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Light from the Sidra

Vayak'hel ('When you take a census...'). 21 February 2014. 22 Adar 5774

Torah: 35:1-38:20. Haftarah: 1 Kings 7:40-50.

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)

Reinventing Judaism

After the death of Menachem Mendel Schneerson in the mid 1990s I went to hear one of his shlichim, or ambassadors, answer questions from a Jewish audience in a North London synagogue. A Jewish questioner felt that Judaism needed to change its image and its way of worship in order to be more relevant and attract young people. Politely but firmly, the Rebbe’s ambassador explained that we are not at liberty to choose how we worship HASHEM. We truly worship God only if we do it in the way he prescribes.

While I admired the rabbi for sticking to his guns, I couldn’t help but wonder if he understood the implications of his answer because Judaism today worships God in a way God has not authorised.

The synagogue reading this week reviews the pattern of the Tabernacle and records the manufacture of the various pieces of furniture as well as the Mishkan itself. The Mishkan, or Tabernacle, was constructed according to the pattern revealed to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. In the reign of Solomon, the tabernacle would become the temple but the principles governing the worship of God remained unchanged. In the temple, God would still be approached via the altar of sacrifice and atonement was made through specific sacrifices offered on the altar. The altar, the bronze bath, the table of the bread of the presence, the menorah and the altar of incense, all had to be laid out in the pattern of a cross.

After the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai reinvented Judaism. Without the temple, the sacrifices and the priesthood, Judaism could not survive but Rabbi Yochanan ensured the survival of Judaism by changing it. According to Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers) 1:2, ‘Simon the Just [who] was one of the last survivors of the Great Synagogue . . . used to say, Upon three things the world is based: upon the Torah, upon the Temple service [of which atoning sacrifice was an integral part] and upon the practice of charity.’

The destruction of the Temple removed Judaism’s central pillar and repentance became a substitute for sacrifice. Consequently, ‘biblical’ Judaism became ‘rabbinic’ Judaism. However Jewish people might try to explain away the change and defend it, Judaism today bears little resemblance to the religion of Moses and the prophets.

Some Jewish people respond by pointing out that Christianity has no tabernacle or sacrifice either. Even if that claim were true, it would not justify the changing of Judaism; it would just mean that Judaism and Christianity were two boats up the same creek without paddles.

In the next Light From The Sidra post I will show that there was no need for Rabbi Yochanan to change Judaism because, even though the Jerusalem Temple had been destroyed, the reality it symbolised was even more firmly in place.


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