Rabbi Kook and Merkaz Harav Yeshiva’s Attitude towards Going Up the Temple Mount

The activist messianic approach of Religious Zionism, which was fueled by the vision of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook (1865-1935), mandated the goal of the re-establishment of the Temple as a key Zionist objective. Secular reality was perceived as temporary and transient — an external shell that would later be replaced by a messianic future, whose overt purpose was the reinstatement of the religious ritual on Mount Moriah. This dialectic was also manifested in the positions of Rabbi Kook on entering the Temple Mount in the present period and on the construction of the Third Temple.

According to Rabbi Kook, the process of national revival of the Jewish people was perceived as a Revealed End, and was ultimately due to lead to the full redemption of Israel, namely: the establishment of the religious kingdom and the renewal of the rites on the Temple Mount. To this end, he established the Torat Cohanim yeshiva in 1921. This institute of religious higher learning was intended, as its declared intentions stated, to study “the talmudic order of Kodshim, the regulation of worship in the Temple, the commandments that relate to the Land of Israel and the religious laws relating to the state.”

The yeshiva was founded on the basis of the expectation that the movement of national revival led by Zionism, which was characterized by a disconnection from religion, would rapidly return to the fold of sanctity, the completion of ultimate redemption and the building of the Temple. As is clear from his pamphlet “Sefatei Cohen,” (Lips of a Priest) in which he described the goals of the new yeshiva, Kook believed that the revival of the Hebrew nation, despite the fact that it constituted primarily a secular initiative by Jews who rejected religious authority, was nevertheless intended to secure a sublime spiritual purpose. It would ultimately emerge that the final purpose of this revival was to bring the religious redemption of the Jewish people, the zenith of which is the building of the Temple:

“The anticipation of seeing the priests at their worship and the Levites on their stand and Israel in their presence — this is the foundation that bears this entire revival.”

According to Rabbi Kook, this day was steadily emerging, and preparations must therefore be made. Torat Cohanim yeshiva was thus intended to attend to the practical preparation of priests and Levites for their worship in the Temple, based on the acute messianic expectation that the Temple would indeed be built “speedily and in our days.”

Rabbi Kook taught the tractate of Kodshim in the context of this hope that the sacrifices would be reinstated, and this seems to have formed the background for the establishment of Torat Cohanim yeshiva.

A correspondent from the London newspaper The Christian visited the yeshiva, which was situated in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. He informed his readers that Rabbi Kook had established the yeshiva due to his sense of extreme urgency regarding the establishment of the Temple. The Zionist executive in London demanded explanations following this report, and Rabbi Kook replied that the requirement to study the Temple worship was now more pressing than ever:

“Our faith is firm that days are coming when all the nations shall recognize that this place, which the Lord has chosen for all eternity as the site of our Temple, must return to its true owners, and the great and holy House must be built thereon […] An official British committee some time ago asked for my opinion regarding the location of the Temple according to our estimation. I told them that just as you see that we have the right to the entire Land [following the Balfour Declaration of 1917], even though the entire world was distant from this. […] so days shall come when all the nations shall recognize our rights to the site of the Temple.”

This position reflects the characteristic dynamics of Rabbi Kook’s work. His messianic activism, which led him to prepare priests and Levites for their worship, stopped at the gates of the Temple Mount. He argued that the building of the Temple was conditioned on the recognition by the gentiles of the Jewish people’s right to the Temple Mount. The preparation of the priests was intended to take place outside the area of the Temple Mount, and the establishment of the yeshiva did not imply that he actually intended to enter the site with his students, let alone commence the sacrificial rituals.

In support of my argument, I would note an additional source from the period, found in a rabbinical responsum published by Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook in his book Mishpat Cohen, published in 5681 (1921). In the responsum, Rabbi Kook issues a strong warning against entering the Temple Mount area. It seems that this responsum was issued in reaction to the proposal by Rabbi Chaim Hirschenson, mentioned in the book Malki Bakodesh, to construct a house of prayer on the Temple Mount.

In his responsum, Rabbi Kook gives the explanation of mora hamikdash (“Awe of the Temple”), according to which, given the sanctity with which this holy place is to be treated (and since its holiness has not been lost), the public must stay away from the Temple Mount and refrain from entering the area. The dialectical explanation he offered for this was that distancing oneself from the site of the Temple would lead to a deeper spirituality, and hence to a profound sense of attachment: “The power of the memory of honor and the awe of sanctity is all the greater when it comes through denying proximity and through distancing.” The rabbi ended his responsum with the following comments:

“And when, through God’s infinite mercy, a fragment of the light of the emergence of salvation has begun to shine, the Rock of Israel will, with God’s help, add the light of his mercy and truth, and will reveal to us the light of his full redemption, and bring us speedily our true redeemer, the redeemer of justice, our just Messiah, and will speedily fulfill all the words of his servants the Prophets, and will build the Temple, speedily in our days […] And, until then, all Israel shall as friends associate in a single union to steer their hearts toward their Father in heaven, without bursting out and without departure, without any demolition of the fence and without any hint of transgressing against the prohibition of profanity and impurity of the Temple and its holinesses.” (emphasis mine – M.I.)

The Six Days War (June 1967) created a new reality in the Middle East. In the course of the war, Israel occupied the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula. The Israeli victory at the war created fervent hope among the younger generation of religious Zionists. The dominant school within this population, the graduates of Mercaz Harav yeshiva in Jerusalem, headed by Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Hacohen Kook, propagated the perception that the Israeli victory in this war reflected God’s will to redeem His people. The post-war era therefore represented a higher stage in the process of redemption. The Gush Emunim mass settlement movement, established in 1974 and was led by the graduates of the yeshiva, aimed to settle the territories occupied by the IDF in order to establish facts on the ground, and to settle the Biblical Land of Israel with Jews. They saw settlement as a manifestation of God’s will to redeem His people.

On the issue of the Temple Mount, however, Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Hacohen Kook did not diverge from his father. Although Zvi Yehudah is considered the spiritual guide of the Gush Emunim movement, which acted out of a strong sense of messianic urgency, he continued to view the Temple Mount as out of bounds. Zvi Yehudah signed the declaration issued by the Chief Rabbinate immediately after the occupation of the site, prohibiting Jews from entering the Temple Mount.

Indeed, Zvi Yehudah sharply criticized Shlomo Goren, the Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, and later a Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, who advocated Jewish prayer on the Mount. Zvi Yehudah felt compelled to oppose in the fiercest possible terms the idea of Jews entering the Temple Mount area in order to pray. Indeed, both Kook father and son alike ruled that the sanctity of the Temple Mount was so great that it was prohibited even to place one’s fingers inside the cracks in the Western Wall. Zvi Yehudah fiercely opposed the demand to undertake archeological excavations on the Temple Mount, since it “is surrounded by a wall. We do not pass this wall and we have no need for [the site] to be studied.”

It should be emphasized that the principled position of Zvi Yehudah against Jews entering the Temple Mount was not intended to weaken the demand for Israel to demonstrate its sovereignty on the site. He argued that the Jewish people enjoyed “property ownership” of the area of the Temple Mount. However, he explained that the State of Israel has not yet attained a spiritual level permitting Jews to enter the area of Mt. Moriah. Only after the state has been built in the spirit of the Torah, in both the practical and spiritual realms, would it be possible to enter the holy site.

The article is revised from my book: Jewish Fundamentalism and the Temple Mount (SUNY 2009)

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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