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Chancellor's Parashah Commentary

Parashat T'rumah 5761
Exodus 25:1 - 27:19
March 3, 2001    8 Adar 5761

Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

With this week's parasha we take up the manner in which ancient Israel was to worship God. The cult bespeaks the effort to institutionalize the peak experience of Sinai. How was an echo of the awesome nearness of God which marked Sinai to be perpetuated far from it in the depth of the ordinary? What was the nature of the instrument that would carry Sinai into the world? The model society envisioned by the Torah would not long endure without a ritual link to the source of its inspiration. Nothing confirms just how vital the cult was than the amount of attention paid to it by Scripture. For the rest of the book of Exodus and through the books of Leviticus and Numbers which are to follow, we shall be largely concerned with matters relating to the cult.

Let it be said at the outset that as Conservative Jews we read and study the massive minutiae of the construction of the Tabernacle and its sacrificial system with no expectation of their restoration in the messianic era. Since mid-century, the prayer books of our movement have progressively eliminated all pleas and passages related to the Temple. The most recent edition of Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals (1998) fully reflects the rupture with that yearning which pervades the traditional siddur. For us, the Temple belongs to memory; for others, its fate heralds redemption.

Thus, its editors omitted the passages from Torah and Talmud that deal with sacrifices to be recited privately each morning before the start of services. A belief in the power of virtual reality dictated their inclusion originally, that is to recall was as effective as to offer. More noticeable is the omission of the concluding prayer of every amidah for the imminent rebuilding of the Temple, which means that for Conservative Jews the silent devotion ends on a personal note rather than with the customary petition for national redemption. Similarly, in the retseh petition for the Temple's restoration in the middle of every amidah, the specificity of the language has been softened by dropping the phrase "the fires of Israel (ishai yisrael)," that is the sacrifices. Finally, in the musaf amidah for Shabbat and festivals, a shift in the tense of the verbs relating to sacrifices from future to past turns the petition into a matter of memory.

Obviously, what prompted these changes in the language of the liturgy was the modern sensibility that found a sacrificial mode of worship primitive and repugnant. While the destruction of the Temple by the Romans was surely a political calamity, it did accelerate the development of the synagogue and a liturgy predicated on the spoken word - prayer, the reading of the Torah and preaching. Unlike the Temple, the synagogue was portable, inclusive and democratic. Without it, neither the church nor the mosque is conceivable nor, for that matter, the survival of Judaism in the diaspora. Modern Jews deemed worship by sacrifice a stage in the history of Judaism to be transcended.

As in other instances, Maimonides anticipated the modern temperament. He was acutely aware that the sacrificial system of the Torah bore a close resemblance to the idolatrous cults it wanted to eradicate. Yet mired in slavery for centuries, the Israelites were unable to accommodate a higher, more abstract form of worship. And, Maimonides held, God does not change human nature in the aggregate through miracles. Hence, for him Tabernacle and Temple were but a "divine ruse" to educate the Israelites at a pace that did not exceed their capacity. However, to disabuse them of the notion of multiple deities, God restricted the offering of sacrifices to a single sanctuary, bringing theology and ritual into sync (The Guide of the Perplexed, III, 32).

I raise this perspective on the place of sacrifices in Judaism not to devalue the Torah but the Temple Mount. Not that I believe that the Oslo peace process has survived Intifada II. To the contrary, Yasir Arafat's rejection of Mr. Barak's offer at Camp David and his sudden insistence on the refugees' right of return strongly suggests that the goal of the PLO has been all along the dismemberment of Israel. But someday negotiations, piecemeal or final status, will resume, if mutual annihilation is not to be the alternative, and the issue of the Temple Mount will come to the fore again.

For me, Jerusalem is of ultimate value, the Temple Mount is not. To Muslims, Jerusalem is the third most important city in their world view; to Jews it is the first. A united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty is absolutely part of the Jewish future, an ancient vision nurtured by secular and religious Jews alike. The quintessence of the interaction between memory and reality that Jerusalem embodies was caught by the laying of the cornerstone of the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus in 1918, the first official act by the Zionist Organization after the Balfour Declaration. The weight of the past dictated the venue; the promise of modernity, the institution. The Conservative movement, despite the recurring charge of dual loyalty throughout the long struggle for emancipation, never suppressed a single expression of the pervasive longing to return to Zion and Jerusalem that invigorates the traditional siddur.

This is not the case with the age old pious hope to see the Temple rebuilt on the Temple Mount. Because it was not readily susceptible to reinterpretation, stretching the gap between what was said and thought to the limit, Conservative Jews and many others chose to abandon it. The Temple Mount remains for us an endless source of historical fascination, not the locus for the renewal of a retrograde form of worship. In contrast, the Western Wall, remarkably, has been transformed into a place of prayer where the towering presence of antiquity steeped in memory inspires the fervor of contemporary worshipers.

In short, I regard the Temple Mount as negotiable, Jerusalem not. Indeed, given the two mosques that dominate it, to share or relinquish Israeli sovereignty de jure, under the right circumstances, might be one way of preventing the Palestinians from turning a political conflict into a religious conflagration.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ismar Schorsch


The publication and distribution of Chancellor Schorsch's commentary on Parashat T'rumah are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.