherently connected to that place. There was no positive meaning to Jewish life outside of that particular relationship as the Baraita says – “When a person lives in the land of Israel it is like they have a god, but one who lives outside of the Land it is as if they did not have a god, for it says – to give you the land of Canaan, to be a god to you”. (Bavli, Ketubot 110b) The primary significance of mitzvoth is only in the land of Israel – “You will soon perish from the land… set these words of mine upon your heart” (Devarim 11:17-18) Despite the fact that I am exiling you from the land, mark yourself by (the practice of) mitzvoth so that when you come back they (the practices) will not be new to you… Thus Yirmiyahu says: “Make markers for yourself” (Jeremiah 31:20) this verse refers to the mitzvoth that mark (the people of) Israel (Sifrei, Ekev 43). Outside of the Land the practice of mitzvoth functions only as a reminder, anticipating a time when the practice will reclaim its true significance in the relation between God and Israel. This is the theology behind “A story about R Elazar B Shamo’a and R Yohanan the cobbler who were going to Nezivin (i.e. leaving the land of Israel) to study Torah from R Yehudah ben Betera. When they reached Ziddon they remembered the land of Israel. They raised their eyes, they wept and they tore their clothing. They recited the verse “And you shall inherit it, and live in it, and keep all the rules and statutes” and said – dwelling in the land of Israel is equivalent to all of the mitzvoth – so they turned and came back to the land of Israel. (Sifrei, Re’eh 80) In this religious experience the relationship with God is inherently connected to the relationship with the particular place with which we share a name. Thus, insofar as a relationship with God is of the essence of sanctity, the land of Israel is holier than any other land… Yerushalayim is holier…the Temple is holier… the Holy of Holies is holier… (Mishnah Kelim Ch. 1)

Generations later, inspired by the attempt to reclaim a Jewish land based identity Rabbi A.Y. Kook wrote:

The land of Israel is not something external acquired by the nation. It is not just a means towards the end of inclusive organization, or a way to secure physical or even spiritual survival. The land of Israel is an essential part of the nation connected by the bond of life. It is entwined in the inner qualities of the nation’s existence. (Orot 1:1)


In most cultures of this type there is a focal point for this experience of identity of people land and relationship with God. A place where everything comes together, earth and heaven, life and death, the place that is the center of the universe, the place where it all began. (Eliade has written a great deal about this – see the beginnings of both Images and Symbols and The Myth of the Eternal Return) In ancient Israel this was the Temple. The essence of the Temple’s sanctity is that it holds the experience of a connected cosmos of which humans have a part and in which they have a role.

Various rabbinic sources describe ways in which the temple evoked such an experience, in particular Midrash Tadshe (Jellinek, Bet HaMidrash  3, p. 164) goes into great detail regarding the relation between the details of the Temple and the Mishkan (which are treated as interchangeable in this context) and the cosmos. Here I will translate a shorter piece from a later midrash (Also in Bet HaMidrash 6, p. 88) that evokes the Description of seven days of creation (Bereshit Ch. 1) in relation to the Mishkan.

R Yehudah beRabbi Shimeon said: we find that the Mishkan is equivalent to the creation of the world. On the first day heaven and earth were created of which it says “God stretches the sky like a tent-cloth (Psalms 104:2) and of the Mishkan it says “you shall make sheets of cloth” (Shemot 26:7). On the second day “let there be a firmament to separate” and in the Mishkan “the curtain will separate” (ibid 33). On the third day “let the waters be gathered” and in the Mishkan “make a laver… and put in it water”(ibid 30:18). On the fourth day “let there be lights” and in the Mishkan “make a candelabra” (ibid 25:31). On the fifth day “birds shall fly” and in the Mishkan “the cherubs spread their wings” (ibid 20). On the sixth day “let the earth bring forth living creatures” and in the Mishkan “when a person brings a sacrifice” (Vayikra 2:1). The seventh day was all light and when God entered the Mishkan it would glow from the Divine presence (shekhinah).

