Is ‘Real’ Judaism On Hold Without a Temple?

QUESTION: I heard you say there are no 100% traditional Jews anymore because there’s no Temple.  I was trying to explain this to my (partially) Jewish co-worker (raised Baptist) who was thinking that maybe the temple could be spiritual or metaphorical?  Also, she made a comment about it could be inaccurate because the bible was written by men!  Can you re-explain it to me and direct me to the exact passages in the bible that talks about Temple being integral to Judaism?

RESPONSE: What the Bible is clear about is that not only were the Jews given an elaborate sacrificial system put in place to atone for sin, the location to implement this system was clearly spelled out.  Moses says that sacrifices could only be brought to the “entrance of the tent of meeting” per Lev 17:2:

“Speak to Aaron and his sons and to all the people of Israel and say to them, This is the thing that the LORD has commanded. 3 If any one of the house of Israel kills an ox or a lamb or a goat in the camp, or kills it outside the camp, 4 and does not bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting to offer it as a gift to the LORD in front of the tabernacle of the LORD, bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man. (Lev 17:2-4)

The Jews could not just make their own sacrifices wherever they wanted after the Lord had provided the Tabernacle.  But the tabernacle was mobile – it was just a tent after all – so Moses anticipates a time when they are no longer nomadic and on the move after they’ve entered the Promised Land.  So he tells also them to be ready for God to establish a permanent, non-mobile place of worship for the sacrificial system to be located.

Deut 12:5-6: But you shall seek the place that the LORD your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name and make his habitation there. There you shall go, and there you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, your vow offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herd and of your flock. (ESV)

Now, it was literally hundreds of years between when Moses wrote that, and when Solomon built the first temple, which God sanctioned through his father David as the place he chose to “make a habitation for his Name” (2 Sam 7:12-13).  But once there, that was the place – and the only place – to fulfill the Mosaic system.

All this means that “real” Judaism is Temple Judaism.  There is nothing in the Law or Prophets that sanctions the sacrificial system to be relocated or “spiritualized”.  So what happened when the Jews were exiled and Solomon’s first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians?  Did they just do the sacrifices some place else, or do them “metaphorically”?  No, they just stopped performing the sacrifices.  The sacrificial system was in some sense, “on hold”.

They still did everything else that Moses commanded, obey the moral law, the ceremonial law, the food laws – but the center of the covenant, every Jew knows, is the burnt offering system to atone for sin.  And that system was suspended when the Temple was destroyed.  Then, when it was rebuilt, the Jews were ecstatic because, in some sense, their religion was restored to them (Zech 8:7-9).

That is also why the Jewish authorities in Jesus time (when Herod’s second Temple reconstruction was completed and operational) are so anxious about Jesus stirring up the crowds.  The people wanted revolution to save their freedom, but the Jewish leaders wanted the Temple to save their religion – the latter being far more important than the former. And they knew that too much trouble and their precious, all-important Temple would get destroyed.

Western Wall

Eventually, that’s exactly what happened: the Temple was utterly leveled by Rome in 70 A.D., and for the last 2000 years all that remains are some foundation stones which can still be seen today (that’s the famous “Western Wall”).

Now, that obviously doesn’t mean that Judaism is dead totally.  After the Temple was demolished and the Jews were exiled (again), Rabbinic Judaism developed which leaned on the Rabbi’s interpretations of Moses (the Talmud) in order to encourage the practice of Judaism in the absence of Temple sacrifices and other practices which were no longer possible.  But make no mistake, even this radically reordered form of Judaism awaits the Third Temple, and now most faithful Jews believe it will take the coming of the Messiah to rebuild it.

Therefore, there is no such thing as a “spiritual/metaphorical Temple” in serious Judaism.  The idea of transferring the Temple rites to other places or other ways, was exactly what the people tried to do in early Israelite history.  They decentralized the Temple idea by taking religious rites and sacrifices to local “high places” like the pagans, and God strictly forbade it.  (1 Kings 12:31).  Good kings are judged as good or bad almost solely by whether they tolerated or eliminated such “high places”.  In the Bible, taking the central place of worship away from Jerusalem = bad.

So the Temple is not a metaphor for Jews.  When she says that, she’s just channeling her Christian roots.  That’s not a Jewish way of thinking, that’s a Christian way of thinking.  For Christians understand that all the good things God did in the Temple by making a place for his name, showing that he wanted to be “with” us by placing his literal “habitation” on earth – is all FULFILLED spiritually through Jesus who is “Emmanuel” (God with us) and who comes to dwell inside his Children by his Spirit as spiritual temples. (1 Cor 6:19)

And most Christians take it as a great sign of God’s approval on the new epoch of making “spiritual Temples” through God’s perfect “Lamb” (John 1:29), that Jesus perfectly predicted the destruction of the Temple, resulting in the end of sacrifices, which remains a fact to this very day.  Thus, there is no true or original Judaism today, only ‘Judaism Interrupted’.

I’m not sure what part of this she thinks could possibly be inaccurate.

  • The idea that a real temple ever existed?  
  • The idea that it was the mandated center of Jewish worship for centuries?  
  • The idea that Herod’s 2nd Temple was destroyed in 70 AD and devastated the Jewish people?  
  • The idea that the dispersed Jews had to radically reorder their whole religion in the 2nd century to account for an absence of a Temple? 

These are all well-established historical facts.  Or does she mean that the importance of the Temple as Moses and the Prophets spell is out is inaccurate?  Well, in that case, she doesn’t have to think that Moses and the Prophets speak accurately for God, what’s in question is whether Jews believe that Moses and the Prophets speak accurately for God.

And regarding the transmitters of this message being “mere men”, both Jews and Christians believe a writer can convey a message accurately for God, even of that person is “just a man” IE, fallible and sinful.  Or does she think that the only thing that she would ever consider “accurate” is if God bypassed people totally and took up a pen himself and wrote something?  But now were onto the very different subject of inspiration.  And even if God wrote about the Temple himself, it would be people who would be responsible to copy that and pass the instruction along.  So basically by her logic nothing could be considered trustworthy as revelation.  In fact, by this logic you couldn’t trust any history, not just revelation, because we get all our knowledge of history from…. men!

Maybe you can help her reason backwards from the certain to the less certain.  That there was a Temple is certain (accurate).  That this Temple matters to true Judaism is also certain.  Whether true Judaism is “accurate” in that it expresses God’s actual will for mankind is what she has to decide.  But waving her hand and saying “Temple Judaism is inaccurate because fallible people probably made it up” is just sloppy thinking.

Meanwhile, based on Jesus, we Christians believe Temple Judaism is not inaccurate, it’s just Part I missing its Sequel.