Tradition today: The mountain of the Lord

It is most unfortunate that the Temple Mount controversy has become the property of extremists – not to say fanatics – on both sides.

Israeli flag and Temple Mount  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Israeli flag and Temple Mount
Once again the Temple Mount becomes the center of conflict. Once again ostensibly it is the spark that set off the current spate of violence, even though it is obvious that there are other factors involved that go even deeper into the conflict between Palestinians and the State of Israel, factors that must be dealt with if we are ever to live in peace – or at least without violence.
It is most unfortunate that the Temple Mount controversy has become the property of extremists – not to say fanatics – on both sides.
Muslim extremists have taken a position that is so absurd that it would be funny if it were not so outrageous. In addition to contending that Israel is intent on changing the status quo, they are saying that the Mount was never connected to Judaism at all.
The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Sheikh Muhammad Ahmad Hussein recently said that there never was a Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount and that “al-Aksa Mosque was an Islamic mosque since the world was created. It was never anything other than a mosque” (The Jerusalem Post, October 27).
I was not aware that Islam existed before the time of Muhammad.
Al-Hayat newspaper on October 8 went even further: “There are no Jewish archaeological artifacts in Palestine, no Temple, no first, nor second, nor 10th. There are no prophets or kingdoms, no Jewish kings in Palestine or anywhere else” (Haaretz, October 27).
Of course, this would deny the authenticity of both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible, whose heroes, Moses and Jesus, are esteemed in Islam as prophetic predecessors of Muhammad. It sounds remarkably like cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Such absurd claims remind me of the time several years ago when I participated in a series of meetings with Arab religious leaders – both Muslim and Christian – to discuss the current situation and the prospects for peace. All of them – as all of the Jews – were moderates who wanted to find solutions to the Arab- Israeli conflict and were willing to make territorial concessions. Yet when we came to discuss Jerusalem and the Temple Mount (as we called it), we came up against a blank wall.
“There never was a Jewish Temple there,” the Muslims contended. “That mountain never was sacred to the Jews,” and so on. No amount of presentation of historical and archaeological facts could move them. At one point I quoted a document that came from the Cairo Geniza and that I had republished in my book The Jerusalem Anthology. The letter, of unknown date, came from the Adat Harabbanim in Jerusalem and described the way in which Jews were permitted by the caliph Umar I (Omar) in the seventh century to establish a Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem:
“When [the kingdom of Ishmael] came to Jerusalem, they brought with them Israelites who could show them the site of the Temple... All the Muslims in the city and surrounding came, together with a group of Jews. They were ordered to sweep the site of the Temple and to clean it. Omar was in charge of their work. Whenever they uncovered another layer, he would ask the elders of the Jews if this was the stone known as the Foundation Stone. One of the Sages explained the various sections of the place until it was uncovered. Then he ordered that the wall of the sanctuary be built and a dome be erected over the stone and overlaid with gold.”
As a reward for helping to locate the site of the Jewish Temple so that the Dome of the Rock could be built on the same spot, “70 [Jewish] households including women and children moved from Tiberias and established settlements in buildings whose foundations had stood many generations.”
Clearly, the only reason that the Dome of the Rock was built at this location is that it is over the Foundation Stone found in the holy of holies of the Temple.
Eventually, one of the Muslim religious leaders said he would think about it.
Unfortunately, we have our own Jewish extremists who fail to take into account the dangers inherent in their words and actions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has correctly assured everyone that Israel has no interest in changing the status quo, in permitting Jewish public prayer on the Temple Mount or in destroying al-Aksa in order to build the Third Temple, but his statement does not seem to prevent prominent governmental officials from making provocative statements, such as that of Tzipi Hotovely who speaks of dreaming of the day when the Israeli flag will fly over the Temple Mount (Haaretz, October 27).
I should like her to remember that the Israeli flag, as much as I love it, is a symbol of a secular state, while the Temple Mount is a sacred place which is considered to belong to God alone. She would do well to reread the words of the prophet: “I will bring them to My sacred mount and let them rejoice in My house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices shall be welcome on My altar; for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).
The Temple Mount may be within the State of Israel, but ultimately it is the Mountain of the Lord and not the mountain of Israel.
Nor does Netanyahu’s declaration prevent certain Jewish groups from publicly planning for and calling for the creation of the Third Temple, which of course would mean the destruction of both the Dome of the Rock and al-Aksa Mosque. It is one thing to hope for a day in the future when the Temple will be restored.
It is quite another to attempt to do it now under circumstances that will only result in warfare and destruction.
Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, who in the years before the Great Revolt correctly cautioned that the revolt against the Romans would result in the destruction of the Temple, also taught after that had happened, “Do not destroy their altars, lest you have to rebuild them with your own hands. Do not destroy those of brick, lest they tell you to rebuild them with stone. If youngsters tell you, ‘Come let us build the Temple,’ do not listen to them. If Elders tell you, ‘Come let us destroy the Temple,’ listen to them” (Avot of Rabbi Natan, B 31).
Obviously, Yohanan never thought that we would purposely destroy the Temple, but he was cautioning in the most extreme way against listening to the radical advice of those who did not have the good judgment that Elders, Sages, possess. Such caution would be well advised today, as it was at his time.
A believing Jew may pray for the restoration of the Temple as the capstone of the time of universal peace, the Messianic Age, but to make such a prayer into an attempt to “destroy their altars” is an act of such folly as to defy all logic.
Above all, this is a time for caution and moderation on all sides. The Temple was a House of Peace, created by Solomon whose name was “peace” in a city that was the city of peace – Yerushalayim. To make it and the Temple Mount into a cause for war is a desecration of all that is holy.
The writer, a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and a longtime Jerusalem Post columnist, is a prominent lecturer and author who twice received the National Jewish Book Award. His most recent book is Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy (Jewish Publication Society).