August 7, 2018

Modern Orthodoxy and its (complicated) attitude towards the rebuilding of the Temple

In this talk I want to address a tough and important question about Jewish belief in the Modern Orthodox world. It is a talk that I think is timely and essential. Yet notwithstanding its importance, it explores a question that I believe most Rabbis, and specifically most Modern Orthodox Rabbis, are afraid to address.

To begin, I’d like us to take a look at Rambam’s 12th principle of faith which is – as we know – the belief in the coming of Moshiach.

As the oft-sung formula expresses, we believe in the coming of Moshiach, and paraphrasing Habbakuk 2:3 we are taught that even if he should tarry, we shall await his coming[1]. In fact, as Rambam explains further, ‘whoever doubts or minimizes his (ie. Moshiach’s) importance denies the Torah that attests to it’[2], and ‘whoever does not believe that Moshiach will come, or one who does not eagerly await his coming, is a heretic in the prophecy and Torah of Moshe Rabbeinu’[3]. Significantly, Chazal noted that Moshiach was born on Tisha B’Av.[4]

Moreover, we are taught that one of the most important events either immediately prior to, or as part of the Messianic Era will be the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash which, according to Rambam, will establish the identity of Moshiach beyond any shadow of a doubt.[5]

Undoubtedly, these beliefs of the coming of Moshiach and the building of the third Temple, are regarded as dogma amongst many Orthodox Jews, and as Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg has written while reflecting upon this belief: ‘a world without Moshiach is a world of exile… It is a world where even in the Land of Israel, Jews are subjected to the whims and values of other nations…There is no greater destructiveness for the Jewish soul than to lose the awareness of the bitterness of exile.’[6]

And now, having explained this, I’d like to be honest because my sense is that many Modern Orthodox Jews are really not so sure about this whole Moshiach/3rd Temple thing, and I can attest that I know numerous Modern Orthodox Jews who have – without a doubt – lost any spiritual awareness of the bitterness of the exile.

Now let me make it clear, this is not to suggest that Modern Orthodox Jews have lost their awareness of the physical bitterness of exile. Of course we haven’t! As Modern Orthodox Jews we know history, we know the Jewish story, we know about antisemitism, and we support the State of Israel as a haven for Jews to live safely in accordance with Jewish values. But do we yearn for the Third Temple? Do we really hope for Moshiach? Do you know Modern Orthodox Jews who, like the Chafetz Chaim, keep a bag packed by their front door ‘just in case’ Moshiach arrives?

Now admittedly few will necessarily share these sentiments out loud. But as noted by one respondent in a 2017 survey of the Modern Orthodox Jewish community in the United States, there is a ‘lack of sincerity amongst many Orthodox Jews for the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash (Temple)’, and that while there is ‘a lot of lip service’ about Moshiach and the third Temple, ‘[the] support for rebuilding it is not genuine much of the time, especially in the U.S.’[7]. In fact, if we were honest with ourselves, rather than groaning about the Churban, most Modern Orthodox Jews groan more about the fact that they can’t eat meat during the nine days than the absence of the Beit HaMikdash.

Though some Modern Orthodox Rabbis would deny that this is where they are holding, and though there are many Modern Orthodox Rabbis who sincerely hope and pray for Moshiach and the third Beit Hamikdash, I actually respect those who are honest about their beliefs – notwithstanding the fact that they directly conflict with normative Orthodox Judaism, and perhaps most notable amongst them is Rabbi Shmuly Yankowitz, an outspoken Open-Orthodox Rabbi, who three years ago wrote a prayer to God stating ‘if it is Your will to have a third Temple, I am prepared to serve, but I humbly submit this prayer asking: Is the rebuilding of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem what is best for us?’[8]

In fact, in this prayer Rabbi Yanklowitz identified four areas which led him to express a sense of disconnect with the concept of a Third Temple – ‘i) The holiness of time vs. space tension, ii) the problem of central authority, iii) the conception of animal sacrifices, and iv) the prophetic message that we must prioritize social justice not sacrifices’[9].

As Rabbi Yanklowitz wrote elsewhere, ‘we cannot simply return to the past or propel a past model into the future… Today, in response, we must strive to actively affirm the value of life and find new ways (emphasis mine – JS) to bring G-d into the world’[10].

