"This is the law of the burnt offering, of the cereal offering, of the sin offering, of the guilt offering, of the consecration, and of the peace offerings, which the Lord commanded Moses on Mount Sinai, on the day that he commanded the people of Israel to bring their offerings to the Lord, in the wilderness of Sinai."
One of the exciting intellectual challenges facing modern, traditional-minded Jews is our response to the substantial parts of Leviticus that are dedicated to the bringing of animal sacrifices to the Sanctuary as part of the sacral service and spiritual transcendence.
One of the interesting examples of the modern attempt to confront this issue is related to the founding of the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, opposite the Temple Mount, and the spiritual ideas that accompanied the building of the campus on that particular site.
In 1913, the Zionist Congress discussed the establishing of the Hebrew University. On one hand, the creation of a university answered a functional academic need, particularly in light of the restrictions placed upon the admission of Jewish students to European universities. On the other hand, the desire to establish the university in Jerusalem expressed a symbolic national need.
The two central figures that addressed the issue spoke in similar terms.
Menachem Ussishkin, one of the leaders of Hovevei Zion and later the president of the Jewish National Fund, stated in his speech to the Congress in August 1913:
"…on the ninth of Av this year, we mark two thousand five hundred years since the foe and enemy came to the holy place and destroyed our Temple … Two thousand five hundred years ago, our national temple – God’s Sanctuary on Mount Moriah - was destroyed. Now we come full of faith and hope to build a new national temple, the sanctuary of wisdom and science on Mount Zion…"
Chaim Weizmann, president of the Zionist Organization, was of two minds in regard to the address he was to deliver on this subject. In a letter two his wife Vera, he confided some of his doubts:
"…I feel a sense of great responsibility in regard to the address that I must prepare for the Congress…While it is true that the Hebrew University and the Tomb of Jesus can hardly dwell under one roof, we cannot relinquish Jerusalem. We must take the risk! This is the only motto that, I believe, can resonate: “The Hebrew University – Die Zionsuniversität auf dem Berg Zion (The Univeristy of Zion on Mount Zion) – the Third Temple!”
'New national temple'
There are two salient common threads to these statements. One is that the university will rise on the heights “of Mount Zion,” and the second that it will be a “new national temple” or “Third Temple.”
Ultimately, the university was built atop Mount Scopus, and many continued to portray it as a “new temple” in speeches, ceremonies, and architecture. On the day of its inauguration, even the newspaper headlines quoted Isaiah 2:2: “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it.”
But why did a modern nationalist movement turn to the imagery of a purely religious institution – the Temple – to reinforce public consciousness in regard to its modern institutions? And why was it the university in Jerusalem that warranted metaphoric comparison to the most elevated religious institution (and perhaps more than mere comparison?), rather than the legislature or the Supreme Court?
The answer is complex, but it would appear that one of the sources may lie in Midrash Tanhuma on the verse with which we began. The verse reads: zot ha-torah la-olah la-minha ve-la-hatat ve-la-asham ve-la-milu’im u-la-zevah ha-shelamim – “This is the law of the burnt offering, of the cereal offering, of the sin offering, of the guilt offering, of the offering of consecration, and of the peace offerings.”
The midrash, however, understands the preposition la as a separate word meaning “no”, thus rendering the verse: zot ha-torah la olah la minha ve-la hatat ve-la asham ve-la milu’im u-la zevah ha-shelamim – “This is the law (Torah): Not burnt offering, not cereal offering, not sin offering, not guilt offering, not the offering of consecration, and not the peace offerings.”
In other words, as opposed to the approach that views prayer as a mere substitute to compensate for the loss of the sacrifices, the midrash appears to reject sacrifices in favor of a preferred alternative.
This idea was developed by some of the more innovative Jewish thinkers, like Maimonides and Rabbi Kook, who were not always understood by the general public. Similarly, those engaged in the national enlightenment movement connected the “Torah” of the modern temple of knowledge with the Torah of the Temple of old in their efforts to give modern Jewish cultural significance to their pioneering efforts.
Dr. Yair Paz is the head of the Land of Israel Studies track at the Schechter Institute