Was the Holocaust the destruction of the third temple?

July 12, 2021 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple

PANGS OF REAL PAIN

The fast of Av marks the destruction of the First and Second Temples; Amos Oz adds a further dimension when he says in allegorical fashion, “The Holocaust was the destruction of the Third Temple”.

All raise the same problem – not only “What happened?” but “How could it have happened?”

If HaShem was the cause of the destruction, how can we call Him a good God? If it was an external enemy, why were we the victims? If our own sins caused the pain, can’t our merits save us?

Rav Soloveitchik says this is not an academic question. The pain was real: cardiac, not conceptual.

Seeking explanations is a hard ask for a people which rarely concerned itself with analytical theology. The Bible does not spell out the Jewish creed. Nor does the Midrash which never reaches a final position but endorses the rabbinic maxim, “What God does, He does for good” (Ber. 60b).

Alright, but why the mystery? Our reason cries out to be used. We are angry, with God, with the enemy, with ourselves. We are angry at two millennia of tragedy, at the Holocaust.

But is anger our only option? A medieval book says, “Anger begins with madness and ends with regret”.

Okay, we are mad, but why the regret? Are we blaming ourselves too much?

Can we posit a Problem of Good against the Problem of Evil? Can we see the good in our universe, and accentuate the positive? Even this is hard. Samuel Alexander says in “Space, Time and Deity”, that there is no clear-cut contrast, but a chaos.

It would be easier if there were simple answers. But we oscillate. Today we are believers, tomorrow rebels and doubters. God is sometimes hard to find. We have days when He seems to play hide-and-seek. We yearn for Him to come out of hiding, ready to sort out the chaos, put to one side the blotches and bring together the blessings.

THE FAST WILL BECOME A FEAST

At some time in the future, there will be changes in Judaism.

The Bible and the rabbis both accept that in time to come some occasions will assume a different shape.

This is not to be taken as an argument for a reform of Jewish belief and practice.

In the days of the Mashi’ach the content of Judaism will remain, though the historical context will change, turning weeping into rejoicing. When that occurs, the fast of Tishah B’Av – for example – will be a yom-tov.

Zechariah says (8:19): “The fast of the fourth month (Tammuz), of the fifth (Av), the seventh (Tishri), and the tenth (Tevet), shall be to the House of Judah joy and gladness”.

TISHAH B’AV HOPES & PRAYERS

The prayers and rituals of Tishah B’Av reflect the tragedies of the past. So much calamity, so much suffering, so much pain.

We thought it was all over and that Zuriel Adamits was right to say, “The final curtain came down on the Exile with the Holocaust followed by the dawn of a new era in Jewish history”.

But memories of the past are again being evoked by the attempts to murder not only Jewish lives but Jewish hopes, and by the resurgent hostility that has caused a wave of antisemitism. It will take time and wisdom, but “gam zeh ya’avor”, this too will pass.

In this mood of hope, some find it strange that on Tishah B’Av afternoon, the traditional Nachem prayer does not acknowledge that Jerusalem has been rebuilt.

Despite some opposition, there have in fact been several attempts to reword the prayer. The best known is probably by Rabbi Shlomo Goren, whose version reads, “Comfort, O Lord, the mourners of Zion and the mourners of Jerusalem, the city that is joyful and exultant, that is no longer despised, no longer desolate but honoured, with its children having returned to redeem it”.

The original text, as well as Rabbi Goren’s version, refers to God consuming and rebuilding the city with fire.

There is a Talmudic discussion about a person who lit a fire which spread from his own field to someone else’s. As he is duty-bound to make restitution for the damage, so, says the Talmud, God declares, “It is My duty to make restitution for the fire that I kindled” (Bava Kamma 60b; cf. Rashi on Ex. 22:5).

Another rabbinic passage says, “They sinned with fire, they were punished with fire, and they will be comforted with fire” (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 129a).

The sin with fire was idolatry (Jer. 7:18). The punishment with fire was the destruction of the Temple (Echah 1:13). The comfort with fire will be God as “a wall of fire round about” (Zech. 2:9).

The theology of this passage is not uncontroversial, but there is comfort in the promise that God will be a protecting wall, echoing the Psalmist’s words, “As the mountains are round about Jerusalem, so is the Lord round about His people now and forever” (Psalm 125:2).

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions

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