Towards a Psychological Understanding of the Temple of Jerusalem


According to Jewish tradition, the temple in Jerusalem was built by King Solomon. The Old Testament has it that King David, Solomon's father, received a vision of the temple plan from the Lord but that he was not allowed to build it. The task lay with his son, Solomon. The Bible says that the temple in Jerusalem lasted until it was destroyed by the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar. The Israelites were taken to Babylon as slaves and remained there until the Persian King Cyrus, conquered Babylon and freed the Hebrews and allowed them to return to Jerusalem. Back in Jerusalem, a second temple was built under the guidance of Nehemiah. When the Romans eventually took over Jerusalem, this temple was dismantled and a new and grander one was built under the rule of King Herod. This so-called "Third Temple" remained until the Romans burned it to the ground in the year 79 A.D. The temple has never been rebuilt, and, according to Jewish tradition, there will be a fourth temple, but it will not be built with human hands. The Lord Himself will build it. Even though there is no longer a temple on earth, the temple still exists, in Heaven.

The temple is the home of the Jewish god, the Lord, YHVH. He lives in the very center of the temple. This center is called the "Holy of Holies." The Holy of Holies is surrounded by a series of walls, and each wall has gates. The temple is oriented to the four directions (North, East, South, and West). The plan of the temples was never given in detail, and there is much speculation in Jewish and Christian thought about the exact dimensions.

The temple was the center of the religion and ritual life of the ancient Israelites. In a way, it still is, as the center of Judaism is conceived of as in Jerusalem. Wherever a Jew is in the world, prayers are to be aimed at Jerusalem. In ancient times Jewish men were required to make trips to Jerusalem on a regular basis. They were to bring the best of their crops and herds as gifts to the Lord who lived in the temple. In return for the fulfillment of these duties by the people of Isarel and for the proper care of the temple compound by the Israelite priests, the Lord would protect the Hebrew people and allow them to flourish. To this day Jewish people feel an informal obligation to visit Isarel and to support it financially and emotionally.

Ritual sacrifice ended with the destruction of the third temple, however, before that, temple sacrifice was central to ancient Hebrew religious life. There was an altar in the temple court, and animals, brought by the pilgrims, were sacrificed to the Lord, YHVH. Though it sounds primitive and crude to our modern sensibilities, it seems that the people believed that the Lord ate and enjoyed the food that was killed and cooked for Him. He enjoyed the smell of the smoke of the cooking meat.

Ideas and practices such as these are typical of many native peoples, even though it is difficult for us to understand how anyone could really and truly think these things. But there are many descriptions in the Bible and in post-biblical literature of how the Lord enjoys the smells of the smoke of the cooking meat and of the insense burned for Him. Why else would people present these things to Him if they didn't believe it? He also enjoyed the music sung to Him. And we all know that He is pictured as being like humans in other ways also. He listens to prayers and takes pity on some requests and has no sympathy for others. He gets angry and can act on this anger. At other times, He feels mercy and love and acts on these feelings. On the High Holy Day, Yom Kippur, the Israelite High Priest went into the Holy of Holies and petitioned the Lord to judge his people out of his mercy and not out of his anger.

It is also known that the Lord is creative. He created the world in accordance with His plan or idea. Some ancient sources have Him creating the world from His Place (Makom) which is the same word used for the temple which is also His home. The future temple, given, we are told, to the prophet Ezekiel in a vision, is the center of the universe.

Relevant Psychological Concepts

The psychological analysis of religious experiences

Psychologists look at religious phenomena — religious experiences and belief — as free ground for psychological analysis. This can be done in a reductive manner in which religious phenomena are analyzed as "nothing more than" other experiences we have. For example, it is well-known that Freud saw the belief in an all-powerful God as a disguised memory of the father as seen from the point of view of the helpless child. This is a "nothing but" analysis: The belief in God is nothing but a memory of ones father.

There are also non-reductive psychological analysis of religious experiences and beliefs. I believe that the one I am about to give is a non-reductive analysis. It does not try to judge them or to get rid of the experiences and beliefs but to understand them from a psychological angle. I will not define such an analysis but just go ahead with it. The reader will, I think, see the difference.

The Function of the Imagination

Imagination, as I use it, is an explorative function that brings knowledge (or hints) of the future and the past. To say an experience is imaginary is not to downplay it, though there are times when we mistake imagination for regular reality or put too much faith in it.

Besides our rational and sensual understanding of things, most people are not satisfied until they have an understanding that includes their fantasy ideas. The human body can be measured with rulers and photographed, and blood can be drawn and x-rays and scans made, and this contributes to our knowledge and understanding of the body, including our own bodies. But imaginary experiences of our bodies fill out and enhance our understanding if we take these experiences in the right way. If we take them as the truth and nothing but the truth, this is as much a distortion as if we say we are the sum of our lab tests. But, I think, if we don't include how we imagine our bodies, we do not have a full understanding of ourselves.

To give an example, if we dream we are flying or if we dream our body has expanded to fill the universe or that lights are streaming from us, these are part and parcel of our full understanding of ourselves. It would be a serious mistake (and it could even be a fatal mistake) to think that our bodies literally fill the universe or that we can literally fly. But there is an important place for these ways of experiencing in the economy of our lives.

