Yesterday as I was heading off from work to go for a Shabbat swim with my wife a couple of Lubavitchers asked me to stop and wrap t’fillin. These kids, who couldn’t have been older than 16, in their black suits and hats, dangling payot and tsitsit, were really into the mitzvah as all of the Lubavitchers are. The one that was wrapping my arm talked me through the blessings and the shema, and then I went ahead and did the v’ahavta by myself. But then, at the end, one of them got super zealous. “Now say, ‘We want moshiach now!’” he shouted. This one had been silent the whole time, just watching. At first I felt like I was being tricked. What? We want moshiach now isn’t part of the prayer.
So, anyone that knows me knows that I don’t just let things like this slide. Not in an “I’ve got to stand my ground” way, but more in an “I really enjoy arguing with people” way. So I simply said, “I’m not going that far.”
The boy asked, “Why not? What do you mean?” I calmly informed him that I don’t really believe a single human messiah is going to come and save us all, but that the perfect golden age is simply a possibility in the future.
“But the prophets say that one from David’s line will come and save us,” he responded.
“Well, I think it was metaphorical,” I said. And I clearly could have left it at that, but I didn’t. Instead, I decided to tell them that I don’t think we should have a temple again. In fact, I told them that I think that the destruction of the Second Temple was a God’s way of telling us that we no longer need that kind of religion. We are now capable of independently worshipping and praising God, as God doesn’t need sacrifices, and we don’t need to give them.
I can’t tell if I’m projecting or not, but it was as if they’d never heard anything like it before. That didn’t stop them from arguing against it, but they didn’t quite seem to know how to deal with it.
I tried to explain to them a basic tenet of my theology – that although God doesn’t speak to us “face to face” as he did to Moses, we are spoken to through history. Through studying history we can look back and try to figure out what our lesson should be, and how we should act in relation to this lesson. This is why Jews reflect on Torah, Tanach, and all the rest of our history: To try to figure out what we should be focused on and doing today. If we can learn anything from the history of the destruction of the Second Temple, and the messianic war waged in the land of Israel afterwards, it is that nothing but strife has ever come from Jews going all messianic about rebuilding a Temple.
They wouldn’t budge, though. For them the belief in an individual messiah laid out in Maimonides’ 13 principles is central to being Jewish. In fact, they apparently couldn’t accept the idea that I could possibly do away with a portion of our tradition.
After thinking about the conversation for a while, I figured I’d take a look at this week’s Torah portion (Shemini) to see if there was anything relevant to what I was saying. Luckily it’s one of the most interesting portions of Leviticus. The scene where Aaron and his sons are giving their first shot at sacrifices to God comes right at the beginning. The legislation as to the specifics of how the sacrifice is to be prepared is laid out, along with a description of Aaron preparing it and God consuming it by shooting forth some kind of fire. This quickly leads into Nadab and Abihu, apparently two of the more zealous sons of Aaron, deciding to give a go at it themselves. I like to think of them having just got caught up in the moment of such a novel and amazing thing happening, and instead of falling on their faces like the rest of the Israelites, they decide to try to make it happen again. Unfortunately for them, God hadn’t asked them to do it, so instead of enjoying the incense and “strange fire” they brought before him, he simply consumed them with another tongue of flame.
Now, I think that a pretty clear parallel presents itself here. The Jews have had two failed attempts at Temples in the Land of Israel, and many more failed attempts at messiah-ship. Nadab and Abihu can be seen as paragons of overzealousness. Instead of simply allowing the sacrifice that God asked of their father to suffice, they had to go ahead and try it themselves.
Now, there are clear arguments for the Temple being a worldly symbol of overzealousness. God never wanted one. In Second Samuel chapter 7, God states very clearly that he dwells in the Tabernacle and follows his people around in there. He has no need for the Temple that David wants to build him, and even when he does allow Solomon to build it, only his name will dwell within it. In the period of the Tanach, a god’s “name” was a minor manifestation of the god on earth, a sacred piece of the deity that can be present in a physical location. This, then, is actually a downgrade from the relationship the Israelites have with God in the Tabernacle. On a similar note, if you continue reading the story of the Tanach in this way it is clear that the Temple is more often than not a locus of problems for the Israelites.
Now, outside of the theological argument, I think that there’s another parallel to the Nadab and Abihu story. The two Lubavitcher boys that helped me to wrap t’fillin were clearly quite zealous for moshiach. They enjoy helping other Jews to do mitzvot because their theology teaches them that each time a Jew (specifically, a male individual that falls within the Lubavitch legal strictures of Jewishness, of which I very well may not) does a mitzvah, moshiach, and therefore the Temple, draws closer. In my opinion this is a great practice driven by a wrongheaded thought process. I believe that it is wonderful to help other Jews connect to their Judaism in traditional ways, and that it does, in fact, help bring us closer to God and maybe even God closer to us (this is just my first post, so you’ll have to bear with me on this, and give me the benefit of the doubt about my personal conception of God). But to do these mitzvot in hopes that it will once again bring about a time that has already passed, and that this time around the configuration of Judaism that has shown to be deeply flawed will be perfect, is not the right kavanah, or intention.
Instead let us look to our history. Be it written in books, heard through prayer, or practiced through ritual, its metaphorically rich symbols guide us to how we should approach the new, ever novel, ever changing future. If God is speaking to us today, and I believe he is, what better way for him to communicate than through these vestiges of our ancient past that have miraculously survived the perilous course of past? If we have been gifted these wonderful traditions by the grace of whatever has allowed them to endure through the constantly churning and destroying wheel-work of history, should we then desire to offer the strange fire of a new Temple?