Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

The Temple Mount as I See It

The Dome of the Rock, photo credit: Diana Lipton

Earlier this morning, following the resignation of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Yehudah Glick became first in line to enter the Knesset. Yehudah Glick is often perceived to be an ecumenical universalist who wants Jews and Muslims and others to pray alongside each other in peace on the Temple Mount. I don’t think that’s what he wants, but you can make up your own mind by looking at the websites of his organizations: The Temple Mount Heritage Foundation (Founder and Chairman, 2009-present); The Temple Mount Institute (Director General, 2005-2009); and HaLiba, the Initiative for Jewish Freedom on the Temple Mount (Director, 2013-present).

Of these, the Temple Mount Institute is the most explicit about its goals:

Our short-term goal is to rekindle the flame of the Holy Temple in the hearts of mankind through education. Our long-term goal is to do all in our limited power to bring about the building of the Holy Temple in our time.

Yehudah Glick may or may not be formally affiliated to the Temple Mount Institute today, but there’s a direct link to it on the website of HaLiba, of which he is Director. And his comments in an online discussion hosted by the Times of Israel last October point in the same direction — building the third Temple ‘speedily and in our days’.

Ladies and gentlemen – I am so overwhelmed to inform you that the process has begun! This does not mean that there won’t be more obstacles on the way – but it seems the train has left the station.

Just like the return of the People to Eretz Yisrael began by the initiative of private people and was only afterwards joined by the Rabbinical leaders it seems (unfortunately, in my opinion) that the return to Hashem and to His chosen venue is occurring in front of the eyes of the Rabbis who are simply not getting the point. Either way – we are proceeding and I am happy to invite all believers of Hashem to hop on! Baruch Hashem

This doesn’t sound very ecumenical to me. Friends who know the strength of my fears about what Yehudah Glick will unleash upon us sent messages and called this morning, as if I’d been bereaved. That’s how I feel. The time has come to post an essay I wrote six months ago, but did not publish, about the Temple Mount.

A few years ago a friend sent me a YouTube film about a woman who claimed to have fallen in love with the Eiffel Tower. She didn’t just love the Eiffel Tower, as surely many others do; she was ‘in love’ with it. It started like an adolescent crush — she plastered her bedroom with images of her beloved — and ended with a ‘marriage’ ceremony on the upper deck.

To be honest, I couldn’t tell if this ‘documentary’ — it featured others afraid to name their loves, such as a dorky American boy swooning over a dilapidated amusement park ride — was genuine or a spoof. But I mention it by way of explaining that although I’m not ‘in love’ with the Dome of the Rock, I really, really love it. Every single time I see it on the skyline, my heart skips a beat. It takes my breath away when it appears unexpectedly at the end of a flight of steps in the Old City, or as the jewel in the crown of a roof-top panorama. When I don’t see it for a few days, I suffer withdrawal symptoms. I cannot contemplate Jerusalem without the Dome of the Rock.

Dome reflected
Dome of the Rock reflected in a window, May 17 2016, my photo

At this point, you may be wondering if this is a spoof. It’s not. Last summer, Temple Mount activist Yehudah Glick came into the café where I was waiting for a friend. I left. I couldn’t drink double espresso in the presence of a man apparently determined to destroy the Jerusalem I know and love.

From my perspective, preparing to build a third Temple is like telling your perfectly healthy, happily settled parents that you’re consulting an architect on remodeling the home you hope one day to inherit from them. Agitating for a change in the status quo on the Temple Mount is like trying to drive your parents out by moving in with your ten unruly kids. It’s much, much worse than that.

In a former life, before I became shomer mitzvot and, in an unrelated move, made aliyah, I went up to the Temple Mount, Har ha’Bayit, Haram al Sharif — ‘situation’ permitting — whenever I visited Jerusalem. It’s my ideal of physical and spiritual perfection: expanses of glistening white stone, glorious blue and green tiles, gold leaf glinting in the sun (surely the light is brighter and purer up there?), sounds of children playing, a man sitting on the steps, quietly chanting the Koran, small groups of women sharing food under the trees. If I had to paint Gan Eden as I see it, as I wish it was, this is it.

The first time I went up, we entered Al Aqsa, as anyone could in those days. My husband Peter z.l. wasn’t wearing a kippa, but, as I recall, our young sons wore Israel Museum T. Shirts and Diaspora-Jewish looking sun hats. We were pretty unmistakably a Jewish family. An imam came towards us. I wasn’t expecting him to throw us out — he was smiling — but I certainly didn’t anticipate what happened next: he gave candies to Jacob and Jonah. Call me naive (if anyone actually reads this, they’ll call me much worse than that), but whenever I think of Al Aqsa, I think of the candies.

