Reviving an Ancient Tradition in Judaism's Holiest Place
The Jewish festival of Sukkot will soon be getting underway, just a few days after Yom Kippur, capping off the festive Hebrew month of Tishrei.
Sukkot commemorates God's protection of the Jewish people during their 40 year stint wandering the desert, following the dramatic Exodus from Egypt. It is also a harvest festival and a celebration of the Land of Israel and its produce, among other things.
Sukkot is one of the most joyous of Jewish festivals, and is marked by Jews worldwide through a variety of iconic Torah commandments; including the ritual "waving" of the "Four Species" of agricultural produce (or arba minim - a palm branch, a citron fruit, and myrtle and willow branches), and leaving the comfort of their homes to live in temporary huts, known as sukkot.
In ancient Israel, whilst the holy Temples of Jerusalem still stood, a number of other Torah laws and customs were practiced as well, falling out of use following the destruction of the Temples (the first by the Babylonians and the second by the Romans), and the subsequent period of exile and persecution by a succession of foreign empires in the Holy Land.
Now, a group of Jewish activists is pushing for the reinstatement of one such practice, arguing that its performance is actually still incumbent upon Jews - regardless of the lack of a Temple in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Richman, who heads the Temple Institute's International Department, spoke to Arutz Sheva about his group's initiative to restart the "aliyah laregel," or pilgrimage to the Temple Mount, which for thousands of years was practiced by Jews en-masse - many of whom traveled hundreds of miles to do so - on each of the three main festivals of Pesach (Passover), Shavuot and Sukkot.
"Our aim is to connect Jews with the idea of aliya laregel," Rabbi Richman told Arutz Sheva.
"The Temple Mount is so important to the Jewish people - to all people really" as a universal house of prayer and peace, and visiting the Temple Mount is, in Rabbi Richman's words "a life-changing experience." He hastens to add that visits are conducted "strictly according to halacha (Jewish law)."
"The whole concept of the shalosh regalim (three pilgrimage festivals) has the holy Temple at the center of the experience. It is unfortunate that through two thousand years of exile we have become alienated from it - but there is an explicit Torah commandment to be 'seen by God' in the Temple," he says.
Rabbi Richman explains that despite the absence of a Temple, there are still a number of important Torah commandments which apply to the Temple Mount today - including a mitzvah (Torah command) to ascend and "show reverence" to the site - which is Judaism's holiest place.
In fact, that performance of Jewish law is the main motivation for his group's organized ascents to the Temple Mount all year round, he says, citing a ruling in the Rambam's (Maimonides') famous Mishne Torah (one of the most respected works of Jewish law), which lists Moreh Mikdash (reverence of the Temple sanctuary) as a positive Torah command. That command, he points out, is relevant all year round, regardless of whether the Temples themselves are standing.
"So it's ironic that the Temple Mount is the only place where Jews are actually banned from praying," he laments.
The Temple Mount is Judaism's holiest site, where the two holy Temples of Israel stood, and where some Jewish traditions teach that the creation of the world began.
But despite that fact, Jewish visitors to the Mount are subject to severe restrictions, including a complete ban on prayers or the performance of any other religious rituals, due to the presence of an Islamic complex there that is built on the ruins of the two Jewish Temples. This despite court orders rejecting such bans as illegally infringing on the right to freedom of religion.
Temple Mount activists have often cited such restrictions as an added imperative for Jews to frequent the Temple Mount, as a way of asserting Jewish rights at the holiest site in Israel. They also fear the "abandonment" of the Temple Mount to the Muslim Waqf trust, which administers the Islamic Al Aqsa complex, and which stands accused of the systematic destruction of Jewish artifacts on the Mount.
"Renewing the Jewish way"
There is, however, an added layer of controversy to such visits: a number of Orthodox rabbis oppose Jewish ascents to the Mount, citing concerns over the laws of ritual purity which are especially stringent on the Temple Mount and which, they say, could be violated by uneducated Jewish visitors. Treading on certain areas according to Jewish law can incur the punishment of kareit, loosely translated as "spiritual excommunication."
