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Orthodox Judaism and the Temple Mount dilemma

Recent rabbinic rulings permitting Jews to ascend the Mount show that Orthodox Judaism can change

Over the past decade, there has been a steady increase in rabbinical rulings that permit the entry of Jews to the Temple Mount. It began with the precedent-setting ruling of the Council of Yesha Rabbis (from Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip) in February 1996, which permitted Jews to enter certain areas of the Mount, with a call to each rabbi who agreed with the ruling to go up to the Mount together with his congregation. The only limitation was to observe the restrictions regarding purity when doing so.

Since the reopening of the Temple Mount to Jews in November 2003 (it had been closed because of the Al-Aqsa Intifada), one can see the practical expression of this decision since every day now many Jews go up to the Mount, most of them members of the “nationalist yeshivas,” for a visit and silent prayer. According to information published by then minister Tzachi Hanegbi, during the year following the reopening of the Temple Mount, more than 70,000 Jews have visited the site.

As tensions in Jerusalem rise in regards to the control of the Temple Mount, and with the rising voices among Orthodox circles to change the Status Quo arrangement on the mount, it is important to observe the reasons that brought us to this point. This phenomenon represents  a genuine revolution in religious behavior. Since the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews have been considered impure due to contact with dead bodies, and therefore they are forbidden to enter the area where the Temple stood. This state of impurity can be changed into one of purity only with the help of the ashes of a red heifer and, as we know, such an animal no longer exists. Moreover, the exact dimensions of the Temple have been lost as well. We don’t know on which parts of the Mount the Holy of Holies was located, since, the Temple Mount is much larger than the dimensions of the structure itself. Therefore, it was ruled that the Temple Mount should not be ascended.

According to halakha (Jewish religious law), anyone who enters the mount will be punished by karet—a death sentence carried out by God. This decision has been reinforced in innumerable rulings. One was handed down by the chief rabbinate after the capture of the Mount during the Six-Day War in 1967, when Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, then head of the ultra-nationalist Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, joined its call. And this custom is followed by the vast majority of ultra-Orthodox rabbis.

Panorama1 The wailing wall and Temple Mount_norm
(photo credit: Ministry of Tourism)

How is it that so many observant Jews behave in opposition to such a prohibition? How can it be that the religious law on such a central issue has been breached, and that Orthodox rabbis permit something that is considered by most authorities as prohibited?

The answer can probably be found in the manner in which the religious leadership is attempting to deal theologically with the crisis that the peace processes creates for them. In order to understand them, we need to understand the religious attitudes of many members of religious Zionist movements toward the State of Israel: Almost since the inception of the religious Zionist Mizrahi movement, there have been many Orthodox Jews who didn’t consider the establishment of the state a goal in itself. The activist messianic faction of religious Zionism called the Zionist process at’halta degeula (the beginning of the Redemption); Zionist activity was interpreted as something secular that would eventually bring about, without the knowledge of the secularists, the fulfillment of the religious goal of the Return to Zion, namely, the establishment of the religious kingdom and a renewal of the rites on the Temple Mount.

After the Six-Day War, the enthusiasm that ensued swept religious Zionism into the settlement movement. The victory in the war led many to believe that total Redemption was about to begin, and so they went out to capture the land by establishing the so-called facts on the ground.

But since the peace agreement with Egypt, and even more so since the peace process with the Palestinian Authority, the leadership of religious Zionism is in a state of crisis, and faces a religious dilemma: How can one identify the beginning of Redemption in a state that is returning territory to Arabs and becoming increasingly secular? How can one identify the process of Redemption in the uprooting of settlements?

This dilemma gave rise to the counter-reaction of a strengthening of the desire for the Temple Mount and of greater commitment to the goal of rebuilding the Temple. The fear of the upcoming changes, which included talk of giving the Temple Mount over to Palestinian rule, has led to moves that are designed to prevent them. In order to “prevent” the Redemption from being lost because of the behavior of the State of Israel, which is unaware of its destiny in this historical drama, permission was found to enter the Temple Mount and establish “facts on the ground.”

The breach of the rabbinical decision that forbids entry to the Temple Mount demonstrates that strict religious law can be updated in accordance with changing political circumstances.

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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