As points of religious contention go, the current status of the Temple Mount is one of the most potentially explosive issues for competing faiths anywhere in the world.

For Jews, it is the holiest place on Earth, from where the world was created, the site of the Binding of Isaac and the location of the First and Second Temples.

For Muslims too, al-Haram al-Sharif (noble sanctuary), has become a crucial place of worship and pilgrimage, where there stands a monumental shrine – the Dome of the Rock – and the al-Aqsa Mosque, a site of great importance in Islam.

This reality, combined with the Temple Mount’s physical location at the heart of contested territory, has given it a unique geopolitical combustibility not to be found anywhere else on the planet.

Ariel Sharon’s visit to the site in September 2000 prompted large-scale riots that eventually escalated into what became the second Palestinian intifada.

In 1969, a fire started in the al-Aqsa mosque by a mentally unstable Christian evangelical from Australia caused extensive damage and led to mass demonstrations in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. The event was also one of the motivating factors in the creation in 1969 of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, an international body devoted to safeguarding Muslim interests.

But inter-religious and political concerns aside, there is another, less prominent but nevertheless bitter dispute currently being waged, this one between different Orthodox Jewish groups regarding the permissibility of going up to Judaism’s holiest site.

The divisions among different rabbinic leaders are sharp; some outlaw ascent to the Temple Mount in absolute terms on pain of spiritual excommunication; others see the refusal to go up and insist on the Jewish right to pray at the site as a deviation from Torah law.

And although access for Jewish Israelis (and foreign tourists) is currently subject to tightly restricted, time-limited slots, this has not impeded the prosecution of a tough war of words and a struggle over the contested battleground of what is and is not permitted according to Jewish law.

FOLLOWING Israel’s conquest of east Jerusalem in 1967, the Israeli government allowed a Jordanian Islamic Wakf (religious trust), which had traditionally administered the Temple Mount complex, to continue to do so, despite the historical and religious importance of the site in Judaism.

Additionally, current Israeli law stipulates that Jews and other non-Muslims may not pray on the Temple Mount because of tensions this may cause, and supervisors from the Wakf follow visiting groups to ensure that they do not pray or conduct any visible form of worship But despite these restrictions, there is a small, committed contingent of devout Jews who visit the Temple Mount regularly, deny that doing so is not permissible under Jewish law and campaign actively for Jews to visit in greater numbers.

It is a widely held belief that Jews today are forbidden from going to the site of the Temple because of ritual impurity caused by contact with the dead.

Should someone contract this status – and it is hard to avoid – Jewish law prohibits entry to certain parts of the Temple Mount on pain of spiritual excommunication.

The religious establishment, principally the Chief Rabbinate, is keen to reinforce this notion. In April, for the second time in two months, the Chief Rabbinate issued a notice reiterating the stance of chief rabbis Shlomo Amar and Yona Metzger, as well as numerous other senior rabbinical figures such as Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, that it is completely forbidden according to Jewish law to visit the Temple Mount.

But for many others, the ban is an affront to their religious sensibilities. Rabbi Chaim Richman of the Temple Institute is one such person who fervently and passionately believes not only in the permissibility of ascending to the Temple Mount but that there is an obligation to do so, and to pray there.

“This is the holiest place in the world and the only true holy site in Judaism,” Richman told The Jerusalem Post. “We have a natural, healthy desire to be seen by God on the Temple Mount, and there is something very, very, wrong with rabbis who want to cauterize the natural well-spring of feeling and dedication Jews have for this place.”

Politicians from the Israeli Right are also eager to assert Jewish rights to and sovereignty over the Temple Mount. National Union MKs Arye Eldad and Uri Ariel visited the Temple Mount in December and Likud MK Danny Danon, who has also visited in recent times, is another advocate of Jewish rights at the site.

“The time has come for the government to exercise its sovereignty over the holiest spot in the Jewish religion,” Ariel said after his recent visit.

According to Richman and other notable rabbis, both past and present, concerns about stepping in the wrong place on the Temple Mount are unfounded.

