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The Temple Mount is just a hill

Modern Judaism finds holiness in texts, learning and hearts, not shrines, fetishes or places

When the IDF captured the Temple Mount, Rav Goren, then IDF Chief Chaplain, begged Major-General Uzi Narkiss to immediately destroy the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque. Narkiss would, Goren said, never have another chance.

The Dome of the Rock in the background
Brigade Commander Col Gur’s HQ APC on the Temple Mount, June, 1967 (Photo credit: Bamahane)

The destruction would have echoed the destruction of nearly all the synagogues in Jerusalem in 1948, and like that destruction it would have been a dire cultural crime.

It should, indeed, be a matter of pride for Israel that after the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967 the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock along with the other Muslim shrines on the Temple Mount were kept under Muslim administration.

Give me Yavne and its sages

While Rav Goren nurtured dreams of establishing Jewish worship on the Temple Mount for the rest of his life, the rest of the Jewish people either visited the Temple Mount as tourists or, obeying the orders of almost every Jewish religious authority, kept to the synagogues of the Jewish Quarter and the prayer plaza which replaced the Mughrabi Quarter.

If the hearts of the Jewish people had for centuries yearned for Jerusalem, yearned to pray at the Temple’s walls, and yearned for the Messiah to build a new temple; the hearts of the Jewish people didn’t seem to yearn to pray on top of the hill just now.

When I first visited the Western Wall as a child I asked my father how the Messiah could build a Third Temple when there was already an imposing gold-domed Muslim shrine on the site. My father, a man of great wisdom and quick thinking, said that seemingly impossible tasks were exactly why building the Third Temple required the Messiah.

It is not surprising that modern Jews are generally content to pray in the other 14.9×10^9 hectares of the Earth’s surface and leave the Temple Mount to others.

A bust of Vespasian
Vespasian: Last man standing in the Year of the Four Emperors, 69 CE (Photo credit: Shakko/Wikimedia CC-BY SA)

The founding statement of Rabbinic Judaism is, quoting the Talmud in Tractate Gittin f. 56, ‘Give me Yavne and its sages, Rabban Gamaliel’s lineage and physicians for Rabbi Zadok’.

The statement is meaningless out of context: Jerusalem was besieged. The President of the Sanhedrin, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, had just been smuggled out of the besieged City of Jerusalem to Vespasian’s camp.

The rabbi hailed Vespasian as a king which turned out to augur Vespasian’s ascent to the Imperial Purple. When told he had been made Emperor, Vespasian offered to do Rabbi Yochanan a favour.

Menorah relief from the Arch of Titus
If you could save something, wouldn’t you pick the lamp? (photo credit: CC-BY-SA 3.0, by GunnarBach, Wikimedia Commons)

Offered anything he wished by the unquestioned ruler of the entire known world, the President of the Sanhedrin did not ask Vespasian to raise the siege of Jerusalem. He did not ask Vespasian to spare the Temple. He did not ask Vespasian for the Menorah or the Table of the Shew-bread or the Altar of Incense or anything to do with the Temple. He did not ask for the High Priest’s headpiece, or the Breastplate of Judgement or the life of the High Priest, the direct lineal descendant of Aaron, or anything else to do with the Priesthood.

The three things he asked for were a far-off town with an academy, a dynasty of scholars (Gamaliel the First was Hillel’s grandson), and aid for a colleague who had, the Talmud says, been subsisting on nothing but fig juice for 40 years.

Yochanan ben Zakkai had made a career of opposing the Priesthood, and the continuation of the Temple cult held little attraction for him. In Yavne he convened an academy which replaced the Sanhedrin and which changed the basis of Jewish worship from the Sadducee sacrifices to an early version of the Rabbinic Judaism we know today.

This is not to say that the Pharisee rabbis who established this new version of Judaism rejoiced at the Temple’s destruction. This is not to say that they did not look forward to the establishment of a Third Temple. In that moment, however, the President of the Sanhedrin separated Judaism from that building on that hill.

