Jews went out of the sacrifice business in 70 CE, when the Romans pulled down Herod’s Temple and burnt the broken fragments. As a Reform Jew, I am not praying for or looking forward to a restoration of that edifice, although there are folks in other movements of Judaism who are. (There’s another post for another day.)
Things I don’t do on Shabbat are not sacrifices in any sense of the word. For example, I don’t do my shopping on Shabbat. That is my practice because the day is a break from acquisition. I’m not sacrificing shopping in the way a Catholic sacrifices eating chocolate for Lent. I’m taking a break from shopping because it’s a distraction from Torah and relationships with people, and those are the focus of my sabbath.
I draw my boundaries around Shabbat differently than a halakhic Jew (a Jew who regards the contents of the medieval codes as a binding set of rules given by God and handed down through the generations.) For me, Shabbat is a day to refrain from creation and acquisition, a day profoundly different from the other six, a taste of the world as it should be. It is absolutely not a day for sacrifice in the sense of “going without.”
One of the most famous descriptions of Shabbat is in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath. He describes Shabbat as “a cathedral in time.” It is time set aside for openness to the numinous, when we put away anything that might get in the way of that activity. While Heschel himself was a halakhic Jew who kept Shabbat in the classic fashion, keeping Shabbat in the 21st century means different things to different Jews.
Sjewindy and I are largely in agreement. There are lots and lots of different ways to be Jewish. But sacrifices? Not since 70 CE, and never on Shabbat!
“Rabbi, can we see where you sacrifice the animals?”
A group from a local Christian church was touring the synagogue. I explained that we don’t sacrifice animals anymore. We haven’t sacrificed animals since the destruction of Herod’s Temple in year 70 of the common era. Our rules said we could only do that in the Temple in Jerusalem, so once that building was gone, we had to find a new way to stay connected with the Divine.
I don’t think he believed me, but it is the truth.
In a Reform synagogue, not only do we not sacrifice animals, we are no longer hoping to rebuild the Temple. We agree with Maimonides, who wrote in about 1190 in The Guide for the Perplexed that what God wanted from us was prayer, not sacrifices. The sacrifices had been instituted, he wrote, because we saw other people in the ancient world making sacrifices to their gods, and so God gave us a limited program of sacrifice: only certain animals, and only in one place. That program was meant to move us towards prayer as worship. Maimonides never wrote “so don’t bother to rebuild the Temple” but that became the position of the Reform Jews of the 19th century.
Instead of the sacrifices in the Temple, Jews say a prayer every day at the times appointed for the sacrifices. That prayer, often called “the Amidah” [standing prayer] is a series of short blessings said without a pause or interruption. Rather like the pyre on the altar that they replace, these prayers are layered one upon another in a particular prescribed order. For Orthodox Jews, the Amidah includes a prayer for rebuilding the temple, but in the Reform version, that prayer becomes a prayer that God will “pour out Your spirit” upon us, instead.
I think there are enough mitzvot that need doing in the world without rebuilding the Temple. I am reminded of the words of the Prophet Hosea, and other prophets as well:
For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings. – Hosea 6:6
The Temple was one of the wonders of the world in its time. Today, that space is occupied by someone else’s house of worship since the year 703. Meanwhile, Jews have moved on to a new, more portable form of worship, the layered daily Amidah, and the shorter Amidah for Shabbat. Personally, I’m glad.
What about you? Would you like to see the Temple rebuilt? Why or why not?
Av (ahv) is the eleventh month of the Hebrew year.
It’s often mentioned as the “unluckiest” or “saddest” month of the year, based on a mention in the Talmud in Taanit 19a: “When we enter Av, our joy is diminished.”
Av has a number of sad anniversaries in it. Foremost of those is the 9th of Av, Tisha B’Av, on which we remember the destruction of both the first and second Temples, as well as the Expulsion from Spain in 1492. These were the greatest disasters in Jewish history before the 20th century.
Av is also a hot, dry time in the Land of Israel, when water is even more precious than usual and when the sun beats down even in the relatively cooler places like Jerusalem and Sefat.
Rosh Chodesh Av (the 1st of Av) began July 27 at sundown in 2014.
This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, is pretty easy to summarize in large strokes. It records the first Jewish fundraising campaign and then an extended narrative blueprint for the complex called the Mikdash, the Holy Place. The famous Ark of the Covenant is at the center of this complex.
