JTA – No praying. No kneeling. No bowing. No prostrating. No dancing. No singing. No ripping clothes.
These are the rules that Jews must abide by when visiting the Temple Mount, the site where the First and Second Holy Temples once stood, located above and behind the Western Wall in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City.
Although the area is under Israeli sovereignty, the mount — known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif — is controlled by the Islamic Wakf, a joint Palestinian-Jordanian religious body. As the site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, whose golden dome overlooks the city, the Temple Mount attracts daily crowds of Muslim worshipers.
Under Wakf regulations, Jews may only access the mount for 4 1/2 hours per day and are forbidden from praying there.
But when Rabbi Chaim Richman stands only feet from the Dome of the Rock, surrounded by Muslim visitors, he whispers a chapter of Psalms.
“God will answer you on your day of trouble,” he mutters on a recent visit. “The name of the God of Jacob will protect you.”
On previous visits to the mount, Richman says he’s sung the entire Hallel prayer under his breath.
A frequent presence on the mount who knows the guards by name, Richman is the international director of the Temple Institute, an organization based in the Old City with a singular goal: to rebuild the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
Ahead of Tisha B’Av, the fast day next week that commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the institute released a video showing Jewish children donning tool belts and leading their fathers out of synagogue to begin construction of the Holy Temple.
“Our goal is to fulfill the commandment of ‘They shall make a Temple for me and I will dwell among them,’ ” Richman says, quoting Exodus. “The basis of a Torah life is action.”
Following the Second Temple’s destruction in 70 C.E., most rabbis adopted the position that Jewish law prohibits reconstructing the Holy Temple prior to the age of messianic redemption, or that the law is too ambiguous and that the messiah must come first.
The Temple Institute takes a different position.
“There are no Jewish legal barriers” to rebuilding the temple, Richman says, only political ones.
The institute isn’t shy about advocating what many see as a radical goal: replacing the mosque at the Dome of the Rock with a new Jewish Holy Temple. A painting in the institute’s exhibition depicts this scenario, with the city’s light rail line taking residents to the Temple Mount. The Temple Institute is dedicated to laying the groundwork for this vision.
The organization has formulated a program for where the temple will stand and what its vessels will look like, aided by 20 men who study Temple law full-time. The products of this research — 40 ritual objects — are on display in Plexiglas cases at the institute’s headquarters in the Old City.
Silver trumpets to be blown by priests and a wooden lyre are perched next to two deep pans with long handles — one for collecting blood from small sacrificial offerings and another for large sacrifices like the Passover lamb.
In another room, mannequins with beards wear the respective vestments for deputy priests and the high priest. The high priest’s outfit, with azure weaves, gold thread and a breastplate with 12 precious stones, took 11 years of research and $150,000 to complete. Next to it stands a massive 12-spigot sink with electric faucets — technology that Richman says will be permitted in the Third Temple.
The institute’s crowning achievement — the Temple’s golden, 200-pound, seven-branch menorah — stands outside in a case overlooking the Western Wall. Unlike art or history museums, the institute’s goal is to remove the objects from their cases and bring them to the mount for use as soon as possible.
Many Israelis view the goal as a danger to the status quo that has kept this site holy to Muslims and Jews from turning into a tinderbox.
In 1984, Israel’s security services stopped a group of Jewish terrorists conspiring to blow up the mosque at the mount who reportedly got very close to achieving their goal. Ever since, authorities say they have kept a close watch on any attempts to disturb the peace on the mount.
Though observant Jews pray thrice daily in the Amidah prayer for the Temple to be rebuilt, few do anything about it. That’s as it should be, says Michael Melchior, an Orthodox rabbi and former Knesset member who is considered a religious moderate.
“We pray for holiness, but we also need to be careful of others’ desire for holiness,” Melchior said. “The moment you want to translate that into building a Temple, you upset the sensitive balance we’ve created here, by which we exist here.” He called Temple construction advocates “irresponsible.”
Given the obstacles to breaking ground on a Holy Temple, the institute also has taken up a more modest cause: expanding Jewish rights on the Temple Mount to allow unrestricted access and prayer. In that endeavor, Richman is joined by several right-wing Knesset members and a group of archaeologists who say the Wakf is reckless with archaeological remains at the site.
“It has exceptional historical importance,” Eilat Mazar, a Hebrew University archaeologist, said of the site. “There needs to be access for everyone. Authorities don’t take care of it.”
Moshe Feiglin, a nationalist Likud Knesset member, made a practice of visiting the Temple Mount monthly until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu banned him from the site in order to prevent provocations there. Last month, Feiglin wrote on Facebook, “Whoever turns his back on the Temple Mount is also giving up on construction in the city.”
Richman says support for the institute’s goals is growing. For him, the issue involves far more than politics, archaeology or even Jewish legal research. The Temple Institute, he says, is doing God’s work.
“The point is that we can’t live without the Temple,” Richman says. “It’s not about building, it’s about a concept: the idea that all of human experience can be elevated to a sense of divine purpose.”