On another visit, we went inside the Dome of the Rock. It’s hard to believe this now, but a group of uniformed Israeli soldiers was there — an education day. A Muslim cleric was telling them, You say that Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac on this rock, but that was a dream; it was Ishmael. I don’t know what those soldiers were thinking, but they looked unperturbed. Jerusalem is a city of at least two tales.

I can’t separate my feelings for the Dome of the Rock from Jewish history, tradition and texts, starting with the Akedah. I doubt I’d ‘love’ Mecca or Medina, though I was blown away by the — very different — Great Mosque at Kairawan when my son Jacob and I visited it shortly after Tunisia’s Arab Spring. But for me, Islamic architecture, art and design point straight to heaven.

If I had to choose a single room in which to spend the rest of my life, it would be in a building of the kind that’s probably now a pile of rubble in Aleppo. I’ve never been to Syria, but there’s a reconstruction of a room like this in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In every way — dimensions, lines, space, colours, light, the sound of a small indoor fountain — it’s sublime. I’m sad to say I haven’t seen many synagogues whose architecture, as opposed to liturgy and music, has made my spirit soar. Far from it. Even as I’m mourning on Tisha B’Av, I feel a guilty sense of gratitude that the Temple Mount looks just the way it does today.

In the past, I rarely told Orthodox acquaintances that I’d been up to the Temple Mount. I would have felt like someone gloating to strictly kosher friends about the fabulous (vegetarian!) meal I’d just eaten in a restaurant without a hechsher. When I became shomer mitzvot, I expected to be among those forever excluded from this particular taste of heaven, a sad irony since the Temple Mount is about a half hour walk from our apartment.

But the halakhic situation became a lot less clear. To be sure, the Rabbanut, Israel’s rabbinic authority, still posts signs at the entrances to the Western Wall Plaza forbidding Jews to ascend the Temple Mount, but now it seems to be mainly haredim who take them seriously. According to Yehuda Glick, tens of thousands of Jews go up every year instead of a handful twenty-five years ago.

Halakhically speaking, perhaps I could join them. Politically, ethically and theologically, I can’t. I can’t include myself among those Jews who don’t respect the Temple Mount’s status as a Muslim holy site; who want to regain control and start the process of building the third Temple; and who seem to think it’s worth (others) dying for.

The Jewish Press, a news source I read to make sure I’m not trapped in my own ideological bubble, often reports on Jews who’ve been attacked and forcibly removed from the Temple Mount. They are usually young men with long peyot and large crocheted kippot; sometimes you see them unfurling an Israeli flag.

At last year’s Jerusalem Day parade I had the distressing — to put it mildly — experience of encountering thousands of young Jews of a similar political and religious bent. A friend and I joined anti-racism demonstrators at Kikar Safra. Our chants of ‘No more baseless hatred’ and similar were matched by their chants of ‘Death to Arabs’. Later I read a moving report from a young Orthodox man who’d been standing near the front of our demonstration; counter-demonstrators yelled at him to take off his kippa because he was desecrating God’s name.

As my friend and I walked home, we passed countless young marchers, mostly from the West Bank I think, streaming towards Damascus Gate (the march is, inexplicably, permitted to pass through the Muslim Quarter). We were shaken by their ‘Meir Kahane was right’ stickers and their ‘Har ha’Bayit at the heart of  the country’ placards. No Muslim brave or foolish enough to be on the streets that day could have been blamed for thinking that the entire country has designs on the Temple Mount, all the more since most Jews with dissenting voices understandably stay at home on Yom Yerushalayim. [Jerusalem Day this year is on Monday 6 June, just a couple of weeks away…]

Another Temple Mount preoccupation in the Jewish Press is that Muslims don’t deserve it because they don’t respect its holiness. Their evidence is that Muslims play soccer and have picnics up there. Needless to say, attitudes towards holiness are religion and culture specific. Even within a single religion people have different ideas about what constitutes appropriate behavior in a holy place, and, indeed, what constitutes a holy place.

