Prayer showdown

Jews are coming to the Temple Mount in increasing numbers, but they are banned from praying at the site.

Jerusalem's Old City 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jerusalem's Old City 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
At the entrance to the Mugrabi Bridge that ascends from the entrance to the Western Wall to the Temple Mount, a group of Jewish pilgrims waits at a small police checkpoint.
As the duty officer collects their identity cards and checks their numbers against a police database, searching for what the police term “extremists,” the small collection of kippa-wearing immigrants, mostly professionals from North America, let out weary sighs.
They are familiar with this routine at Judaism’s holiest site. While the Orthodox men wait, another group, this one comprised of dozens of Christian tourists, passes through the checkpoint with barely an extra glance from the policemen. Long after the Christians pass, the Jewish would-be visitors are still waiting around.
The day of the pilgrims, or olei regel in Hebrew, starts early, usually around five in the morning. As visiting hours to the mount for non-Muslims are severely limited and strictly enforced, it is important to arrive early. During the winter the mount is open for only a few hours early in the morning and a few more at midday; not necessarily convenient for many potential visitors. Most of the day, the site is closed to non- Muslims.
The preparations for religious pilgrims begin at the crack of dawn with a full-body immersion in a mikve (ritual bath) in which, according to Jewish law, traces of certain kinds of ritual impurities can be washed away. Without this immersion, ascension to the holy site is forbidden by all major halachic authorities.
Following the ritual immersion, the members of the group don canvas and plastic shoes, since leather footwear on the site is forbidden by Halacha, and rush to arrive early for what they know will be a long wait.
Slowly they are allowed one by one and then in pairs into the police shack at the entrance to the bridge and their bags and wallets are searched for contraband, which, in this case, means Jewish religious books.
As a stern-faced policeman recites a litany of forbidden activities, most of which are related to prayer in some way, a sign from the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel looms over the mostly national-religious visitors.
“Announcement and warning,” it reads, “According to Torah Law, entering the Temple Mount area is strictly forbidden due to the holiness of the site.”
The sign is ignored. These Jews follow other rabbis.
The halachic battle over ascension to the mount has mostly been between those in the haredi (ultra- Orthodox) and anti-Zionist camp, including the Chief Rabbinate, and those rabbis who represent a growing movement within the national-religious movement advocating for a more vigorous application of Jewish sovereignty over the holy site.
THE TEMPLE Mount, or Haram al-Sharif as it is known to Muslims, has been a holy site to Jews since the days of the Bible. The First Temple, the erection of which was credited to King Solomon, was destroyed by the Babylonians in the year 586 BCE, while the rebuilt Temple of Herod was destroyed by the soon-to-be Roman emperor Titus in 70 CE.
Jewish tradition maintains that the foundation stone, a rocky point that thrusts itself from the earth at the center of the mount, and which once formed the center of the Temple and now can be found inside the Dome of the Rock shrine, was the edifice on which Abraham attempted to sacrifice his son Isaac and from whence the world was created.
That rocky promontory is the high point of what, during the biblical period, was known as Mount Moria. During renovations to the Second Temple, King Herod the Great expanded the mount, shoring up its sides with massive walls and expanding the size of the Temple Mount complex. Orthodox Jews who now ascend believe that while they are in their current state of advanced impurity – which can only be alleviated by rituals performed in a rebuilt Temple – they are limited to walking the areas of the mount that were added by Herod.
Much of the rabbinic debate over ascension to the mount revolves around where one is permitted to walk while in such an intense state of ritual impurity.
As it is a commonly accepted Talmudic dictum that walking in the wrong place in a state of impurity can cause karet, a harsh Aramaic term referring to "spiritual excision,” haredim believe that it is not worth going to this holy site.
On the other hand, many national-religious rabbis, angered by Israel’s decision to allow the Muslim Wakf to maintain authority over the holy sites and emboldened by surveys carried out by the Engineering Corps under the direction of former IDF chief rabbi Shlomo Goren, have come to believe that it is possible to delineate which areas it is permissible to tread in, even if there are some parts of the mount where the status remains unclear.
Many within the national-religious camp, such as those with whom I am visiting the mount, believe that the current status quo, in which Jews are forbidden from praying at a site to which they prayed to return for almost 2,000 years, must end. However, they believe, no changes will be made unless the government sees that there is a genuine and widespread desire on the part of Israelis to reclaim what they see as a stolen holy site.
RABBIS AROUND the country have arranged for a rota in which groups from various communities agree to ascend the mount on a regular day each month, making sure that there is as much of a continuous Jewish presence there as is currently possible.
