Though "maintaining the status quo" on the Temple Mount seems to be a universal goal, no one is quite sure what it is. Those who believe it means that Jews must not pray there should take note that the late Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Chief Rabbi of the IDF and later of Israel, wrote that Jews prayed there for "hundreds of years" up until three centuries ago.
When Israeli, American and other diplomats and statesmen speak of maintaining the status quo, they generally mean that Muslims must be allowed free entry for worship or leisure, while Jews must continue to be restricted in their access. Jews, according to this definition of the "status quo," must be prevented from entering in large groups, or at other than several specified daily hours – and from praying at the site altogether.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and other Cabinet ministers have repeatedly stated of late that there will be no change in the status quo. They have made this clear to Jordan’s King Abdullah, the European Union's new foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, and others.
However, this "status quo" under which Jews do not pray on the Temple Mount actually came into effect only relatively recently. As recently noted by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed in BeSheva, Rabbi Goren, who blew a shofar at the site upon its liberation during the Six Day War in 1967, wrote in his work "The Temple Mount" that "Jewish prayer at the Western Wall began only in the 16th century; prior to that, Jews prayed for centuries on the Temple Mount."
Rabbi Goren, a Temple Mount expert, notes that, based on the renowned Radbaz – the 16th century Rabbi David Ben Shlomo Ibn Zimra, whose rulings form the basis of much of accepted Halakhah – and others, "it is clear that after the Amoraim and Geonim [i.e., after the year 1038], the general custom followed the opinion that there was no reason to forbid entry to the Holy Site in its destruction, as the Meiri writes… This is true even when there was no Red Heifer for purification… This practice cannot be attributed to lack of knowledge; it is not reasonable to assume that Jews prayed for centuries at the site of the Holy Temple without anyone mentioning that this involves a grave prohibition, punishable by karet."
Of course, the custom gradually changed. The Muslims banned the Jews from entering the holy site, and their "holiest site" gradually came to be the Western Wall – which was actually just a supporting wall of the Temple Mount. "When the Medrash states that the Divine Presence never left the Western Wall," Rabbi Goren writes, "it does not refer to this wall, but rather to the western wall of the Temple courtyard or of the sanctuary."
Rabbi Goren writes that he himself was "bound up in chords of love for the [present-day] Western Wall, where I used to pray every Sabbath and holiday," and that this prevented him from acting immediately after the Six Day War to institute Jewish entry to the Temple Mount. However, "the voice of our cry [in Psalms], 'Who will ascend to the mountain of G-d?', aroused me to take strength and clarify the matter of visiting the Temple Mount." This he did by assigning the IDF's Engineering Corps to map out the exact measurements of the Mount, and consulting Rabbinic and other texts to clarify the precise location of the Holy of Holies and other forbidden areas.
Rabbi Goren attempted to arrange prayer services on the Temple Mount, but was stopped from doing so by then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan.
In any event, the "status quo" in previous centuries included Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount. After 1967, a new "status quo" was instituted – one that barely resembles the situation of today. More on this in Part II of this series.