Jewish Fundamentalism

Tisha B'Av: It's Not All About the Temple

Elisheva Goldberg explores the Temple Institute's video, which encourages Jews to rebuild the Temple, aired in anticipation of today’s Jewish fast of Tisha B’Av.

David Silverman / Getty Images

The most recent video produced by the Temple Institute is the second in the "The Children Are Ready" series (the first was controversial for other reasons). The video aired about a week ago, in anticipation of today’s Jewish fast of Tisha B’Av. At first I couldn't put my finger on why I found it so unsettling. And I think the reason is twofold. First: Tisha B’Av, for me, is much less about the Temple and much more about Jewish history. And second, the video is, at its core, fundamentalist.

Let’s start with the second reason. The video depicts Jewish men in synagogue on the eve of the fast of the Ninth of Av, and then cuts to a scene of children playing, with one child standing aside. That child, looking on with a painting of the Temple in the background, then takes a step up and begins to preach and rally others, who stare at him in awe. He then begins doling out tool belts with plastic hammers and wrenches, leaving the viewer with little doubt as to what the kids hope to build. The final scene in the barely two and a half minute clip is of these children coming into the synagogue and dramatically taking prayer-shawl-adorned adult men by the hand, and walking them out the door into a bright, white light. The only words of the clip appear at the end: "The Children Are Ready.”

It took watching the video maybe a dozen times to help me identify what I sensed was unwholesome here: The video feeds and then validates a certain, arguably built-in, messianic urge to be swept up in an End of Days drama where a “house of prayer for all the nations” can finally stand and be a “light to all the nations.”

The sentiment itself isn’t necessarily problematic—a desire for bringing peace and harmony can’t be entirely bad, after all. The thing is, most religious people I know (and excluding certain Members of the Knesset), don't think that the Temple will actually be built. In fact, if you ask them, they'd probably say that they don't really want animal sacrifices to resume or that they're not so keen on going back to a caste hierarchy. But more to the point, most Jews aren't about to try and make that reality come to life. And that's what's creepy about this video. The folks at the Temple Institute want to physically build the Temple—if not today, then tomorrow.

Last July International Director of the Temple Institute Rabbi Chaim Richman, in an interview, gave voice to this sensibility:

You know reality is also subjective—children haven't been taught yet that there are certain things that are impossible … nothing is going to change if we go through this mourning cycle, this rite of mourning, year after year thinking that one day if we're good children the Temple is going to come down from heaven, you know, in a fiery hologram … you know what, miracles of the Jewish people … are the miracles that we bring about—that's how miracles happen.

This is Jewish fundamentalism. If we, as Jews, are to take our Torah, our Bible, at its most literal—this is the logical conclusion: Build the Temple. The argument might go like this: Jews are sovereign, have wealth, and are fully capable of “redeeming” the Temple Mount. In this scenario, Jewish history, they claim, leads not to the mourning of the Holy Temple and the ruin of the Jewish people through the ages, but to the celebration of a new day, a New Jew, and a new Temple—and finally, the fulfilling of an old commandment.

This argument comes from the same kind of religious historicity found primarily in Christian fundamentalism—a sense that, though we may live in modern times (and, after all, the proprietors of the Temple Institute are not ultra-Orthodox; they live in a “modern” context, with both modern language and lifestyle), what is written never changes with those times. The Bible is the same Bible it was for Abraham, Moses, Solomon, and me. Richman, in 2009, said it precisely: “We’re supposed to build the Temple, and nothing about that changed. Nothing about that commandment changed.” Simultaneously, he says, he is “preparing operational blueprints for the construction of the Temple according to the most modern standards.”

I’m not going to argue with these fundamentalists, my fellow Jews (I actually did see a friend of mine as I was browsing through the Temple Institute’s YouTube archive)—not today, not on Tisha B’Av when we all try and avoid baseless hatred (also because it is doubtful that I could convince them). Which brings me to my second reason: There is something profound about living in Jerusalem on this day, perhaps the saddest, most lachrymose day on the Jewish calendar, and it’s not all about the Temple.

Yes, today marks the day on which the Temple was destroyed—twice. But it also goes back to the Bible, commemorating, among others, the sin of the Golden Calf. It is the commencement day of the First Crusade of 1096. It is around the time of decrees expelling Jews from England, France, and Spain in 1290, 1306, and 1492 respectively. It was two days after that date in 1941 that Göring sent a letter to Heydrich instructing him to devise "the solution of the Jewish problem" and the date the mass deportation of 300,000 souls began from the Warsaw Ghetto to the death camp of Treblinka. It is the day before the AMIA bombing in the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, and of course not coincidentally, the day after which Israel began its disengagement from Gaza in 2005 (which is still being used as a political tool).

Tisha B’Av for me can also be about the Temple—but only in the context of Jewish history and not in the context of the modern world. In the modern world, such things will almost certainly lead to tragedy and we will be doomed to go round and round on the axis of history, as if on a carousel we can't get off.