The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Mikdash in Exile: Discursive Functions of the Temple in Medieval Kabbalah

Medieval kabbalists devote significant attention to the Mikdash, praising its unique qualities and the special role it plays in Jewish life and history. The centrality and sanctity of Jerusalem and the Holy Land is not underplayed in these texts. The sacred center of Jerusalem and the land of Israel, and the importance of sacrifices in the Mikdash, are in many respects only further emphasized in the kabbalistic imagination. At the same time, they were reluctant to regard diasporic Jewish worship as peripheral and ineffectual. In fittingly ironic kabbalistic fashion, the image of the Mikdash became a mechanism for medieval kabbalists in western Europe and throughout the Mediterranean to understand their own, diasporic Jewish life, in their own moment and location, as one that is empowered and infused with meaning. For the kabbalists, the Jerusalem temple became a theosophic as well as geographic location to which Jews had special access. This paper will consider interpretations of the Mikdash in a number of medieval kabbalistic sources, including Isaac of Acre, the Ma’arekhet ha-Elohut, Sefer Pokeah Ivrim, and a number of short anonymous unpublished texts. It will be demonstrated that in these sources, the earthly location of Jerusalem and the Temple is transmuted in the kabbalistic imagination into an enduring and accessible site for the exercise of theurgical power for Jews living in exile.