Within this micro-cosmos humans have a role, and we must go about it with great care for the welfare of the universe depends on it. “Shimeon HaTzaddik says : The world stands on three things; on Torah, on (the Temple) service and on acts of kindness” (Avot 1:2) Avot d’Rabbi Natan elaborates:

As long as the service of the Temple exists, the world and all its dwellers are blessed, and rain comes in its time, as it says: “to serve God with all your heart and soul, and I will give rain at its time” (Devarim, 11:13-14) But when the service of the Temple does not exist, the world and its dwellers are not blessed, and rain does not come in a timely fashion, as it says:” take care not to be lured away… God will shut the heaven and there will be no rain” (ibid, 16-17)

The relation between human service and the environment was preserved beyond Temple boundaries as well. Perhaps the most ancient non-priestly daily ritual we know of is the Torah reading of the ma’amadot. The Mishnah (Ta’anit ch. 4) describes how the people – Priests Levites and Israelites were divided into twenty four shifts (mishmarot) which served in the temple on a rotating weekly schedule. Part of each group would go to Jerusalem to serve in the Temple, but the others would gather in their home towns every day of that week and read from the Torah the story of the day of creation that corresponded to the day of the week. In doing so they ritually affirmed the connection of the community, wherever it was, to the World sustaining service of the Temple. The practice of reading the daily story of creation as part of the daily liturgy is known as Seder Ma’amadot. This practice was institutionalized in medieval Ashkenaz and is still practiced by some individuals and communities.


There is a great distance between the religious experience just described and the Judaism most of us grew up with. We did not inherit a religion that reflected and enhanced our identity with space and the natural cycles. The meaning of exile in terms of religious identity is precisely that we are no longer a people of space. Land becomes “external to the nation” and God, who used to be experienced as “the place of the world” (Bereshit Rabbah 68:9) now has no place left in the world but four cubits of Halacha (Bavli, Berachot 8a).

The text is home; each commentary a return. When he reads, when, by virtue of commentary, he makes of his reading a dialogue and life-giving echo, the Jew is, to purloin Heidegger’s image, ‘the shepherd of being’. This seeming nomad in truth carries the world within him as does language itself… the ‘textual’ fabric, the interpretative practices in Judaism are ontologically at the heart of Jewish identity. (George Steiner, Our Homeland The Text, in No Passion Spent  p. 307)

With the destruction of the Temple and with exile we have lost the religious experience of earth/land/place based identity. Judaism survived only because our rabbis were able to let go of that identity and develop an alternative – a religious identity of wanderers.

For Steiner (in the essay cited) the challenge to that identity is Zionism and he articulates the tension between those two possibilities. But as we face the environmental challenge we have reason, even as diaspora Jews, to be concerned about our wanderers’ identity. As has been articulated many times, changing the way we relate to our environment will require a major shift in our identities and our understanding of our place in the world. Religion is one of the strongest tools we have to bring about such transformations, but can Judaism really contribute to this project if its religious identity is constructed on alienation from place? We have “markers”, as Jeremiah put it, of a nature based religion but the actual practice may be more alienating than connecting. What kind of relation to place is constructed when you pray for rain when it should not rain where you live? What are the identity implications of gathering branches that do not grow where you live as a harvest celebration? In the southern hemisphere the alienation is even harsher, but in any case we have to consider the possibility that preserving our religious nature markers which relate to a land we do not live in may be enhancing our alienation from the earth that we live upon. And yet this is precisely what has enabled our survival for close to 2000 years…

Elsewhere I have written about some of the theological implications and possibilities of applying “earth dependent mitzvoth” to the actual places in which we live (with R Margie Klein for The Sova Project ) but that is already the discussion of solutions. Tish’a b’Av is the time to face the difficulty with all the pain it entails.

There are many tragedies to mourn over 2000 years of Galut. But perhaps our generation also needs to realize this one. The integrity of an identity that merged self, community, God and place, an identity that we are in such need of at this point, was lost from us with the destruction of the Temple.

For this too we should weep.

Rabbi Ebn Leader is a faculty member of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton, MA.

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