Let Freedom Ring in All Our Holy Places

Over the past few weeks, the Jewish blogosphere buzzed with the announcement that the Israeli government reneged on an agreement with non-Orthodox Jewish movements.  Due to pressure by Haredi members of the government, the Knesset voted to table a landmark deal to expand the small egalitarian section of the Western Wall around the Davidson archaeological park. For the first time, non-Orthodox representatives would have a say in creating and maintaining a prayer area next to the Western Wall also known as the Kotel.

Much false information has been disseminated by groups jockeying for political points. From MK Naftali Bennet saying almost nothing has changed to Rabbi Anat Hoffman’s video bemoaning the state of affairs, one can get lost in the rhetoric. In a recent article in this paper, Amanda Borschel-Dan tried to clarify the truth from the fiction making some order out of all the confusing discussions.

In wake of these events, leaders of the American Reform and Conservative movements made emergency flights to Israel to demand the government to keep its promise. Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Reform Movement and Rabbis Julie Schonfeld and Steven Wernick of the Conservative Movement, and even Jerry Silverman head of the Federations of North America arrived in Israel to demand more room at the Kotel. To be sure, Reform, Conservative, and other Egalitarian prayers can take place throughout Israel unhindered in their synagogues and similar spaces. The issue is not one of opportunity but access. Non-Orthodox Jews want the right to pray near the holiest spot in Judaism. I think most religious people can respect that desire.

On the one hand, I am sympathetic to the protest by archeologists who fear that irreparable damage will be done to important artifacts and I also fear for the backlash of the Muslim authority. Yet, the dignity and respect of all Jews and should be honored even if I and other Orthodox persons do not share their interpretation of Judaism. I believe that Jews should have the right to pray at our holy places without discrimination. Yet, a deep mistake has entered the dialogue; one which requires a corrective. The Kotel is not the holiest space in Judaism. The Temple Mount is.

One June 7th, 1967, Israeli paratroopers arrived at the Temple Mount. To this day, a plaque adorns the entrance to the area where the Commander of 55th Paratroopers Brigade, Mordechai Gur, declared “The Temple Mount is in our hands.” The Temple Mount, also known as Har HaBayit and Haram esh-Sharif, had become home to Muslim holy sites, yet it had been the seat of the two Jewish Temples. Despite being destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the mountain, which according to Jewish Tradition was where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac, has always held the Jewish imagination. Muslims built their shrines on top of the ruins of the Jewish Temples, but the history of the place can’t be erased.

According to the Mishnah, the legal encapsulation of rabbinic Judaism:

“There are ten degrees of holiness. The land of Israel is holier than any other land. … The walled cities are still more holy, …Inside the wall [of Jerusalem] is more holy than these… The Temple Mount has greater sanctity” (M Kelim 1:8)

Notice that the Kotel, which is in reality the western retaining wall of the Temple mount erected according the planning of Herod is not mentioned. The wall itself stands was for much of our history the closest Jews could get to the Temple mount yet as as Rabbi Soloveitchik mentions:

It is noteworthy that the Western Wall is not referred to at all in the Babylonian Talmud or the Jerusalem Talmud and is hardly mentioned in the Rishonim. For example, Maimonides’ letter describing his arrival in Jerusalem does not mention anything about the Western Wall. There is a reference to the Western Wall in the Midrash on the verse from Song of Songs, “Behold, he stands ahar kotlenu, behind our wall, He looks in through the windows, He peers through the lattice” (2:9). The Midrash says (Shemot Rabba 2:2) that this refers to the Western Wall and that the Shekhina is behind the Western Wall, in its shadow. I have always been somewhat skeptical of the authenticity of the midrashic references to the Western Wall, and I suspect they may be of a later period, because the classical Talmudic sources make no mention of the Western Wall. In my view, this kina of Rabbi Elazar HaKalir is one of the earliest documents in which the Western Wall is mentioned. (R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Kinos Mesoras HaRav, p. 370: Quoted from Torah Musings)

It is the Temple Mount which is the holiest spot and the seat of or prayers.

