Rabbi Moshe David Tendler, a prominent Torah scholar and lecturer in Yeshiva University in New York, and a Ph.D. in microbiology, says that the recent renewal by top rabbis of a ban on entry to the Temple Mount is either based on wrong information or guided by the government's political considerations.
"The citation of Jewish Law that is being spouted to prohibit Jewish entry to the Temple Mount is sometimes embarrassing," Rabbi Tendler told IsraelNationalRadio's Yishai Fleisher this week.
He said the Chief Rabbinate must exercise its authority for the sake of the entire Nation of Israel.
Three Sages Ask for Renewed Ban
Last month, Rabbi Shalom Elyashiv, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, and former Sephardic chief rabbi Rabbi Ovadia Yosef - all renowned rabbis of the hareidi non-nationalist religious sector - sent a letter asking that the ban on Jewish entry to the Temple Mount be re-issued. The letter was sent to Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich, the Rabbi of the Holy Sites on behalf of the government of Israel.
The rabbis' letter is based on the grave Biblical prohibition on setting foot, while in the present impure state, on certain parts of the Temple Mount - and the lack of clarity as to where those parts might be. "As time passed," the letter states, "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. Entrance to the Temple Mount, and the defilement of the Holy of Holies, is more severe than any of the violations in the Torah."
Research Tells the Story
Rabbi Tendler has sharp words for this approach: "When we were in Exile and the Kotel [Western Wall] was a topic for 'future Messianic times,' it was thought that the Kotel was the wall of the actual Temple. But now that we know the true situation, we have been there many times, we know what's going on, and even minimal research tells us that the Kotel is merely the outer wall of the Temple Mount, not the Holy Temple itself."
"We must be very respectful of the great work done by [former Chief] Rabbi Shlomo Goren and others; they have performed measurements and they know where the Holy of Holies was. There is a very large area where we are certain it was not located, and in that area even a funeral can be held... We can certainly visit these areas, but of course only after going to the mikveh [ritual bath] the day before, and without wearing any leather, and being careful to speak properly while there and to dress respectfully... There are no doubts [as to which places are forbidden to enter], and anyone who raises such doubts does so for ulterior motives..."
"In addition, to say that it is a violation of the Talmudic dictum not to force our will on the nations, as Rabbi Aviner has written, is also embarrassing; everyone knows that when we go up there, it is only with permission, and being very careful not to antagonize the 'foxes who walk there' or to mumble any prayers, Heaven forbid."
Rabbi Feinstein's Responsum
Rabbi Tendler emphasized that entry to the Temple Mount is not a Halakhic problem: "My great father-in-law, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein of saintly blessed memory, showed that entry is permitted in many places." The reference is to a responsum published by Rabbi Feinstein, considered the pre-eminent authority on Jewish Law in his generation in the United States, in his work Igrot Moshe. The full text can be seen here.
Authority Without Responsibility
Rabbi Tendler says that the Chief Rabbinate should not suffice with signs warning against entry, which are all but ignored, but should rather encourage Jews to visit only permitted areas: "I level a charge that the Chief Rabbinate is [acting with] 'authority without responsibility.' Thousands of people currently go up to the places on the Mount that are gravely forbidden to visit, with secular tour-guides; if the Chief Rabbinate were doing its job as the Rabbinate of the Jewish People, it would put up signs announcing tours conducted in accordance with Jewish Law and asking Jews to participate only in these tours. They would thus save many Jews from grave prohibitions; even Reform Jews - when they come to Eretz Yisrael [the Land], some kind of holiness rests on their shoulders; if they would hear about a chance to walk on the Temple Mount in a way that is proper [even though it means not coming so close to the Dome of the Rock], they would do it. Instead, the Rabbinate puts up a sign that no one reads and that has no effect."
Rabbi Tendler then questioned why the above-mentioned rabbis would choose to strengthen this approach: "And now that some of the Gedolei Yisrael [great Torah scholars] see fit to try to support this approach, the question is why are they doing that? Are they worried about a few yeshiva boys [who might mistakenly go into the wrong areas], or are they worried about Klal Yisrael [Entirety of Israel]? Don't they realize that most people are not impressed by what our rabbis say [in their announcements]? They are speaking not based on Jewish Law, but for reasons of politics or based on inaccurate information."
What the Torah Scholars in Judea and Samaria Say
Rabbi Tendler continued, "Hundreds of rabbis in Judea and Samaria signed a call asking Jews to go up to Temple Mount, lest it become indeed foreign territory and, de facto, entirely Moslem. These rabbis are on the scene, living the life of Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel], putting their lives on the line and going to the army to defend the Nation of Israel, and they are also great Torah scholars ... I think that instead of interviewing me, which is of no consequence, the great rabbis [who ban entry] should be interviewed and asked to explain what they are doing. Do they not understand that those feeding them information have ulterior motives? They're not on the scene, they don't go up there, and they don't see what's going on."
On the other hand, the late Rabbi Avraham Elkana Shapira, formerly the Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel and Dean of the Merkaz HaRav Kook Yeshiva, was unequivocally against going up to the Temple Mount and this for strictly Jewish legal reasons.
On the last Jerusalem Day that he spoke in Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva in the Spring of 2007, Rabbi Shapira quoted the words of the late Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, founder of the Merkaz HaRav Kook Yeshiva, who, when presented with maps purporting to show where one could walk permissibly on the Temple Mount, said in Yiddish “Noch a shticketl kares, noch a shtickel kares” (translation: another bit of ‘karet’, another bit of ‘karet’—i.e. the severe Divine punishment for treading on forbidden areas of the Temple Mount).
Rabbi Shapira told his students that Rabbi Shlomo Goren's students can follow their Rabbi's opinion, but that he disagreed. Rabbi Shapira intended to publish a short Jewish legal work on the subject and had prepared the writings before he passed away last year, according to his close students.
"From my experience," Rabbi Tendler said, "when I started going up to the Temple Mount, Arab kids were playing soccer, and guards were eating sunflower seeds... You don't see that anymore. Now, there is more respect, because we have started visiting. So this is the contribution that we have already made for the sanctity of the Temple Mount..."
Show host Fleisher, explaining why he felt it was so important to publicize Rabbi Tendler's call, said, "First of all, as Jews, we seek out holiness, and the Temple Mount is the holiest place in the world; it is where the world was created from, and where Abraham was ready to sacrifice Isaac, and where King Solomon erected the Holy Temple. Secondly, it strengthens our sovereignty in our eternal capital, Jerusalem. And thirdly, we see that many of our great leaders, such as Maimonides, made sure to visit this site - so let's do the same."