Tonight at sundown we Jews mark Tisha b’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. This is the day on which the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, first in 586 BCE and again in 70 CE. This is a fast day for us, and a day for reading the Book of Lamentations. It is also the day on which the Messiah is to be born.
Tisha b’Av isn’t one of my favorite holy days. I have never been a fan of the Temple. As a vegetarian, I just don’t see how the slaughter of bulls improves my standing with God. And while it is cool that out of the ashes of the Temple rises the phoenix of messianic hope, it is too easy to focus on the latter at the expense of the former.
Just think what would have happened if the Temple had not fallen, at least not the second time? Imagine the Jews were never exiled and that Judea survived as a province of Rome. Imagine that the Temple survived along with the priesthood and animal sacrifice. What would Judaism be like today?
Sure the Pharisees would have continued to challenge the Sadducees and priests for the hearts and minds of the people, but even they couldn’t call for an end to sacrifice. The Torah makes it clear that God loves barbeque. And even though the prophets try to give a different image of God, one in which God is sickened by the stench of burning bull, and demands justice and compassion rather that literal blood and guts, the God of sacrifice continued to rule the minds of the people as long as the Temple stood. Today traditional Jews continue to recount the rules of sacrifice and pray for its return on a daily basis, suggesting that if the Pharisees couldn’t defeat the priests and the Temple after the Romans did away with both, they would have failed to do away with the Temple on their own.
If the Temple had not fallen and the exile had not happened, would Judaism be a sacrificial religion more or less tied to the Temple in Jerusalem? Maybe not. With the conversion of the Roman Empire into the Holy Roman Empire under Constantine and with the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire the survival of the Temple would have been a huge challenge to the claim that Christianity supersedes Judaism. Perhaps the Christian rulers of Rome would have destroyed the Temple and scattered the Jews as a sign that they and they alone are the heirs to God’s favor.
Or, if that didn’t happen, what would the Islamic empire do when they took Jerusalem? Would they allow the Temple to stand? Probably not, the sacrificial cult would be offense to them, and hearken back to a pre-Islamic paganism that was anathema to Allah.
So, one way or another, the Temple would have ceased to function, and without sacrifice the complex would have fallen into disuse, perhaps sold to a developer to be turned into a mall or a mosque. But maybe not, maybe something else might have happened that would have allowed Jews to remain bullish for sacrifice. How long would it be before the Jews themselves simply gave the practice up? Or would they? Santeria worshippers continue to practice animal sacrifice, so why not the Jews?
Truth is, the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jews probably saved us. Without the Temple and its sacrificial cult we had to invent a more portable way to be Jewish. Without a homeland where we could be rounded up and slaughtered, we could be hunted but never fully annihilated.
So what shall we do with Tisha b’Av this week? Fast and pray if you like. But take some time to think about our history and how we survived, and ask yourself what is ultimately in our best interest: centralization or dispersion, sacrifice or study?