Essays on Judaism

...and thoughts on Torah life

Boruch Clinton

Fixing What Ain't Broke

Under the subtle influence of missionaries, this Jewish college student engaged me in an extended exchange about the Temple's purpose. His primary doubts derived from the idea that atonement for sin could only be achieved through belief in Christianity. I replied that, for a Jew, such belief is neither necessary nor logical.

    How do we atone for our sins if there is no temple? If the temple is destroyed how do we atone for our sins, I have seen where the temple should be, (I've been to Jerusalem), but there is no standing temple, where does God dwell? If we can't sacrifice, what blood atones for our sins?
Atonement through blood? We don't need it. Never did. And don't let anyone tell you otherwise. I'll give you three proofs.

Number one (courtesy of Rabbi S.R. Hirsch):

The tabernacle (mishkan - portable temple used by the Jews for their years in the wilderness and for the first centuries in Israel before the Temple in Jerusalem was built) was erected for the first time on the first day of the first month in the SECOND year after the Jews left Egypt (see Exodus 40; 17). Until that time, obviously, there were no animal or incense offerings (with the one-time exception of the Passover offering in Egypt itself).

The sin of the golden calf took place and was atoned for BEFORE the mishkan was built!!! (as is clear from many verses: the sin occurred the day Moses came down which was 40 days after the giving of the Torah on the 6th day of the 3rd month of the first year; atonement occurred 40 more days after that, see Exodus 32; 30 - 34; 10). The atonement for one of the greatest sins in Jewish history was all wrapped up even before the first drop of "atonement blood" was spilled!

Number two:

If you will carefully read the passages in the Torah describing temple offerings (most of which appear in the first seven chapters of Leviticus) you will find that with one - and only one - exception, ALL offerings come to atone only for accidental sins (eg., you weren't aware that the particular act was sinful). The exception is the guilt offering brought for denying your obligation to testify in court.

So ask the "atonement-through-blood" people how the Jews EVER achieved atonement for any of their intentional sins!

Number three:

The Talmud tells us that, even for those sins whose consequences can be softened by offerings, the act of studying the laws of their particular offerings substitutes for its being brought.

So what, then, is the purpose of temple offerings? Rabbi Hirsch (in his priceless commentary to Chumash - it's available in English but even then requires hard work to understand) goes to great lengths to show how each nuance and law of each type of offering - it's location, time, process etc. - is meant to impress upon the bringer and the observer an aspect of the true Divine plan for humankind. If we bring the offering with our eyes and hearts open to its messages, then we will surely become better, will leave the temple inspired to live up to God's holy mission and will certainly stay far from the sin that brought us there in the first place (although, sin is only one reason for bringing an offering).

That, no doubt, is why studying the laws is akin to bringing the offering: both can have the same effect.

And how do we get atonement? The same way we always did. Repentance, Yom Kippur and, if necessary, personal suffering and eventual death (see the final chapter of the Talmud tractate Yoma).

    I'm still not sure how our sins are atoned for. If the intentional sins are only atoned for on Yom Kippur, what about the rest of the year? How does that make sense, we live in the midst of our sin throughout the whole year except on Yom Kippur, then right after Yom Kippur we sin again. So we are never free from sin, doesn't God in his grace free us from sin?
I'm not sure what "God's grace" is, so I can't discuss whether or not it frees us from sin. But one thing I can say: logic and nature tell us that when one sins, he should be burdened with the consequences for life (and thereafter as well). If a child ignores his father's warning and drinks the nice-looking engine coolant, and then lies dying in his father's arms...he can cry and apologize and ask for forgiveness, but he's going to die anyway. Forgiveness doesn't help to counter nature.

It's an enormously novel idea that repentance and the commitment to change our behaviour (coupled with yom kippur etc) can actually remove the "coolant" from our systems (and prevent the load from building up from year to year)! How could we then demand that, in addition, it should happen every day? It's a great enough kindness to have it once a year!

And by the way, it's not easy (indeed it's very rare), but we have the option of living without sin. Judaism believes emphatically that every single human being is capable of living a complete lifetime without sin. It requires great study, preparation and effort, but it can be done. We're not doomed to sin, it's just that we often choose it.

You asked: "where does God now dwell?" Just where He always did. God is incorporeal (He must be as, by definition, He is infinite and could not possibly be bound by a body of any sort). He isn't in any one place more than any other. To be fair, it is said that God performed "tzimtzum hamakom" - compression of His presence into the particular location of the Temple - but that's only His presence, not His self and anyway, there's nothing "forcing" Him to remain there or to "go somewhere else" if He decides to leave.

    What do you think of Daniel 9? Doesn't that passage tell us when the Messiah will come?
So what if it does? We know that Messiah is coming from many sources but that doesn't point a finger at any particular person. In logical discussions, for a proof to be valid it must be unique: What if I try to prove to you that I'm really god by pointing out that the wall of my office is light blue? It might be true that the wall is light blue (actually, it's some kind of beige), but that could be the product of many particular, that that was the color of the paint chosen by the original owner of the house. The truth of my statement of color doesn't lend any credibility to my claim of divinity, does it? That's because the claim isn't unique. Neither do predictions of a Messianic age validate any one candidacy.

Anyway, in Daniel 12; 4 is says: "And now, Daniel, close the words and seal the book until the time of the end. Many will strive (to understand) and there will be many opinions." Which suggests with some clarity that Daniel was instructed to obscure the details of the prediction of the time of the end. In other words, we'll only know what it meant when it's over.