Since the 1967 Six-Day War when Israel conquered all of Jerusalem from Jordan including the Old City, then General Moshe Dayan made an agreement with Jerusalem’s Muslim authority (The Waqf) on behalf of the State of Israel that no Jewish prayer services would be allowed on the Temple Mount.
The Temple Mount is the holiest site in all of Judaism. The 37-acre platform built by King Herod on which he reconstructed the 2nd Jerusalem Temple in the first century BCE now houses the Islamic Dome of the Rock, a magnificent Byzantine structure (built in 691–92 CE) over the site that legend teaches Mohamed rose to heaven. Only meters away is the Al Aqsa Mosque (i.e. “The Southernmost Mosque”), the third holiest Islamic shrine after Mecca and Medina.
Israeli authorities understood in 1967 that for Israel to allow Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount could spark an international conflagration with the Muslim world of nearly two billion faithful. The rabbis of yore argued from a religious perspective that it was sacrilegious for any Jew to set foot on the platform out of the fear of stepping onto what was once the Holy of Holies, the Inner Sanctum of the Ancient Temple, a space forbidden to every Jew except the Jewish High Priest on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.
The agreement between Israel and the Waqf has held since 1967, but the arrangement has given way recently to something entirely new and potentially very dangerous, so reports Anshel Pfeffer of Haaretz in his piece In Jerusalem’s Holiest Site, These Modern Pilgrims Are Playing With Fire (September 14, 2021).
I was stunned by what Pfeffer revealed, and I worry that, as his article’s title warns, these Jewish religious pilgrims are indeed playing with fire. Though the Waqf seems to know that Jews are praying on this Muslim (and Jewish) sacred site and is saying nothing about it (so far), the more it becomes known that Jewish prayer is taking place there the greater will be the risk that more and more Jews will flock to join in thus stoking more Muslim-Jewish violence in an already highly fraught chaotic political cauldron between Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians in the city of Jerusalem.
“For the sake of peace” (a high Jewish virtue – mipnei darchei shalom), Jewish prayer there should cease immediately and the Israeli-Waqf agreement be reaffirmed. That said, something unique in the Jewish world is actually happening in a quiet section of the large platform that should be repeated in more traditional sites, such as at the Western Wall, in Israel generally, and around the Jewish world.
Individual prayer is taking place there that includes a wide variety of Jews, religious and non-Orthodox, men and women. They pray respectfully alongside each other without apparent judgement of one another. They do not hold prayer books, or carry Torah scrolls, or offer divrei Torah. They pray using apps on their cell phones twice a day (morning and afternoon), don’t shuckle in their davening, and keep their voices to a whisper so as not to attract undue attention.
Borrowing some of their language cited by Anshel Pfeffer in Haaretz (link below), I offer a poetic reflection that I hope evokes the spirit and consequences of what these Jews are doing upon the ruins of the ancient Beit Ha-Mikdash and contemporary “Noble Sanctuary.”
“At the window of yearning / Standing quietly / A smattering of Jews visit God / Speaking blessings in muted tones / Reading from their cell phones sans prayer books / Touching sanctity devoid of religious judgement / Against other religious streams / Risking massive inter-religious conflagration / Where once a massive building stood / A sacred palace of peace.”
Seems innocent enough when considered out of context, and the motives of these Jews may be quite pure. But the consequences of their continuing to pray on this hotly contested symbolically loaded piece of earth are frightening.