Number of Jews Visiting the Temple Mount Rising Fast, and So Is the Controversy

While a growing percentage of the religious Zionist community is finding numerous permits for doing so, some are opposed

Jews on the Temple Mount, 2016
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP

As the three-week period preceding the Jewish holy day of Tisha B'av begins, statistics show that a record number of Jews ascended the Temple Mount over the past Jewish calendar year. According to statistics gathered by the Yera’eh organization, since the start of the Jewish calendar year, Jews have visited the Temple Mount for spiritual reasons, probably the highest number since 1967.

The relatively calm security situation at the Temple Mount and in Jerusalem’s Old City in the past two years, and good relations with the police, are contributing to the flourishing of this activity. But this situation is also reviving the religious debate about the propriety of visiting the site. 

Up until 30 years ago, there were almost no rabbis and religious public figures who would support visting the Temple Mount. The consensus according to Jewish religious authorities was absolute, from the rabbis of the Modern Orthodox Mizrahi movement to the most extreme ultra-Orthodox.

>> 75 percent in religious Jews visiting Temple Mount in 2017

The main reason was that the entire generation was considered “tamei met” - halakhically impure due to contact with a dead body. And as a long as there is no red heifer that can be burned, and whose ashes can be used to purify, it is impossible to ascend to the Temple Mount due to its sanctity. It is considered “issur karet,” the most severe halakhic prohibition. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook, the father of religious Zionism, ruled that one must even make sure not to put one’s fingers between the stones of the Western Wall, so that the fingertips wouldn’t be in the area of the Temple Mount.

But theological and ideological changes in the religious Zionist community in the past decades have tipped the balance, to the point of a revolution. Dozens of leading rabbis, from the entire range of religious Zionism, today permit ascent to the Temple Mount.

The halakhic basis for allowing this is varied, from relying on rabbis from the past who permitted it and sometimes made the trip themselves; through historical studies about the precise location of the Temple and the Holy of Holies inside it, which determine areas on the Temple Mount where one can walk around without fear of violation; and up to revisting existing Jewish laws. A survey conducted four years ago for the religious Zionist weekly Makor Rishon discovered that 75 percent of the religious Zionist community believes that it is now permitted to visit the site.

An isolated group

The opposition to ascending the Temple Mount is composed of a steadily declining group of religious Zionist rabbis who are connected to the “Yeshivot Hakav” (yeshivot that follow the line) – heirs to Rabbi Kook – the most prominent of whom are Rabbi Shlomo Aviner and Rabbi Zvi Tau. Aviner, the rabbi of the Ateret Cohanim yeshiva, is the most outspoken in the religious Zionist community. Some three months ago, he ruled that it is forbidden to study Torah with someone who has ascended the Temple Mount. “Torah study is the basis for the correct religious outlook, and clearly something is wrong with him,” he wrote, arousing an uproar.

But journalist Arnon Segal, one of the leading activists in the Temple movements, claims that Aviner’s statement further isolated the group of religious Zionists that still opposes visiting the site. “Rabbi Aviner was mainstream 10 years ago, but he got burned when he accepted the Haredi approaches,” he said. “Today there’s no significant opposition to ascending the mount in the religious Zionist community.”

The overwhelming majority of the ultra-Orthodox community – which doesn’t really discuss the issue – is still vehemently opposed to visiting the Temple Mount. An overwhelming, but not absolute majority: in recent years there seems to be some movement there too.

Shimshon Elboim is thus an unusual member of the Belz Hasidic dynasty. He and his father not only visit the Temple Mount regularly but are both activists in movements calling for the construction of a third temple at the site. Elboim believes that in the past year about 400 ultra-Orthodox have gone up. But the real change, he says, came when Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, the leader of the extremist Lithuanian-Jerusalem faction, refused to condemn students from his yeshiva who ascended to the mount.

“He told the yeshiva students who came to complain that there are students in the yeshiva who talk in the middle of the Torah reading, and that’s much more serious,” says Elboim. Later Auerbach signed a letter condemning those who ascend, but he said that it was after pressure from other rabbis. “From something that was taboo,” he sums up, “it has become a controversial issue.”