Notice the attention to detail in this portion! When Jews build a holy place, we must do so with the greatest care, with attention to the details of Torah. We have had only a few holy places in our history, and each was built with care: this portable desert Mikdash, which was finally set up in Shilo after the Hebrews arrived in the Land. That’s where Hannah went to pour out her heart to God in 1 Samuel 1. (If you don’t know the story, click on the link.) Later, King David moved it to Jerusalem, where his son King Solomon built the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple. The Babylonians destroyed that building in 586 BCE and its contents disappeared. In 516, the Jews dedicated a new Beit HaMikdash, the Second Temple, built with funding from Cyrus of Persia. That modest structure was completely rebuilt and considerably expanded by Herod the Great in 19-20 BCE, and then destroyed by Roman armies in 70 CE [Common Era = AD].
Since then we have not had a Beit HaMikdash. The Jewish people have built synagogues, known as Batei Kenesset (Houses of Gathering) for communal activity, but the place designated as Mikdash, a holy place, is the Mikdash Me’at, the “little sanctuary.” The little holy place of the Jewish people is the Jewish home, no matter how humble or how palatial.
Our homes are not built according to the narrative here in Terumah, but they should be built according to other blueprints in the Torah, commandments to make the home a safe place (Deuteronomy 22:8). We moderns would extend that not only to physical safety, but also to emotional safety: our homes should always be places of peace. They are also places of hospitality, following the example of Abraham in Genesis 18. They are the place where we observe the commandments. In our homes, we observe Shabbat, we observe Passover, we observe Chanukah and other holidays. We observe the daily mitzvot, like teaching our children,giving tzedakah, and the commandments regarding our speech. We hang a mezuzah on the doorframe, as commanded in Deuteronomy 6.
This week I’m going to take a few moments to look around my home. I’m going to ask: how is this a mikdash, a holy place? What can I do to make it safer, more welcoming, more beautiful? What would make it more peaceful? What can I change? What would I not ever change about it?
How is your home a Mikdash Me’at, a little sanctuary? What single change would you like to make, to make it better serve your household and the people of Israel? What about it would you never change?
So, you’ve decided to dive in to Jewish life and find yourself a congregation. You find one not too far from home, and it looks like it might be a fit. Or maybe you’ve found the only synagogue in 100 miles, and whether it’s a fit or not, that’s what you’ve got. A synagogue community over about 150 people is often a community of communities: an umbrella under which several different groups get together for smaller things, and then all come together for big stuff like High Holiday services. If you only go to the big stuff, you’ll never get to know anyone. These tips can help you integrate into your own synagogue community (and it’s never too late to try them.)
ATTEND.The single most important thing you can do to succeed at synagogue life is to show up! Find one regular event at the synagogue and commit yourself to being there regularly – say, 75% of the time – for a decent block of time. If it’s a weekly event, give yourself three months. It could be Friday night services, or Torah study, or an affinity group like Seniors, morning minyan or choir – but if you are a regular, you will make your own circle of friends and feel “at home.”
BE FLEXIBLE.Connecting with people different from yourself but with whom you have shared values can be fun and useful. Be open to connection with people outside your age bracket / income bracket / level of education / profession / marital status. Those friends will broaden your point of view, and they know stuff you don’t. If you don’t know what to talk about at first, talk about the activity at hand: Torah study, the speaker, Scrabble, etc.
ASK FOR ADVICE. The rabbi, the administrator (if there is one) and people on the temple board are good sources of information about finding a likely group to help you settle in. If they don’t have a group for “single thirty-somethings who love to cook” (or whatever your demographic) ask, “What’s the friendliest group around here?”
MAKE AN APPOINTMENT.It’s a great idea to make a “getting to know you” appointment with temple staff or clergy. Trying to build a relationship with them at the coffee hour after services is like trying to play cards in the middle of a tornado.
VOLUNTEER. I have made some of my firmest friends around shul when I volunteered to be part of the group to clean up after an event. Set up for events often brings out anxieties, but at clean up time, everyone is glad you are there.
BE PROACTIVE. If I am at a temple event and I feel like a wallflower, I look for other wallflowers and chat them up. I have met some wonderful people that way, and gotten to know people from all parts of the synagogue.
BE POSITIVE. We’re Jews, and Jews kvetch. But unless you want to be someone people avoid, try to balance your complaints with compliments. Longtime members are proud of their synagogue. Staff work hard. If someone messes up, of course you let them know. But if you also tell them what they did right, they will be more able to hear your excellent observations.
DON’T BE INTIMIDATED. As a fat disabled lesbian with a Southern accent, I have had people say plenty of dumb and/or annoying things to me at synagogue. Out of town, in an environment where I will never see those people again, I generally roll my eyes and move along. But in my congregation, I find that what works best for me is to be willing to do a little education. I let people know what my limits are: “I don’t like to discuss my health with anyone but my doctor, thanks,” or “You know, Abe, I like you a lot, but I really hate it when anyone imitates my accent.” I tell people what I need: “I can’t take the stairs. Join me in the elevator?” When someone drags out the old saw, “My, you don’t look Jewish!” I just smile pleasantly and say, “This is what Jewish looks like in the 21st century.” When all else fails, my default line is, “Can we talk about something else?”
