By Israel Drazin


                                    Should we attend a House of God?


Maimonides offers a counter-intuitive idea about attending houses of God in his discussion of “uncleanliness,” which most people will reject. But should they do so?

The biblical Hebrew tamei is generally translated “unclean” and “impure.” Priests are told in Leviticus 21:1 to avoid tamei and other Israelites are forbidden to enter the temple when they are tamei. Israelites become tamei by contacting such things as dead human bodies, animals that died of their own accord, eight kinds of creeping animals, lepers, during menstruation, and after discharging semen. Tamei laws only restrict entry into the sanctuary, but no other activity. Therefore, the translations “unclean” and “impure” don’t describe tamei. What is tamei and why were the laws instituted?

Maimonides explains[1] that God has no need for a house of worship, but people feel they need it, “for this reason God allowed these kinds of service to continue.” Once a sanctuary, prayer, and sacrifices were allowed, they had to be regulated to stop people from spending too much time, effort, and expense attending the sanctuary, for there are more important things people should do to stimulate their thinking and improve themselves and society. In addition to restricting entry into the sanctuary, the Torah, wanting to elevate human behavior, makes sure that sanctuary activities shouldn’t be done as pagans do them. Strict rules were instituted about building the sanctuary, only certain animals could be sacrificed and only at certain times.

Maimonides states[2] that the sanctuary should “create in the hearts of those who enter it certain feelings of awe and reverence” and this goal is helped by the tamei rules. “When we continually see an object, however sublime it may be, our regard for that object will be lessened, and the impression we have received of it will be weakened. Our sages, considering this fact, said that we should not enter the temple whenever we liked.” The tamei rules do this. People “can scarcely avoid” coming into contact with an object that makes them tamei. Thus many people are stopped daily “from entering it (the sanctuary) whenever they liked.”[3]

Maimonides’ understanding is radically different from that of most clergy who contend that attending worship services is an important human activity. Maimonides is certainly correct. The phrase “house of God” has misled many people. Even a little thought should reveal that God needs no house and is no more present in a “house of God” than anywhere else. To imagine that people should attend a “house of God” to be near God is foolish. God is not restricted to a single place. And the feelings people think they should have in a “house of God” are feelings they should have everywhere and in everything they do.   

However, we should also recognize that people obtain many benefits from attending their houses of worship, including social benefits and the opportunity to learn.

[1] In his Guide of the Perplexed 3:32.

[2] In 3:47.

[3] Maimonides saw additional values with the tamei rules. They encouraged people to learn to avoid dirt and filthy objects. They also eased the superstitious burdens that pagans imposed because of “uncleanliness” and “impurity.” The biblical tamei laws, as previously stated, only applied to the sanctuary and didn’t affect daily life. In contrast, pagans imposed severe purity burdens. Menstrual women, for example, had to be secluded in a separate house, burn whatever they touch, and people became unclean if they spoke with them or were touched by a wind that blows over them. Many pagans also felt that “whatever is separated from the body, as hair, nail, or blood, is unclean” and makes people touching them unclean, and “whenever a person passes a razor over his skin he must take a bath in running water.”