Are Jews allowed to enter the Temple Mount? Debate heats up

Rabbis have been heavily debating the Jewish ascension to Temple Mount since Jerusalem was recaptured in the Six Day War.

 SECURITY FORCES stand guard as religious Jews visit the Temple Mount. (photo credit: JAMAL AWAD/FLASH90)
SECURITY FORCES stand guard as religious Jews visit the Temple Mount.
(photo credit: JAMAL AWAD/FLASH90)

Ascension to the Temple Mount has been heavily debated by rabbis in Israel since Jerusalem was recaptured from Jordan during the Six Day War. In recent years, the annual number of visitors to the compound has grown and the debate coming into sharper focus due to its theological and political implications.

Historically, the debate focused on the exact location of the Holy of Holies in the First and Second Temples, since the punishment for an impure Jew who enters such areas is spiritual extirpation (karet), indicating its severity.

Jews today are considered impure to the highest degree as if they had touched a corpse (tameh met). In that case, the ashes of a red heifer are required in order to purify oneself, but none exist that meet the halachic requirements.

However, Halacha stipulates that Jews at this level of impurity are still allowed onto the Temple Mount up until the outer edge of the Temple itself, given that they purify themselves from impure bodily fluids such as semen and menstrual blood by bathing in a mikveh ritual bath.

Hence, proponents of the ascension to the Temple Mount argue that as long as people bathe in a mikveh and maintain their purity thereafter, they may visit the areas on the mountain that are outside the perimeter of the ancient Temple itself.

 THE MUGHRABI Bridge that leads to the Temple Mount compound with the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock seen in the background in Jerusalem’s Old City.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) THE MUGHRABI Bridge that leads to the Temple Mount compound with the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock seen in the background in Jerusalem’s Old City. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Following the Six Day War, chief rabbi of the Military Rabbinate Shlomo Goren mapped out the compound to show what areas were considered outside of the perimeter and therefore permissible for Jews to traverse.

Goren’s version was almost identical to the majority of Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions, which identified the Foundation Stone under the Dome of the Rock as part of the Holy of Holies, and the Temple itself roughly as being the raised area in the center of the compound. This enabled Jews to circle the lower level of the compound without entering the prohibited areas.

Nevertheless, the Chief Rabbinate ruled on multiple occasions that ascent to the Temple Mount was prohibited, the first ruling being made just two days after Goren’s map was released. In 2016, a hundred rabbis, including chief rabbis Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau, published a proclamation again prohibiting ascent to the Temple Mount. Even a 2019 proposition to change the wording of the sign at the entrance to the site from “halachically prohibited” to “halachically disputed” was struck down in a 12-2 vote.

But despite the Rabbinate’s rulings, the Temple Mount phenomenon is growing.

After a sparse showing in 2020 due to corona, the number of Jewish Temple Mount visitors grew in 2021 almost back to pre-pandemic levels, according to the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs: 35,695 Jews visited the mount in 2018, 37,708 in 2019 and 33,523 in 2021.

In comparison, only 5,658 visited the site in 2009 – making 2021 a nearly 500% jump in 12 years.

SINCE A growing number of Jews are entering the Temple Mount every year, the issue is evolving into a major clash within the religious-Zionist population.

The debate can be categorized into three main camps within religious Zionism, each with its own ideological, theological, political and halachic nuances.

The first position is held mostly by the right flank of the religious-Zionist camp, considered by some to be “haredi-leumi,” or ultra-Orthodox-nationalist. While fiercely Zionist, they draw a line between the holiness of the Land of Israel in its entirety and that of the Temple Mount, which they view as being too holy to tread upon.

Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, and his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, explicitly forbade ascension to the Mount. Based on their ruling, some of their followers, such as rabbis Avraham Elkana Kahana Shapira, Yisrael Tau and Shlomo Aviner, have claimed that while the land was redeemed by the Zionist movement and the return to the Promised Land, the Temple itself transcends this day-to-day status, and its redemption can only come at a time of higher religious experience, such as the coming of the messiah.

This view is best represented by MK Avi Maoz, a member of Tau’s Noam faction, which merged into the Religious-Zionist Party, but whose view sharply differs from that of his party leader, Bezalel Smotrich.

The second camp, the political and religiously liberal wing of the religious-Zionist populace, does not necessarily oppose ascension to the Mount as much as they see it as unnecessary and even as a provocation.

While in antiquity the Temple played a major role, the gradual shift to synagogues, prayer and daily rituals granted Jews new religious experiences. The liberal wing sees the Temple Mount and the rebuilding of a Third Temple as not urgent, with some even seeing it as a metaphor and symbol rather than a physical object. While the site has historical importance, they say, it does not necessarily have religious importance, and is therefore not worth fighting a war over.

The third camp is composed of supporters and activists promoting ascension to the site. It has been championed by rabbis including Dov Lior, Nahum Eliezer Rabinowitz, Eliezer Melamed and Yaakov Medan, and today is best represented in the Knesset by MK Itamar Ben Gvir.

This camp, which is becoming increasingly vocal and robust, cites the centrality of the site to the Jewish people, who have been praying for its redemption for 1,952 years. This therefore necessitates the need for Israel, as the only Jewish state, to establish its sovereignty there.

While some of the rabbis in this camp are also Rabbi Kook’s disciples, they claim that their teachers’ prohibitions were temporary and meant to prevent the general public from committing what Halacha considers a serious sin. If Israel indeed wishes to be a Jewish state, and the heart of Judaism is the Temple Mount, not visiting it is akin to giving up on the very essence of Jewish revival – and, according to some, even a violation of the biblical commandment that warns against accommodating foreign worship.

But the debate goes even deeper, explains Rabbi Dr. Ido Pachter, a member of the Religion and State branch in the Modern Orthodox Ne’emanei Torah Va’avoda and founder of “Techelet – Inspiring Judaism.”

Religious Zionism is currently undergoing an identity crisis, Pachter claims.

“We built settlements, built the country, we established our grip on the Land of Israel,” he said. “But what next? The Temple Mount is a symbol of the spiritual aspirations of [people] who want to take another step forward. We have a country, and now we are searching for a new spiritual goal.

“A large faction is saying, ‘Yes, we want to continue, conquer the Mount, to actualize the immense spirituality of the Holy Temple and sacrifices. On the other hand, there are those who are saying, ‘No, we should leave things as they are and deal with other things, [such as] social justice and other causes.’

“But I believe that this argument, which is growing, reflects a real ideological breaking point in religious Zionism, which is searching for its way.”

With the Temple Mount already serving as a flashpoint between Israel and the Palestinians, it remains to be seen if the pro-ascension wing continues its rise or if it slows down, either due to government pressure or to opposition from within the religious-Zionist population itself.