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