In transferring the centre of Judaism from the Temple Mount to Yavne he was not just moving the Temple to a new location. We did not build a Temple in Yavne, and people today don’t make a point of praying on Tel Yavne. He was keeping Jews’ ties to God while letting go of Judaism’s fixation to one specific bit of topography.

Jerusalem is important to the Jewish People, and the Temple Mount is important to the Jewish People. But Judaism has been, these past two thousand years, a portable religion.

Sign saying 'Announcement and Warning: According to the Torah it is forbidden for any person to enter the area of the Temple Mount due to its sacredness. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel'
Two Jews, three opinions. (Photo credit: Wikipedia/Bantosh CC-BY SA)

Conducting prayer services on the Temple Mount is important for regular worshippers in the al-Aqsa Mosque, and for Muslim pilgrims who come to that mosque and to the Dome of the Rock and surrounding shrines. For almost 50 years one of the few things Jewish and Muslim authorities agreed on in Jerusalem was that Jews didn’t pray there and Muslims did.

Recently there has been a movement among some religious Jews to pray on the Temple Mount. This has roiled and frightened the Muslim population of Jerusalem, and I think I understand why.

Jews didn’t ask to pray on the Mount under Byzantine rule. Jews didn’t ask to pray on the mount under Persian rule or Ottoman rule. Jews didn’t ask to pray on the Mount under British rule. (Jews weren’t allowed in Jerusalem at all under Jordanian rule.) Jews, with the exception of Rav Goren and a few who agreed with him, didn’t ask to pray on the Mount under Jewish rule. Now Jews demand to pray there.

The demand is based on the idea that Jews ought to have the right to pray there. Perhaps that right exists, and has existed since the end of the British Mandate. Asserting the right is one thing, but exercising that the right is as an absolute one is something else.

Judaism, the portable religion

I have the right to swing my arms, as the saying goes, but my right ends where somebody else’s nose begins. There is a population of Muslim worshippers who have a right to their own worship, who have established over years a right of access to the site, and who consider the entire plaza and its mosques and shrines to be, in effect, a single mosque.

Jews are arguably permitted by Jewish law to pray in a mosque. Muslims are arguably permitted by Muslim law to pray in a synagogue. I think I’m right in saying that we never do.

The Arab population of Jerusalem rightly perceives prayer on the Mount as the thin edge of a wedge. If Jews have an absolute right to pray on the Temple Mount, and if the right must be exercised, then surely there must be a synagogue on the Temple Mount. If there’s a synagogue then there must be separate security and access. If there’s separate security and access then there must be storage for Torah scrolls. And prayer books. There must be full-time schnorrers, and IDF oath-taking ceremonies and bar mitzvahs and plastic chairs and arguments about how big the women’s section should be.

It’s what I would expect. Why shouldn’t the Arab population of Jerusalem expect it? If they expect it why shouldn’t they dread it?

Just a little bit of open-air prayer? No walls? No roof? No Ark with Torah scrolls in it? Why would I or anyone else believe that when ten years ago we didn’t even want the open-air prayer?

Why should the Muslim population of Jerusalem have to put up with it?

The only thing I know about the Waqf which runs the Temple Mount is that their actions over antiquities have been shameful. Apart from that, I assume that their trustees are responsible and effective. I do, however, think they should be left alone to run their lovely old plaza and their lovely old houses of worship in an appropriate and responsible way.

The corruption of the Temple and hatred among Jews destroyed the building and the old form of Judaism. The form which has replaced it has little need of shrines, fetishes and holy places. Why not keep the holiness in our books, in our schools and in our hearts where it stands less chance of creating violent, deadly conflict?

About the Author
Dr Lynette Nusbacher is a strategist and devil's advocate. She is Principal at Nusbacher & Associates, a strategy consultancy. She has been a senior national security official in the United Kingdom, was Senior Lecturer in War Studies at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and served as a military intelligence officer.
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