Monday, July 20, 2009

The Altar: Before and After

On the one hand, we have Deuteronomy promising us that the Altar (and thus the Temple) will be "in the place that will be chosen [by God]". On the other hand, the Rambam tells us, in the Laws of the Temple 2:1, that the location of the Altar is very intentional (mechaven beyoter), and that it never changes, for which the prooftext is that the Akeidah (Binding of Isaac) was performed in the land of Moriah, and that the Temple was built on Mount Moriah. So which is it? Is Moriah no more or less important than any other location that could have been chosen (which is the simple meaning of the verses), or is it predestined to be the location of the Altar, as seems to be implied by the Binding of Isaac, and countless other stories of offerings made there: Adam, and Cain and Abel, and Jacob's dream, etc.?

The late Lubavitcher Rebbe makes a diyuk (close reading) in the Rambam that resolves the question. When Rambam says "it never changes location," he's literally saying "we never change its location". That is, as long as it was not chosen, it wasn't special, but once God chose it, it became permanently holy and its location cannot change from then on. So what about all the ancestors who used the location for offerings? They knew, through prophecy, that this location would be chosen for the Altar, so they figured it was a propitious location for themselves. Thus, causality is preserved.

This demonstrates an important theological point, one that the late Rebbe probably would not have agreed with, as it doesn't proceed from a Lubavitch panentheism.

This understanding of Rambam demonstrates that God is outside of time (and space). For God, all of Time is an instant, simultaneous. For us, time is linear. We experience events one after the other, and only memory (for most of us) and prophecy (for the very rare few) allow us to see beyond the now.

Consider God as a line, and the universe as a circle. God chooses the place of the Altar in His timeless moment, the eternal Now. The universe is a wheel rolling along the line. C. some date around 970 BCE, God chooses Mt Moriah as the site of the Temple and Altar. At that point in time, some point on the wheel is tangent to the line of timeless time. That point of tangent contact is what we experience as the moment of choice. But that choice reverberates up and down the circumference of the wheel, enabling prophets to pick up on it.

So yes, the Place is chosen once in Time. But prophets, attuned to the vibrations of the Universe and God's effect thereon, pick up on that moment of choice ahead of time, and realize that this is an auspicious place to make offerings. God, outside of Time, affects all of us in Time by His choice, and His Prophets up and down the line. Causality, from our perspective is preserved, yet the prooftexts are also true - that the place was used in the past for offerings, yet that fact did not cause the place to be chosen.

May the chosen moment of our final Redemption be felt speedily in our days.

(P.S.: pls excuse the railfan metaphor)


Anonymous said...

thanbo, the verse in Deuteronomy can easily be read as referring to the general location of the mishkan/temple, not to the precise location of the outside altar. Indeed, the Rambam's insistence on a precise location of that altar runs into some historical problems. The first permanent location of the mishkan was in Shilo, not J'lem. J'lem was chosen by David decades after the destruction of the Shilo edifice. The altar at Shilo was the copper- clad wooden 5x5x3 amot one built by Bezalel under Moshe's direction (according to the literal understanding of the words in Exodus). In the 1st temple, Shlomo had a stone altar built in the courtyard (azara) that was 20x20x10 amot. The one built by the returnees from the Babylonian exile was 30x30x10 amot. The placement of the altars also differed. Bezalel's altar would, presumably, have been located at the level of the heichal building in the portico (ulam). The stone altars were, in contrast, in the courtyard 6 amot below that level. Moreover, there is a 3-way dispute among tana'im as to the precise location of the center of the altar with respect to the midpoint of the heichal, i.e. displaced to the north, south, or precisely aligned. All of this mitigates against the Rambam's thesis.

None of the above is meant to imply that an altar can be built without instruction from a certified prophet. The verse in Exodus has GOD telling Moshe, "According to all that I show you, the form of the mishkan and the form of all its vessels, and so shall you do." Rashi understands the last phrase to mean, "so shall you do in the future". The Chatam Sofer defends Rashi against an obvious historical objection raised by the Ramban and states "so shall you do" refers to following the instructions of a prophet.

Speedily in our days,

Y. Aharon

Anonymous said...

I believe your point about G-d's timelessness and how it relates to a time-bound world is very consonant with Chabad theology. A similar point is made in the beginning of the Shulchan Aruch of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi.