Against what some see as an increase in Jewish visits to the Temple Mount, Israel’s chief rabbis this week re-endorsed a longstanding prohibition for Jews to visit the holy site in Jerusalem’s Old City, in an apparent bid to stem the controversial pilgrimages.
Chief Rabbinate sources said the reaffirmation of the decades-old restriction against entering the site where the Holy Temple once stood was issued out of purely religious reasons and had nothing to do with political considerations or Muslim sensitivities.
Both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis, David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, respectively, together with several other Israeli prominent rabbis, signed the very same proscription against Jews ascending to the Temple Mount issued by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook years before the state’s creation.
Kook, who died in 1935, was the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the British Mandatory Palestine.
“The chief rabbis decided to reaffirm this prohibition, which has been in place since before the the state was founded and certainly before the area was captured in 1967, only because of considerations regarding religious purity laws,” a source in the Chief Rabbinate told The Times of Israel. “It has absolutely nothing to do with the political situation. It is not that the chief rabbis were worried about the Middle East going up in flames, or the way the police treats Jewish worshipers there, or anything of that sort — it’s entirely based on religious law.”
The last few months have seen a number of skirmishes between Muslim worshipers on the site and Jews visiting. On Sunday, police closed the site and arrested two Jews and two Muslims after a fight broke out following the singing of a Hanukkah song.
Israeli law allows Jews to visit the Temple Mount but police forbid them from praying there in order to maintain a fragile political status quo and to prevent offending Muslim sensitivities.
Lau and Yosef reiterated the rabbinate’s longstanding policy of banning visits to the Temple Mount at the behest of Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a well-known figure in Israel’s national-religious community, who is staunchly opposed to the growing numbers of Israeli Jews ascending to the area.
The re-endorsement of Rabbi Kook’s prohibition was also signed by former chief rabbi Shlomo Amar and the rabbi of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, Shmuel Rabinovitch, among others prominent rabbinic figures.
While ascending the Temple Mount used to be popular only among a fringe group of nationalist Jew, a trend appears to have taken hold among more mainstream observant circles in recent years months. Now, hundreds of Jews visit the Temple Mount every month.
The Rabbinate, however, believes that the actual number of Jews going up to the Temple Mount has remained steady over the years, admitting, however, that the phenomenon has gained greater media exposure and therefore wider societal acceptance.
In Kook’s original ruling, entitled “The strict prohibition against entering the area of the Temple and the Temple Mount,” the former chief rabbi wrote that “because of the neglect [of purity laws] in our day, we have to warn [the public] that nothing has changed and the strict prohibition [against entering the place where the sanctuary stood] remains in effect for the entire area.”
Jewish religious laws mandates that people entering the terrain of the former Temple need to be ritually pure. Most Orthodox streams therefore ban Jews from approaching the Temple Mount. Other, mostly national-religious groups, however, encourage Jews to visit the area, partly to demonstrate Jewish claims to it.
Called Haram al-Sharif in Arabic, the Temple Mount is Islam’s third-holiest site, and is administered by the Jordanian department of endowments, known as the Waqf.
The site was home to Judaism’s first and second Temples, both of which were destroyed, the second one in 70 CE. The idea of building a third Temple, while popular among some religious and right-wing Jews, is considered outside mainstream Israeli discourse by most.