Image via Flickr/​Den­nis Jarvis

Ruby Nam­dar is the author of the nov­el The Ruined House, out tomor­row from Harp­er Books. He will be blog­ging here all week as part of the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe Series.

The Holy Tem­ple in Jerusalem, what a for­mi­da­ble and allur­ing sym­bol! Yet for me, like for so many of my fel­low con­tem­po­rary Jews, the imme­di­ate reac­tion to any men­tion of the Holy Tem­ple used to be one of alien­ation. The notion of the Tem­ple — with its priest­ly prac­tices, ani­mal sac­ri­fices, and incense burn­ing rit­u­als — felt to me to be for­eign and archa­ic. It seemed almost pagan, and cer­tain­ly not Jew­ish.”

There are many rea­sons for this reac­tion, some more obvi­ous, oth­ers less so. For many Amer­i­can Jews raised in the Reform tra­di­tion, the Tem­ple was an absent sym­bol, removed from the litur­gy in 1818 in order to mod­ern­ize” Judaism and make it more palat­able for the Ger­man Jews who took their reli­gious and cul­tur­al cues from their Chris­t­ian sur­round­ings. For those who, like myself, grew up in Israel, there was a com­plex­i­ty of a dif­fer­ent kind: the absent Tem­ple, replaced by the Mus­lim Haram al-Sharif com­pound with its famous gold­en dome, became the cen­ter of the mes­sian­ic obses­sion of reli­gious right wing groups that call for its recon­struc­tion and the renew­al of its priest­ly prac­tices. Talk­ing, writ­ing, and even think­ing about the Tem­ple was viewed as a loaded polit­i­cal act instead of a cul­tur­al gesture.

Many of us are unaware of how cen­tral the mem­o­ry of the ruined Tem­ple and the yearn­ful fan­ta­sy of its rebuild­ing were to our ances­tors’ Jew­ish con­scious­ness. The destruc­tion of the sec­ond Tem­ple by the Romans in the year 70 CE was a for­ma­tive moment in the col­lec­tive Jew­ish mind, a trau­ma that we’ve nev­er real­ly healed from. The Tem­ple sym­bol­ized a gold­en era of inno­cence, of whole­ness, that we have not expe­ri­enced since its destruc­tion. It wasn’t only the falling out of grace with God, the loss of the sense of Cho­sen­ness — it was also the loss of the phys­i­cal, sen­su­ous ele­ments of our faith and cul­ture, and mak­ing do with mere words instead.

One of the most impor­tant ele­ments of the Tem­ple was its immense beau­ty: He who has not seen the Tem­ple in its full con­struc­tion has nev­er seen a glo­ri­ous build­ing in his life,” says the Tal­mud, elab­o­rat­ing on the mag­nif­i­cent col­ors of the fine mar­ble with which King Herod built it. Some rab­bis state that it was built of yel­low and white mar­ble. Oth­ers say yel­low, blue and white mar­ble. Accord­ing to the Tal­mud, Herod intend­ed at first to over­lay it with gold, but the Rab­bis told him, Leave it alone for it is more beau­ti­ful as it is, since it has the appear­ance of the waves of the sea.” Oth­er parts of the Tal­mud tell of the mag­i­cal fruit bear­ing trees made of pure gold that were plant­ed in the first Tem­ple by King Solomon and would mirac­u­lous­ly yield their fruit every sea­son. My favorite parts are the Tal­mu­dic dis­cus­sions of the priest­ly gar­ments; a sto­ry is told about a cer­tain High Priest whose moth­er made for him a fine linen tunic worth the enor­mous sum of twen­ty thou­sand minahs. Once this gar­ment was ready his fel­low priests would not suf­fer him to put it on because he looked naked in it, his bare flesh shin­ing through the fine mate­r­i­al as wine shines through a glass goblet.

It was that leg­endary beau­ty that cap­ti­vat­ed my imag­i­na­tion and allowed me to stop being afraid to touch this potent cul­tur­al sym­bol, and to embrace the Holy Tem­ple as a vibrant source of artis­tic inspi­ra­tion. As a writer, my imag­i­na­tion is ignit­ed by descrip­tions of immense beau­ty, rich­es, excess, and the very intrigu­ing mix­ture of deca­dence and holi­ness, cor­rup­tion and piety. The more I learned about the Tem­ple from Tal­mu­dic and Midrashic sto­ries as well as from the work of ancient his­to­ri­ans such as Flav­ius Jose­phus, the more drawn I became to its strange and won­der­ful atmos­phere. The grandeur, the pageantry, the obses­sive atten­tion to detail and aes­thet­ics, were all so dif­fer­ent — and refresh­ing­ly so, I may add — from what I knew as Judaism. This sym­bol became even more vivid for me when I start­ed writ­ing my nov­el The Ruined House, which describes a year in the life of Pro­fes­sor Andrew Cohen — a charm­ing, suc­cess­ful and total­ly sec­u­lar New York Jew­ish man — who’s going through a severe cri­sis and begins to see visions from the Holy Tem­ple with­out under­stand­ing what he sees and why he sees it. For me, noth­ing could be more cre­ative­ly inspir­ing than the ten­sion between our mod­ern, sec­u­lar, and intel­lec­tu­al exis­tence, embod­ied by Pro­fes­sor Andrew Cohen, and our ancient col­lec­tive mem­o­ry, embod­ied by the absent Tem­ple and its mys­te­ri­ous rites and practices.

Ruby Nam­dar’s first nov­el The Ruined House won Israel’s high­est lit­er­ary award, the Sapir Prize. He lives in Man­hat­tan with his wife and two daughters.