The Temple Mount never ceases to make headlines. From time to time, the struggle over the time peace of land threatens to undermine the delicate relationships between Israel and a host of Arab states or threaten the continued function of a government coalition divided over what should be done. Even when it doesn’t make the news, much goes on behind the scenes, whether in terms of covert diplomacy or in terms of constant efforts to change or consolidate facts on the ground.
This state of affairs should not surprise us. For others, the nations of the world, the Temple Mount is “the holiest site for the Jews.” For us, it is simply the holiest place in the world, the site at which “heaven and earth meet” (to cite from one of our Friday night zemiros). It stands to reason that global attention is focused on Israel, more specifically on Jerusalem, and most specifically on the Mount.
Yet, for many, Charedim included, Har Habayis does not occupy a significant space in everyday consciousness. When we visit the Kotel, we think we are praying at the holiest site, forgetting that behind the Kotel is a place far holier. When we see others ascend the Mount, we experience mixed emotions: we are excited to see Jews on the Mount, yet we feel a corresponding sense of misdeed and infraction. Yated Neeman, the official organ of the Charedi-Litvish sector, is scornful at those who ascend the Mount, both for halachic (the concern for entering the Temple area) and for political (raising the wrath of the Arabs) reasons. It seems that more often than not, we look the other way, as though to say: it is not our business.
In this short piece, I want to make the simple argument that we must not look the other way. It is very much our business. I will not weigh in on the halachic issue of ascending the Mount, but I will argue that irrespective of this question, the Mount and the Temple need to be firmly in our minds and on our tongues. If they are not, we will not only fail politically; we will, moreover, be betraying a core element of our Jewish faith.
The Missing Mikdash
“The Temple Mount is in our hands!” More than fifty years have passed since the euphoric declaration was shouted out by Motta Gur, who commanded the brigade that penetrated the Old City during the Six-Day War. The echoes of our renewed encounter with Jerusalem continue to sound in Israel’s public sphere. Although the thought of dividing up the city is occasionally raised on various platforms, its political articulation is braved by few alone. The return to Jerusalem is deeply embedded in the Israeli psyche. We are here to stay.
It takes only a brief reflection on our ancestors of generations bygone to capture the meaning of our presence in the Holy City. What would our own grandparents and great-grandparents have given to pray at the Kotel, to walk atop the walls of the Old City, to take in the sight of Jews simply living their everyday lives in its confines? For them, it was but a dream, a thousand-year hope that continued to burn in their souls. And for us, it is a reality! For those of us who remember life without Jerusalem, it is a reality that still causes hearts to miss a beat. For everybody else, it is a part of life to celebrate and cherish, to be grateful, and to sing over.
Those ancestors would look at our reality in gaping disbelief. And yet, their disbelief would extend even to another element of our current reality: the absence of the Mikdash, the holy Temple in which the concepts of exile and redemption are manifest. Fifty-some years of sovereignty, and still no Mikdash?
Those ancestors would look at our reality in gaping disbelief. And yet, their disbelief would extend even to another element of our current reality: the absence of the Mikdash, the holy Temple in which the concepts of exile and redemption are manifest. Fifty-some years of sovereignty, and still no Mikdash? How can this be? Do the two not go hand in hand? It is possible that Jerusalem has returned to us, yet its most precious jewel, the part that brings everything together, remains missing? And how can the people, even those who are most religiously fervent, be so apathetic toward this gaping hole?
Well, possible it is, and this is the reality we live with today. Yet, it remains deeply anomalous—as is the State of Israel itself. How, indeed, is it that we are so apathetic toward the missing Mikdash? It seems that in the depth of our own hearts, we do not see the Mikdash as a relevant institution to our lives; outside of Tisha Be’Av, we barely give it a moment’s thought. I believe that this situation is deeply flawed. The Torah defines the Mikdash as central to the Jewish People, and it is incumbent upon us to ensure that it remains relevant to us as an idea, even if not as a reality.
This, then, is the question that I will seek to address: How can the Mikdash return to its place of glory within the Jewish heart, a place no less prominent (and perhaps more so) than the city of Jerusalem we celebrate? This question ought to agitate us, and I hope this article will provide a starting point for thought and discussion of the issue. As noted above, it will not present a halachic perspective on matters of the Mikdash; alongside Temple politics, which might somehow figure in the discussion, the halachic discussion is beyond the scope of this article. Rather, I will try to provide a foundation for understanding the importance of the Mikdash to our lives today, for the crucial public function it can have even in modern times, and for the hope and longing that ought to fill our hearts for its rebuilding.
The Distant Sacrificial Mikdash
It has been a very long time since we had the Mikdash. We cannot imagine its sensation, its presence, its aura. It is far from us. But added to the time dimension, the distance of the Mikdash from our collective imagination draws from its sacrificial function. The very concept of the Temple – like that of all religious Temples – is foreign to the Western mind. What place can animal sacrifice have in the lives of westerners living in the 21st century?