Maimonides, for example, is known to have gone up to the Temple Mount in 1166 during a pilgrimage he made from Egypt to Israel. He wrote a brief letter about his experience, vowing to commemorate the date, the sixth of the Jewish month of Cheshvan, as a special holiday.

Richman cites David Ben-Zimra, a 15th-century rabbi from Spain who lived intermittently in Safed, Jerusalem, Fez and Cairo, and who wrote a responsa detailing the site of the Holy of Holies, which is strictly off-limits halachically, as well as areas where he said that it is permissible to visit. Moshe Feinstein as well, one of the most respected arbiters of Jewish law in the last 60 years, wrote of an “established tradition from the earliest sages, that it is permitted to visit [the site].”

There are also various historical sources that illustrate how Jews were accustomed to go up to the Temple Mount following the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. One of the most famous such sources is a recounting in the Talmud of a story that occurred after the destruction, when several of the most prominent sages of the time, including Rabbi Akiva, went up to the Temple Mount. All of them began to cry over the ruins, the Talmud relates, when they saw a fox running over the Holy of Holies, but Rabbi Akiva laughed, seeing in the experience the fulfillment of one prophecy and thereby expecting the future of fulfillment of the Temple’s restoration.

Other historical accounts also testify to Jews visiting the site, and even the presence of a synagogue in the early Muslim era until the 11th century.

SO IF the historic evidence is so compelling why is the rabbinate so adamant that Jews must not visit the Temple Mount? The rabbi of the Western Wall complex, Shmuel Rabinovitch, who has endorsed the ban on visiting the site, says that despite the opinions and historical evidence cited by those in favor, many of today’s leading and most authoritative Torah scholars nevertheless continue to prohibit such activity.

He told the Post that Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the most respected authority on Jewish law today, personally spoke with him about the importance of doing everything possible to prevent Jews from setting foot on the site.

“Does Rabbi Elyashiv not know the [opinions of] Rambam [Maimonides], the Radbaz [David Ben Zimra] and these other arguments?” he asked rhetorically.

“Did [the late] Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Aurbach, who also prohibited it, not know them?” Rabinovitch continued, proceeding to reel off a long list of other prominent scholars all banning Jews from visiting the Temple Mount.

Rabinovtich himself is reluctant to enter into the specific laws, details and debates surrounding the issue, sufficing to rely on the rulings of the abovementioned rabbis instead of listening to what he would consider less authoritative opinions.

But Rabbi Ratzon Arusi, municipal rabbi of Kiryat Ono and member of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate, expounds to a slightly greater extent. Yes, he acknowledges, Maimonides did ascend to the Temple Mount, as did others. The reason behind the rabbinate’s ban he says, is because, despite the fact that there are some areas of the Temple Mount where we know it is possible to visit, issuing a blanket permit for Jews to ascend would be very problematic.

As even Rabbi Richman and others concede, it requires a great deal of knowledge and expertise to know where one halachically may and may not go on the Temple Mount. Coupled with this are numerous other restrictions and requirements, including the necessity of immersing in a mikve [ritual bath], not wearing leather shoes and other conditions.

Most people, Arusi says, are not familiar with these issues, and may anyway disregard them. The consequences in Jewish law for stepping in the wrong spot, spiritual excommunication – one of the gravest punishments applicable to transgressions such as failing to be circumcised – is too great to risk, he argues.

OUTSIDE of a religious desire to visit and pray on the Temple Mount is another driving factor for those who are so insistent on Jewish access to the site.

MK Arye Eldad of the National Union sees not only religious significance in the Temple Mount, but cultural and political importance as well. The failure of Jews to maintain their connection with the place, he says, undermines Israel’s political claim to it as well. In addition, he continues, it bolsters Muslim and Arab claims to the site, and denials that any Jewish Temple ever stood there.

“There is most definitely a political struggle going on here,” says Eldad. “The Arabs think that if they can succeed in prizing away this piece of property from the Jews, then they will be able to seize every other Jewish property here, whether it’s territorial, historical, cultural or religious.”

