The pilgrims sang as we ascended from the entrance to the Western Wall Plaza, their voices overpowering the creaking of the wooden slats of the Mughrabi Bridge shifting under our feet as we passed through the covered pathway ascending to the Temple Mount: home of the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque and the location of the Jewish temples in antiquity.
“I will bring them to my sacred mount and let them rejoice in my house of prayer,” the members of the group belted out over and over as we walked up the rickety structure, quoting from Isaiah extolling the ancient temple’s sacrificial cult.
Passing through the Mughrabi gate, where a group of Israeli policemen equipped with body armor lounged near a pile of riot shields, I was nearly blinded by the sunlight as we set foot on the Temple Mount, at the eastern edge of the Old City of Jerusalem — where yet again, in May and June, violence erupted. The Temple Mount is a religious flash point considered to be so potentially volatile that some have even predicted it could trigger World War III.
Following a visit by then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon, which led to the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, Jews were banned from the site for three years, until then-Public Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi reopened the compound for visits, over the objections of the Waqf.
Jewish religious law prohibits the wearing of leather shoes on the Temple Mount, and as our group, some barefoot and some wearing flipflops or Crocs, reached the compound’s broad expanse, they began to murmur the opening verses of Shaharit, the morning prayer service.
After making its way along the edges of the enclosed plateau, the group, which was overwhelmingly religious-Zionist with a small ultra-Orthodox component, stopped in a spot directly across from the Dome of the Rock, its burnished cupola, thought to be the location of the Holy of Holies in the first and second temples, gleaming in the sunlight as they swayed in place in silent prayer.
Although none of the worshippers were permitted to bring up the traditional prayer shawl or phylacteries worn by orthodox men during prayers, their hushed service appeared to be tolerated by both the police, whose officers accompany every orthodox group on the Mount, as well as by a nearby representative of the Waqf, the Islamic endowment which administers the site and has traditionally expressed strong opposition to any Jewish religious expression there.
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When one bearded ultra-Orthodox worshipper who began to pray more demonstratively than the rest, rocking his frame back and forth in concentration, a policeman, rather than detaining him, merely sauntered over and quipped, “You’re new here, aren’t you.”
Suspected of praying
It was a significant change from the last time I had visited more than a decade before, when policemen had searched pilgrims’ wallets for pocket psalters and anybody seen moving their lips was immediately and loudly reprimanded on suspicion of praying. Now, instead of being searched for scraps of paper bearing religious texts, we passed through a small visitors center featuring a model of the Second Temple at the base of the Mughrabi Bridge where pilgrims could grab a cup of coffee and read pamphlets declaring that thanks to them, “our sovereignty over the mountain and the whole of the Land of Israel becomes clear.”
In fact it seems the change enabling Jewish pilgrims to not only come to the Temple Mount, but pray there, began in 2019, almost two decades after Hanegbi reopened the compound to Jews.
However, the Palestinians have long complained of Jewish worshippers “storming” the site, terming anybody ascending the mount a “settler.” Explaining the Palestinian perspective, Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib al-Tamimi, head of the Jerusalem Waqf, told Haaretz in 2017 that “everyone must realize they are visiting a mosque, with no rights for Jews to pray inside,” adding that he saw the orthodox pilgrims as “extremists whose sole purpose is to destroy the mosques.”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly called for the cessation of Jewish visits to the mount, which as the home of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, is the third holiest site in Islam. In 2014, he claimed that Jewish visitors were defiling the holy site, and urged Palestinians to “stop them from entering by any means possible.”
Given the simmering tensions on the Mount, since Jews were allowed back to the site in 2003, the police have prohibited Jewish religious expression there, relying on a ruling by the High Court of Justice in 1978 that determined that while Jews have the legal right to pray there, their ability to do so may be curtailed by law enforcement if it deemed likely that allowing such religious expression could lead to violence.
Asked what forms of religious expression are currently permitted, a police spokesperson evaded the question, telling Haaretz: “As part of regular visits to the Temple Mount area, the police [act according to] the usual visiting conditions at the site, which are intended to enable public order and safety, and are [conveyed] before visitors enter the Temple Mount area. The existing restrictions on visitors to the site are based on the government’s decision and High Court rulings on the subject over the years.”
At present, outwardly observant Jews may visit the site Sunday to Thursday from 7:30 to 11 A.M., and for one hour in the afternoon from 1:30 to 2:30 P.M. In contrast to the previous ban on religious expression, after they finished praying, the pilgrims gathered for a sermon, listening to an ultra-Orthodox rabbi expound on the importance of the site, which, as the location of the first and second temples in antiquity, is the holiest site in Judaism.
