I hardly knew whether to laugh or cry when I read Rabbi Meir Soloveichik’s most recent article in Commentary magazine. Either way, it is a deeply disturbing piece of writing, and indicative of ominous trends that may be taking hold in America’s centrist Orthodox community.
Entitled "The Real Truth About the Temple Mount," Soloveichik’s article calls for "freedom of worship" on the site for Jews, who, according to longstanding agreements with Muslim authorities, are permitted to visit the Mount but not to pray there.
Soloveichik specifically endorses the "surreptitious" steps taken by Israeli politicians and police to circumvent government policies concerning the Mount — policies that have been upheld by governments of both right and left since 1967, and affirmed by Israel’s High Court of Justice.
Let us be clear about what is happening here: A leading representative of mainstream American Orthodoxy is calling on Israeli officials to undermine longstanding agreements between Jordan and the State of Israel, and between Israel and Muslim religious authorities, and is encouraging Jews, at least indirectly, to disregard binding commitments made by their government and to begin praying openly at the Temple Mount.
This is idiotic and potentially catastrophic. It would greatly weaken the Kingdom of Jordan, one of Israel’s most important Arab allies and the party ultimately responsible for administering the Mount.
It would open the door to incitement against Israel by extremist elements throughout the Muslim world.
It would strengthen the hands of Iran and Hamas in their struggle against Israel.
It would generate violence on the Mount and elsewhere in the region and would trigger furious protests from moderate Sunni states that have been drawing closer to Israel.
In short, on the grounds that the principle of "freedom of worship" entitles Jews to pray there — a point to which I shall return — Rabbi Soloveichik is prepared to call for steps that may lead not only to confrontation between Arabs and Israelis but to holy war between Jews and more than a billion Muslims.
It was precisely to avoid such a possibility that Moshe Dayan, in June 1967, negotiated the current agreement with Muslim leaders. The Mount, called Haram a-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) by Muslims, is Islam’s third holiest site, and a place of enormous sensitivity to Muslims everywhere.
Dayan wanted to minimize post-war frictions with the Muslim world, and therefore arrived at an arrangement with Muslim authorities that gave the Jordanian Muslim Waqf control over the compound under overall Israeli supervision. It stipulated that prayer on the Mount would be reserved for Muslims only, while Jews would be allowed to visit — but not to pray there.
Rabbi Soloveichik calls Dayan’s decision a mistake and an “indignity,” and slyly implies that the Orthodox world was horrified by it. But this is a distortion bordering on a lie.
Might Dayan have negotiated a deal that provided more flexibility for Jews wanting to pray on the Mount? Possibly, although it seems very unlikely.
But two things are clear today. First, whatever might have been before is not an option now; the rules set by Dayan have since been sanctified by the Muslim world, and any attempt to change them would lead to catastrophe and war.
And second, Dayan had no reason to think that the Orthodox world opposed him at the time, because it didn’t. Both before and after the 1967 war, the leading Orthodox rabbis, including both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi Chief Rabbis, ruled that Jews should not enter the Temple Mount area out of concern for ritual impurity, and Orthodox voices, with very few exceptions, raised no objection to Dayan’s agreement.
In fact, for about 40 years following the Six Day War, there was a halakhic consensus and a united Orthodox front on this matter: Jews were not to ascend to the Mount. This was virtually the universal position of the Haredi world and the view of the great majority of the Religious Zionist community in Israel. A small minority pushed the issue of a Jewish presence there, but those who did were mostly weirdos and crackpots.
In the last decade, however, the halakhic consensus has begun to shatter. Under pressure from the more extreme nationalist elements in the Religious Zionist camp, halakhic considerations were swept aside by political calculations.
More and more Religious Zionist rabbis, and even some Haredi ones, began to make the case for overturning the agreements reached by Dayan. The truly crazy ones argued for building a Third Temple there, but most argued for permitting Jews, as a first step at least, to worship at the Mount regularly and openly.
This development is profoundly distressing, given its potential implications for Israel’s security. So too is the recent, inexplicable willingness of Israeli police to look the other way as Jewish prayer becomes more frequent on the Mount.
Nonetheless, it is important to note that most of the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate, including the Chief Rabbinate, still accepts the prohibition on ascending the Mount articulated by Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog (the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, and grandfather of Israel’s president), Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, and virtually every one of the most honored names in Israel’s Orthodox rabbinic pantheon.
So why are the views of Rabbi Meir Soloveichik of any consequence? Consider the following:
First, Rabbi Soloveichik has become the primary public voice of centrist Orthodoxy. Learned, invariably conservative, and politically active (he gave the invocation at the 2012 Republican National Convention, and a addressed the Trump White House Hannukah party in 2017), Soloveitchik serves Manhattan’s storied Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue while also teaching at Yeshiva University. He also carries the name of American Orthodoxy’s best known and most respected rabbinic dynasty.
When he speaks, in other words, people listen, and what he says matters.
Second, American centrist Orthodoxy is known for its deference to Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, even when, on issues such as conversion, the Chief Rabbis have taken positions not entirely supportive of the American Orthodox rabbinate. Given that Israel’s Chief Rabbis oppose Jewish prayer on the Mount, it is not a surprise that until now, American Orthodoxy has followed their lead, carefully avoiding an assertive public position on what is a sensitive and politically explosive matter.
But suddenly, Rabbi Soloveichik declares, in bold and unequivocal language, that Israel’s current approach to the question of the Mount is "preposterous," and that Jewish prayer on the Mount is essential, even if it must be done in a "discrete" manner to bypass settled policy of the Israeli government.
Perhaps Rabbi Soloveichik is a lone voice, speaking only for himself. I sincerely hope so.
But what all of this suggests, of course, is that non-Haredi American Orthodoxy may be moving in the direction of something truly momentous and disastrous: The embrace of a position that, if implemented, would light a match in what is arguably the most combustible plot of land in the entire world, turning Israel’s national conflict into an all-out religious war.
And finally, what of the argument that "freedom of worship" must be applied to the Temple compound, giving Jews the right to pray there?
This is not a frivolous point. Freedom of worship is exceedingly important and must be respected whenever possible. But it is not an absolute right.
In this instance, the state of Israel has made a solemn commitment regarding the Mount to neighboring states and to the leaders of a great religious community. That commitment must be honored. Failure to do so will not only jeopardize Israel’s good name but will deal a grievous blow to Israel’s security and hand a victory to Israel’s enemies.
And the humorous part of this whole affair is that if the American Orthodox community cares the least little bit about "freedom of worship" in Israel, it is news to me.
For 30 years, Reform and Conservative Jews have been demanding freedom of worship at the Western Wall — and I mean at the Wall itself, and not at Robinson’s Arch, which has been put forward as a substitute.
Unlike with the Temple Mount, providing a few hours a week for non-Orthodox Jews to pray at the Western Wall does not require undermining allies or compromising Israel’s fundamental security needs. It only requires a modicum of good will and respect for other Jews. If Rabbi Soloveichik is really committed to freedom of worship, perhaps he might consider beginning there.
Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie