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

The Unmagical Temple

The Hebrew Bible and Talmud often describe events fantastically: from splitting seas to talking serpents, we get used to the idea that these accounts are not constrained by what we might call the rules of everyday life.  This way of telling the story has a very clear function in the text, since emphasis placed on an unexpected twist can give to narrative the extra expressiveness it needs to achieve its desired meaning.  On top of the drab grayscale of the normal and the natural, miracles add a much richer range of colors.

The problem in the present day, of course, is that half the people reading these ancient Judaic sources are holding them “upside down.” The idea that overtly magical occurrences that flout fixed laws of nature are promised by the Torah is a mistaken notion shared by huge numbers of religious and secular people.   As the Torah itself indicates, we are actually supposed to make sense of things by observing the real world as it is – devoid of magic – and then undertaking the hard work of understanding why our prophets and sages still sometimes insisted that the full truth had to be told in terms of signs and wonders.  Instead, the argument too often boils down to a pointless scrimmage between those who wrongly believe in magic without evidence and those who wrongly take the lack of magic in the world to be a clear disproof of the Torah.

The regrettable consequences of all of this confusion are numerous, and each issue deserves its own lengthier discussion.  For now, we can start with the simple and highly instructive example of what can be said about building a temple.  The hundreds of mitzvot (commandments) that somehow pertain to the temple make up a substantial fraction of the entire Torah. One would therefore think that Jewish religious leaders who champion the idea that we should keep the mitzvot of the Torah would heartily approve of getting to work on a temple now that we have finally returned to our land.  Instead, it is commonly suggested by such parties that doing anything of the kind is against the Torah, at least until a temple magically appears on its own.  Meanwhile, a great many people who lean more in the secular direction would say that, because all the supposed benefits of having a temple would derive only from its (fictitious) magical properties, there is no point in going through the substantial hassle of creating one just for the sake of lies and delusions.

The truth is the Torah never expects us to rely on magical occurrences as a substitute for our own effort when accomplishing a mitzva.  More significantly, the truth also is that there are a multitude of totally unmagical reasons why the mitzvot of the tabernacle and its service hold untold positive potential for am yisrael (the nation of Israel).  The mikdash (temple) may be thought of as a material center, an engine for driving the continual improvement and development of the nation’s shared life at all levels – ethical, commercial, social, aesthetic, agricultural, culinary, and ecological, to name just a few.  Much the same way the return of am yisrael to eretz yisrael (the land of Israel) enabled the rejuvenation and strengthening of the nation’s identity and sense of shared purpose, it is all the more so the case that a mikdash could have such a transformative impact.  And just as the rebirth of Israel as a country in the last century has made an enormous positive difference to all kinds of Jews (and not only to those most assiduously concerned with the observance of religious strictures) so too would the emergence of a shared set of national symbols rooted in the mikdash have an equally broad and profound impact.

There is plenty to say about this, and it has to be argued bit by bit, but the same theme will come up again and again: the mikdash commanded by the Torah is a gift for all of us (indeed, for all mankind).  Through study and the application of reason, we have the opportunity to understand many aspects of the promise that it holds.

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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