Middle Israel: The Temple as idolatry

The Temple that today's zealots idealise was actually an engine of social corrpuption, religious fanaticism, and political recklessness.

Des observateurs internationaux sur le mont du Temple? (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Des observateurs internationaux sur le mont du Temple?
King Gustav Adolf and the rest of the packed Stockholm Concert Hall had never heard such a statement: “In nighttime’s vision,” author S.Y. Agnon’s Hebrew words resounded in the silent auditorium, “I saw myself standing with my brothers, the Levites, in the Temple; singing with them the songs of David, the King of Israel; such tunes have not been heard by any ear since the day our city was destroyed, and its people went to exile.”
Middle Israelis share this yearning for the melody, festivity, purity and inspiration that in a Jew’s mind will forever fill the Temple Mount’s guts.
The Temple itself, however, is an entirely different matter.
Yes, that is where our ancestors flocked three times a year to hear the Torah’s reading while carrying tithes to the priests, charity to the poor, condolences to the bereaved, and queries to the sages.
Yet inspiring though this commotion was in its dizzying setting of piazzas, turrets and colonnades whose marble blended azure, white and gold, the Temple is where power elbowed spirituality; where piety gave way to corruption, violence and fanaticism, and where a shrine of repentance became what its modern cultists are now dusting – an engine of the idolatry that it was meant to defeat.
IT TAKES NO ATHEIST, secularist or leftist, just an impartial reader of the Jewish sources, to understand that the Temple’s combination of money, clergy and impressionable masses produced cynicism, evil and abuse.
That is what happened when Pashhur, the Temple’s “chief officer of the House of the Lord,” spun Jeremiah on a torture wheel because that priest could not handle the truth that the prophet laid bare.
The place where ritual sacrifices abounded while money changed hands, animal blood flowed, carcasses’ odor invaded nostrils and mouths chewed meat, ultimately appalled people like Isaiah, who said God was asking what Middle Israelis now ask those who today crave yesteryears’ rituals: “What need have I of all your sacrifices?” The “offerings of rams” and the “blood of bulls,” in Isaiah’s words, became corruption’s camouflage and faith’s perversion once in the hands of those who “pray at length” while “stained with crime,” people who while strict about the Temple’s rituals failed “to uphold the rights of the orphan” and to “defend the cause of the widow.”
The Temple was not merely corruption’s backdrop; it was its cause.
The corruption the Temple unleashed eventually resulted in the buying and selling of the high-priesthood while the lay priests, absorbed by the rituals they administered and the funds they collected, ignored the spiritual purpose those were meant to serve, and thus created the social alienation which the Pharisee intellectuals tried to address.
Worse, the Temple inspired the uniquely Jewish delusion that loyalty to a shrine can replace a nation’s loyalty to its land.
Conventional wisdom says the Jews became “a people pf the world” following their defeat by Rome. “Due to a historic catastrophe,” as Agnon put it in that speech, “that Titus the king of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and exiled Israel from its land – I was born in one of the Exile’s cities.” That is also how early Christianity saw things. “The Jews,” wrote Augustine (City of God, XVIII:46), were “miserably wasted by the Romans” before they were “utterly rooted out from their kingdom” and finally “dispersed through the lands.”
Both men were wrong. Most Jews had lived outside the Land of Israel well before the Roman destruction, a wellknown historical fact conceded even by the most Zionist historians of the Jews, led by Ben-Zion Dinur, who was Ben-Gurion’s education minister, and Yitzhak Baer, who headed the Hebrew University’s Jewish history department in its first decades.
The Jewish majority’s choice, to inhabit the Diaspora instead of their homeland, is reflected by the numbers of returnees from Babylon cited in the Bible (Ezra 2:64-65), and by Philo of Alexandria’s statement, in his Life of Moses, that the Jews were too numerous to inhabit their land, which is why “those dwelling in other countries do no wrong.”
It was wrong, and in fact catastrophic.
There was ample space for most Jews in their land, and had they lived there in larger numbers they would not have lost it. Yet the Temple deluded the Jews into thinking that sanctity mattered more than sovereignty, and that they could visit their land rather than inhabit it.
The Temple thus weakened the Jews, misleading them to overestimate, misfire, and eventually lose what power they had.
That is how the militants among our forebears ended up waging a reckless war on their era’s lone superpower, while the moderate lawmakers, justices and intellectuals who tried to confront them gradually lost their political sway.
That is how a towering figure like Joshua ben Gamla, apparently the first man in history who legislated compulsory education, was thrown to his death from Jerusalem’s walls by his own brethren after he climbed a tower and admonished the zealots at its foothills for having abolished the Jews’ courts. (Wars of the Jews IV 4:3) That is how when Titus arrived at Mount Scopus ahead of 500 cavalrymen to scout the city he would later level, the Jews within it – by then fully abandoned to anarchy’s devices – were busy killing each other, with one faction entrenched in today’s Jewish Quarter, another in the Temple, and a third within its Holy of Holies.
OUR OWN ZEALOTS are still far away from this result, but this is where the road they are taking leads.
In rolling their eyes and “merely uttering several sentences” while atop the mountain they idolize, they ignore most Jews’ dismissal of their craving, most rabbis’ rejection of their theology, and every Israeli government’s express decree, not to mention the patent threat of the global backlash they provoke.
Our zealots are rejecting Zionism’s two empirical conclusions from centuries of exile – that a nation can have only one home, and God can have many. They have sculpted an idol and then turned to worship in our name what now is a Moloch thirsting for everyone’s blood.