What Time Is It? Professor Dr. Ari Ackerman on Heschel's Approach to Ritual and Sacrifice


Whether it is the yearly rituals of Passover celebrations or the familiarity of Shabbat rituals each week, Jewish observance creates sanctuaries of time. Dr. Ari Ackerman, Dean of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and Senior Lecturer in Jewish Thought, explores Abraham Joshua Heschel’s concept of architecture of time and how ritual helps create holy spheres in our lives. The accompanying article focuses on Heschel and Moses Maimonides’ differing perspectives on ritual sacrifice:

The Temple, Sacrifices and a Jewish Counter-Tradition

There is no topic that the Torah devotes more space and recounts in more detail than the tabernacle and the sacrifices which are conducted therein. This is due to the deep religious significance that the Bible attributes to this form of divine worship which is also manifest in its account of the establishment of the Temple. The post-Biblical Jewish tradition continues to venerate the single most sacred space with its desire for the renewal of sacrifices in the third Temple. The importance that Jews place on their most significant Holy place also can be seen from the renewed interest in and desire of many Jews to visit the Temple mount.

However, a counter-tradition exists within Judaism which views the worship conducted in the tabernacle and the Temple as a lower form of divine worship which is a result of God’s accommodation to the primitive state of Jews’ conception of God at a particular point in their spiritual development. This counter-tradition has roots in the Bible itself. For example, we read in the Prophets the following verse: “Thus said the Lord: The heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool; Where is the house that ye may build unto Me? And where is the place that may be My resting-place?” (Isaiah 66:1). Isaiah is criticizing those who see the Temple as an abode for God’s presence.

This counter-tradition is expressed even more powerfully and explicitly in the writings of two of the most important Jewish philosophers: Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) and Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972). In the confines of this brief essay, we can only touch briefly upon their reflections on the Temple and its sacrificial order.

Moses Maimonides touches upon the rationale for sacrifices in his philosophic work, The Guide of the Perplexed (3:32). He famously and controversially claims that sacrifices were instituted by God in response to the fact that Jews who were immersed in the Egyptian idolatrous culture could not suddenly abandon them. The deity therefore allowed Jews to continue to sacrifice but they must sacrifice to God rather than to idols. The intention of the commandments though is to gradually wean the Jews from this lower form of worship and replace sacrifices with prayer which is a more elevated form of divine worship.

Abraham Joshua Heschel’s criticism of the over emphasis on sacred space—and the need to cultivate sacred time—appears in his short work, The Sabbath: It Meaning for Modern Man.  In the introduction to the work, he declares:

It is, indeed, a unique occasion at which the distinguished word kadosh is used for the first time: in the Book of Genesis at the end of the story of creation. How extremely significant is the fact that it is applied to time: “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” There is no reference in the record of creation to any object in space that would be endowed with the quality of holiness. This is a radical departure from accustomed religious thinking. The mythical mind would expect that, after heaven and earth have been established, God would create a holy place–a holy mountain or a holy spring–whereupon a sanctuary is to be established. …  It was only after the people had succumbed to the temptation of worshipping a thing, a golden calf, that the erection of a Tabernacle, of holiness in space, was commanded (The Sabbath, pp. 9-10).

Thus, Heschel prioritizes sacred time over sacred space and views the preoccupation with sacred space as part of mythical thinking.

In short, we see that Judaism offers multiple perspectives regarding the valorization of the Temple and sacrifices. There is a strand which sees the loss of worshiping God at the Temple through sacrifices as a problem that should be rectified. But there is another strand which views the shift from Temple and sacrifice to synagogue and prayer as progress.


Dr. Ari Ackerman is Dean of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies Graduate School where he is a lecturer in Jewish Education and philosophy. 

Image Credit: Windows with grid credit Phil Champion

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