Yesterday's tension on the Temple Mount has yet again raised the question of what Judaism says about whether or not it is indeed permitted to go up to this holy site for Jews and Muslims.
Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef reiterated that Jewish visitation to the Temple Mount is forbidden and that the ban should be in place the whole year round. "At the essence of the prohibition, the ascent of Jews to the Temple Mount is forbidden according to Jewish law, and it is appropriate that the ascent of Jews be prohibited all year round."
The question of whether Jews can go up to the Temple Mount started being asked in 1967 after the Six Day War.
Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the chief rabbi at the time, wrote a book, Har Habayit, which was published in 1993, a year before he died, in which he goes into detail about the measurements and layout of the whole Temple Mount area and where it is and isn't permitted for Jews to enter. He identified which areas are permitted to enter after immersion in a mikvah (ritual bath) and which are forbidden to enter even after immersion.
Goren wrote in the introduction to his book: "Currently, when Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount is in danger, Mount Moriah is liable to become the subject of negotiation between us and the Arabs – and unfortunately, there are politicians who are willing to negotiate our sovereignty over the Temple Mount, relying on the alleged prohibition of the Chief Rabbinate to enter Har Habayit. This prohibition is liable to be used as an excuse to hand over the nation's Kodesh ha’Kodashim [inner sanctum] to the Muslims. Therefore, I decided to publish the book now, from which it will be proven that there are large areas of the Temple Mount which all Jews are permitted to enter, according to all halakhic opinions, after immersion in a mikveh..."(p.15).
The former chief rabbi permitted going up to most of the Temple Mount because firstly, he argued that, using the maps produced by the IDF Engineer Corps, it was possible to know exactly which parts of the mount were allowed to walk on. Secondly, many great rabbis, including Maimonides, had permitted praying there. Goren's call was ignored. Moshe Dayan, then defense minister, transferred Temple Mount management to the Waqf, and told the Military Rabbinate to evacuate Har Habayit and to have nothing more to do with Temple Mount affairs. Goren told Dayan that "this, God forbid, could lead to the destruction of the Third Temple – for the key to our sovereignty over Judea, Samaria and Gaza is the Temple Mount" (page 34).
The issue of whether or not it is permitted to go up to the Temple Mount today is hotly debated. The majority of leading rabbis say it is outright forbidden or at least practically not advisable.
Leading rabbis, including previous chief rabbis Ovadia Yosef and Mordechai Eliyahu, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, chief rabbis of Jerusalem Aryeh Stern and Shlomo Omar, Asher Weiss, Zalman Nehemiah Goldberg, have all said that it is forbidden to go up. The reasons they cite are that we are not 100% sure of the exact areas that are permitted to enter and that there is the concern that, by permitting ascending the Temple Mount, many who don't know or practice the complicated laws will come to transgress them – which will desecrate the holiest site in the Jewish religion and turn it into a tourist attraction.
Other rabbis, such as Moshe Feinstein, said that it was theoretically permitted, but not practically advisable in our generation. The leader of American Modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Herschel Schachter said it would only be permitted if the Israeli Rabbinate permitted it, which they have not done. Other leaders of mainstream Orthodoxy in Israel, including rabbis Aharon Lichtenstein and Yehuda Amital, did not support going up to the Temple Mount at the present time.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the previous leader of American Orthodoxy gave a very practical response - To ask the police and security forces if it was advisable. Beyond the black-and-white question according to Jewish law, Soloveitchik determined that maintaining law and order is a prime concern.
Despite this, other well respected rabbis have followed Goren's line, arguing that since we do know the precise measurements of where it is permitted to ascend, it is permitted according to Jewish law. These rabbis, often from the right-wing of the religious-Zionist community, include rabbis Nahum Rabinovitch, Dov Lior, Eliezer Melamed, Yaakov Medan and Moshe Tendler.