Why is the monumental exhibit at the Israel Museum, “Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey” making such a buzz? And why did the museum invest in Herod more than in any other exhibit – ever? Given the extent of Herod’s imprint throughout the country, why did the museum focus its reconstructive efforts on his mausoleum? These are questions I ponder. This exhibit unearths substantial insights for our historic moment.

Once on a snow-shoe walk in the harsh cold northern bush, an old Native American master told me with deep pride how his tribal people had inhabited the area for nearly thirty thousand years(!) He gestured to a pristine mountain sacred to his people, and spoke softly of stewardship of the earth. His culture’s expression of awe for the sacred leaves no human trace.

A Jew and a Zionist who came to Israel to contribute to the building of our Land, my Native American guide stunned me. I grew on the narrative of our sacred Jerusalem Temple – a topic that occupies much of our rabbinic corpus and sustained much of our spiritual imagination for two millennia. The building and destruction of it pulses with our destiny – our homecoming and our exile. Herod the Great looms large in this narrative. His life and work embroil the Jewish People in some of our profound struggles for meaning – at the intersection of material and spirit, native and foreigner, sovereignty and submission.

Herod was a child of Cypros, his Nabatean mother, and Antipater, his Idumean father. Antipater maneuvered his way into the ruling Jerusalem cohort in the first century BCE and secured governorships for his two sons in Judea. During those tumultuous times, the honor of priestly Judaism was deteriorating irretrievably. Taking fullest advantage of a tactical error made by the Hasmonean dynasts, who allied with the Parthians, Herod seized sovereignty over Judaea under Rome. Presiding over unwilling Jewish subjects, he strove to prove his worthiness despite his non-Jewish origin.

Model of Herod’s Jerusalem Temple © Shmuel Browns

Renovating the sacred Jerusalem Temple was an ultimate personal challenge for the engineer-builder and foreign king. Whereas he had free reign over his other constructions to exemplify fine Roman architecture, the Temple had to fulfill Jewish precepts about the design, dimensions, materials and methods of creating sacred space, making it one of the most magnificent temples in the ancient world, Herod demonstrates his mastery over matter as well as his deference to Jewish tradition.

Greek-style Wash Basin The Israel Museum/ Meidad Suchowolski

One of the most unusual items at the Israel Museum exhibit is an imperial three-footed marble basin found at Lower Herodium. Two heads of Silenoi – companions and tutors of the wine god, Dionysos – adorn the handles. The wash basin might have been a gift to Herod from Emperor Augustus himself. Though Herod did not himself observe traditional Jewish practices, he appears to have respected them. Aside from this basin, no other human images, either painted or sculpted, have been found in any of Herod’s palaces.

We often think of Judaism suppressing material pursuits in favor of the spirit; we are a “People of the Book.” The second of the Ten Commandments prohibiting images – on account of idolatry – restrains Jewish involvement in the material arts. Yet, the Ten Commandments themselves were carved by the divine finger in stone, Herod’s prime material.

Medieval commentators debate whether God originally intended to prescribe the building of a material sanctuary, the predecessor of Herod’s Jerusalem Temple. Rashi opines that the community building project was a concession after the Golden Calf incident – to channel idolatrous inclinations toward sacred ends. Ramban believes that the divine intention had all along been for the Jewish People to serve God using the materials of Creation. Much of the Torah, Written and Oral, deals with the design, construction and function of material sacred service.

For millennia, longing for the holy Temple has been the language by which Jews expressed our hope for redemption and for the sacred. Having returned to our land, our liturgy and texts continue to memorialize the sacred Temple service, while the magnificent ancient Temple that Herod built was destroyed and lies buried, like Herod.

We have no access to the Jerusalem Temple that made Herod great. Is the monumental investment in Herod’s mausoleum a displacement of desire for the Jerusalem Temple, for the material-sacred enterprise of the Jewish People?

Longing is not something we left behind in exile. In our recent elections, the meaning of our homecoming and the Jewishness of our state took on fresh relevance – in the context of vibrantly contentious open civil society. We long to make Israel a more redeemed State, to continue the ongoing process of refining ethical, aesthetic, compelling Jewish life. Whereas Herod focused on the Jerusalem Temple in his time, the Zionist project of building the State of Israel is the collective sacred project of the Jewish People in our time.

Herodium © Shmuel Browns

The Israel Museum’s monumental exhibit offers an exceptional opportunity to begin to encounter and come to terms with the material opus of Herod the Great – his architecture and aesthetics. The struggles and accomplishments of Herod’s life beckon beyond the exhibit halls, to history, stories, and sites, to where he fought, ruled, dreamed, and built – Herodium, Masada, Cypros, Sebaste, Caesarea, Banias and Omrit, to the meaning of Herod’s massive mark, and to our own.

For an in-depth day with Herod – at Herodium – the site of the mausoleum, and the Israel Museum, you can reserve a “Herod the Great Tour” and/or personalized guided tours of Herod’s other sites.