Before continuing I feel dutybound to stress that while I disagree with Rabbi Yanklowitz, I am presenting his ideas here not in order to shame him, but instead because I believe that despite my firm theological differences with him, I respect his intellectual honesty and feel, as well as fear, that many other Modern Orthodox Jews share his beliefs but are just too afraid to share them. And this leads me to ask a very serious and very sincere question – as Modern Orthodox Jews what do we mourn for and what do we hope for on Tisha B’Av?

Before proceeding to answer this question I believe that it is important to consider where this doubt comes from, and to my mind, this emerges from the very concept of Modern Orthodoxy.

Modern Orthodoxy celebrates integration with contemporary life, and while we may look back affectionately at the Shtetls of Eastern Europe where many of our ancestors lived their lives, most of us are pleased that we weren’t born in that era. And though the term ‘Modern’ in the hareidi shidduch world is understood pejoratively, most of us regard that label as a positive, and when we think about the blend of our Jewish and secular identity, and our ability to fuse ideas from within the Beit Midrash from those of the university, I am deeply proud. Simply put, there is a sense amongst Modern Orthodox Jews of living a more refined and cultured life, and it is this issue which I believe is the key challenge for Modern Orthodox Jews as they reflect on the Messianic Era and the hope for a Third Temple.

Unlike Hareidi Jews who emphasise yeridat hadorot, Modern Orthodox Jews believe that we have become more wise, more intelligent[11] and more cultured, and this was the basis for Rabbi Hayyim Hirschensohn’s response Rav Kook in their series of correspondence about whether or not there would be animal sacrifices in the third Temple where he wrote: ‘knowledge and understanding cannot go backwards and will not regress to consider something uncultured as being cultured’[12]. In fact, I believe that this is precisely what Rabbi Yanklowitz means when he says, ‘we cannot simply return to the past or propel a past model into the future… Today, in response… we must find new ways to bring G-d into the world’.

Moreover, while we will discuss animal sacrifices momentarily, I believe that Rabbi Hirschensohn’s remarks go well beyond animal sacrifices and that there are a variety of concepts aligned with the Messiah and Third Temple belief that Modern Orthodox Jews simply regard as being uncultured and to which many of us do not intend to return. Just think about it. In our Modern Orthodox world can we imagine a Third Beit Hamikdash where we return to an absolute hierarchy. Where – possibly – suspected adulteresses undergo the Sotah ritual, and where only male Kohanim are the spiritual leaders? As mentioned, this is not where I am at theologically. But I do suspect it is where others are at.

Now returning to the question of animal sacrifices, is this something that we yearn for? To begin with, let us review a number of our tefillot. In the daily Amidah we pray:

Find favour, Lord our God, in Your people Israel and their prayer. Restore the service to Your most holy house, and accept in love and favour the fire offerings of Israel and their prayer. May the service of Your people Israel always find favour with you.

And in the Mussaf prayer on Shabbat we plead:

May it be Your will, Hashem, our God and the God of our forefathers, that You bring us up in gladness to out land and plant us within our boundaries. There we will perform before You the rite of our required offerings, the continual offerings in their order the the mussaf offerings according to their laws.

But, as Modern Orthodox Jews, are we serious when we ask for the restoration of the sacrifices? In response to this question, Rabbi Dr. Michael Harris explains:

‘There is a well-known and fascinating correspondence between R’ Hayyim Hirschensohn (1857-1935) and Rav Kook regarding the restoration of animal sacrifice in the rebuilt Third Temple of the messianic era. R’ Hirschensohn had claimed in his work Malki Bakodesh that the form in which the sacrificial order will be renewed in the Third Temple will not involve actual animal sacrifice, arguing that this position is consistent with both the prophecies of Ezekiel regarding the future Temple and with Talmudic discussion of Ezekiel’s prophecies. Hirschensohn had further argued that the prophetic tradition since Samuel had downplayed the significance of animal sacrifice. He had also pointed out that all Mussaf prayers in the liturgy ask God for the restoration of the sacrifices ‘kemitzvat retzonekha’, ‘according to the commandment of your Will’, an apparent tautologous formulation which does not appear in the context of any other mitzvah. Hirschensohn had argued that this indicates that the future sacrificial order will be restored according to God’s true will, not in the way in which it operated in ancient times but in a non-physical form that God will reveal to us in the messianic age. In his letter to R’ Hirschensohn, R’ Kook states that in the messianic era, the sacrificial service will be renewed in its straightforward physical sense. He writes that we ought not to be overly concerned about regnant ideas in European culture which view animal sacrifice disapprovingly. The Torah is superior, insists R’ Kook, and ultimately it will elevate human culture to a higher level than any non-Divine source is capable of. The traditional sacrificial order is not morally primitive but is invested with great inner sanctity, though this will only become fully apparent – to all other nations as well as to the Jewish people – when the messianic era arrives. In the section dealing with the issue of sacrifices in his reply to R’ Kook, R’ Hirschensohn agrees that European culture is far from perfect and is in need of much further moral development. He also concedes that the moral condemnation of animal sacrifice by his and R’ Kook’s contemporaries is often accompanied by hypocrisy. But, says Hirschensohn – and this is of course his crucial point – ‘knowledge and understanding cannot go backwards and will not regress to consider something uncultured as being cultured’. For Hirschensohn, then, the insight of enlightened people in the modern world that there is something morally problematic about animal sacrifice is valid and significant from a traditional Jewish perspective. The messianic future may develop this insight further, but what it certainly will not do is retreat from it. R’ Hirschensohn thus explicitly rebuts the objection that one can well imagine coming from many proponents of Haredi Orthodoxy that Modern Orthodoxy’s moral squeamishness about animal sacrifice is simply a product of its internalization of contemporary Western secular ethics.’[13]

Reflecting on all this, I think Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo frames the question correctly when he asks ‘is our aversion to sacrifices the result of our supreme spiritual sophistication, through which we left the world of sacrifices behind us? Or have we sunk so low that we aren’t even able to reach the level of idol worshipers who, however primitive we believe them to have been, were of a higher spiritual level than some of us who call ourselves monotheists?’[14]

Returning back to the Tisha B’Av theme, I asked a little earlier: ‘as Modern Orthodox Jews, what do we mourn for and what do we hope for on Tisha B’Av?’

I think for some who are clear in their pain for the destroyed Beit HaMikdash and who yearn for its return, then they naturally mourn for the Temple and for its continued absence in our lives.

Then I think for those who are clear in their pain for the destroyed Beit HaMikdash but who remain unsure about how they feel about its return, then they too mourn the historical Temple.

But for those who, at least within themselves, admit that they do not hope for its restoration, then what do they mourn for? I believe this is answered by Rabbi Shimon Schenker when he wrote, that we ‘mourn for ourselves that we are not who we should be’[15]. This reminds me of the story of Israeli soldiers in 1967 who, immediately after their liberation of Jerusalem, ran to the Kotel, and when one of the non-religious saw the religious soldiers crying, he too began to cry. The religious soldier looked at him surprised and asked: “I know why I am crying, but why are you crying?” The nonreligious soldier answered back: “I am crying because I don’t know what I am supposed to be crying about.”

Ultimately, as a Modern Orthodox Jew, I believe that questioning is important. But while in our post-modern world there is a tendency to reject all concepts of dogma and truth, the simple fact is that Orthodoxy is rooted in principles, and while there are considerable debates about Messianic belief and the building of the third Temple, I believe that the Modern Orthodox community can and should do more in exploring how we relate to these principles. To quote Rabbi Michael Harris, ‘Modern Orthodoxy must not simply abandon this key feature of our historic religious belief to Chabad or to anyone else. Rather, we should embrace Judaism’s messianic faith and grapple with its implications’[16].

[1] Ani Ma’amin

[2] Commentary to Mishna, Sanhedrin 10:1

[3] Hilchot Melachim 11:1

[4] Yerushalmi Brachot 2:4, Eichah Rabba 1:51

[5] Hilchot Melachim 11:1,4

[6] Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, Fundamentals and Faith: Insights into the Rambam’s 13 Principles pp. 116-117





[11] See

[12] Malki BaKodesh Vol. 4 p. 8

[13] Michael Harris, Faith Without Fear pp. 136-137

[14] Nathan Lopes Cardozo, ‘Sacrifices: Progressive or Regressive Judaism’ in Jewish Law as Rebellion p. 222


[16] Faith Without Fear p. 143

In this article:
Share on social media:
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on telegram

More articles