All of us are familiar with the Torah passages of the sacrificial service, which occur predominantly in the book of Vayikra. Even as we read them, we experience a sense of distance. Animal slaughter, the sprinkling of blood, and the burning of internal organs – all of these belong to a different culture, to a different world. It is not our world, and therefore the Mikdash, too, is not perceived as “our Mikdash.” It is indeed an “ancient Temple,” one that only ancients can identify with. Certainly, we cannot do so.
For our ancestors, who for centuries and millenia shared living space with animals (or at least kept them in close proximity), animal sacrifice was somehow natural. Today, Talmudic statements such as “it is a virtue for the descendents of Aharon that they walk to their ankles in blood” seem bizarre at best
Even the Rambam and other Torah giants throughout generations had their difficulties with the sacrificial service and attempted to resolve the tensions between the Temple service and their own mindsets. But today, given our sterile and technologically centered world, the estrangement is greater still. For our ancestors, who for centuries and millennia shared living space with animals (or at least kept them in close proximity), animal sacrifice was somehow natural. Today, Talmudic statements such as “it is a virtue for the descendants of Aharon that they walk to their ankles in blood” seem bizarre at best.
This perception of the Mikdash prevents us from seeing it as a part of our lives. Yet, the perception is limited and partial. When we look at the Mikdash through the prism of the sacrificial service alone, we miss a fundamental aspect of the Temple that is no less central (and perhaps even more so) than the sacrifices. Moreover, it is eminently relevant to our lives, here and today, in Israel of the 21st century.
The Mikdash as a Political-Spiritual Center
The book of Vayikra focuses on one function of the Mikdash: the sacrificial function. Even the function of the Kohanim, the priestly caste of the Jewish People, is presented in terms of officiating in a sacrificial role, those who “offer the bread of your God” (Vayikra 21:8). However, the function of the Mikdash and with it the role of the Kohanim, is far broader than that described in Vayikra.
Glancing at the book of Devarim, we learn of an entirely different dimension of the Mikdash. Here we are told of how upon entry into the Promised Land, the Jewish People were to establish a court system that included local judges and officers for each city and, above them, the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. This “Great Sanhedrin” is the center from which judgment, alongside Torah instruction of all sorts, goes forth to Israel. Its dwelling place is specifically the location of the Mikdash. Using a range of instructions, the book of Devarim thus defines the Mikdash not only as a place of sacrificial service but even as the seat of wisdom, teaching, and law for the Jewish People. It is the place that directs the public life of the nation in both the spiritual sense and the policy-political sense.
The role of the Kohanim is likewise expanded to include a position of teaching, issuing judicial rulings, and political leadership. Rather than merely officiating in sacrificial duties, the Kohanim teach Torah to the people; they train them in the ways of justice and of charity; they sit on the Sanhedrin, presiding over specific cases and making policy decisions for the entire nation. An elite member serves as the Mashiach Milchama, providing both spiritual and strategic guidance in times of war. A reading of Devarim thus presents an entirely different picture than a reading of Vayikra.
[T]he Mikdash of Devarim, which is detailed to the nation of the verge of their entry into the Land, pulls in the opposite direction. It calls us to realize Divine values and ideas, those that come forth from the Mikdash, in the real world. The sanctity of the Mikdash bursts forth into the human sphere, permeating all walks and ways of Jewish life in the Holy Land
It seems the dual nature of the Mikdash and the Kohanim presents us with a progression. When a person stands for the first time before Hashem, his immediate reaction is one of self-effacement, annulling himself before the greatness of God. This is the internal motion articulated by the book of Vayikra in the sacrificial service. Today, it continues to be expressed in our prayer services. It also stands behind the duties related to holiness that are outlined throughout the book of Vayikra, which narrow the scope of worldliness and human activity when standing before the Divine. In this context, the Mikdash pulls in an inward direction. It challenges us to opt-out of worldly occupations in favor of inner labor that captures the essence of our connection with Hashem. The Mikdash is referred to in this sense by Yeshayahu as Beis Tefillah, a “house of prayer” (Yeshayahu 56:7).
By contrast, the Mikdash of Devarim, which is detailed to the nation on the verge of their entry into the Land, pulls in the opposite direction. It calls us to realize Divine values and ideas, those that come forth from the Mikdash, in the real world. The sanctity of the Mikdash bursts forth into the human sphere, permeating all walks and ways of Jewish life in the Holy Land. The Mikdash thus becomes relevant even on a social and political level. It directs us in our moral dilemmas and our policy decisions and thus presents a different layer of our standing before Hashem. Having experienced the encounter with the Divine inwardly, entering the Land charges us with manifesting the same encounter in our public lives.
The Mikdash Idea in Our Times
The Mikdash of Devarim, with which we enter into the Land of Israel, outlines a model that is eminently relevant even for our times. Our distance from the Mikdsh as an idea draws from its image in terms of sacrifices alone, with which we cannot identify. However, the Mikdash is far more than this, and its meaning in a spiritual, social, and political sense is wholly contemporary. Without entering the discussion of how the sacrificial element of the Mikdash will ultimately play out – a question I lack the tools to answer – I think we should be deeply reflective of this element of the Mikdash and understand how sorely we lack it in our public space.
