Keeping God on the Temple Mount

As the framers of Jewish law knew, a physical assault on the sacred mount would mean forfeiture of its religious significance; its transformation into another territorial space subject to the control of mankind.

Andrew Shiva

Prevalent in Israel’s recent political discourse is a demand to impose Israeli sovereignty on the Temple Mount. This demand rests on the claim that, to the Jewish people, this space is the foundation stone of Jewish memory and consciousness, and failure to place it under Israeli sovereignty would inevitably chip away at the very foundations of Jewish national existence. On close scrutiny, however, this discourse is revealed as founded upon misunderstanding and conceptual misperception: Sovereignty and holiness are terms borrowed from different systems, and juxtaposing them constitutes a contradiction.

Sovereignty conveys a state’s control over territory, and is realized through the state’s ability to wield power and, in accordance with its decisions, enact laws that apply to a specific geographic location. The state is a secular body that reflects the autonomy of the voters, and their capacity to shape and direct their lives as they wish. Imposing sovereignty over territory thus means imposing a secular legal and administrative system over a given geographic expanse.

The primary significance of the Temple Mount in Jewish tradition derives from its being the Jewish people’s holiest space. Its holiness is eternal, and persisted even when the Temple that had stood there was in ruins, which explains the prohibitions that Jewish legal tradition imposes regarding the mount. But a holy space cannot, as such, be subject to human sovereignty, since that is its nature – a holy space is under the absolute rule of God.

In the Torah, God’s rule over the individual and the world is expressed through halakhah – Jewish law. God’s rule over the holy space was shaped by halakhic tradition through a solid system of norms, one that enforces increasingly stronger prohibitions on the individual according to the holiness ascribed to a place: The holier it is, the greater the number of prohibitions that apply to it.

In chapter one of Tractate Kelim, the Mishnah determines a hierarchy of holiness: “There are ten grades of holiness.” The first is ascribed to the Land of Israel – “The Land of Israel is holier than all other lands” – and culminates in various levels of holiness on the Temple Mount, which is subdivided further and further, with each expanse assigned an additional grade of holiness.

These gradations are reflected in a normative set of prohibitions and are not merely a system of theoretical concepts or metaphysical beliefs. Thus, for instance, entry to the Temple Mount is forbidden to “men and women with discharges, menstruants, and women after childbirth.” Entry to the priests’ courtyard, a defined compound on the Temple Mount, is forbidden to most Jews and allowed only for special ritual needs – “because the Israelites may not enter there except when they are required to do so for the laying on of hands, slaughter and waving.” Entry, then, is allowed only for the purpose of offering sacrifices, although there are spaces that even priests are banned from. The holiest space on the mount is the “Holy of Holies,” which no one can enter “except the High Priest on the Day of Atonement, at the service.”

Holiness is always manifest in a normative system of prohibitions that imply the restriction of the power, freedom and control of individuals over various areas of their lives. Holiness is geared to the shaping of a consciousness that recognizes God as the sole sovereign of human existence, whose dominion is expressed in the divine ability to limit human autonomy. People cannot accept God’s authority without acknowledging God’s rule over the surrounding space and his ability to regulate human movement within it. The holier the space, the greater the restrictions on human sovereignty, and the Temple Mount is the space where human beings cannot impose any dimension of sovereignty.

Ostensibly, this analysis should have led to the conclusion that there is no place for imposing Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount, given that its religious significance is so profound that all must refrain from entering it. No one can today be purified and meet the halakhic prerequisites for ascending the mount. Moreover, some areas cannot be entered even by individuals who satisfy the highest requirements of purity. Indeed, halakhists have always held this position, without ceasing to long and yearn for the Temple Mount. Day after day, they recited the prayer expressing the expectation of God’s return to Zion and the resumption of service in the Temple.

As halakhists, however, entrusted with setting the norms that regulate people’s lives, they knew that it was incumbent on them to refrain at all costs from entering the mount. Such an act would imply renouncing the mount’s religious significance and turning it into yet another territorial area subject to human rule. Historical Jewish consciousness was thus imprinted with the tension between the hope and the expectation of a return to the imagined past, when the Temple was the pulsing heart of religious life, and the acknowledgement of a ban on human activity on the Temple Mount. Jews may live in a state of anticipation, yearning and even pain but, as believers, they must not take action. This tension accurately reflects their status as believers, who renounce their religious expectation in the name of their religious obligation.

Not only halakhists understood this. Theodor Herzl, too, zealously claimed that the Holy Basin in Jerusalem should not be subject to political control because it is holy to the three monotheistic religions. Herzl held that a political arrangement should be reached enabling religions to express the holiness of the site without imposing the sovereignty of any state. This respect for the holy space, conveyed by the founder of the Zionist movement, has now disappeared.

How did this disruption occur, turning the holiest of spaces into a place for deciding the matter of human sovereignty? The answer to this question lies in the symbolic moment when the Israeli flag was raised over the Temple Mount during the 1967 Six-Day War. Hoisting this flag conveyed the deepest displacement of the mount’s standing in Israeli consciousness: The mount is now the highest symbol of Israeli sovereignty and nationalism. One symbolic gesture thus simply erased the status of the Temple Mount in historical Jewish consciousness as the holiest of spaces. This symbolic act generated a process at whose peak we are now found: The holy space of Jewish tradition turned into the holy space of Israeli sovereignty. The Temple Mount has become yet another device for demonstrating the power of the sovereign; God has vanished to be replaced by human beings as the divine sovereign.

This analysis addresses Jewish tradition and Jewish memory, without entering into matters of actual political rule and into the differences with the Muslim view.

The change traced in the meaning of the Temple Mount’s holy space within Jewish culture is manifest in two drastic processes. One is the violence targeting Jewish tradition itself, which requires individuals to keep their distance and avoid entering the area, whereas the sovereignty discourse requires them to take control of it. The other is the overpowering of Jewish memory. In classic Jewish consciousness, the Temple Mount is supposed to be empty of people, or at least of Jews, until the coming of the Messiah. Jews remembering the Temple Mount are supposed to remember its destruction, refraining from any action that would change this situation. Halakhically, they cannot even attempt to do so because, ever since the destruction of the Temple, the ritual purification that would allow them to enter the space of the Temple Mount is not possible. The new sovereignty discourse scornfully rejects this memory and this consciousness.

Moreover, this discourse also seeks to appropriate the historic memory that grants the mount its unique status. The sovereign is the “trustee of the Temple Mount.” But the Temple Mount it holds in trust is not the Temple Mount as it has lived in the consciousness of the Jewish people for generations. The Temple Mount of the new Israeli discourse is simply the sovereign seeking to widen the scope of its rule over the divine as well. The Israeli sovereignty discourse uproots Jewish memory, consciousness and faith, and creates for itself a new memory, a new consciousness, and even a new Torah. The discourse is thus uprooted from the traditional heritage of Judaism, and the Torah is thus uprooted from its proper place and becomes a doormat trampled upon by those who place humans above God and Halakhah.

It is puzzling that those steering this discourse fail to understand the gravity of their acts and are unaware that their actions, carried out in the name of sovereignty, are a deification of the state rather than the restoration of Jewish tradition. The political gain from the deification of the state is scant and, in the end, harms sovereignty itself. If the state imposes sovereignty illegitimately, its power will be increasingly undermined even in areas where its sovereignty is meant to be imposed. Will Israeli society succeed in returning to sovereignty its own limited power and in restoring the historical consciousness regarding the Temple Mount?

Prof. Avi Sagi teaches philosophy at Bar-Ilan University and is a senior research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.