But Rabbi Richman is unequivocal in his dismissal - and even condemnation - of such opposition, blaming them on misconceptions surrounding Jewish law.
"First of all, what we are doing is not 'controversial', or 'radical', or new in any way," he explains.
"People were aliya laregel for hundreds of years after the destruction of the Second Temple [in 70 CE - ed.]," he continues.
"In fact, the Rishonim [medieval Jewish commentators - ed.] don't even mention the Kotel (Western Wall) at all - only the Temple Mount," he points out, insisting that "we are simply renewing the Jewish way."
Avoiding visiting the Mount out of fear of accidentally incurring kareit would be the same as not getting married out of a fear of breaking Jewish marital laws, which carry the same spiritual ramifications according to the Torah, he says.
Rabbi Richman also dismisses claims that the precise location of the Temples is unclear, and thus visitors could accidentally tread on areas which are universally agreed to be "out of bounds" according to Jewish law due to their extreme sanctity. He points to the vivid account by 15th century Jewish scholar Rabbi David ben Zimra (known as the Radbaz), of the custom of Jerusalem's Jews to ascend to the Temple Mount on a regular basis to pray. The route of the Temple Institute's tours is based on that very responsa.
"It is simply not accurate to say that we do not know where the Temple stood," he insists.
"Some people in the yeshiva world have a misconception that moreh mikdash means not going on to the Temple Mount at all, out of fear of the Divine Presence," Rabbi Richman says, with a palpable degree of exasperation.
"But the Rambam clearly disagrees with them, and defines moreh mikdaash as a positive command to ascend the mount, but in a certain way," that shows one's awe for the place "and for the sake of performing a mitzvah such as prayer, as opposed to just a casual visit," he explains.
The Rambam himself visited the Temple Mount, he further recounts, and was so moved by his visit that he asked his descendants to celebrate that day (on the 6th of the Hebrew month of Heshvan) as a mini festival.
"He did so at great person risk, as he himself says, due to a draconian ban on Jews from ascending the Mount by the Crusaders who ruled Jerusalem at the time," such was his commitment to the performance of the Torah command of moreh mikdash.
And he was in good company.
"Every yeshiva boy knows the [Talmudic] story about Rabbi Akiva, who famously laughed when he saw a fox wandering through the rubble on the Temple Mount," and was subsequently questioned about his seemingly odd reaction to seeing the desolation by his colleagues.
"Well, I don't know how to tell you this, but they did not see the fox from Mount Scopus with high-powered IDF binoculars!" he quips sardonically.
"They were standing on the Temple Mount."
The Temple Institute has already received a significant amount of interest in the program, which he describes as a "beautiful half-day seminar in the shadow of the Temple."
And as far as Temple Mount activists are concerned, the time has never been better.
On the one hand, says Rabbi Richman, the Temple Mount is "beleaguered," and in need of solidarity, due to archaeological vandalism by the Waqf on the one hand, and the severe restrictions on Jewish visits on the other - coupled with attempts by international actors to partition Jerusalem in a way that would deny the Jewish connection to the Mount entirely.
But on the other hand, he lauds what he sees as a "great awakening" among Jews regarding the plight of the Temple Mount, and its centrality to Jewish life and practice.
And that awakening appears to be drawing the attention of an altogether different kind, as anti-Israel actors - from Arab-Israeli Islamists to the Palestinian Authority - scramble to counter it, claiming such plans are a ploy to "invade" the Al Aqsa complex and rebuild the Third Jewish Temple.
Not so, says Rabbi Richman - though he sees such reactions as proof of the success of his group's efforts.
But politics aside, he says, his one goal above all is simply to honor "the one place on earth that God chose for His presence," by restarting the ancient tradition of aliya laregel.