To put this another way, if we ridicule and push away such formulations of ourselves that occur spontaneously in our dreams and fantasties, we can hurt ourselves.

What I will say, although I don't want it to mislead, is that we all have imaginary bodies and imaginary selves. These bodies and selves are quite different, either much larger and more beautiful and more powerful and freer and more knowledged than our regular bodies, or they are lesser and smaller and more distorted and diseased and grotesque than our regular bodies. An example of the latter is the body of the hero in Kafka's Metamorphoses. Here the narrator wakes up and is a giant insect.

These ways of experiencing ourselves are problems only if we misunderstand them and take them as true, and the only truth, and start talking about them with others as truths. Otherwise they play an important compensatory role in the economy of our psyches.

Imaginary Selves are often Projected out and taken as something outside ourselves

We are parts of reality and are constantly bumping into other parts of reality. Things we thought we could do, it turns out we can't. In the morning, when we wake from our dreams, we may feel god-like, in the evening we don't.

How is this confrontation and interaction understood? As a person gets older and older it becomes more and more clear that the imaginary self is not real. In my dreams I fly, but in reality, I simply can't. Children may believe their dreams. If they fly in their dreams, they may very well try to fly in reality. If they survive their experiments, they learn about the difference between dreams and reality. But, even after learning, in some of our dreams we continue to fly. Even in waking states in which our imaginations are activated, like under a lot of stress or under certain drugs or hypnosis or in some meditative states, we might begin to wonder again, as we did as children, if, possibly, if we tried just right, we could pull it off and fly.

I am not sure how, but I think the idea can begin to develop that, even though we come to realize we can't fly, even though we come to realize that we aren't as big as the universe and that we are not all-powerful, the idea develops that there is something that is (or some things that are). This "thing" or "things" can be so palpable that we see them sometimes, in our dreams, and, sometimes, we may feel we catch a quick glimpse of them in reality. And experiencing them in the outer world somehow becomes interchangeable with dreaming that we ourselves are these creatures. It is a compromise between, on the one hand, the recognition that we are not the selves and bodies of our imaginations and, on the other hand, the imaginary experiences and understandings that we are. The imaginary experiences do not go away, but they are projected out. (Please see Key Concept: Projection.)

It is my thesis that the Israelite temple was the imaginary self, projected out and cared for outside oneself.

Our Analysis

What convinces me that the temple was the collective self of the Hebrew people projected out are three considerations.

First) It is not that the Lord who lived in His temple in Jerusalem has the powers humans have only in their dreams and fantasies. It is that He also has all the human tastes and emotions and needs that we have. He gets angry, takes revenge, feels and shows mercy, plans, acts, creates, eats and enjoys it, smells odors and enjoys them, enjoys music, listens to us, and pretty much thinks, feels, and enjoys pretty nearly everything else we do. He is us, as we appear to ourselves in our imaginations, projected outside ourselves. In feeding Him, in honoring Him, in journeying to Him, in giving our best things to Him, and in praying to Him, we are trying to please and plead with our infinite selves that we find and experience ourselves in the deepest and clearest and best moments of pure imagination — before we get up in the morning and "put on" our ordinary selves and start bumping into reality.

We are the selves described to us by our doctors, by our teachers, by our coaches, by our friends, and that we come to know we are, because we ourselves can experience it directly in our everyday lives, each and every day — unless we are fools. We are these selves, but, at the same time, we aren't. There is a potential for more, for bigger and better and fuller. And it is our imaginations that give us hints of our future possibilities and potentials in the only way it knows how.

Second) For people who go into the world full-force, who risk themselves and their self-concepts to pursue their goals, who receive the so-called "hard knocks" after "putting themselves on the line," and who fail as well as succeed — is that all there is to it? It seems that there are forces within us that pull us from all this "reality" and make us float free into a peaceful, even heavenly place where everything is easy and wonderful and relaxed and safe. Perhaps we need this, our bodies needs this. It is similar to the process in which a protective scab grows over a wound to allow a healing process to go on deep inside and underneath. The scab is not a cure-all and does not protect the person from all future wounds. It is not a sign that the person is, or could become, invulnerable. It is simply a necessary part of a process that gives a person a fighting chance when he or she goes out again to fight another battle in which he or she will, almost certainly, receive new wounds, even when there are victories.

Third) When the physical temple was destroyed, the temple persisted. It was said to continue to exist in the Heavens. To the psychologist, the translation is obvious: It continued to exist in our imaginations. And even now, in our modern, scientific, skeptical, rationalistic age, it continues. Where? In psychology. We now think that the temple existed and exists in our selves, in our imaginations. And I do not mean this as a reductionistic analysis. (For a discussion of the history of the temple image and its place in Jewish psychology, please see A Psychological Study of the Mandala in Early Jewish Holy Literature.)

This analysis is not about gods but about people. It is to say that our conceptions of Him, if he does exist, even our grandest and most sacred conceptions and images of Him, are still our conceptions and our images. It seems to me that if we stand and aim ourselves in the direction of Jerusalem (or any other place) and say to ourselves, "The Lord lives there!" (or even "lived" there at one time), we are pinning the Lord down. We are implying to ourselves that He is not behind us, for example, or to the right or left, and that he is not here, wherever we are.