'It’s childishness'

Rabbi Aviad Neiger, a devout 42-year-old ultra-Orthodox man from Jerusalem, devotes most of his time and efforts to close the widening crack. “Theoretically they’re talking about ascending in a state of purity, but actually you see Haredim who enter with secular women in pants. I don’t think that’s what Maimonides had in mind,” he says, referring to video clips and pictures of groups making the trip to the Temple Mount. 

“They aren’t observing the three strictest requirements: ascending in a state of purity, awe of the Temple and a prohibition against arousing the anger of other nations,” says Neiger. “In fact, they aren’t ascending in a state of purity, it’s clear that they’re not in awe of the Temple when men and women go up together and take pictures, and actually we see that they’re defying the Arabs. That’s childishness.”

Segal doesn’t accept this criticism. “I strictly observe the halakhot and I tell anyone who goes up to be strict,” he replies. “Even the Student Movement for the Temple Mount, which is a secular movement, writes that you have to ascend after immersion and without leather shoes. But it’s clear to me that if we start to be meticulous and to conduct an inquisition to examine those who go up we won’t get anywhere. The situation today is that the Temple Mount is desecrated and I can’t strictly obey the letter of the law.”

It’s not certain that this reply convinces Neiger, who thus far has written no fewer than 12 volumes of sources and commentaries on the subject of ascending to the Temple Mount, runs a website devoted to the subject (which contains a warning that it “is meant only for people who are already familiar with the internet, since the opinion of our sacred Torah is not comfortable with the internet”), and even a Facebook page where he disseminates his philosophy.

He claims that those who permit going up to the Temple Mount are basing themselves on distortions and malicious editing of halakhic texts. For example, one of the strong arguments of those who ascend is that Maimonides himself did so, and even wrote about it: “I entered the large and sacred building and prayed in it.”

“It’s unrealistic to claim that Maimonides ascended the Temple Mount,” Neiger explains. “First of all, he visited Israel during the Crusader period, and entry into Jerusalem was not even permitted, let alone into the Temple Mount, during that period. Second, it’s not clear that the large and sacred building is the Temple; that’s simple reading comprehension.”

According to Rabbi Neiger, those visiting the Temple Mount are warping the Torah to justify their actions. For example, one justification used is the claim that Rabbi David Ben Solomon ibn Zimra permitted visiting the site. “The Radbaz said that you can ascend the Temple Mount, but when you open [the text] to see what’s written inside you realize that he’s actually referring to ascending to the balconies from which you can see the Temple Mount,” he explains.

“They bring a section from a letter sent by the Rashbash [Solomon Ben Simon Duran], but they stop at a certain point, without bringing the rest of the letter. Further on he writes, ‘We were outside Damascus Gate’ – they didn’t even enter Jerusalem – but they omitted that section. All the great rabbis prohibited it, so how do the lesser rabbis allow themselves to differ with the greats? You’re differing with the Shehkinah itself. Why was Jerusalem destroyed? Because they treated the lesser [rabbis] and the great ones equally.”

Whatever the case, “the impact and the public influence of those who ascend are very significant,” says Sarina Chen, author of the book “‘Speedily in Our Days...’ : The Temple Mount Activists and the Nationalist-religious Society in Israel.”  According to Chen, “the impact of the activities of those who want to bring about reforms is greater than of those who want to preserve the tradition. There are still many rabbis in [the religious Zionist yeshivas] who are opposed, but their voice is not heard as much.”

Tomer Persico, who studies religion at the Hartman Institute, believes that “all these technical arguments conceal meta-halakhic approaches. In terms of tradition, things are clear: The tradition in the past 200 years – all the poskim [the deciders of religious law], down to the last one, ruled that ascending is prohibited. Before that it wasn’t realistic in any case, because the Turks and the Mamluks had no intention of letting anyone approach.

“Now they’re trying to change the tradition, and that’s a big deal. The change is in regard to the question ‘What is sanctity?’ The opponents are talking about the fact that something sacred is separate and restricted, like Shabbat and Hanukkah candles. The supporters are talking about sanctity as something that we have to control, to be sovereign over, it’s something that cannot be given up. Now we have to ask why this change took place, and that’s related to the fact that the Temple Mount has become a national symbol in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

For Segal the question is different: “Is the Holy One, blessed be He, happy with what we’re doing?” he wonders, and immediately replies: “I’m not authorized to answer, but I think so.”