It has recently been reported that a group of prominent Israeli rabbis and other public figures, among them some who are considered to be moderates, not extremists, has written a letter to the prime minister urging that he “establish a place of prayer for Jews on the Temple Mount,” which seems to mean to permit the building of a synagogue there. One supporter of this project even wrote in this newspaper that building a synagogue there “will not heighten the Arab-Jewish conflict, it will lessen it.”
Really? The only thing I can think of when reading this is a line from The King and I in which the king says that although “sometimes I think that people are not so bad” there are times when “I think that people going mad.”
Remembering such things as the reaction when Binyamin Netanyanhu opened the tunnel from the Western Wall, what happened when Ariel Sharon went up to the Temple Mount, what happens every time Moshe Feiglin goes there, the difficulties in even repairing the bridge leading up to it, can one seriously believe that we can build a synagogue there and there will be no problems, no riots? That this will reduce friction and not impede in any way peace negotiations or any hope for such negotiations? I am perfectly willing to admit that we have a right to visit there, to pray there, perhaps even to build a synagogue there – although I am not certain what the Jewish reaction would be to Arabs building a mosque in the area of the Western Wall. But what is our right and what is prudent to do at this moment are not the same thing.
Are the Palestinians correct in their opposition to Jews praying there? Of course not – no more than they are correct in their constant reiteration that Jews never had a Temple there against all the evidence, including evidence in their own tradition. Why do they think the Dome of the Rock was built there in the first place, and why did Caliph Omar consult with Jews if not to find the site of the Temple? I’m not sure their leaders really believe what they say on that matter. It’s all part of the political struggle over who gets to control what in this land. But we cannot afford to ignore the context when we consider our actions.
Even if we would build the synagogue there – with all the bloodshed it would involve, can you imagine what would be required to be able to go there and pray? How many soldiers and policemen would it require? Is this the time for another fight over the Temple Mount? Is that the most important problem we face? In our relations with the Palestinians, the most important thing remains the fact that since 1967 we have controlled the lives of millions of them living in the West Bank. This means that for decades significant numbers of them have been living in a situation in which they have little control of their own lives, in which they have no vote and no say in their future.
This is not a situation of our own doing. We did not simply pull a Putin and occupy an adjacent independent state. We entered a defensive war and had Jordan’s King Hussein listened to us, he would not have attacked and his son would today rule over that territory. Nor did we create the refugee problem out of our own initiative.
Had the Arabs accepted the UN partition plan, there would have been no war and no refugees.
All of that is true, but it does not solve our problem, the problem of ruling over another people. Until we free ourselves of that terrible burden, which puts us in moral and ethical dilemmas daily, we ourselves are the ones who will suffer. That is why Sharon pulled out of Gaza and that is why Netanyahu has declared that he supports the two-state solution. Under such a situation anything we do to further aggravate our relations with the Palestinians and with the Arab world is counter- productive.
Thousands of years ago one of the greatest of our Sages, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, taught, “If youngsters tell you, ‘Come, let us build the Temple,’ do not listen to them. If elders tell you, ‘Come, let us destroy the Temple,’ listen to them” (Avot d’Rebbi Natan B 31).
Of course he wanted the Temple to be rebuilt – but he also knew that there is a proper time for everything and one has to have the wisdom to know when to do something and when not to do it. Had people listened to him earlier when he spoke against the Great Revolt, the Temple would not have been destroyed in the first place.
Unfortunately, those who are telling us to build a synagogue on the Temple Mount are not youngsters, but elders who should know better. Hopefully the prime minister will not listen to them, but will do his best to deal with the real problem that has vexed us since 1967: how to maintain a Jewish, democratic state in which we are not faced with the terrible burden of ruling over others. Praying on the Temple Mount can wait until we have accomplished that.
The writer, a rabbinic scholar, lecturer and author, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award and a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly. The opinions expressed are his own.