Monday, January 10, 2011

Adventures in Semantics: "Going to Temple"

Quite frankly, I hate this phrase. Yet people say it to me all the time and will continue to say it, so I have to learn how to live with it. So do you. Most of the time, it simply is not worth the effort to explain to someone who (a) won't even remember and (b) doesn't care.

For those who don't know, why is "temple" such an annoying phrase? From the orthodox perspective (and the conservative one, from what I understand), our position is that the only "temple" is the one with a capital T in Jerusalem that was destroyed and will be rebuilt in the future.

"Temple" was a revolutionary idea created very early in the reform movement. And, to be honest, it's one of the most appropriate positions that the reform movement has ever taken. It's exactly on point with their philosophy. The idea is that since the Second Temple was destroyed in 77 CE, the Temple continues to exist through individual Jews, and the Temple can be recreated wherever those Jews assemble and live Jewishly. From their perspective, it's removing the intermediaries and going straight to G-d. If you like analogies, I think of the Protestant Reformation and the opposition to the authority of the Pope and priests.

Of course, that argument would make you think that the orthodox think that the Temple is necessary today as an intermediary. We don't, though I admit I'm not as well versed with the orthodox arguments as the reform one. However, my personal understanding is that the Temple is someone very specific and irreplaceable (except by another one, of course). I think there is such a difference between the closeness between the Jewish people now and at the time the Temple stood, and that our synagogues can't compare. In essence, I find it presumptuous to compare the two. (Though being mostly vegetarian and a vegetarian/vegan sympathizer, I have my own concerns about how I would feel about the resurrection of animal sacrifices - but that's another discussion for another day.)

As you might imagine, this is difficult to explain to people who don't feel the same way. Certainly more than you would generally like to do in casual conversation. So...I let it slide.

As a side point, I often hear orthodox and reform Jews refer to a "conservative temple." My understanding is that the conservative movement's position is identical to the orthodox position. Therefore, please avoid referring to conservative synagogues as "temples."

Following that tangent, something I don't understand is why, if the orthodox are so opposed in principle to the use of the word "temple," why do they say "reform temple" and "conservative temple"?? Besides not liking it when other people say it, I don't ever use it to refer to other synagogues of any group. Of course, if you hear the word "temple" from an orthodox mouth, you can be almost certain that it was said with a sneer! In that sense, it's very similar to the use of the word "goy" (See Adventures in Semantics: Goy v. Non-Jew).


  1. I grew up Conservative and it wasn't until I started being observant and hanging out with O Jews that I heard that the name 'Temple' was offensive. Temple Israel of Natick MA is conservative and always has been. If you go to the web site and look at the congregation names you;ll see plenty of "Temple this, that, and the other". So I think of this as an Orthodox tic, rather than an O/C one.

  2. How funny, my conservative congregation hated it!

  3. I think it depends on the congregation; and I also think it's a somewhat new issue. (Somewhat new meaning decades, perhaps 50 years). As Larry said, there are many congregations that have Temple in their name and are affliated as conservative. I even did a search on OU and found 6 with "temple" in the name.

    That said, yes, I think it's semantics. Usually "temple" is a Reform-associated term, especially in the "going to temple" phrase but not always. That said, I know Reform Jews that use the phrase "going to shul" which some might view as a term that applies only to Orthodox. Synagogue is always a safe bet, I guess.

  4. I never really heard that it was offensive in convservative and orthodox... It makes sense though.

    I just love that I keep learning things from your blogs. Thanks for the information!!!

  5. I'm undergoing a Conservative conversion (mikvah imminent, in fact), and I never refer to a synagogue as "temple," primarily for the reasons mentioned above. If I talk about my synagogue, it's either "synagogue" or, if I'm feeling particularly heimish, "shul." I've never heard anyone else in my current synagogue refer to it as a "temple" (it's either Congregation Such-and-Such or Such-and-Such Synagogue, as is the other large, Conservative synagogue in the area). Of course, my previous shul does list itself as Temple [Insert Name Here], so go figure. It may be a factor of how traditionally-minded your shul, congregation and/or rabbi are.

    Incidentally, while I'm not an Orthodox convert myself (and don't currently have any intention of becoming one, for a variety of reasons), I love the blog and have been lurking here for a while. You do a great job of explaining the issues converts in general face, and you usually handle denominational issues with a lot of tact and respect, which I appreciate. Yasher koach!