I once spent a surrealistic couple of hours with David Elboim, an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem carpenter who’d spent years learning how to weave so he could handcraft the proper garments for priests to wear in a rebuilt Temple while performing sacrifices. In those days, working on my book, The End of Days, I was spending my days interviewing extremists of all three monotheistic faiths who agreed that the End was nigh, and disagreed only on who would be redeemed and who doomed when it came. (“My father is a squirrel,” my son used to say, “he collects nuts.”)
At first glance, Elboim resembled members of the South Pacific cargo cults, who believed that if they built runways, planes would land bearing riches. Elboim seemed to believe that if all the proper utensils and garments were made for the Temple, it would arrive, that it would necessarily be built, right where it belonged, and all would be right with the world.
But Elboim claimed credit for inspiring Yisrael Ariel to open his Temple Institute in the Old City. Ariel is one of the most extreme figures in Israel’s messianic religious right, a one-time defender of the Jewish terror underground of the 1980s, who ran for Knesset on Meir Kahane’s racist ticket. The Institute has created many more of the implements for restoring the ancient Judaism of Temple and sacrifice. Thousands of tourists and schoolchildren visit the Institute’s exhibition of these objects, in an “educational” effort aimed at convincing Jews to build a Temple precisely where the Dome of the Rock now stands. This is education for conflict over the world’s most contested holy site.
Now the Institute has moved up to machine production of priestly garments. My colleague Matti Friedman has written a good piece for AP, explaining why this is an unusually dangerous fashion effort. (Honestly, I’d think it was worth reading even if he hadn’t quoted me.) Ha’aretz’s Nadav Shragai also wrote about the new twist on the rag trade. As usual, Shragai is entirely excited and positive – about priestly garments, about efforts to produce a red heifer through genetic engineering, about raising boys in a special compound kept ritually pure for 13 years, cut off from the world, so they could sacrifice the red heifer as the first step toward building the Temple. Shragai isn’t just a reporter on the cargo cult beat, he’s a believer.
So, apparently, is Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat. The online version of Shragai’s article doesn’t include the picture from the print edition of Riskin being fitted for priestly garments. Riskin, the chief rabbi of Efrat (a.k.a. Occupied Scarsdale), acts like a rabbinic Zelig. I’ve heard him speaking to a liberal group from the U.S., sounding like the embodiment of political moderation, explaining how he only established his community in the West Bank because then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin told him it was kosher. And I’ve seen him in front of a convention of the radical right Temple movement, explaining why his status as kohen, member of the priestly class, is so important to him, stoking up an audience that wants to erase the Muslim shrines yesterday. A man who can play any crowd.
I suspect Riskin can play all these parts because he hasn’t spent much time working out the contradictions between the various things he believes and feels. He can be a romantic nationalist believing in the Whole Land and the in over-ripe grandiose ritual of the Temple, and a modern Orthodox rabbi who believes in the intellect, in human equality, in a certain measure of Orthodox feminism. The crowd tells him which side to play.
But the pieces can’t fit together. The destruction of the Temple, remembered as a disaster because of the immense human cost of a war and the painful change in the shape of a religion, was the mid-point of Judaism transforming itself – from a religion of sacrifice, of a hereditary and politically corrupted priestly class, and of a God tied to worship in one place, to a religion of study and prayer, open to everyone, capable of being practiced anywhere, a faith of the mind rather than of sacrificial knives and lamb guts.
Judaism preserved the memory of the old way, because religions change by insisting on their loyalty to the unchanged past. On the surface, prayers for restoration of the Temple expressed hope for return to the past. Underneath, they buried that past by mumifying it as words. Prayers for the Temple legitimized prayer in place of Temple. Study of sacrifices legitimated study. They represent synthesis, the pinnacle of a Hegelian dialectic in which Temple Judaism was the thesis and rabbinic Judaism the antithesis.
Except that Hegel didn’t realize that the dialect can come unzipped, that it can be ripped apart, that sometimes when confronted by a complicated world, people will try to go back to something simpler even if it needed to be left behind. The cargo cult is politically dangerous and religiously absurd. Riskin, a rabbi, a representative of the Judaism of the mind, should know better than to want to hold a sacrificial blade in the Temple of Doom.