But while the holiness of the site is undisputed by orthodox Jews, the propriety of visiting very much is, with the issue of how to approach the sanctity of the site a matter of fierce debate between ultra-Orthodox and religious-Zionist Jews.
Many rabbis, and almost all ultra-Orthodox ones, prohibit their followers from ascending the Mount due to concerns over ritual purity. Meanwhile a growing number of modern Orthodox rabbis encourage pilgrimages so long as visitors go with a guide who know which parts of the site are permitted.
When Israeli forces captured the Old City of Jerusalem from Jordan in June 1967, very few people would visit the site and those who did were widely considered extremists, Yair Sheleg, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and a journalist at the national-religious Makor Rishon newspaper, told Haaretz.
The only prominent religious leader who advocated for an increased Jewish presence was Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the Chief Rabbi of the Israeli Army during the Six-Day War (and later Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi of Israel), who called for the establishment of a yeshiva on the mount.
The mainstream Religious-Zionist community, taking its lead from leaders such as Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, remained adamantly opposed to pilgrimages until the signing of the Olso Accords in 1993, when it appeared that Jewish sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem’s Old City could come to an end. “People were afraid if there would be no Jews standing on the Temple Mount,” they would lose control over the site, Sheleg explained, adding that this pressure to increase the Jewish presence at the site increased following the outbreak of the second intifada less than a decade later.
“The second intifada was because of Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount so the Jewish side said ‘okay, if this the heart of the struggle over the whole land of Israel, we must struggle in that place too,’” he said, adding that although the claim for the Temple Mount is coming mainly from religious people, their main motivation is nationalistic, rather than religious.
Torah lessons on the Mount
Indeed, opposition to visiting the Temple Mount is significantly more pronounced among the less nationalistic ultra-Orthodox sector. Speaking with Emirati Ambassador Mohamed Al Khaja following this summer’s fighting between Israel and Hamas, Rabbi Shalom Cohen, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party’s ruling Council of Torah Sages, explicitly stated that Jews were “forbidden from ascending there. The Arabs rule there.”
But while many Temple Mount activitists are motivation stems from nationalism, it is also intrinsically bound up with messianism, including, in many cases, the desire to eventually rebuild the temple and restart the sacrificial cult. (Ultra-Orthodox Jews believe that these goals must await the coming of the messiah.)
As long as the Mount is open to non-Muslims, there should be a significant Jewish presence too, including prayer and Torah study and “everything that’s important to Judaism in terms of the Temple Mount and the eventual [third] Temple,” Rabbi Yehuda Levi, a member of The Temple Mount Yeshiva, a group which ascends the mount twice a day for Torah lectures, told Haaretz.
According to Levi, who grew up ultra-Orthodox in Lakewood, New Jersey, “a lot has changed, even in the last few months,” in terms of the leeway granted to worshippers at the site. He hopes that even broader religious expression will be allowed in the future as the movement gains momentum.
“We’re not stupid. We realize that it might take many years to effectuate our long term goal to have a yeshiva and a Jewish presence with a Temple, or even [just] a yeshiva or regular synagogue. It should be like the Western Wall. But we start with what we’re able to do,” he said, adding that the reason why the Temple has not been rebuilt is because most Israelis don’t “think it’s a practical thing to do. If they did, we would have a Temple. It’s all a question of will.”
Rabbi Danny Myers, the leader of the group from Bet Shemesh with which I visited the mount (full disclosure: Myers was a rabbi in a yeshiva which I attended and was later the principal of my son’s elementary school), said that he had decided to begin going up after spending a year a half studying the various rabbinic legal and philosophical approaches to the issue.
After a year and a half of “looking at it from every angle,” “we decided this was one of the great Mitzvoth [commandments] of our generation and then we started going. We make our best efforts to have a monthly presence from Bet Shemesh,” he explained.
“There are 613 commandments. So just like if there was a ban against tefillin or circumcision in a country, every rabbi would fight to the end to do the mitzvah, to me all 613 have to be fulfilled. We’re doing everything in our power to fulfill this commandment.”
Describing a “dramatic change” in how the authorities relate to worshippers, Myers said that the key was “working together with the police” to achieve a gradual liberalization in the rules governing pilgrims. “It’s a collaborative process,” he said. “It’s not antagonistic.”
As we left the mount, Rabbi Myers went up to the officers who had accompanied us and shook their hands, generating smiles on both sides. And as he stepped off the stones of the holy site back onto the cobbles, he began singing and dancing: “May the holy Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days, and grant us our portion in your Torah.”