By Larry Gordon
We have a problem here. The issue is the tug-of-war taking place within the Jewish community about the relationship between all of us, as Jews, and the Temple Mount–Har HaBayit–located just over that high wall that is the Kotel.
Har HaBayit is the so-called end game. We all believe in that–or at least most of us reading this essay do. But if that is the goal, then how do we relate to it? Do we push it out of our minds and direct our attention elsewhere? Perhaps that is how it has been dealt with for the last few hundred and maybe thousands of years. The desire and hope for Gâ€‘dliness in its holiest manifestation to return to Jerusalem is an essential part of our daily prayers. But are we taking those words seriously or just saying them by rote?
The difference is that over all those decades and centuries, hardly anyone talked about it. Perhaps it was just too painful to discuss. Or maybe we just forgot about the centrality of this place in Jewish life.
An important aspect of the debate is what its relevance is today. Is there a contemporary relationship between us and the Temple Mount? Is it perhaps prudent to simply preserve the status quo, or do we have an obligation not to squander the opportunity to stake our holy claim to the site?
These issues do not emerge from nowhere. We might be able to look away, but not everyone is capable of doing that. We may want to forget about the entire matter, but the Arabs in Jerusalem do not allow us to.
I asked Aharon Pulver of the Israel Independence Fund to bring me up to speed on these issues. He’s an American, New York born. He went to yeshiva here and now lives in the north of Israel. He is not just a Temple Mount activist but rather he is convinced that as things go with Har HaBayit, so they go with the entire land of Israel.
Aharon, who is in New York this week to raise funds for his organization, stopped by our offices to discuss his project–incorporating visitations to Har HaBayit into the larger Jewish community both here and in Israel. “As you can see by recent events, the Temple Mount is obviously an integral part of what happens–and what happens next–in Israel and the Jewish world,” he says. He points out that over the last 20 years or more, the conventional wisdom has been that the issues and details of Jerusalem as part of the peace process should be left to discuss as the last item on the agenda.
“If there is ever going to be peace between Arabs and Jews, it has to start here in Jerusalem, and the prime issue that needs to be discussed and settled is rights to Har HaBayit,” Pulver says.
This leads us to discuss two matters. The first is the recent spate of attacks and murders by bloodthirsty terrorists who, according to media reports, are motivated by the resurgence–or talk in that direction anyway–of Jewish interest in becoming more active in Har HaBayit activities. Pulver is a close friend of Rabbi Yehuda Glick, who was shot four times in his upper body as he stood outside the Begin Center in Jerusalem two weeks ago. Glick is recovering, but this week is in an induced coma to help facilitate the healing process.
The second matter is that it seems to be a longstanding halachic opinion that it is prohibited to visit or even stand on the Temple Mount. There are several reasons for that–chief amongst those is that it infuriates the Arab world. In addition, these critics say, today we are all impure or “tamei,” and even if we were not, we run the risk of traversing areas of the Mount that in Temple times were prohibited to regular pedestrians and reserved only for the service rendered by the Kohen. Those who urge us not to visit Har HaBayit say that the punishment for trespassing into the wrong area is kareis, eternal excision.
The rejoinder to that insistence is that in this advanced technological age, we know the precise areas that we are prohibited from traversing. The Temple Mount today is a vast 15-acre stretch of prime real estate in Jerusalem. The original parcel was considerably smaller, but the area was expanded over 2,000 years ago by King Herod, who was a voracious developer and dynamic ruler of this land once upon a time. Folks involved in seeing to it that Jews do not neglect the central focus of our prayers say they know the topography of the area and understand with some precision which areas still contain a holiness that does not allow us to trespass there today.
Aharon Pulver notes several key points. The first is that the famous Al Aqsa Mosque is on the Mount in an area that was part of the Herodian expansion. The Even Shesiya, or the Foundation Stone, where so many biblical dramas emanated from is said to be under the golden dome that is rarely used by Muslims or anyone else for that matter.
A portion of the debate revolves around what message is communicated to the world by our organized neglect of Har HaBayit. If the Temple Mount does not mean that much to us, then how far behind that are the Kotel and all of Jerusalem? A survey this week in Israel found that 40% of respondents believe that Israel should press the issue of Jewish prayer on Har HaBayit. The same survey said that 56% believe that Israel should maintain the status quo because pushing the issue inflames passions in the Arab population and can lead to violence.
But perhaps we also need to consider what happens if we look away from Har HaBayit. Does that endanger Jews more than our campaigning for a larger Jewish role there? Many learned people, including respected rabbanim, maintain that going up to Har HaBayit is halachically permitted. Aharon Pulver points out that both the Ramban and the Rambam ascended the Mount and davened there. Others, today, perhaps the majority, believe that it is either not permitted or that we are just better off not dabbling in the matter.
There is no question that our lack of fortitude when it comes to the Temple Mount sends out a signal that Israel is uncertain and weak, and that might invite more aggressive attacks than the opposite approach.
The idea that Israel’s enemies will be soothed by Israeli concessions and withdrawals from territory has been proven wrong. On the contrary, for all those years leading up to the Oslo Accords in 1993, when Israel asserted her sovereignty, the Arabs would consistently back off from confrontation. The reality has dramatically shifted today.
As far as the permissibility of ascending the Mount, Pulver says that there are other areas of Jewish life where those on the various sides of a debate just agree to disagree. He cites the area of kashrus as one such issue–what some rabbis consider strictly kosher, others look at as treif. When asked about this the other day, Jerusalem city councilman Arieh King told me there are seven faces to Torah–that is, a variety of interpretations of halachah. “Listen,” he said, “if your rabbi tells you not to go, then just don’t go.”
Israel is indisputably Jewish. Yet the majority of the world doubts that fact, because of the consistent doubt that our leaders and so many of us project.
Another matter to consider is that Jordan–perhaps the weakest and most militarily inept of all Arab countries–considers Har HaBayit or, as they call it, “the Noble Sanctuary,” their domain. Yes, for some misguided reason, Israel agreed to that arrangement, though it is largely meaningless.
At the same time, when Jordan objects to an increase of visits by Jews to the Temple Mount, it is a violation of the 1994 peace agreement between Israel and Jordan. Pulver invites me to look it up online. The treaty clearly says that the two countries will protect the rights of all religions to have access to the holy site.
Then there is the increasingly marginalized Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority who fans the flames of violence by referring to Jews as contaminating the Temple Mount and urging his followers to stop Jews from ascending to the place, “by any means necessary.”
This is a hot-button issue. There is certainly nothing wrong with fighting for our rights to Har HaBayit and then, if we choose, simply refraining from exercising that right. To say that we are not allowed up there until the time of the Redemption and therefore it is not worth debating or discussing is just not prudent.
So what about this constant talk about Jews visiting Har HaBayit being a provocation that leads to attacks and violence? Aharon Pulver says: “Look around–when Jews breathe, it is a provocation. So what should we do?”
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Larry Gordon