There’s no shortage of different opinions within Judaism. In the small Moroccan synagogue I go to on Shabbat mornings, neither women nor men speak during the reading of the Torah, God’s holy words. The Kurdi synagogue I occasionally attend on Friday nights has signs prohibiting all talking. Yet in many Orthodox synagogues men and women chat from beginning to end of the service, and loudest of all when the Torah is read. If these synagogues saw talking during leyning as a desecration of God’s holy words, surely offenders would be asked to talk outside.

My son Jonah came with me to my Moroccan synagogue and during prayers he crossed his legs. The man sitting next to him gestured that he should uncross them. Showing the soles of your shoes, we later learned, is a grave insult to the holiness of the place in some Sephardi synagogues, as it would be in a mosque.

Last year, a woman sitting at a Western Wall Heritage Foundation table near an entrance to the Kotel Plaza asked the modestly dressed (long-sleeves, skirt well below the knees) young woman I was with to do up her cardigan. I explained politely that we weren’t going to the Kotel, just walking home, but the woman insisted that we had to respect the holiness of the place.

Since when has the entire Plaza been considered holy, I wondered?  How long will it be before people like her are posted at Jaffa Gate, or the entrances to Jerusalem itself? How would it be for Jewish women on the Temple Mount if Jews controlled it? As for the Temple Mount today, I see no tension between holiness and kids playing or people eating. What happened when Moses, Aaron and his sons, and seventy elders of Israel ascended on high and saw God? They ate and drank.

On the day of the Kotel Plaza incident, we’d spent the morning in the Muslim Quarter. I learned its ways from two friends who know it inside out, and I often take visitors there. One reason is that they can’t easily go alone; almost nothing is clearly sign-posted, and it’s easy to get lost. Another is that even when it isn’t dangerous, it can feel threatening, as when little boys crowd around to tell you that this street is for Muslims only, or a flash fight breaks out between a group of young men just in front of you.

But more often the Muslim Quarter is mesmerizing, as for me when sitting in Suq Qattanin, the Cotton Trader’s market, drinking freshly squeezed orange and pomegranate juice, watching gorgeously dressed Muslims climb the steps at the end of the Crusader bazaar towards the cypress tree standing guard, the exquisite tiles, the gleaming Dome. [I was there three days ago, Tuesday 17 May, with a friend from the US on her first visit to Israel. We had to ask permission to cross a border police barrier stationed half way along to prevent right-wing Jews from gaining access illegally. Already, it seems like a dream.]

The beauty of Suk Qattanin is undiminished by being a gate to the Temple Mount through which I, a non-Muslim, cannot enter. It reminds me of the near-ecstasy I used to experience in the presence of hundreds of gold-coated, streimeled Toldot Aharon hasidim singing and swaying at their Friday night tisch in Meah Shearim. I cared not at all that I had to peek at them, one row at a time, through tiny slits in the metal blinds that protected the men from seeing the women in the sect’s rambling former building. Perhaps the inaccessibility, the distance, the enforced longing even enhanced my religious experience.

In the current wave of violence, the Old City’s Muslim Quarter has not been a comfortable place for Jews to visit. But it’s been uncomfortable for some time now. One reason for the tension is the growing number of settler homes springing up in around the Temple Mount. These are not, as they are sometimes represented, simple family homes of Jews who want to live quietly and humbly in proximity to their holy site.

These settler houses function instead as aggressive political statements, underscored by Israeli flags and giant menorahs. Israel’s government can offer assurances about maintaining the status quo on the Temple Mount until it’s blue and white in the face; the wealthy, privately-funded settler movement in East Jerusalem, protected at vast expense by Israeli tax payers, speaks louder than the government ever can. [It’s often claimed that Palestinians are disingenuous when they cite fears that Israel wants to change the status quo on the Temple Mount. I wonder what those skeptics will say now that we have a new Member of Knesset whose main — only? — claim to fame is precisely his desire to change the status quo.]

I’m glad we live in a democracy, but I’m frustrated by it. I want our government to do something about the daily provocations and incitements to violence issued by Jewish extremists in one of the most sensitive locations on earth. I want them to stop the desecration, as I see it, of my national and religious symbols. I want a government that steps in to prevent the eviction of a Palestinian family from their home in Silwan — making room for settlers who gained access on the basis of deeds showing that before 1948 it was owned by Jews — right in the middle of a wave of violence in which Muslims are stabbing Jews. There are so many problems in this country that we seem powerless to fix, but provocation and incitement by Jews that endanger us all shouldn’t be among them.