In a nutshell, the basic purpose of the Mikdash in this sense is to draw Godliness into the world generally and into the Jewish people specifically. The Mikdash is set to provide Divine guidance, by means of its very presence and its core institutions, for navigating our national train through the many junctions and crossroads we need to traverse. It supplies a Godly anchor that ensures we never stray from the just and the moral. It is, indeed, sorely missing.
Are we ready for the presence of the Mikdash in our midst? The way remains long, but at the very least we need to set the target. The long millenia of Jewish exile never stopped us from yearning for a return to Zion, and it must not dampen our enthusiasm even for the return of the Mikdash
Are we ready for the presence of the Mikdash in our midst? The way remains long, but at the very least, we need to set a target. The long millennia of Jewish exile never stopped us from yearning for a return to Zion, and it must not dampen our enthusiasm even for the return of the Mikdash. A longing for the Mikdash and its effect on our world, alongside the translation of this longing into action – whatever action is possible and plausible given halachic and political considerations – should be part and parcel of our public lives.
We will not be rebuilding the Mikdash tomorrow; its location remains in foreign hands, and we can barely touch it. Yet, we can use the time on our hands to initiate a crucial process that will prepare us – intellectually, emotionally, and socially-politically – for the Mikdash. The labor of rebuilding may not be in our hands, but the labor of preparing ourselves certainly is.
Perhaps it is for the better that the opportunity for actually rebuilding the Mikdash never materialized in those heady days of 1967. Had the opportunity arisen, it would have caught us completely off guard, and who knows where this might have led. Perhaps the holy site of the Mikdash would have turned into a Jewish museum of sorts or an everyday shtibel for davening Mincha and Maariv. But history has supplied us with a greater opportunity: to create in our private and public spheres a vision that can pave the way for the Mikdash – one that will realize its true purpose as a spiritual, cultural, and political center for the entire Jewish People.
The Mikdash as National Unity
Another obstacle in the path toward the Mikdash is the matter of national unity. The Jewish People are divided into tribes and sectors, groups and sub-groups, in a way that perpetuates the splintering effect of our long exile. In the absence of centralized political leadership, which projects a unified cultural and religious message, the national division into myriad groups was inevitable, and it continues to define Jewish national life to this day. The establishment of the State of Israel awakened a desire for unification, but from the outset, the State was plagued by a lack of consensus concerning basic questions of religion and state, which prevented it from reaching broad agreements and from establishing a constitution.
Alongside the many groups and sectors, the prominent religious-secular divide defines many of the public-policy dilemmas that require resolution, of which the issue of the Kotel and the Temple Mount is only one.
The Mikdash was a source of unification, a national spiritual center around which the entire nation unified. Cultural differences in custom and mindset were set aside before the one Mikdash. Indeed, the Mikdash was able to contain all, the near and the far alike
Even in this area, the Mikdash is a useful framework for clarifying the direction ahead. By definition, the Mikdash cannot be split between factions and sectors. The beginning of the schism between the Northern and Southern Kingdoms of ancient Israel was the calves Yerovom erected to prevent worshippers from embarking on their pilgrimage to the Mikdash. The Mikdash was a source of unification, a national spiritual center around which the entire nation unified. Cultural differences in custom and mindset were set aside before the one Mikdash.
Indeed, the Mikdash was able to contain all, the near and the far alike. The Sages thus declared that during the festival season, the decree of defilement that generally separated between amei ha’aretz (uneducated Jews) and chaverim (Torah scholars) was suspended. When Jerusalem was filled with worshippers from all walks of society, the religious differences between them were erased. The closeness to the Mikdash does not allow for such distinctions. All are unified under its light.
The experience of the Mikdash, a national center that binds us all together, has the power to efface years of division and fragmentation. It teaches us the insight that we all face the same direction, that we all work toward a common goal, and that our personal and national stories are, in fact, one great story. Even the idea of the Mikdash can establish a foundation for internal discourse, for unifying the disparate parts of the nation and bringing them to one table – to one Mikdash.
Becoming worthy of the true Mikdash requires us to internalize its idea.
I assume that many readers might be questioning whether the vision I have outlined is not deeply naive and whether the question of the Mikdash should not be left to the future: Is it really our business? I reply to them: We cannot know what the Heavens will dictate, and we cannot tell where history is leading. But this we do know: We are not exempt from contemplating the idea of the Mikdash and trying to map out its place in our lives.
The Mikdash is far too central a Jewish concept for us to simply erase it from our collective memory, from our Torah, and from our lives, simply waiting for a distant and incomprehensible future to overwhelm us. If we cannot build the Mikdash, let us at least try to understand the ideas on which it stands and how those ideas can be integrated within our own lifetime. The more we internalize them, the likelier we will be to take the correct course of political action, and the closer we draw their ultimate realization.
 See Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim 3:32.
 See, for instance, Kuzari III no. 53.
 Pesachim 65b.
 Even in the book of Vayikra there are allusions to this broader purpose of Kehuna; see for instance Vayikra 10:11.
 Chagigah 26a.