July 17, 2007

Up to the Mount

By Yair Sheleg, via Ha'aretz:

"The laxity with which the Israeli public, even certain parts of the religious public, regards the land stems from the fact that they do not understand the value of the land's sanctity. That is why it is important to have an attachment to the Temple Mount, which is the focal point of this sanctity." That is how Rabbi Zefania Drori, the chief rabbi of Kiryat Shmona, explains his decision last week to sign a call for people to visit the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem. Other well-known figures from the central stream of religious Zionism also joined in this call, including Rabbi Haim Druckman and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. This was a historic event in terms of the attitude of halakha (Jewish traditional law) to the Temple Mount. Since the Six-Day War, 40 years ago, the council of the chief rabbinate, supported by an overwhelming majority of the country's rabbis, has forbidden Jews from setting foot on the mount.

The reasoning for the prohibition, from a halakhic point of view, is that it cannot be established where on the mount the Temple, and most specifically its innermost sanctum, the Holy of Holies, were situated, and these areas cannot be entered when one is ritually impure. This all-embracing prohibition was imposed on the assumption that every Jew in our time has been ritually defiled (after all, everyone has stood beside a grave at one time or another), and over the years, only a small handful of members of the Temple Mount Faithful movement have dared to violate it. The latter relied on a small number of rabbis who claimed that they could define the location of the Temple, and that anyway it was possible to set foot on the rest of the mount.

And now, after 40 years, some of the central rabbis of [missing.... ..] thinking. Drori, for his part, has reservations, but says that he agreed to sign the call "because the text is aimed only at those who are pure when they go to the mount" (that is to say, those people who observe the halakhic instructions that restrict the areas where it is possible to go on the mount and who cleanse themselves in a mikveh, the ritual bath, before ascending to the mount). In any event, it is clear that 10 or 20 years ago he would not have signed a letter of this kind either.

And if this were not enough, a group of several dozen rabbis from among those who signed the declaration actually went so far as to go to the mount on Sunday as a group. Most members of the group had actually been to the mount before, but not as a delegation of rabbis, which made some of them express the feeling that it was a historic moment.

"It is the public that has had an influence on the rabbis," says Yehuda Etzion, a former activist of the Jewish terror underground, who was involved in a plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock more than 25 years ago. "What led to this was a prolonged educational process that the religious public underwent: children who were asked in kindergarten to draw the Temple - something which I did not do when I was a child - turned into adults who ask themselves what they do about the issue, especially those of them who became rabbis. Only after there was an awakening on this subject among the religious public did the rabbis start to deal with it, at least some of them."

Response to a crisis

The rabbis who signed the statement speak of a prolonged process that led to their decision to join in the call to visit the mount. Drori says the reason is the laxity in the ties people feel for the land. "This is a crisis that is taking place now not only among the secular public. The decrease in the importance of Jerusalem Day also stems from this. That is why we must return to the Temple Mount - to strengthen the feeling of sanctity from which we draw [our strength]."

Rabbi Avi Gisser, the rabbi of Ofra and one of the moderate rabbis in the territories, says: "For me, it started when the big mosque was built in Solomon's Stables and with the destruction of the important archaeological artifacts on the Temple Mount. That gave me the feeling that I could not remain apathetic to harm being done to one of the most important symbols of Jewish identity. This is in no way a political matter. The right to pray at the Temple Mount has to be given to every Jew, without any connection to regime or occupation."

They do not attribute the timing of the call this week to a desire to exploit the government's political weakness but rather to a combination of facts - that awareness of the issue has reached a peak, and the symbolic date of 40 years of Israeli control of the mount. "This is an attempt to introduce contemporary significance to the declaration that 'the Temple Mount is in our hands,'" Gisser says.

Does the call to go to the mount also indicate regret and anger vis-a-vis the chief rabbinate, which for the past four decades has forbade Jews from going there? Gisser is convinced that this is so. "The rabbinate should have, from the start, found the courage and the right way to create a prayer site at the most holy place for the
Jewish people, instead of allowing successive Israeli governments to hide behind ultra-Orthodox decisions. After all, it is no coincidence that this is the only subject about which the governments were so fond of a decision by the rabbinate, even though a responsible view of halakha would have made it clear that there are areas on the mount that could serve as a prayer site for the Jewish people."

Drori is more cautious. "I can understand the decisions of the past," he says. "The rabbis did not believe that the masses would indeed be able to observe the necessary halakhic conditions. But in retrospect, it seems that these decisions were too all-encompassing. Today there is a broad public that understands the conditions and knows how to uphold them, and one must say more precise things."

