A few weeks ago, an old friend sent us an email inviting us to tour Har HaBayit (The Temple Mount) with her family on the first day of Chol HaMoed (the middle days of the Pesach holiday). Immediately, I felt conflicted. I knew that ascending Har HaBayit is considered controversial, especially for women.Har HaBayit is the mountaintop where the First and Second Temples stood and where the Third Holy Temple will be rebuilt very soon, Gd-willing. The holiness of the site is so extreme, so much more so than the Kotel (Western Wall), that many say we are not spiritually prepared to ascend in these days.
Holiness, or the prospect of being close to such holiness, invokes a feeling of awe. I wanted to go and was afraid to go in equal measure. So I asked my rabbi for a ruling according to Jewish law.
He was very encouraging and told us exactly how to prepare. Ascending the Temple Mount requires immersion in a mikvah and one must wear non-leather shoes. My friend had arranged for a knowledgeable tour guide to lead us, both to explain what we were seeing and also to keep us on the permitted path, since Jews in today''s time may not walk too close to the exact place where the Temples stood.
In the end, we decided to go. We met near the entrance to the Mughrabi Gate, right off the Kotel Plaza. We were a group of about 15 religious Jews.
At the Mughrabi Gate, throngs of non-Jewish tourists were ushered through as quickly as if they were entering a shopping mall. A brief pass through a metal detector and off they went. We, obviously religious Jews, were required to present ID and to wait over half an hour for clearance. Once we were cleared to enter, we were followed the entire time by a handful of Israeli police officers who kept urging us to move along.
I realize that they are charged with keeping peace, and that, as religious Jews, we might "make trouble," but the fact that non-Jews are assumed to be mere tourists, permitted to walk all over the Temple Mount without escorts while religious Jews are suspected of coming for incendiary purposes is, minimally, hurtful.
Being singled out for an intensive security check, being made to wait while hordes of non-Jews were passed through in moments and being watched and urged along by 3 or 4 eagle-eyed Israeli police were the first of several surprises of the morning.
What were my impressions, as a first-timer? The mountain top is huge, with many open plaza areas.
There are dozens of Muslim buildings, large and small, up there.
The whole place was filled with Arabs, for whom the Temple Mount, among other things, seems to serve as something of a National Park, with lots of lovely places to have a picnic.
Notice the Arab women enjoying their picnic behind the trees.
Didn''t get a photo, but about halfway into our tour, we passed what seemed to be a school with dozens of Arab boys outside at recess, playing soccer, making a lot of noise. We were walking, quietly and respectfully around the perimeter, being followed like hawks, lest we move our lips in prayer at the holiest Jewish site in the universe, while Arabs were everywhere, eating lunch and playing soccer and non-Jewish tourists were roaming around without a hint of reverence.
One of many non-Jewish groups with whom we shared HarHaBayit.
Deeply, deeply ironic.
That contrast sparked strong feelings among the people in our group. Why don''t more religious Jews come up here? Why have we ceded the holiest ground in the universe to Arabs, Christians and secular tourists?
While walking around, careful not to move my lips, I spoke to Gd in my head and heart. I''m sure the others in our group did as well.
Finally, we were near the most dramatic place of all, The Dome of the Rock, built by Muslims in the 7th Century, on the very place where the Temple stood. It makes me shake with awe to think of how close we were.
We couldn''t get any closer. There is so much more holiness here than anywhere else in the world. Perhaps that''s why this veiled Arab woman chose this exact spot to sit and beg for charity.
At this spot, the tour guide reminded us that, as Jews who ascended Har HaBayit, we were praying with our feet. He encouraged us to come back and to bring others with us.
As we exited, though an ordinary door into the Arab shuk, the men in our tour group spontaneously burst into song and dance, a prayer for the rebuilding of the Holy Temple.