An Israeli Jew's first time ascending Jerusalem's Temple Mount - opinion

Thoughts about ascending the Temple Mount in Jerusalem: It was scary, emotional, fascinating and infuriating. And necessary.

 THE WRITER sits in reflection on the northern edge of the Temple Mount plaza, this week. (photo credit: Courtesy/David M. Weinberg)
THE WRITER sits in reflection on the northern edge of the Temple Mount plaza, this week.
(photo credit: Courtesy/David M. Weinberg)

In recent years, as increasing numbers of religious Jews have begun to visit the Temple Mount (backed by some prominent rabbinical figures in the religious Zionist world), I encouraged my righteous sons, good yeshiva boys, to do so. 

I told them it is essential that Jews and Israelis demonstrate their attachment to the site, because radical Islamists and Palestinians have turned the Temple Mount into the apex of their all-out war against Israel.

But I declined to ascend the holy Mount myself. After all, there are unique and stringent rules of kedusha and tahara, holiness and ritual purity, that apply in Jewish law to the Temple Mount even 2,000 years after the destruction of the Second Temple (at least according to Maimonides) – and I didn’t think I was up to it.

At the same time, the Israeli government’s malfeasance in the management of the Temple Mount has long infuriated me, and I have written about this matter dozens of times. 

Thus far, Israel has chosen to maintain a situation whereby the Muslims exercise exclusive religious and de facto national rights on the Temple Mount, and have rigged the site as a base of attack against Israelis and anybody who makes peace with Israel. 

 An Israeli security officer looks on at Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount in Jerusalem (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) An Israeli security officer looks on at Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount in Jerusalem (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Jews, on the other hand, have only limited visitation rights and are almost altogether forbidden from praying there. Jews have been attacked by Muslims on the Mount even when approaching prayer at the Western Wall.

The thousands of boulders stockpiled by Palestinians on the Temple Mount for their periodic, planned “outbursts” of rock-throwing violence are no less outrageous. So are the illegal Wakf (Islamic religious trust) construction projects on the Mount and beneath it, which have willfully destroyed centuries of Jewish archaeological treasures.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas continues to roil the waters and foment violence against Israel by repeating the canard that “al-Aqsa Mosque is in danger,” meaning that “the Zionists are conspiring to blow up the mosque and Islamic shrine” on the Mount. This is a blood libel that goes all the way back to the notorious pro-Nazi Arab leader Haj Amin al-Husseini in the pre-state period.

Therefore, I have argued and continue to believe that Israel must parry Palestinian and Islamic incitement in Jerusalem and lay out a new diplomatic initiative to solidify Israel’s rights on the Temple Mount, hopefully through dialogue and even a regional consensus. (My many conversations in Gulf countries over the past two years have convinced me that this is possible.)

ALL THIS time, my personal desire to alight or ascend the holy Mount, for religious and national reasons, has grown. But I still didn’t dare, until I saw an advertisement several months ago for an in-depth course of studies and tours about the Temple Mount, designed mainly for tour guides, run by the Kapot Hamanool, (The Open Gate) organization. 

(The phrase, which literally means “the handles of the lock,” comes from Song of Songs 5:5, where the beloved fails to open the door in time when God comes to visit, tragically missing an opportunity.)

The course has been an outstanding and intensive learning experience. We are studying the First and Second Temple periods; the Byzantine, Muslim, Christian and Mamluk periods relating to the Temple Mount; the Jordanian period; Palestinian narratives and claims; archaeology and architecture of the Temple Mount; Jewish and modern Zionist literature relating to the Temples and the Temple Mount, and more.

We also have studied the laws of sanctity that apply to the Temple Mount, the processes of purification required before ascending the Temple Mount, and halachic literature and modern research regarding the actual location of the ancient temples – which defines the zones of the Temple Mount Plaza that can be visited safely from a halachic perspective.

And thus, this week I ascended for the first time to the Temple Mount, along with my Kapot Hamanool class. (We took every precaution, widely avoiding the approximated forbidden zones of the Temple.)

Finally ascending the Temple Mount

For me, this entailed appropriate physical and spiritual homework. This included a visit to the mikveh, a ritual bath, unlike any other previous mikveh immersion. 

