In a Jerusalem schoolyard, a bloody rehearsal

In a Jerusalem schoolyard, a bloody rehearsal

It was inevitable from the moment the Mandelbaum Gate was brought down 48 years ago.

The “it” in question is the sacrificing of a lamb by kohanim dressed in supposed priestly garb, complete with the sprinkling of blood on an altar. A crowd of hundreds watched the ceremony, which was conducted in a west Jerusalem schoolyard on the Monday before Passover.

To be sure, the ceremony – said to have been a perfect recreation of the one held in the Temple until it was destroyed 1,945 years ago – was meant as a rehearsal only, to demonstrate that “the priesthood” is prepared to restart the sacrificial cult “the minute the government approves” prayer on the Temple Mount, according to the event’s spokesman, Arnon Segal. Segal told reporters that his group, the Temple Mount Institute in Jerusalem’s Old City, even had a portable altar ready to be set up on the Temple Mount within minutes of a government okay.

That the government will give a green light to prayer on the Temple Mount is a stronger possibility today than ever, because Israel’s new cabinet coalition is expected to include at least three ministers who actively favor it. Whether such a go-ahead would include offering sacrifices is not so certain, although the Temple Mount Institute seems convinced of it.

What is reasonably certain is that any attempt to offer even just the Passover sacrifice once a year (ignoring the slew of other offerings, including the daily ones) will likely set off an Arab-Israeli war of an intensity not yet seen since Israel became a state. Anyone who thinks otherwise is likely to see more Jewish blood flowing from that act than lamb’s blood.

Seriously, how would any of us feel if someone came to the front door of our synagogues, killed an animal there, and then roasted it on an open fire? Like it or not, the Temple Mount is the site of two mosques that are considered sacred to Islam. Muslims will not take such sacrilege with any degree of equanimity.

This is why successive Israeli governments have banned non-Muslim prayer of any kind on the Temple Mount, not just Jewish prayer, even though a Jerusalem magistrate court ruled in March that Jews may pray there. Israel’s Supreme Court also holds that way, but maintains that security concerns outweigh that right.

Beyond security, there is a religious component that is not easily ignored. Almost from the moment the Temple Mount was seized in the June 1967 Six-Day War, the Israeli chief rabbinate has warned repeatedly that praying on the site was a serious violation of Jewish law. That decision has been reaffirmed time and again by successive Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis, along with hundreds of other rabbis. Only one Ashkenazic chief rabbi, the late Shlomo Goren, and one Rishon L’Tzion, Mordechai Eliyahu, thought otherwise.

Nationalist elements within the rabbinate have become increasingly vocal in opposing the rabbinate’s decision. Behind the ruling, however, is the total lack of certainty about where the Temple actually stood, what its exact measurements were, and where the Holy of Holies was situated.

“Impure” people are not allowed within the inner Temple precincts. Only the high priest is allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, and only on Yom Kippur. We do not have a high priest at the moment. Obviously, forbidden areas may be roped off, but no one can say for certain where those ropes should go. In fact, no one can outline with exactness where anything stood on the mount.

Then there is the problem of measurement. The units of measurement we have to go by are themselves the subject of much dispute, and have been for almost 2,000 years.

Take the cubit, the main measurement of length. Its length is determined by the distance from a person’s elbow to the tip of the middle finger. Only, whose forearm was used for determining the Temple’s cubit, and what was its length? Not knowing this led to a rabbinic debate over a cubit’s length, with opinions ranging from 17-18 inches on the low side to 23-24 inches on the high side. The most commonly accepted length is around 19.7 inches (half a meter).

To complicate matters even further, the Temple Mount as it exists today and the mount that existed in Temple times are of two different dimensions.

There is a reason why tradition says all of this must await the coming of the Messiah. Presumably, he will have the answers we cannot possibly provide today.

Beyond prayer and access, there is the whole question of sacrifices. We may pray for their return, but are they supposed to return?

Maimonides (the Rambam) thought not. The early Israelites were primitive people raised amidst pagan beliefs, he argued in Guide to the Perplexed 3:32. Because it “is not possible to suddenly go from one extreme to another,” and because “it was the firmly established and universal practice at the time to conduct religious worship with animal sacrifices in temples, and people were brought up to accept that, God in His wisdom considered it imprudent to command us to reject such practices outright, because…human nature inclines to habit.”

God, Rambam wrote, did not want to “[confuse] people’s minds by banning a familiar mode of worship,” although He “could do without them.”

In saying this, Rambam seems to be echoing a teaching from the Midrash (see Leviticus Rabba 22.7-8), which says that the Israelites “were passionate followers after idolatry in Egypt and used to bring their sacrifices to the goat-demons….” The sacrificial cult was created to wean Israel away from pagan practices.

How could midrashic sages (in this case Rabbi Pinchas in the name of Rabbi Levi), or Rambam say such things? In my opinion, it is because sacrifices and other cultic practices were not part of God’s original plan for Israel, and this is provable by the Torah itself. That discussion, however, must await a future column. I have run out of room.