As Rabbi Yehuda Halevi describes,

“The ‘binding of Isaac’ took place on a desolate mountain, viz. Moriah. Not till the days of David when it was inhabited, was the secret revealed that it was the place specially prepared for the Divine Presence. …in the Book of Chronicles it is stated more clearly that the Temple was built on [Mt.] Moriah. These are without a doubt, the places worthy of being called the gates of heaven.” (Kuzari II:14)

Maimonides concurs and even proclaims that the holiness of the Temple Mount, unlike that of the remainder of Israel, remains until this day:

Why do I say that the original consecration sanctified the Temple and Jerusalem for eternity, while in regard to the consecration of the remainder of Eretz Yisrael…, [the original consecration] did not sanctify it for eternity?


Because the sanctity of the Temple and Jerusalem stems from the Shechinah [Divine Presence], and the Shechinah can never be nullified. Therefore, [Leviticus 26:31] states: “I will lay waste to your Sanctuaries.” The Sages declared:81 “Even though they have been devastated, their sanctity remains.” (Rambam H. Beit HaBechira 6:16)

For Maimonides, Jerusalem and specifically the Temple Mount remain as the dwelling place for God’s presence. Not only does the sanctity remain in place, but the Talmud and rabbinic authorities point out that the Mountain is the central focal point for prayer. As we saw in the name of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, it is indeed the gate of heaven and there is a practical ramification of this status.

As the Talmud states:

One who was standing in the Diaspora, should focus his heart toward Eretz Yisrael, …
One who was standing in Eretz Yisrael, should focus his heart toward Jerusalem, ….
One who was standing in Jerusalem, should focus his heart toward the Temple, …

One who was standing in the Temple, should focus his heart toward the Holy of Holies, …

One who was standing in the Holy of Holies, should focus his heart toward the seat of the ark-cover [kapporet],… (Berachot 30a)

These stage directions for prayer are codified in all codes until the present time. As Rabbi Yaakov Emden states in his payer book,

“It is known that one who prays is obligated to orient his body towards Jerusalem…this sign and hint [of our body position] we perform only as a remembrance and example, a simple symbol. It is only [for times] when it is impossible [to be otherwise]. Then our desires and positive intent will add to our action. Prevented out of duress or danger. For one under duress is exempt from everything and necessity is not despicable. However, it is also not praiseworthy. And intent doesn’t work when there is no claim of complete duress when times are easy.  Therefore, every person must resolve to move to live in Israel…and to desire to merit praying there in front of the Temple of God. Even though destroyed, God’s presence is still there. [Sulam Beit El Section 3 Note 6]

This sentiment was echoed by none other than Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan in the Mishnah Berura, “one should think in his heart and mind as if he is standing in the Temple in Jerusalem in the place of the holy of holies.” (94:2) How much better, argues Rabbi Emden if you can actually be in the realm of the Holy of Holies on the Temple Mount itself.

Even the great Maimonides seems to have felt the importance and need to pray on the Temple Mount. In a letter attributed to Rambam reproduced from manuscript by Rabbi Yitzchak Shilat, Rambam mentions “on Tuesday, the fourth day of Marcheshvan, in the year 26 from creation, we left Acre and to go up to Jerusalem with much danger, and I entered the great and holy house and prayed there.” This letter was reproduced in other works and is the source of some confusion and controversy. None-the-less, if authentic, supports the claim that Maimonides prayed on the Mountain and that there might even have been a synagogue there. (See Yitzhak Shilat, Iggarot Ha-Rambam [Letters of the Rambam], Jerusalem/Maale Adumim, 1995, vol.1, 230. And Tehumin 7, 1986, 492.)

Despite the well-known debate of modern rabbinic authorities regarding the permissibility of entering the area of the Temple Mount, what emerges is clear, the holiest spot to Judaism today is the same as it has been for 3 millennia – the Temple Mount and not the Western Wall.

While it is true, that many rabbis do not allow entering Har HaBayit, most of those rabbis also do not allow mixed prayer at the Kotel. A good number of authorities, however, promote the building of a synagogue in specific locations on the Temple Mount.

