The Temple: Strong Metaphors Don’t Die

April 1, 2011
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Dalia Marx

I admit that writing about the Temple is not the most natural topic for me, a vegetarian Reform female rabbi who lives in Jerusalem and has no desire to behold a third Temple on her way to work. But the Temple and how Jews think about it as a repository of the prayers and yearnings of the people of Israel — almost 2,000 years after its destruction — remain riveting. Generations of Jews have prayed to be able to behold the restoration of the Temple but have not been privileged to witness it. The absent Temple remained very present in the Jews’ imagination and imagery throughout the ages; it shaped their language and encapsulated their hopes for redemption even though it was not a concrete component of their lives. The Temple is remembered in Jewish tradition as a place of unity, utmost purity, and holiness. Contemporary sources, however, did not spare it or its priestly leadership from reservations and harsh criticism.

The Temple was perceived as an intersection between the divine and the human, between Jew and Jew (see the poetic description of the pilgrimage in Mishnah Bikkurim, Chapter 1), between the vertical and the horizontal; it was the essence to which all other practices were compared. After its destruction, the Temple became the measure of many contemporary rabbinic practices, as can be observed in this story about Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai, the leader who is identified more than anyone else with the post-Temple rabbinic revolution:

Once, Rabban Johanan was walking in Jerusalem. Rabbi Joshua followed after him, and beheld the Temple in ruins.

“Woe unto us!” Rabbi Joshua cried, “that this place, the place where the iniquities of Israel were atoned for, is laid waste.”

“My son,” Rabban Johanan said to him, “Be not grieved; we have another atonement as effective as this. And what is it? It is gemilut hasadim (acts of lovingkindness), as it is said, ‘For I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” (Hosea 6:6; Avot d’Rabbi Nathan, 9, p. 21)

And just as acts of lovingkindness can serve as valid replacements for the sacrificial cult, so, too, can Torah study, prayer, and repentance serve as legitimate substitutes for Temple worship. The Temple’s appearance and aroma, the voices heard from within it, and the emotions of those who entered it, have been preserved in the Mishnah’s succinct words. Now, our focus is on prayer, study, and religious intentionality (kavanah) rather than on a specific place and act. But in the generations immediately following the destruction, the Temple greatly occupied the rabbis — in fact, four of the six orders of the Mishnah are dedicated to Temple-related issues and practices.

Some believe that had the Temple not been destroyed, it would have been eventually ignored. Jews of the late Second Temple period seemed to need a different kind of religious symbol or experience. In a way, its dramatic destruction was the greatest public relations success in Jewish history. And, paradoxically, the Temple became more accessible after its destruction. Before, pilgrims ascended to it only at prescribed times (many people were likely not privileged to enter its gates more than a few times over their lifetimes, if at all). Today, standing in prayer, reciting the grace after meals, or participating in lifecycle events are all vehicles for entering the figurative Temple courts. Every man is a priest in his “lesser Temple” (home) and every woman lighting Shabbat candles is comparable to the High Priest.

Writing these words, I am conscious of the extraordinary circumstances of my existence in Jewish history. Living in Jerusalem reminds me that one of the essential rules for ensuring the endurance of metaphors is to keep them somewhat obscure and mysterious, not entirely attainable, and most definitely not translatable into reality. What is the meaning of the Temple as a metaphor that symbolizes utmost purity and unity, now that we are back in our historic homeland? To some, the metaphor of the Temple and its cult should not remain a mere symbolic matter. Extreme Jewish groups (often supported by fundamentalist Christian organizations) explicitly call for practical and spiritual preparations for the rebuilding of the Temple, disregarding the devastating political ramifications of such endeavors. But even if, for the sake of argument, we put these fringe groups aside, the desire to restore the Temple is not only dangerous but also futile.

Our task today is to find ways to make the Temple a constructive metaphor without trying to revive the Temple itself. Quite the contrary, it is up to us to continue to transform Judaism into a more pluralistic and ever-evolving religion and culture that reflects the needs of contemporary Jews, just as the Temple once did in its time.

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Rabbi Dalia Marx, PhD, is an assistant professor of liturgy and midrash at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. She also teaches in various institutions in Israel and Europe. Marx is the author of When I Sleep and When I Wake: On Prayers Between Dusk and Dawn (Yediot Sfarim 2010, in Hebrew).


  1. Very insightful article. Kudos to Rabbi Marx.

    As president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America, I would like to suggest that just as Judaism changed from Temple sacrifices to prayer and acts of kindness and compassion, we should shift from animal-based diets to plant-based diets. This would be most consistent with Jewish teachings on taking care of our health, treating animals with compassion, protecting the environment, conserving natural resources, and helping hungry people.

    For more information, please visit, where I have 140 articles, 25 podcasts of my talks and interviews, and the complete text of my book, “Judaism and Vegetarianism. Also, please visit to see our acclaimed documentary “A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World.”

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  2. With out the Temple, how is a Jew’s sin atoned for? Also, I thought that God cannot walk among you because of your sins (all sin), and that is one of the reasons the Temple was made. Also, is not the Temple the place where God resides, wouldn’t you want that?

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