GIVE EVERYONE THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT.If someone says something stupid, odds are they didn’t stay up all night trying to figure out the best way to insult you. If on the other hand, someone is consistently offensive or annoying, maybe you’re just oil and water. In any community of size, there are going to be a few people with whom you just don’t mix easily. Whatever you do, beware the temptation to bond with others via gossip and mean talk about others. That stuff will leave you more isolated, not less.
BE A MEMBER, NOT A CONSUMER. After you’ve decided this is the shul for you, let “Be a member, not a consumer” be your guide. Keep your commitments to other synagogue members and staff. Treat people like you are going to see them again. If there’s a program or service you want, ask for it, but be willing to contribute to making it happen.
The staff are not the synagogue. The building is not the synagogue. The synagogue is You.
Tisha B’Av (ti-SHA beh-AHV) starts tonight at sundown, probably before I finish this post. It’s a commemoration of disasters that the Jewish people have experienced over the centuries, starting with the destruction of the first Temple (586 BCE) and the destruction of the second Temple (70 CE). But if we recall these two destructions purely as “look what terrible things have happened to us” we have missed the point.
The point, as underlined by the readings from the Prophets over the past three weeks, is that the Temples were not destroyed by random chance or the whim of a jealous God. They fell because the Jews of their time lost track of Torah. The rabbis of the Talmud tell us that the first Temple fell because of idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed. They believed the second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinom, baseless hatred among Jews.
Now you may say, “Oh, I don’t think that God causes wars or punishes people by destroying cities,” and I would agree with you. People make wars, and people destroy cities. And it is in the way that we Jews conducted ourselves before the fall of each Temple that the seeds of destruction were sown.
The first destruction was in 586 BCE (before the common era, similar to the Christian B.C.), and the only records we have of it are the records in the books of the Bible. What we know is that for a long time before the destruction, the prophets were warning the people of Judea that the way they were living would end in disaster. They were worshiping foreign gods, distracting themselves with sexual immorality and engaging in bloodshed. The leaders put their faith in foreign alliances, and their economic policies favored the already wealthy over the poor, especially anyone poor who was not likely to ever be rich (widows and orphans.) If you don’t believe me, read the first chapter of the book of Isaiah. History has shown again and again that bad alliances, fraud, economic injustice, and lawlessness are a recipe for disaster.
We know more about the second round of destruction, in 70 CE (corresponds to the Christian A.D.). In that time, Jews divided into political and religious parties that hated and scorned one another. They could not work together on anything; they could barely occupy the same country. While they squabbled and called each other names, they started a war with Rome, and Rome destroyed the Temple. If you read the history of the time in the record by Josephus, it’s pretty clear that we brought the rage of the Romans upon ourselves, and we did it mostly by mistreating one another.
The rabbis who survived described the attitude of the time as sinat chinom, baseless hatred, and they established a season of mourning to remind their descendants that all these activities (idolatry, immorality, murder, economic injustice, and baseless hatred) had been the road to ruin. So for three weeks every year, we read warnings from the prophets, and we finish by observing Tisha B’Av.
Now, I’m a Reform rabbi. I am not looking for the Temple to be rebuilt. I do not want to see sacrifices on the Temple Mount, ever again. But I do observe Tisha B’Av. I observe it by taking the day to ask myself some questions — and to take action on the answers:
1. Do I engage in acts of sinat chinom? That is, do I take part in conversations that speak hatefully about other people? I can (and often do) disagree with other people, but am I willing to listen to them and to have a civil conversation with them? Or do I let myself off the hook by saying that they won’t be civil to me, so I can be as nasty as my yetzer harah (my evil inclination) wants to be?
2. Do I profit from bloodshed? From economic injustice? Do I profit in some way from hatred? (These are big questions, far bigger than a blog post. Explore at will.)
Isaiah warns that no prayers, no observances, no fasts, no pious activities will suffice. The only way to make things right is to “Learn to do right. Seek justice. Defend the oppressed.”
Today, I will engage in a fast of the heart: What needs to change? How fast can I change it?
Nothing else matters.
An earlier version of this blog listed the date of the destruction as “386 BCE.” My thanks to the alert reader who caught my typing error! I try to catch all of those before I publish, but things sometimes slip through. Thank you for telling me!