ISRAEL - Jewish Identity without the Temple?

Arno Froese

This Shabbat, we begin reading from the Book of Leviticus, the book that is termed “the Torah of the kohanim.” This term explains the essence of the book, which deals mainly with laws pertaining to the Temple, the sacrifices and ritual purity and impurity.

In actuality, most of the book deals with issues that have not been relevant for many years. The Temple was destroyed 2,000 years ago. The priesthood has been almost insignificant since the Temple’s destruction, and even laws of purity and impurity are partially inapplicable. This book paints a very different picture from the one we are familiar with, a reality in which the nation is united around the Temple and the sacrifices.

One of the greatest of Jewish sages who lived about 2,000 years ago, during the days of the destruction, was Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai. He was forced to deal with the new reality of the Temple’s destruction and exile, a reality that raised the question: Could the Jewish nation have a national existence without its spiritual center—the Temple—in Jerusalem? This question was acute during the days when the nation experienced the terrible shock of the destruction and Ben Zakkai had to respond to it.

Today, we look back on history and know how to answer this question: Yes, the Jewish nation survived. It maintained a strong national awareness and even returned to its land by the grace of God. But 2,000 years ago, this was far from obvious.

This is what we are told in the literature of our sages: “Once, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai was leaving Jerusalem, and Rabbi Yehoshua was following him and saw the Temple destroyed. Rabbi Yehoshua said: Woe to us that it [the Temple] is destroyed, a place where the Jewish nation’s sins are atoned! [Ben Zakkai] answered: My son, do not feel bad, we have one atonement like it, and which is that? It is acts of loving-kindness, as it says: ‘For I desire loving-kindness and not sacrifices’ (Hosea 6:6)” (Fathers according to Rabbi Nathan, ch. 4).

“...At the same time, Jerusalem was captured, and Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai was waiting anxiously and fearful. As soon as Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai heard that Titus had destroyed Jerusalem and burned down the Temple, he tore his clothes, and his students tore their clothing, and they cried and screamed and mourned” (Ibid, ch. 4).

There can be no replacement for the Temple. That is why we anticipate its rebuilding; we never give up, and we repeat daily:

“Restore the service to the Sanctuary of Your abode.” But for the time being, even if it means thousands of years, we persevere and preserve our identity thanks to mutual responsibility for one another, loving-kindness, a sense of community, and unity., 16 March 2019

Arno's commentary

The temple was destroyed in 70 AD in response to the Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire. Yet the Jewish nation survived for over 2,000 years, and that without a temple. What are the reasons? For one thing, they had the Bible, and the book was read every Shabbat throughout Judaism in the world. That was the spiritual adhesive that united the Jewish people and identified them as Jews.

The other reason is the nations of the world. Often, the Jews were made painfully aware that they were Jews; most nations rejected them.

Wikipedia writes about the infamous ship SS Saint Louis: “The SS St. Louis sailed from Germany in May 1939 carrying 936 (mainly German) Jewish refugees. On 4 June 1939, it was also refused permission to unload on orders of President Roosevelt as the ship waited in the Caribbean Sea between Florida and Cuba. Initially, Roosevelt showed limited willingness to take in some of those on board. But the Immigration Act of 1924 made that illegal and public opinion was strongly opposed. The ship returned to Europe. 620 of the passengers were eventually accepted in continental Europe, of these only 365 survived the Holocaust.” Despite the horrendous crime of the Holocaust and the countries which refused to accept Jews, they kept their identity, and until this day they are Jews.

What does the Bible say? “And I will bring them out from the people, and gather them from the countries, and will bring them to their own land, and feed them upon the mountains of Israel by the rivers, and in all the inhabited places of the country” (Ezekiel 34:13).

Arno Froese is the executive director of Midnight Call Ministries and editor-in-chief of the acclaimed prophetic magazines Midnight Call and News From Israel. He has authored a number of well-received books, and has sponsored many prophecy conferences in the U.S., Canada, and Israel. His extensive travels have contributed to his keen insight into Bible prophecy, as he sees it from an international perspective.

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