Why the Temple Mount Should Remain Out of Bounds

If the Jews tried to rebuild the Temple, they would only bicker among themselves.

I have lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years, know its eastern and western sides intimately, and if I pass an old synagogue, mosque or church I have yet to visit, normally you can’t hold me back. But I have yet to step on the Temple Mount.

Despite the yearning to be up close to the place where it all began, to walk over the spot where Abraham bound and nearly slaughtered his son, Ya'akov slept on the ground while fleeing his brother, Adoniahu the rebel sought sanctuary from his half-brother King Solomon, Jesus confronted the corrupt priests, the Zealots barricaded themselves and Titus defiled the Holy of Holies (yes – of course most, if not all these stories never happened, but they are still very real), I stood at the gates so many times yet failed to cross the threshold.

As a journalist covering the religious conflict in this city, I really should see for myself the bloody heart of it all. This blind spot is totally inexcusable, but I still find myself holding back and not taking the opportunity to join any of the groups going up to the Mount, much less on my own initiative.

It’s not the technical-halakhic reasons of ritual impurity, which were the official grounds used by the Chief Rabbinate in its 1967 edict forbidding Jews from treading on hallowed ground, that are holding me back. I don’t need any rabbi telling me where I can and cannot go. The rabbinate’s ruling at the time was every bit as political as it was religious. It served the government, which was anxious in the wake of the Six-Day War to prevent a new Jihad or Crusade, or both, from breaking out. And it also appeased the anti-Zionist senior rabbis who considered the entire notion of Jewish sovereignty without the coming of the Messiah as heretical, and reclaiming the temple without clear divine intervention as the depths of apostasy. Just as the rabbis who are trying to overturn that edict are motivated by far-right politics, not any true spiritual feeling.

I think I am reluctant to walk in because part of me wants to keep something hidden away, just beyond reach, imaginable but inaccessible. Because on the day I do walk through the gate, it will be just another place, a wide plaza with a magnificent mosque at its center and some interesting antiquities scattered around. But that’s all, no longer a mystical object of desire and longing, just another place and after the first quarter of an hour my instincts will take over and all I will be able to see is the conflict all around me. Like the early Zionist pioneers of the 19th century who fulfilled the prayers of 100 generations in returning to Zion and kissed the ground when coming ashore, and for the rest of their short lives knew only mosquitoes, backbreaking work and malaria. Once I walk in, there will be no mystery left and I want to put off that moment for as long as possible.

For some though, there is no mystery and no patience. The Knesset debate on Tuesday called for by Likud MK Moshe Feiglin calling for the right of Jews to pray on the Temple Mount was ostensibly about a basic fundamental of democracy, freedom of worship. In reality, however, it was just the same old tired and cynical argument between those who prefer Jewish supremacy to democracy and those who would jettison Israel’s Jewish character in everything but name. 

While there are undoubtedly Jews who have a pure and honest wish to pray as close as possible to what they believe is the gate to heaven, none of the politicians involved are really bothered by heavenly matters. They all know very well that if there is one thing that can totally derail the talks with the Palestinians that as things stand, are barely still on the tracks, it is the breath of a change in the status quo on the mount. Added to that is the atavistic revulsion of a certain part of the religious right toward the shikutz ha’meshukatz, the abominated abomination, more widely known as the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the barely concealed desire to see it removed.

The left also have a problem with this most potent symbol of ancient Jewish heritage. It’s not just the valid security concern of the repercussions of any move on the mount. Preventing Jews free access to a site under Israeli jurisdiction hardly tallies with any notion of civil rights. But they would be happy to see the mount disappear. It’s an embarrassment, an obstacle not to just any two-state solution but a reminder that this can never be a truly modern secular state.

Even for those Jews who do physically venture onto the mount, whether as tourists or worshipers under severe restrictions, it is an abstract concept. Secular Israelis delude themselves it has no real relevance to them; the devout dream of a third temple is even less realistic. The mosques are there to stay and the continued presence of the Muslim faithful is not only essential to the basic stability of the region, it is also the best thing that could have happened to the Jews.

Just imagine for a moment that Islam had relinquished its claim to Haram al-Sharif and the way was open to rebuilding the Temple. Would the great majority of non-observant Jews want anything to do with such a project? And the religious? They would never get around to agreeing who would run the place. Would the Kohen ha-gadol (high priest) be Ashkenazi or Sephardi? Who would appoint him (or her)? Which of the many Kashrut authorities would supervise the offerings and sacrifices? Where would women be allowed to enter? And the scope for kickbacks and bribery is mind-blowing.

But on a deeper level, would rabbinical Judaism, defined by 2,000 years of exile and the development of decentralized worship in synagogues – minor temples and with local autonomous rabbis – survive the change? The Jews have no Pope or Vatican.

This week, for the first time ever, the three councils of Torah sages, consisting ultra-Orthodox Hassidic, Lithuanian and Mizrahi rabbis, held a joint meeting to address the new national service draft law. The councils (which represent less than half of Orthodox Jews) are barely capable of cooperating over this most crucial of issues, their members are deeply suspicious of each other. Would they ever be capable of running a temple? Would the corrupt, nepotistic and moribund state Chief Rabbinate? Though they would never admit it and continue to pray three times a day for the swift rebuilding of the temple, it is their worst nightmare. Only the Messiah could ever perform such a miracle. But an arrival of the Messiah, restoration of the Sanhedrin (who would be jurists, not rabbis) and priestly caste would rob them of all their power and leave them totally superfluous. Much better to continue yearning for an abstract temple that will forever remain a dream and let the Muslims remain custodians of the mount. They can deal with it, we certainly can’t.

The memory of what once stood in Jerusalem is essential to our identity. But any move to recreate it would be the end of Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state. It must remain a dream, a longing and a national myth. We should keep out of the Temple Mount – we allow reality to enter there at our peril.

Olivier Fitoussi