The Temple & its Destruction

A look into the psyche of ancient Judaism.

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The exhaustion from all-out sacrifice of lives and fighting in vain was in itself debilitating, but the religious crisis was even worse. God's own sanctuary, restored after the return to Zion in the sixth century B.C.E., the symbol of the unbroken covenant of Israel and God, was destroyed. This cast doubt on the very relationship of the people and their Lord. Had God rejected the covenant with Israel?

The Focal Point of Jewish Worship

The Temple was central to Jewish religious life in a way that is hard to recapture today. Many Jews believed that sin itself could be overcome only by bringing a sin offering in the Temple. Without such forgiveness, the sinner was condemned to alienation from God, which is equivalent to estrangement from valid existence. But the channel of sacrifice was now cut off.

For many Jews, the whole experience of Judaism was sacramental. The Priests served; the ignorant masses watched; their religious lives were illuminated only by those extraordinary moments when multitudes gathered in Jerusalem. There, in the awe of a Paschal sacrifice or at the Yom Kippur atonement ritual, they felt an emanation of divine force that showered grace and blessing on the people and made the Lord's power a stunning presence. For these people, after the destruction there was only emptiness.

Responses to the Destruction

The majority of the Jews refused to quit. One element in this community reacted with overwhelming despair. The Talmud speaks of "mourners of Zion"who would neither eat meat nor drink wine. They rejected any possibility of normal life and chose not to marry or have children. Simple human activities--having a child, getting married, doing acts of kindness in a community--are sustained only by enormous levels of faith and life affirmation, and trust in ultimate meaning. Considering the tragedy and the threat that still hung over the Jewish community, these people felt they simply could not go on with life as usual. Yet by refusing to live normally, they harnessed despair into a force for action: to make an all-out effort to restore the Temple. Only rebuilding the sanctuary could reduce the terrible angst and restore life to normal.

The two major remaining sects, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, shared a common conviction that the Temple must be rebuilt, although the Sadducees, who included the court nobility and priests, were particularly unable to envision Judaism without a Temple. This consensus drove people to drastic action. In the years 115 to 117 C.E., there were widespread rebellions by Diaspora Jewry, which were bloodily suppressed.

In 132 C.E., the remaining population of Judea revolted, led by Simon Bar Kokhba. But again, the overwhelming might of Rome was brought to bear. Bar Kokhba and his troops were destroyed, and the remaining population of Judea was deported. With this defeat, hopes for an immediate restoration of the Temple were set back indefinitely.

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Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg was the president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and founding president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He also is the author of For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity (2004, Jewish Publication Society).