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Jeremy England
Former- MIT-physics-prof-turned-rav in Israel

The Unmagical Temple: A Restaurant

Credit: Jeremy England
Credit: Jeremy England

One way you can tell how alienating advanced, capitalist, Western societies are is to look at the kinds of eating experiences people crave and are willing to pay for. Ultra-expensive, fancy restaurants advertise how carefully they source their ingredients based on personal relationships with farms. The cooking itself can become spectacle performed in front of the customer, often over a fire. Not only this, but the recipes involved may cross over from the realm of taste into that of symbolism, whereby the components of the meal are meant to tell a story. Taken together, all of these aspects push far beyond the basic goal of filling one’s belly with tasty bites of food. The highest-class chefs are assuming the role of priest, and offering their clientele a sumptuous visit to some variety of shrine.

Many people long, and pay through the nose, for this kind of experience because although eating is a central aspect of the human condition, it has been radically transformed by industrialization and economic specialization.  Produce, bread and meat from all over the world are served up at the local grocery store wrapped neatly in disposable packages, just a few steps away from being ready to eat.  This state of affairs is tremendously convenient, but it is a far cry from a world in which people typically knew, named, and raised the animals they ate, or had to nurture and harvest the plants they consumed with their bare hands.  It’s hard to argue that subsistence farming is a better way to live, since grinding poverty typically accompanies it, yet people still clearly miss something about that ancient way, and sometimes purchase a simulation of it from chefs who know how to fetishize, commodify, and sell the enjoyable aspects of that sort of process.

Flipping things around, what we now can recognize is that a mikdash (temple) constructed according to the Torah would have many things in common with a farm-to-table, bring-your-own restaurant where experienced grill-masters (known as priests, or kohanim) roast animals over the fire with wine, salt, and herbs and grain.  Of course, to call the mikdash a restaurant is misleading in the extreme: it is not conceived as a business whose main goal is to get customers to spend money in exchange for the culinarily gratifying experiences they desire.  The rules of korbanot (sacrifices) are complex, and only sometimes lead to a meal being fed to human beings. Sometimes the whole offering is burnt up for hashem, other times the kohanim eat but the bringer of the offering does not, whereas still other times a meal may be fed to many people who did not bring the offering.  Moreover, it is hard to imagine a restaurant whose customers might arrive with the intention of confessing a sin before feeding the chef while refraining from joining in the meal. Still, it has to be admitted that there is something missing in the typical way that human beings eat in high-tech, developed societies that a mikdash offers; not only this, but that it embeds such experiences within a rich framework of meaning connected to reflection on one’s own moral struggles and life-cycle events, as well as one’s relationship with King and Creator.

If the mikdash were nothing but a different sort of Michelin-starred eating pageant, it would not have the same power and significance for am yisrael and the world as it is meant to.  Nonetheless, the culinary aspect is a quite significant part of its potential, and underlines the massive, yet entirely unmagical potential of such an institution.  Like any cook-out, there is a visceral and highly democratic appeal built into it that would certainly attract interest from individuals who regard themselves as entirely secular, in addition to those with religious motivation to engage.  This is only one of many reasons that mikdash may one day prove to be an unparalleled force for national unity in Israel.  Ask any grill-master: barbecues bring people together.

About the Author
Jeremy England is physicist, biologist, and machine learning researcher who also has received ordination as an orthodox rabbi. Previously a physics professor at MIT, he now resides in Israel and loves exploring the Torah’s commentaries on scientific reasoning.
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