While the Temple Mount complex was closed to non-Muslims for over three years starting in 2000 due to the second intifada, visits by Jews have resumed and the number of visitors has accelerated. While numbers have been hard to come by, anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of rabbis supporting ascension has grown, and even haredi individuals, coming secretly for fear of community backlash, have been spotted touring the holy sites atop the mountain.
But many pilgrims who have attempted to pray atop the Temple Mount, which is forbidden by the Wakf authorities and Israel Police, have been arrested, and some even compelled to sign agreements to never set foot on the mount again.
As the pilgrims, led by a middle-aged, beardless rabbi wearing a knitted skullcap, saunter around the edge of the complex, studiously avoiding areas of unclear status, they are accompanied by a police officer seeking to make sure that no one does anything to inflame tensions or precipitate conflict.
While the Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that it was not opposed to non-demonstrative prayer by individual Jews at the site, the court did rule that the ability of visitors to pray could be curtailed by security forces should they suspect that it would lead to Muslim unrest.
IN A letter to right-wing parliamentarians in 2008, then-public security minister Avi Dichter explained that “it is possible to carry out an arrest for expressions of outward and demonstrative signs” or prayer and that this policy “is in line with the rationale that bans Jews from praying at the site, in light of serious concerns that this will serve as a provocation, resulting in disorder, with a near certain likelihood of subsequent bloodshed.”
Among the outward signs of praying, says Yehiel, a regular leader of groups to the mount, is moving one’s lips or lowering one’s head with eyes closed. He asked not to have his full name published so as to minimize friction with the authorities.
One woman, he says, went up and began to feel somewhat ill.
“There was a cement bench near a tree and she sat and just relaxed and they accused her of praying.
They took her to the police station for about five hours until she signed a document that she would never go up again.”
Aside from the police escort, there is also the constant presence of an official of the Wakf, the Islamic trust that maintains de facto civil control over the mount, who follows our group. Many times, visitors claim, Wakf officials will intercede will the police to arrest individuals for private prayer or for reading from Hebrew books. However, says Rabbi Chaim Richman of the Temple Institute, an advocacy group that aims to recreate the utensils necessary for the resumption of Temple service, the police apply restrictions on the mount unevenly. Harsh restrictions can be applied but it generally depends on the individual police officer’s judgment.
As I walk with the pilgrims, some of them decide to prostrate themselves in prayer. Full prostration on a bare floor is only allowed on the Temple Mount itself and seemed very important to these visitors.
While the group passes a short set of stairs they each quickly bend and bow, pushing themselves up quickly and resuming their walk before the Wakf guardian, who has fallen a little behind, has an opportunity to notice. The policeman accompanying us does nothing.
ONE HAREDI rabbi, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the harsh opposition in his community against his views, told In Jerusalem that not only does the Israel Police restrict freedoms of Jewish and Christian pilgrims, but that he believes that it has allowed the threat of violence to trump fundamental human rights.
A former police commander of the Jerusalem district, he claims, once told him that without massive Jewish violence and rioting, there would be no change in the status quo on the mount. The path of violence, he says, is one that Temple Mount activists will not travel.
However, due to regular claims in the Arabic press that Jews are threatening to destroy al-Aksa Mosque, Israeli security forces are tense and unwilling to allow anything that could bring about renewed Arab rioting over the issue of ownership of the disputed mountaintop.
He does not want to raze the mosques, he says, but rather share the real estate, building some sort of Jewish center and reinstating certain sacrificial rites that do not require a full rebuilding of the Temple.
What he wants, he says, is a sharing arrangement similar to that practiced at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
The state, he says, must protect the rights of its citizens against violence and not allow potential civil unrest to determine its policy and curtail religious expression.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, however, takes a different view of the issue. Because there have been violent incidents in the past, he says, there is a legitimate fear regarding future unrest and therefore “only those that are coming from the Muslim community onto the Temple Mount... are allowed to pray.”
Muslims who attempt to enter and pray at the Western Wall, he noted, are arrested as well.
There is a strong police presence on the mount, he notes, in order to make sure that everybody operates “according to the restrictions that there are.”
With the Temple Mount constantly a potential flashpoint, it is obvious that it would become a point of contention between the police and religious Israelis.
RABBI SHMUEL Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall, agrees with Rosenfeld, though for religious and not security reasons.
While the rabbi says that disallowing Jewish ascension does not, in his view, give credence to Muslims’ claims that the mount is of an exclusively Islamic character and that Jews have no place there, it is forbidden until the coming of the Messiah to go up to the holy site. Those who do ascend, he says, transgress the rulings of the majority of contemporary Jewish sages.
However, the national-religious camp says it has an answer to this issue as well. Citing Maimonides, who himself visited the site, Richman quotes several talmudic sources indicating that ascension is not only permitted but encouraged.