Do they expect that their call to Jews to ascend to the mount will change the existing conditions and agreements? Etzion is doubtful. "We must be honest: This is too little, too late. A move of this kind should have happened on the day after the Six-Day War and in a much more comprehensive and forceful way. After all, even now, they went there under the aegis of the Waqf [the Muslim religious trust that administers the mount], in effect, and according to the humiliating conditions laid down by the Waqf, including a prohibition, imposed only on Jews, on uttering even a single word of prayer. We have paid, and we shall continue to pay, a heavy price for being so tardy in our awareness."

Drori too does not believe that visiting the mount will pave the way for Jews being able to pray there - something that is today forbidden [by the police] - but he supports visits for educational reasons. "I see people who have gone to the mount and I feel that it has changed their spiritual world. Their connection with the land, the people, the issues of sanctity and purity, start to become deeper. This is a spiritual elevation that leaves its mark on people for a long time, not merely for a few days."

Only Gisser believes that "if the public gives vent to a widespread statement of closeness to the Temple Mount, something will have to be changed there too. After all, the humiliating situation whereby Christians can pray on the mount without restriction and only a Jew who prays there is considered to be disturbing the public peace is indeed intolerable. "

What in fact do those who go to the mount envisage - the evacuation of the mosques? The possibility they will be able to pray there? The establishment of a synagogue? Etzion, who is the most radical, says: "I have no expectations from the leadership of this country. I do not believe in democracy, but according to their democratic system, after all, they should have created equality that would have made it possible for Jews too to pray on the mount, just as Jews and Muslims both pray at the Tomb of the Patriarchs [in Hebron]. That is why my only demand is of ourselves, that we establish an alternative that changes the situation on the mount and in the country in general."

Gisser would like a synagogue. "It does not have to be a building with a roof, but at least a permanent place for prayer and study, as an expression of the desires of thousands of years, seems to me to be a just and worthy thing." Drori, on the other hand, would make do with the possibility of praying on the mount, even if there is no permanent setting for it. He believes that by granting an opening of this kind, violent trends toward the Temple Mount can be neutralized. "The present humiliating situation is one of the things that encourages violent urges and the desire to change it with force," he says. "If the Jews are given legitimate channels of expression on the mount, that will restrain the violence."


The rabbis' call, and their visit to the Temple Mount, gave rise to harsh criticism in the religious world. Bluntly worded articles were published in the ultra-Orthodox press describing the rabbis who had visited the site as "idolaters" who had sold out the halakha, which opposes visiting the Temple Mount in principle, in return for the "golden calf" of the Zionists. Nati Grossman, who has a column in Yated Ne'eman that is considered the guardian of the Lithuanian ideological line, told Haaretz this week that "there is a quotation from the Steipler [Rabbi Yaakov Kanyevesky, one of the greatest Torah sages of the last generation], who said after the Six-Day War that perhaps it would have been even better if the Western Wall were not in our hands, so that people would not be tempted to visit the Temple Mount." And Yitzhak Roth, one of the editors of Yated Ne'eman, recalled that "when Rabbi [Eliezer] Shach's grandchildren cameto tell him with joy that Jerusalem had been liberated, he said that he was certainly happy about the liberation of the Western Wall but that he was afraid that people would want to set foot on the Temple Mount and desecrate it."

Another ultra-Orthodox public figure said this week: "Maybe one good thing will come out of this - a sharpening of the differences between us and the religious Zionists. If there was a fear of closeness after the disengagement, now it will be understood that this is something else. They do things that in our eyes are taboo."

But there are also important rabbis within the religious-Zionist stream who oppose setting foot on the Temple Mount. This includes those from the religious-Zionist Merkaz Harav yeshiva in Jerusalem, and pupils of its founder, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. Thus, for example, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a disciple of the latter's son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, says: "In the opinion of the Rabbis Kook - both the father and the son - there is a clear distinction between our holding all of the Land of Israel and our holding the Temple Mount. We hold the entire land by virtue of a Zionist act - settlement, army, building. But the Temple Mount is a matter of divine inspiration. One need not wait for the holy spirit to descend from the heavens, but in order to visit the Temple Mount, one must be purified and there is still a long way to go - in education, in morals, in improving the family and the Sabbath and kashrut." Rabbi Shmuel Zafrani, the secretary to Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, who is considered one of the most extreme right-wing rabbis, says: "Rabbi Eliyahu forbids visiting the Temple Mount totally, because it is impossible to know exactly where it is permitted to set foot and where it is forbidden. It is true that this is likely to strengthen the Muslim hold on the mount, but that is not an argument that holds water in the face of a divine promise of punishment."

Gisser, who is also a graduate of Merkaz Harav, says that according to Rabbi Kook there are various interpretations, and "I am not obliged to accept the interpretation of Rabbi Aviner on matters of the Temple Mount."