‘The Temple Mount is in our hands” not only announced a thrilling military victory in the Six Day War, but an inspiring spiritual and historic opportunity. Then-IDF chief rabbi Shlomo Goren understood this; Defense Minister Moshe Dayan did not, and the moment when the rights of the Jewish People to the Temple Mount and the principle of religious toleration could have been affirmed was lost.
When Dayan returned control of the Temple Mount to Jordan and its representatives, the Islamic authority (Wakf), Rabbi Goren protested but the rabbinic establishment and most religious politicians and religious leaders did not object. When Rabbi Goren built a small area for prayer on the northern side, Dayan destroyed it. His authoritative book, Har Habayit (1993), has not been translated.
Since then, ironically, the struggle over the most important sacred site to the Jewish People, the Temple Mount, is not only between Muslims and Jews; it is also between Jews – those who visit the site and those who don’t because they say it is against Jewish law (Halacha).
Opposition by the rabbinic establishment to Jews visiting the site because it is “too holy” coincides with those who believe that it is not holy to Jews at all and belongs to Muslims. As one prominent left-wing Orthodox rabbi opines: “I don’t go into someone else’s sacred space.”
This ambivalence toward the Temple Mount has encouraged Muslims to assert exclusive rule over the site, limiting access to non-Muslims, harassment – often violent – and preventing non-Muslims from praying at the site in any way. The chief rabbis of Israel and Jerusalem have issued public statements forbidding Jews from visiting the site lest they wander into the area in which the First and Second Temples once stood – presumably on or near where the golden-roofed “Dome of the Rock” now stands.
“The Rock” refers to the Foundation Stone (even hashtiyya), a large stone part of Mount Moriah, where Abraham brought Isaac to be sacrificed and replaced him with a ram – the Akeda – commemorated by blowing a shofar on Rosh Hashana, and where the inner sanctum of the Temple, the Holy of Holies, existed. Since it is a shrine, not a mosque, it is open to visitors.
Although the exact location of where the Temples stood is not known, areas which were added during the Herodian period to expand the plaza are clear. For Jews who visit the site, therefore, Orthodox rabbis included, there is no halachic problem as long as certain restrictions are observed: avoiding the area of the Dome of the Rock, immersion in a mikve beforehand, and not wearing leather shoes. Walking along the perimeters of the Temple Mount would seem to be permitted.
During the Mishnaic period prominent rabbis went to the Temple Mount. The Christian “Pilgrim of Bordeaux” who visited Jerusalem in about 333 CE wrote that Jews went to the Temple Mount on the Ninth of Av to recite lamentations and rip their clothes as a sign of mourning.
Israeli historian Ben-Zion Dinburg (Dinur) wrote that a Jewish house of prayer existed on the Temple Mount between the 7th and 11th centuries. Apparently Jews prayed there whenever possible. Benjamin of Tudela (1130- 1173) observed Jews praying on the Temple Mount.
The prohibition seems to begin with Maimonides (Rambam) (1135-1204) who held that the original holiness of the Temple which King Solomon built was never diminished and who forbade visiting the site; yet, in 1165 he may have visited the site. The Ra’avad (R’Avraham Ben-David) of Posquieres (1125-1198) differed, holding that the sanctity of the First Temple applied only during the time it existed, and not to the future, and he permitted visiting the site.
During the Ottoman occupation, Jews were forbidden to enter the Temple Mount; instead they were allowed to pray at a tiny section of the Western Wall.
Despite severe restrictions for non-Muslim visitors today – close screening and metal detectors, prohibition of religious items, including Bibles, limited hours of visiting and waiting in long lines to enter – thousands of people are attracted to the site. For many Jews, however, such visits remain controversial.
Although the Orthodox Union does not take a position, its website says that “while certain areas of Har HaBayit may be off limits, simply being on Har HaBayit is valuable in and of itself.”
In “The Political Role of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate in the Temple Question” (Jewish Political Studies 11:1-2) Prof. Yoel Cohen of Ariel University concludes: “The Chief Rabbinate’s dependence on the wider world of [halachic] learning encouraged conservatism. While it reflected a desire for consensus, it also reflected a lack of self-confidence or, according to some critics, the quality of those appointed to office. A vicious circle was created in which a conservative rabbinate influenced an unenthusiastic political establishment and vice versa. In one such instance, when asked by Goren why Jews are not allowed to pray on the Temple Mount, then newly-elected Prime Minister Begin replied ‘because the rabbis forbid it.’ While the subject of celebrating Jerusalem Day was discussed at seven meetings of the Chief Rabbinate Council, building the Temple has never been discussed even in theoretical terms, and the question of access for Jews to the Temple Mount was discussed by the Council on four occasions.
“The de facto control which the Wakf enjoys throughout the Temple Mount today and the Israel-Jordan peace agreement are testimony to a failure by the Chief Rabbinate to meet the challenges which existed after the 1967 war. Instead, it lost itself in a web of [halachic] strictures which, however serious, could have been eased had the will and the institutional freedom existed.”
In 2014, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, rabbi of the Samarian community of Har Bracha and head of its yeshiva, and author of the book series Peninei Halacha, wrote (on his website): “Blessed are those who ascend the Temple Mount. The continuation of the disgraceful situation on the Temple Mount brings our enemies hope, and motivates them to kill and riot throughout the country. In order to suppress the wave of terrorism and incitement from its roots, the government and the police must assert Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount in the most decisive manner.
“Blessed are those who go up to Har Habayit according to halacha. Thanks to them, our sovereignty over the Temple Mount and all of the Land of Israel becomes clearer, and precisely as a result of this, we will merit security and peace.”
The question is not only about halacha, but whether an halachic position taken hundreds of years ago, when Jews did not have a state, or sovereignty, or access to and knowledge of the site should be changed. In a spirit of tolerance, mutual respect and religious freedom, to ensure safe access to the Temple Mount to all, the state and the rabbinic establishment must restore, protect and preserve the sacredness of the place where Jewish history began, Mount Moriah, the Temple Mount.The author is a PhD historian, writer and journalist living in Jerusalem.