Richman concurs.

“Efforts are being waged by the forces of Islam to delegitimize the Jewish connection to Israel and Jerusalem. And on the Temple Mount in particular, they are trying to remove all vestiges of Jewish history,” he says. “We need to go to show we’re still connected and that it’s still ours. Unfortunately, the Diaspora experience has lobotomized the ‘body of Israel’ and has created an idiosyncratic self-defense mechanism which has denuded Judaism of its true spiritual essence.”

There is also something Messianic in the efforts of those who ardently seek to restore a Jewish presence on the Temple Mount. The Temple Institute has devoted huge sums of money into constructing and producing the vessels, implements and garments required for the Temple, using the exact instructions set out in the Torah. Among the vessels constructed is a fully working golden menorah, which cost $2 million and is ready for use in the Temple.

Yisrael Ariel, the founder and director of the Temple Institute, who was among the soldiers who conquered the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967, certainly felt at the time that the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount was a harbinger of the very imminent arrival of the Messiah.

Dr. Motti Inbari, an expert in Jewish fundamentalism at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, cites an interview with Ariel in his book, Jewish Fundamentalism and the Temple Mount. In the interview, conducted in the Or Hozer journal of yeshiva high schools, Ariel vividly describes his emotions and experiences upon the capture of the Temple Mount and states that he thought that “these are the days of the Messiah.”

Rabbi Richman and the institute insist that the Temple will not “descend from the heavens,” as some believe, but will have to be constructed by men here on earth, as evidenced by their efforts to reconstruct the Temple vessels.

Asked if it is time to re-build the Temple, he responds “We’re 2,000 years late in doing so.”

To those who say that now is not the right time, or that the Jewish people must work on themselves spiritually and socially before even beginning to think about such an endeavor, Richman retorts, “maybe it’s not the right time to put on tefillin? Who says there is a time limitation for the mitzva of building the Temple? It is our job to do all the mitzvot.” He insists, however, that it is not the intention of the institute to start rolling out the tape measure on the Temple Mount and start building.

Other groups, such as the Temple Mount Faithful, led by Gershon Salomon, are clearer about their ultimate goals. This organization says unabashedly that its goals include “the building of the Third Temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in our lifetime in accordance with the Word of God and all the Hebrew prophets” as well as “the liberation of the Temple Mount from Arab (Islamic) occupation.”

The homepage of the Temple Institute website currently bears a line from the well-known movie Field of Dreams: “if you build it, he will come.” The longterm goal, as stated on the website, is to do “all in our limited power to bring about the building of the Holy Temple in our time.”

Journalist and author Gershom Gorenberg, who wrote The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount, sees a strong nexus between Jewish messianism and aspirations for the Temple Mount.

“The place has always elicited strong messianic symbolism and exerted a magnetic attraction for anyone awaiting the Messiah,” he told the Post. “For those who find it unbearable that we haven’t rebuilt the temple, there is an urge to bring about a redemption by human means, forcing God’s hand, as it were.”

For those opposed to increased Jewish activity at the Temple Mount, Gorenberg continues, although it’s generally wrapped in technical objections of a political or halachic nature, the subtext is that rebuilding the Temple is beyond the ability of human hands and effort and must await the arrival of the Messiah.

“In Jewish history, people who were certain they knew how to bring the Messiah ended up being disastrous for the Jewish people,” he concludes.

Regardless of the longer-term aspirations of the various groups, the current debate surrounding whether or not Jews can and should visit and pray at the Temple Mount will continue because of the activities of organizations like the Temple Institute.

According to the Chief Rabbinate, the reason they have recently re-iterated their ban on Jews going to the site is because of increased organized visitations, a growing phenomenon that it would like to stamp out.

But the political and spiritual desire among some who want to insist on their right to pray at Judaism’s holiest site is still very much alive. The nature of that desire highlights both the very deep-seated Jewish attachment to this revered place and the huge potential it has to spark intra-religious dispute along with political conflict.

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