Having thought I would never engage in academic work on the book of Lamentations (I teach Tanakh and have written about many other biblical books), I accepted a colleague’s invitation to co-author a commentary on it. Lamentations through the Centuries was published in 2013. What changed my mind?  At the time when Lamentations seemed so inaccessible to me, I was a lay leader in a Reform synagogue in Cambridge, England, and taught rabbinical students at Leo Baeck College, a non-Orthodox seminary. British Reform liturgy contained few references to the Temple and the sacrificial cult (in the meantime, I believe, a shabbat musaf service has been re-instated), and Reform synagogues do not as a rule observe Tisha B’Av.

One of many factors that brought me to the Sephardi synagogues in which I now pray was my desire to use a siddur that remembers the Temple lovingly and longs for its restoration, even though, given what this would entail, I personally do not hope for it.

I feel similarly conflicted about the resurrection of the dead. As a woman with two husbands, one who tragically passed away, both of whom I love with all my heart, I can’t get my head around what the resurrection of the dead would entail for me on a personal level. But it’s not, I think, for individual Jews to stop reciting prayers they can’t comprehend. I once felt disinclined to confront the complex theological and practical issues, such as the Temple Mount, that erupt from the confines of Jewish texts and tradition into the daily lives of Jews. Now I feel compelled to wrestle with them. Writing about Lamentations was part of that wrestling.

In the past year, seeing the inevitability of the violence we’re suffering now, I often spoke to family and friends about the Temple Mount. But it’s not easy to unpack my feelings, even for myself, let alone for others. So when my friend Naomi asked me to write something down, I decided to start with my own take on a tried and tested rabbinic method of dealing with difficult questions, the parable of the king.

The Temple Mount. To what can this matter be compared?  To a king’s daughter. A young man wanted to marry her. The king agreed to the match, but he knew that his daughter had a mind of her own. So he advised the suitor how to win her heart: what fabrics of blue, purple and scarlet yarns [Exod 25:4] she favored, which aromatic oil and spices [Exod 25:6] she desired, which precious stones and pure gold chains and rings [Exod 25:7, 12]. The suitor followed the king’s advice and presented his soul’s desire [Jer 12:7] with lavish gifts, exactly as the king had said. But after a while he offended the princess. The king was angry. He destroyed the suitor’s gifts and sent him from his palace. The suitor went far away to a distant land. For some time, the princess sat alone [Lams 1:1], until a new suitor came. He too received advice from the king about how to win his daughter’s heart. Not wanting to remind his daughter of her first suitor, the king recommended different garments, different jewels, different spices and perfumes. Once again, the princess fell in love. After many years, the first suitor returned, sorrowful and ashamed, but his love undiminished. He went to the palace gates. Immediately he saw the king’s daughter, the delight of his eyes [Ezek 24:21], playing with her children in the garden. She looked so different now, but as beautiful as ever. What could the first suitor do?  Every day, he stands at the palace wall and weeps.

הר הבית. למה הדבר דומה? לבת המלך. צעיר אחד רצה להינשא לה.המלך נתן את הסכמתו אבל ידע שבתו דעתנית. לכן נתן עצה לצעיר כיצד למשוך את לבה: איזה אריגים של תכלת וארגמן ותולעת שני היא אוהבת, איזה שמנים ובשמים היא רוצה, לאיזה אבנים יקרות ושרשרות וטבעות מזהב טהור היא נכספת. הצעיר שמע לקול המלך ונתן לידידת נפשו מתנות גדולות כדבר המלך. אך אחרי זמן, הצעיר לא עשה הטוב בעיניה. המלך כעס. הוא השחית את כל המתנות שנתן הצעיר ושלח אותו מארמונו. הצעיר הלך רחוק למדינת הים. ישבה בדד בתו ימים רבים עד בוא צעיר אחר. גם הוא קיבל עצה מן המלך כיצד למשוך את לב בתו. המלך לא רצה להעלות את זיכרון הצעיר הראשון, ולכן יעץ לו על בגדים אחרים, אבנים יקרות אחרות, שמנים ובשמים אחרים. גם הפעם הזאת בת המלך התאהבה. עברו שנים רבות, והצעיר הראשון שב, עצוב ובוש, אך אהבתו נשארה כפי שהייתה . הלך לשערי הארמון ומיד ראה את בת המלך, מחמד עיניו, משחקת עם ילדיה בגן. היא נראתה מאוד שונה עכשיו אבל יפה כפי שהייתה. מה יכול היה הצעיר הראשון לעשות? כל יום ויום הוא עומד על יד כותל הארמון ובוכה.

About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.