The police at the Mugrabi Gate, at the entrance to the Temple Mount, are used to the sight. Every few days a group of ultra-Orthodox Temple Mount Faithful congregates in front of the gate. A few of them wear the black kneesocks and tasseled tie belt of the Belzer Hassidic sect, while others are American youths, students from the Mir Yeshiva. Occasionally they are joined by Gerer Hassidim, and of course national-religious Jews, with their crocheted skullcaps. Only after a thorough check of the worshipers' bags, to make sure they contain no prayer books, prayer shawls or phylacteries, do the police allow them to enter the Temple Mount compound.
This unusual "coalition," which has been visiting the mount at least once a week for years, is defined in the ultra-Orthodox world as somewhere between eccentric and untouchable, but primarily as rebelling against a halakhic prohibition stating that today there is theoretically no greater sin than entering the Temple Mount; that anyone who violates this ruling is doomed to an untimely death.
In recent years the circle of those rebelling against that ruling is growing. Last month Rabbi Moshe Tendler, the son-in-law of the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, considered the greatest "decider" (posek) of halakha (Jewish law) among American Jewry in the last generation, visited the Temple Mount accompanied by members of the Temple Mount Institute. Tendler expressed his solidarity with the ultra-Orthodox group, which does not heed the ruling, but rather believes, like many national-religious halakhists, that certain parts of the mount are permissible to Jews today; areas that are not part of the original Temple Mount, and which the Temple did not occupy.
Furthermore, a few months ago an emissary visited the Temple Mount on behalf of ultra-Orthodox rabbinical judge, who concluded that, contrary to the ruling of the most revered ultra-Orthodox rabbis, under certain circumstances it is possible to allow the entry of Jews to the Temple Mount. The well-known judge hastened to share his findings with his close circle, family and friends, but they just as quickly cooled his enthusiasm, warning him against publishing his conclusions.
In the ultra-Orthodox world there is absolutely no tolerance for anyone who violates the prohibition against visiting the Temple Mount. Tendler, who openly visited the mount, has been roundly censured. About 20 years ago the Belz Hassidic Elboim family, which founded the Movement for Establishing the Temple faced similar responses, but continues to visit the Temple Mount every week.
Yosef Elboim, the movement's leader, has had excommunication orders issued against him, disallowing him from being counted in a minyan; the mezuzahs have been torn off the doorpost at the entrance to his house, and his front door was set on fire. In Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, announcements were plastered on the notice boards, denouncing him and the "other sinners" who joined him. The harassment stopped only after Elboim's friends responded by protesting outside the home of the then rabbi of the ultra-Orthodox Ezrat Torah neighborhood, the late Rabbi Simcha Bunim Waldenberg.
This week, when the most respected ultra-Orthodox rabbis saw the widening crack in their following, and amid growing fears that others would be drawn toward the lenient national-religious ruling, the rabbis mounted a counteroffensive. Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, instructed Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who presides over the Western Wall, to reissue the rabbinical ruling from 40 years ago, forbidding visits to the mount. "The rabbis who allow this are mistaken," announced Yosef, "and they will ultimately be held accountable."
Elyashiv asked Rabinowitz to put up a sign and post a guard to warn people of the serious prohibition, and Kanievsky stressed that the defiling of the Temple and its sanctity is worse than all the sins in the Torah.
Elboim and his like-minded rabbi friends, however, believe otherwise, and are encouraged by their widening circle. They coordinate their visits with the police and have no desire to publicize their actions. "We prefer a quiet, modest visit to the Temple Mount than singing from the gates and trumpeting from the ramparts," they say.
Motti Inbari, whose book "Jewish Fundamentalism and the Temple Mount" was recently published by Magnes Press (in Hebrew), says that from Elboim's perspective, "a physical presence on the mount, in fulfillment of a religious precept, is immeasurably more significant than public demonstrations and assemblies, and for him, the conquest of the mount means a constant presence there, even if in small groups and with no publicity."
In the meantime, a new initiative on the Temple Mount is slowly taking form, and it, too, has ultra-Orthodox backers, mainly from the group that calls itself the Sanhedrin. Prof. Hillel Weiss proposes reinstating the custom of Hakhel on the Temple Mount, with the participation of the heads of state and the nation's leaders.
Hakhel was held once every seven years in ancient times, during the festival of Sukkot after a Shmita year, when hundreds of thousands of Jews would assemble on the Temple Mount and the king would read to them from the Torah (as described in Deuteronomy 31:10-13).
During Sukkot 1988, this ritual was held in the Western Wall plaza, with the participation of the president, the head of the Supreme Court and the chief rabbis. Weiss, who since that time has become a controversial figure, would like to repeat that event, but up on the Temple Mount. Hakhel will not be marked on the mount this year, but there will be a great tumult here.
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