Emor: Judaism, the Temple, and the Royal Wedding

By David Hazony
Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Many Jews today suffer from BCD: Biblical Cognitive Dissonance. The Bible, they feel, should be mostly about morality, accompanied by some nice stories to keep the kids interested and, if one is religiously observant, by a smattering of arbitrary, cut-and-dried laws for regulating one's daily life. What, then, to do about those deeply discomfiting moments when, as in this week's reading, we are brought face to face with the Torah's obsessive focus on the laws of purity and sacrifice and other rituals surrounding worship in the ancient Tabernacle and the Temple in Jerusalem? Many hit the "Next Track" button on their inner religious iPods.

Such is Jewish life today. Orthodoxy focuses on the pragmatics of divine law, heterodoxy on prophetic values. Modern Judaism has little room in its heart for Temple talk.

But then, suddenly, we moderns can find ourselves thrown off course. One lovely Friday in London, a royal wedding draws the attention of over one-third of humanity. Americans and Israelis, children of young nations, suspend their politics and moralizing for a moment, forget their ills, and watch transfixed, with more than a dollop of jealousy, as an ancient, gracious people celebrates its ancient, gracious rites. For a day, a nation battered by economic woes, demographic fears, cultural decay, and a general loss of direction summons up its inner, august joy. For a day, being British means something important—and not just to subjects of the crown.

Ancient national rituals, it turns out, need not be dry, or dead, or embarrassing. In their very strictures they can drive a people to hope, in their beauty to rapture. With one meticulously and grandly orchestrated event, all talk of dissolving the monarchy, that gaudy relic, disappears. On a Friday in April, to be British is to embrace a boldly anti-modern spirit.

Back to this week's reading. If few modern Jews long for the Temple, fewer still like to contemplate the rules of eligibility for the priesthood, service in the Tabernacle, or the performance of sacrifices. We feel, no doubt correctly, totally alienated from the sacrificial blood and smoke, the creepy regulations of Aaron's bloodline, the offhand disqualification of women, the bigoted exclusion of handicapped individuals (and blemished animals) from the vicinity of the altar.

Is it possible, even for a moment, to suspend these morality-laden qualms, or the accompanying arguments (if you can call them that) over what does and does not constitute a binding divine commandment? Can Temple worship be seen, just for a moment, as a true if irrational, true and irrational, source of ancient pride? Can Jews "own" their memories of those rituals the same way the British own their royal rites—the same way, indeed, that Jews allow themselves a shadow of antique pride when they undertake the Passover seder, the fast on Yom Kippur, or the circumcision of their baby boys?

Truly to love the Jewish ritual heritage, warts and all, is to embrace the memory of the Temple in Jerusalem. So much of Judaism is built on this memory that no new editions of re-written prayer books can erase it. You can't read the Torah without grasping the spirit of the rambling rules surrounding the Tabernacle, or the rest of the Bible without confronting the significance of the golden age of Solomon and the First Temple. You can't fathom the Talmud without an acute sensitivity to the reverberating effect of the destruction of the Second Temple. To this day, Jews live with the mournful fast of Tisha b'Av, the purifications of Yom Kippur, the festive holidays, and daily prayer services created to recall the sacrifices. They still speak of thousands of years of "exile." They still break a glass at their weddings—all to remember the Temple.

Today, nothing is more out of fashion than to speak of the Temple with even a hint of longing, to mourn its destruction, or to dream of a day, no matter how far off, when it will be rebuilt; to teach one's children about the Temple's architecture and dimensions, the observances of purity, the rules of sacrifices and incense, the High Priest's garments, the songs of the Levites; to conceive of the Temple Mount as an eternal symbol of ourselves rather than as an awkward political conundrum.

Yes, doing any or all of these things would make for a complex approach to modern life, one in which Jews, yet again, would find themselves asserting their peculiar identity in the face of the world's scowl. But, at the same time, aren't we always being reminded these days that making room for the irrational and the contradictory is exactly what the fullest experience of life requires? And isn't that exactly what so many ultra-modern Brits were doing when they stood in the square, waiting to be transported by Kate and William's kiss?

David Hazony is author of The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life, recently published by Scribner.


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