This is not the quick dip on the eve of a holiday or Yom Kippur that Orthodox men are used to. Rather, it involves meticulous preparation (relating to hair, nails and more), and even pronunciation of a blessing before the immersion – something that very few religious men ever have the obligation or opportunity to do.

I also offered special pre-ascent prayers to God, including Psalms 84, “My soul longs, indeed it faints, for the courtyards of the Lord. My flesh cries out for the living God.” 

And yes, when up on the Temple Mount, I unobtrusively prayed there too. I silently recited to myself the fifth chapter of the Mishna in tractate Zevachim, which details the sacrifices offered in various areas of the Temple. Then I said Aleinu Leshabeach La’Adon Hakol, the two paragraphs that end every Jewish prayer service three times a day, 365 days a year, which speaks of every Jew, and every nation, bowing before God. 

(I did not dare bow or even bend forward when saying this prayer, never mind prostrate myself on the ground as Muslims do every day and as Jews do on Yom Kippur, because that would have been viewed by the guards of the Wakf as a blatant provocation.)

And yes, when up on the Temple Mount, I saw other religious Jews inaudibly praying there too, standing erect on their own in distant confines of the Mount amid rubble and old olive trees.

OVERALL, MY ascent to the Temple Mount was scary (meaning, awe of the holiness of the site); exciting and emotional (yes, I cried as I took 4,797 steps around the outer margins of the Temple Mount Plaza); fascinating (thanks to an excellent guide, a true religious and historical expert, Pinchas Abramovich); and infuriating (because of Wakf restrictions, as related below).

I learned many things. First, there is plenty of room, loads of undeveloped and even desolate sections of land on the vast Temple Mount plaza where a Jewish house of prayer could be built without interfering in any way with Muslim shrines and prayer practices. 

Nobody needs to feel threatened by a modest presence of Jewish petitioners tucked away in a distant corner of the holy Mount – unless your opposition to Jewish prayer and visitation on the Temple Mount stems from the wholesale denial of indigenous Jewish rights in Jerusalem and the Land of Israel, which alas has become almost-mainstream Palestinian discourse.

Second, the Wakf and Israel Police unpleasantly differentiate between various groups that visit the holy site. 

Today, only Muslims can enter al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock shrine. These buildings used to be open to non-Muslims, but the Wakf wanted to charge an entry fee and Israel disallowed this, so the Wakf slammed the doors shut. (However, I am told that if your guide has a few connections and slips a bribe to Wakf officials, some tour groups can get in.)

Non-Jewish tour groups can roam the outdoors of the Temple Mount freely with their guides, although this is allowed only for a few hours per day. 

Jewish and Israeli tour groups also are allowed to visit, at limited times, mainly without interference from either Wakf or Israel Police guards, if this is coordinated in advance and if the group is not identifiably religious/Orthodox!

This is how my class of tour guides was classified, which allowed for a two-hour, in-depth visit. But I had to wear a hat over my kippah and make sure that no ritual fringes were showing. This was annoying, but at least I wasn’t asked to shave my beard.

Jewish tour groups that are identifiably religious/Orthodox are allowed only short 20-minute visits to the Temple Mount. They are rushed in and out of the compound along a defined, peripheral route. Wakf guards and Israeli policemen surround and squeeze these groups like a girdle, lest they dally or dangerously “infiltrate” the site. 

Given the hostility of the Wakf, I suppose that there is some law-and-order logic to this discriminatory treatment of Jews and Israelis, for the moment. I certainly have no complaints against the Israel Police for doing the best they can at this super-sensitive site. 

But from Israel’s leaders, I have higher expectations and demands. It’s time for them to negotiate significant improvements in the way the Temple Mount is administered, and Jewish-Israeli rights are accommodated there, based on principles of peace, tolerance and religious freedom – for Jews and non-Jews alike.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Kohelet Forum and at Israel’s Defense and Security Forum (Habithonistim). The views expressed here are his own. His diplomatic, defense, political and Jewish world columns over the past 26 years are archived at davidmweinberg.com.