Writing to The Jerusalem Post several years ago, Richman stated that “the subject of the Temple Mount is an area in which one must have an expertise before issuing a judgment.
Unfortunately, it is an area of study that has been largely neglected, even by Torah authorities. To say that there is a prohibition against Jews visiting the Temple Mount is misleading and inaccurate, and does a serious injustice to the many religious Jews, great rabbis among them, who do ascend the mount today in strict accordance with all the requirements of Jewish law.
“Indeed, Maimonides himself – in the tradition of the great sages of Israel – ascended to the Temple Mount, in spite of great personal danger, and prayed there. He gives the date as the sixth day of Heshvan and writes that he was so moved to have ‘entered into the great and holy house and prayed there on the sixth of Heshvan... and I vowed an oath, that I will always celebrate this day as a personal festival, to be marked by prayer and rejoicing in God, and by a festive meal.’”
THE AFOREMENTIONED anonymous haredi rabbi agrees. With his tabletop littered with open volumes of the law, he quotes from sources ranging from contemporary to ancient and determines that his community, hidebound and opposed to any form of nationalism, finds it more convenient to maintain the status quo and is, in fact, uncomfortable with change.
Bringing about a reversal of attitude among the haredim, he says, will take a long time. This doesn’t make him a Zionist or supporter of the State of Israel, he is careful to note, but the issue of the Temple Mount is for him not one of nationalism but one of religious observance.
One of the objections that Wakf officials have lodged, says Yehiel, is that he regularly brings up a guidebook in Hebrew that describes the ancient Jewish presence at the site. This, he says, conflicts with the current narrative that is promulgated by the Palestinian Authority and accepted by many Israeli Arabs. The PA claims that there was never a Jewish Temple on the site and that the Western Wall is a strictly Islamic site, being the place where Muhammad once tied up his horse.
There is no official statement by the Wakf officials, who claim that no remnants of the Jewish Temples have been found on the mount, addressing the Herodian columns, some still flecked with gold leaf, that are neatly arranged in the Temple Mount plaza, silent remnants of a Jewish past they would like to deny.
Certainly, Yehiel says, they voice loud objections whenever he begins to discuss the Jewish structures that existed here before the erection of al-Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.
THE RESTRICTIONS on Jews seem to have never been implemented in a consistent manner, depending on the security needs of the day and on the individual policemen tasked with enforcing the government’s directives.
Recently, one American-Israeli blogger noted that things may be slowly becoming easier for Jewish visitors.
“There are changes to the way the police will now be dealing with Jewish visitors to Har Habayit [the Temple Mount]. I guess this is good, as it lessens the discrimination and the demeaning treatment. They still have a ways to go, but it’s a start.
“According to the old procedures, when Jews would enter, the police would take us through a series of security checks. They would do a background check, all while we were made to wait outside, on each person ensuring they did not have a blemished record as being deemed a trouble-maker, along with each visitor being recorded and then warned about not praying or [performing] any of a variety of religious activities.
“After being threatened with a lawsuit to the Supreme Court for the demeaning procedure of recording each Jew attempting to enter Har Habayit, the police have now agreed to do away with that aspect of the procedure. The claim being that only Jews were being recorded in a discriminatory fashion, while Muslims and tourists were allowed to enter freely.”
While there may have been some progress from the perspective of Temple Mount activists, they admit that there is still a long way to go. If you ask the Israel Police, they will tell you that every liberty granted to non-Islamic groups on the mount has the potential to ignite the tinderbox that lies at the center of Jerusalem.
Between the political, national and religious interests that intersect at the Temple Mount, the only surety is that a resolution to the issue of Jewish worship will not come speedily.
However, that doesn’t mean that nationalist politicians are not trying to legislate change on this issue. National Union MK Arieh Eldad has proposed a bill to change the status quo on the mount by instituting a time-share arrangement similar to that used at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
“The Temple Mount is the holiest place for the Jewish People, where the First and Second Temple stood,” Eldad states. “It is also a holy place for Muslims, and is the site of al-Aksa Mosque. It also has a special status in Christianity.”
As such, he proposes, special prayer times be instituted for Jews, Muslims and Christians. In Hebron, there are separate visitors’ hours for Muslims and Jews, allowing both groups access to the site without the confrontations inherent in allowing both groups to pray at the same time.
Jews would be allowed exclusive access to the site during their three daily prayers, while Muslims would gain control during their five daily prayers.
Similarly, prayers would be allowed on Jewish holidays.
The proposed bill comes only two weeks after the US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report, which highlighted the prohibition on Jewish prayer, was released to Congress.