Jews in the Temple Area: A "Mount"-ing Controversy
“There’s a big problem. The Arabs are desecrating [the Mount]. So for the Arabs it’s allowed and Jews not? If they rule that Jews are not allowed on the mount, then Arabs should certainly not be allowed on it either.”
Several of Israel’s leading rabbis have fired the latest shot in one of modern Israel’s longest-running halachic disputes—whether a Jew may enter the Temple Mount today. Rabbis Ovadia Yosef, Shalom Elyashiv and Chaim Kanievsky recently sent a letter to Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich, the rabbi in charge of the Western Wall area, asking him to repeat a 40-year-old decree prohibiting Jews from entering the Temple Mount.
The decree was originally signed by most leading rabbis upon the Mount’s capture by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.
The Temple Mount is the area upon which both Holy Temples stood, in which the priests offered sacrifices, and where thrice-yearly convocations of the whole nation of Israel took place during the festivals of Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Weeks) and Sukkot (Tabernacles).
In the center of the Temple complex stood a Holy of Holies that guarded the Holy Ark—once containing the original Tablets of the Law given to Moses by G-d at Mt. Sinai—and the Foundation Stone for the creation of the universe. That spot is the holiest point in the world and the place that the High Priest entered only once a year to offer the most important atonement sacrifice of the year.
The modern debate centers on whether or not there is enough information from classical rabbinical sources to identify the location of the Holy of Holies, as well as the layout of the Temple, which articulated specific areas accessible to different categories of Jews. The biblical prohibition against a person entering an area in the Temple complex forbidden to him carries with it the severe divine penalty of karet (excommunication).
Rabbi Yosef is regarded as Israel’s foremost Sephardic authority on Torah law and Rabbi Elyashiv is considered to be the leader of the hareidi-religious community. Rabbi Kanievsky is a world-renowned rabbi and authority on Torah law.
A Change in the Tide as Dissenting Ascenders Grow
The letter sent by the rabbis follows a firestorm of controversy that broke out last month when a prominent rabbi was photographed ascending the Mount. Rabbi Moshe Tendler is the son-in-law of the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, considered the leading halachic (Torah law) authority in America in his time. Rabbi Tendler climbed to the plaza in the center of the Mount, upon which the Muslims built the Dome of the Rock, considered by many to be the location of the Holy of Holies.
In recent years several other prominent rabbis have ascended the Mount, keeping the dispute a burning issue.
In the latest letter, the three rabbis have demanded a complete ban on Jews entering any part of the Temple Mount on the grounds that the ritual purity of the area might be violated.
"A time passed, we have lost knowledge of the precise location of the Temple, and anyone entering the Temple Mount is liable to unwittingly enter the area of the Temple and the Holy of Holies,” the three wrote in the letter.
"Entrance to the Temple Mount, and the defilement of the Holy of Holies, is more severe than any of the violations in the Torah," wrote Rabbi Kanievsky.
Signs were first placed around the area in 1967 warning Jews that they would be incurring a divine decree of death if they ascended the Mount. The signs enjoyed the support of most rabbis at the time. However, with the passing decades many religious leaders, especially from the religious-Zionist mvement, began to question the validity of the decree. Among them those who have all called for a review of the ban are Kiryat Shmona’s chief rabbi Tzephania Drori, Kiryat Arba’s Dov Lior, and Rabbi Nachum Rabinovich, head of the Maaleh Adumim yeshiva.
Torah Ammunition for the 'Opposition'
Rabbi Yehuda Kreuzer is the head of the Jewish town of Mitzpeh Yericho, northeast of Jerusalem, as well as head of the "Yeshiva of the Jewish Idea" and founder of HaTnuah L’Kinun HaMikdash (the Movement to Re-establish the Temple). He is one of the supporters of Temple Mount visits, and in an interview with IsraelNationalNews he cited an authoritative rabbinical source that he takes as clear evidence that such visits are allowed.
"The Radbaz [a leading halachic authority from the 1500s] ruled that the Dome of the Rock is the Foundation Stone in the Holy of Holies…. He wrote that without a doubt this is the identity of the place. He wrote in a definite way the definite identity of the place,” Kreuzner reiterated. “If so, it’s possible to do the measurements."
Rabbi Kreuzer noted that in Tractate Midot (Measurements) as well as in works by the Rambam (Maimonides, considered by many to be the greatest articulator of Torah law after Moses), the measurements of all parts of the Temple and the Mount are laid out in detail and agree with each other.
The Rabbi continued, “According to those [measurements], we can do all the calculations,” correlating the various areas of today’s Temple Mount to their designations in the original Temple layout.
“This is the essential source on which people who visit the Mount rely,” summarized the rabbi.
'Unclear Why It's Forbidden'
Responding to the recent letter calling for a renewal of the ban, Kreuzer said: “To this day, it’s unclear why it's forbidden from a halachic perspective. What is the prohibition against someone going up? There’s no clear answer given [by those rabbis].”
Kreuzner continued with an admonition to his opponents: “He who knows [of the permission], knows; he who doesn’t, doesn’t. He who doesn’t know needs to learn. The problem is that he who doesn’t know doesn’t sit down and learn” why visiting the Mount in fact permitted.
The rabbi added that there have been numerous attempts made by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel to create a commission to resolve this issue, all of which have failed to materialize. “We should all sit down” to explore this issue, he said, but “the problem is that [opposing rabbis] don’t want to.”