Just as the Conservative and Reform movements have demanded a compromise position and the erecting of a space for their form of payer, the time has come for to build a broader consensus for building a synagogue on the Temple mount. As outrageous as some find the policy of the Israeli government regarding the Kotel, in reality the denial of ability to pray unhindered on the Temple mount is religiously more significant.  Non-Orthodox groups lament the supposed cowardice of the Israeli government to confront the Haredi members of parliament despite the fact that in reality heterodox movement do have a place to pray next to the Kotel. It is the same Kotel, in fact, that stretches across the side of the mountain. The legitimate complaint is not that they do not have a space to pray but rather that it is not as easily accessible, as aesthetically pleasing, and independent as the other side of the area. Yet, even without the government keeping its word, which it should, the ability to pray is unhindered. This is not the case on the Temple Mount where Jews are generally denied this possibility.

In 2015, the Israeli Supreme Court upheld previous ruling which theoretically allow praying on the Har HaBayit; however, the Israeli security services maintain the authority to prevent prayers out of fear that the Palestinians will riot. This certainly sounds familiar to some of the shenanigans at the Kotel where security services have prevented worshipers from exercising their legal rights to egalitarian prayer services because some Ultra-Orthodox will riot.

Some claim that only “fanatics” want to pray on Har HaBayit and hence such acts should be prevented. Yet, would people use the same line of reasoning to prevent Christians from praying at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher or Church of the Nativity? What about groups who want to dip in the Sea of Galilee? Do these same people consider the Muslims who want to make the Haj to Mecca or even pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque on Har HaBayit not deserving? What of Buddhists who make pilgrimages to their holy sites? As Andrew Tobin records, the desire to pray on the Temple Mount is becoming the mainstream. I myself was first introduced to the idea by Rabbi She’ar Yashuv Cohen z”l, former chief rabbi of Haifa when he spoke at Brandeis University.

We witnessed with horror as the Muslim fundamentalist Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan and now how Palestinian Muslim fundamentalist prevent Jews from praying by rioting and threatening violence. Similarly, as I mentioned above, we a have seen how violent fundamentalist Jews have worked to harass and prevent other Jews from praying at the Kotel. It is time for a paradigm shift.

I am reaching out to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, Rabbi Steven Wernick and other supporters of the Kotel compromise. I fully support your desire to make a better space for your mode of prayer at the Western Wall will you will join with me in negotiating with the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf or Muslim authority to make room for Jews to build a synagogue on the holiest space to Judaism – the Temple mount. We are asking for the same thing – to share the space in a respectful manner.

 I call out to moderate Muslims, Christians, and Bahá’í everywhere, the time for discrimination regarding prayer space has past. Just as Israel has safeguarded Christian and Muslim churches, mosques, and shrines including such as Al-Aqsa, the Dome of the Rock, the Bahá’í Gardens in Haifa, and so many others. Can we together, find the brotherly love to share our holy spaces? Must one group always prevent the other from worshiping in jointly recognized holy places?

In what many consider to be one of the most shortsighted acts in Israeli military and political history, in 1967 acting defense minister Moshe Dayan gave control over Har HaBayit to the Waqf thus preventing agreements to share the space in peace. The time has come to move beyond this mistake.

Tonight begins the three week mourning period where Jews throughout the world remember the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem; a period which culminates on the 9th of Av. Tomorrow, many fast remembering, among other events, the roman breach of the walls around the city. This act enabled the eventual burning of the Temple. The discrimination against Jewish worship on the Temple mount which began almost 2,000 years ago remains in effect today — not by marauding Romans but fundamentalist Muslims. Can we not begin to heal the rupture which has festered for so long? Can the world not finally allow the Jewish people proper access to the Temple Mount? Let us all work for a day when the words of the prophet Isaiah will come to fruition, when “I will bring them to My sacred mount And let them rejoice in My house of prayer… ; For My House shall be called A house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:7)

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
Related Topics
Related Posts