Israeli Chief Rabbinate and the Temple Mount Dilemma

After the Six Day War, and the re-establishment of Jewish power over the Temple Mount, the Chief Rabbinate decided to continue the passive tradition on the question of the Temple Mount. In other words, Jews were to confine themselves to the reintroduction of prayers at the Western Wall.

Just a few hours after the Temple Mount came under the control of the Israeli forces on June 8th , Israel Radio issued the warning by the Chief Rabbinate not to enter the site. At the first convention of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate after the war, Chief Rabbis Itzhak Nissim and Isser Yehuda Unterman continued to argue that Jews must not be permitted to enter the site.

The Rabbinate’s announcement was drafted by Rabbi Bezalel Jolti, who was invited to the meeting although he was not a member of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate. He wrote: “Since the sanctity of the site has never ended, it is forbidden to enter the Temple Mount until the Temple is built.”

The minority position in the meeting was represented by Rabbi Chaim David Halevy, then rabbi of Rishon Lezion, who proposed that the question of entering the Temple Mount be left to the local rabbis, who would issue their edict to those following their authority. Shaul Israeli (a prominent teacher at Mercaz Harav yeshiva) sought to prepare a map identifying the permitted areas on the Temple Mount. Despite the minority position, the Council of the Chief Rabbinate ruled that the entire Temple Mount area was of limists. Yitzhak Abuhatzeira, rabbi of Ramle, was the first rabbi to demand that warning signs be placed at the entrance to the site forbidding Jews to enter.

Despite the firm ruling of the assembly of the Chief Rabbinate prohibiting entry to the Temple Mount, there have been Chief Rabbis who, in a personal capacity, have permitted Jews to enter: Shlomo Goren and Mordechai Eliyahu. The opposition of Avraham Shapira, another former Chief Rabbi, to entering the site has also weakened in recent years.

Shlomo Goren was the Chief Rabbi of the IDF at the time of the Six Day War. This biographical fact constitutes a key point in the development of his personal approach and his vigorous campaign to open up the Temple Mount. After the war, he initiated the mapping of the site by soldiers from the Engineering Corps, in order to identify areas prohibited to Jews, since the Temple Mount site of today is considerably and indisputably larger than the original dimensions of the First and Second Temples. When he realized that his initial expectation that the Islamic presence would be removed ws not going to materialize, and that the mosques were to remain, Goren sent a confidential memorandum to the Prime Minister Levi Eshkol demanding that entry to the Temple Mount be closed to both Jews and Gentiles; but this was rejected. After the war, Goren established his office on the Temple Mount. On Tisha B’Av (a day of mourning to commemorate the destruction of the first and second Temples,) the rabbi and a group of his supporters brought a Torah scroll, ark and prayer benches to the Temple Mount, where they prayed Mincha (the afternoon service). After the prayer, Goren announced that he would also hold Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) prayers on the site. His plans were thwarted by the intervention of Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan and Chief-of-Staff Yitzhak Rabin.

In 1972, Goren was appointed the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel. In this capacity, he attempted to change the position of the Chief Rabbinate on the subject of Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount. He initiated a discussion in the plenum of the Rabbinate, and at two sessions in March 1976 lectured at length on his research. Despite his vigorous demand, the Council refrained from making any changes to its original decision, while nonetheless urging Goren to publish his studies. They later added that when his recommendations were presented in writing, it would be possible to convene a broader forum than that of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate. This served as a pretext for removing the issue from the agenda. At the same time, Goren’s efforts in the political arena to persuade Prime Minister Menachem Begin to ease the government position regarding Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount also failed.

In the absence of political and rabbinical support, Goren was unable to issue an official and public permit allowing entry to the Temple Mount. Moreover, the question of the entry of women was one of the aspects that deterred him from issuing an independent declaration opening the Temple Mount to all Jews. Goren believed that women must not be permitted to enter the Temple Mount area due to the question of ritual impurity, and was afraid that a sweeping permit for Jews to enter would also result in women entering the site.

Goren found a faithful supporter in Mordechai Eliyahu, Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi, during 1983-1993. Eliyahu adopted an innovative and creative Halachic approach when he proposed that a synagogue be built on the Temple Mount, within the permitted areas. The wall facing the Mount would be constructed of glass, so that the worshippers would look through the clear wall toward the square occupied by the Dome of the Rock. He proposed that entry into the synagogue would be directly from the entrance to the Temple Mount, and that the building would not have an exit point on to the Mount, thus avoiding any danger of Jews entering forbidden areas. Eliyahu proposed that the synagogue be higher than the Al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques, in order to manifest its superiority over the Muslim houses of worship, whose presence he saw as a reminder of the destruction. This idea also failed to materialize.

Among other proposals, Eliyahu advocated the formation of a subcommittee within the Council of the Chief Rabbinate in order to define the permitted areas on the Mount. He initiated a discussion in the Council, and permitted Gershon Solomon, the leader of the Temple Mount Faithful movement, to speak at the session. Ultimately, however, the Council of the Chief Rabbinate decided not to alter the existing prohibition against entering the Temple Mount as it had determined in 1967. Eliyahu’s colleague, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapiro, was opposed at that time to permitting Jews to enter the Temple Mount, following the approach of Avraham Yitzhak Kook. After the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty (1995), which granted Jordan preferential status in the future management of the Temple Mount, Shapiro softened his opposition to entering the site, as noted above, commenting that “those who wish to rely on Rabbi Goren should do so.”

In conclusion, although the position of the Chief Rabbinate continues to prohibit entry to the Temple Mount, the first cracks in this position have begun to emerge among several leading figures. It should be noted, however, that while they were in office, Rabbis Goren and Eliyahu did not publicly express their position permitting Jews to enter the Temple Mount in the current era. They seem to have taken pains to avoid expressing this opinion out of deference to their official status as Chief Rabbis, although their opinions were well known among the general public.

About the Author
Motti Inbari is an associate professor of religion at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. He is the author of Jewish Fundamentalism and the Temple Mount (SUNY 2009) and Messianic Religious Zionism Confronts Israeli Territorial Compromises (Cambridge 2012) and Jewish Radical Ultra Orthodoxy Confronts Modernity, Zionism and Women's Equality (Cambridge 2016).
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