One of the central features of the Jewish eschatological hope for 2,000 years has been the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. Pleas for its rebuilding and references to the sacrifices that will be brought in the Temple occupy a central place in the traditional liturgy.
Over the centuries of exile, however, Judaism was forced to abandon the equal emphasis that the Torah places on sacred time and sacred space. Instead, it came to prioritize a task that still was possible to fulfill, safeguarding and celebrating the holiness of time. At the same time the importance of physical holiness came to be played down.
As a result, today there are many people who no longer think that the restoration of the Temple should occupy a central place in our hopes for the Messianic Era. Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz’s recent article is only the most recent iteration of this line of thought; I am sure that his views resonate with many Jews and perhaps even some who are traditionally observant. However, the longing for the restoration of the Temple continues to be a meaningful element of our visions of a redeemed world. This hope embodies, rather than contradicts – as Rabbi Yanklowitz seems to suggest – the values that are at the heart of Judaism.
None of us can say with any amount of certainty what the Messianic Era will look like. The Talmud and the writings of the Rishonim are filled with disagreements about the nature of the Messianic Era. It is impossible to know if the natural order will continue largely unchanged as the Rambam suggests or if there will be miraculous changes to nature as other Rishonim have argued. There is much we don’t know. However, we can expect that questions about renewed central authority and the exact nature of sacrifices, will be answered alongside many others. What is clear is that all of the Rishonim agree that after the advent of a time of peace and justice, the rebuilding of the Temple will be an important hallmark of the Messianic Era.
The spiritual lives of the prophets who spoke so strongly about the importance of peace and justice revolved around the Temple. For many it was the scene of their prophetic experience. “In the year of the death of King Uzziah, I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, and His lower extremity filled the Temple” (Yeshayahu 6:1). Yeshayahu’s famous vision of God’s holiness happens within the confines of the Temple, and it is within its walls that Yeshayahu hears God castigate his people. “This people’s heart is becoming fat, and his ears are becoming heavy, and his eyes are becoming sealed, lest he see with his eyes, and hear with his ears, and his heart understand, and he repent and be healed.” (Yeshayahu 6:10) The message of the prophets is that Judaism is a religion of ultimate responsibility: responsibility to the service of God and to the wellbeing of your fellow man.
Finally, the Temple is uniquely representative of an important tenet of Judaism, that there are limits to man’s power. At the heart of the Temple lies the Holy of Holies, a room largely devoid of images in which man encounters the unknowable God. Judaism emphasizes categorically that man is not God. Despite all of the knowledge we can gain and all the good we can do there is much that will always remain behind our grasp. Man alone will not be able to understand all of the mysteries of the universe nor solve every problem. This belief, along with the Torah’s message of responsibility and the prophetic call for justice, stand at the heart of Judaism.
The longing for the restoration of Temple is especially relevant today. In a world in which the human potential for good as well as destructive behavior is keenly felt, it reminds us of the brokenness of the world in which we live. Even as we strive to overcome the challenges we face, ultimately our hopes for the Messianic Era are a reminder that it is a brokenness which only with God’s help can we hope to heal.