The Temple Mount, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque atop it, have been a recurring source of tension in Jerusalem in recent years.
Palestinians have cited Israeli “provocations” there as one of the main catalysts for months of violent attacks this year and late last year. They have become increasingly wary of Israel’s intentions at the holy site, often accusing the Jewish state of attempting to impose greater control over the compound, and even of planning to eliminate the mosque and establish Jewish hegemony there.
The Israeli government has repeatedly rejected such accusations as absurd, outlandish paranoia — the ravings of extremist clerics intended to incite the masses.
There is, however, a growing number of Israelis for whom the dream of establishing a third temple in the place of Al-Aqsa is far from outlandish or absurd: It is a life’s mission. And they are slowly but surely moving from the fringes of the religious right into the country’s corridors of power.
On the eve of the Tisha B’Av fast on Sunday, in which Jews commemorate the destruction of the First and Second temples, Channel 2 news followed a group of female devotees who call themselves “Women for the Temple” and are diligently toiling in private as well as public forums to realize their dream of a third temple in Jerusalem.
The group’s members are hard at work preparing themselves for the many needs of the temple, when it comes, poring over Scripture and following its instructions. They are learning how to prepare sacrificial offerings, how to bake the sourdough bread required for the rites and how to cultivate the so-called crimson worm with which the priests’ vestments are dyed.
Perhaps most important of all, they are studying how to make the parochet — in ancient times the great curtain that separated the Temple’s main hall from the Holy of Holies and the Ark of the Covenant it contained (nowadays the cloth that covers the Torah ark in synagogues is called a parochet).
Women for the Temple is also intensely dedicated to recruiting more supporters to the cause. To that end, members hold regular lectures and classes on the Temple and their mission for interested women.
A founding member of the group is Rina Ariel of the settlement of Kiryat Arba, who was in the news in recent months when her daughter was murdered by a Palestinian terrorist. Thirteen-year-old Hallel was stabbed and killed in her sleep in June.
In the wake of the attack, the Ariel family held a memorial service on the Temple Mount. Rina stated at the time that “it is only from there that all deficits can be filled, it is only from there that we will receive any sense of solace.” Urging her community to join her for the visit to the holy site, she said, “The terrorist butchered our daughter in her heart, and our heart is in the Temple Mount.”
Hundreds heeded the call. “We pray that (next time) we won’t stand here as dozens but as thousands,” Ariel told attendees.
Asked by Channel 2 how her daughter’s death had affected her, Ariel said her work gave her strength to deal with the loss, “to continue the momentum of building” Women for the Temple.
Ariel and her three sisters are considered to be the beating heart of the movement. One sister, Tzipora Filtz, lives with her 10 children in a heavily guarded house in the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem, overlooking the Mount.
Asked if she feels comfortable living practically inside the Mount of Olive’s Jewish cemetery, Filtz said: “I am standing before the most holy place and I live this (holiness) in my daily life.”
The sisters noted proudly that talk of constructing a Third Temple had transformed from a quaint dream of those who were once considered fringe elements into a serious mission shared by many.
“When you’d say the word ‘temple’ [they’d say] ‘What, are you crazy? How can you even say that?'” sister Yael Kabilio laughed. “Today’s it’s obvious. You can say it full-throated.”
The women’s group is hardly alone. The Temple Institute, established in 1987, has been advocating for almost 30 years for the reestablishment of the Temple.
The Institute focuses on preparing the objects and skills needed for the sacrifice of animals and the esoteric rituals that had been carried out by kohanim, or priests, in front of crowds of Jewish pilgrims before the temple’s destruction. All of its work is led by a rabbinical council and based on meticulous analysis of Jewish scripture and academic research.
An exhibition of the group’s preparations for the temple moved in 2013 from a small side street in the Old City to a larger space just outside the Western Wall plaza.
The great parochet is once again being woven in a small shack on the edge of the West Bank settlement of Itamar — or, at least, its prototypes are. Three Women for the Temple members are toiling day and night to produce what is considered to be the pinnacle of feminine contribution to the Temple.
Inside, great looms stand at the ready, as strands are dyed red in the extract of the crimson worms and meticulously woven together into ever-larger cloths. Slowly but surely, the work advances.
“Step by step, patiently, we are preparing,” said Orna Hershbag, who works in the shack.
Asked how she envisions the establishment of the Temple, Hershbag said: “I think the Arabs will simply come and say, ‘Come, come and take this place.’
“There are also opinions that say the Temple will come down, complete, from the sky,” she added earnestly.
Dr. Tomer Persico of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem described the group as fundamentalists “who wish to return to some golden past that allegedly once existed, some golden age when things were supposedly perfect.
“This whole idealistic picture — as if we only need to build the Temple for everything to be all right, or that we will perhaps then ascend to another mental plane — it doesn’t even have a basis in Scripture. But people project all of their dreams onto this point, perhaps because they don’t have something else.”
In the meantime, the group’s message appears to be resonating with many religious women. At one of the organization’s classes in the settlement of Mevo Horon, Hannah Katan was enraptured.
“It’s impossible not to be convinced,” she told Channel 2. “It’s here, we feel it. All the trains that are being built from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the highway that is being widened to six lanes, the light rail in Jerusalem — what’s all this for?” She smiled. “So that we can all ascend, as one, to the Temple.”
The women are aware that their objectives may not be easy for everyone to swallow, at least for now, and they regularly discuss how best to communicate their vision to the public.
“Some people don’t want to hear the more difficult details right now… such as sacrifices,” Rina said, but she offered other paths to persuasion, such as through the discussion of joy in people’s lives. “Women want to rejoice, everyone wants to rejoice. Joy is tied to the Temple, because there is no issue that isn’t tied to it.”
The women bristled at the suggestion that they are extreme in their views. They maintained that they are focused on sensible, achievable goals.
Once again challenged by Channel 2’s reporter on how the group plans to deal with the reality of Arab presence at the Temple Mount, one activist, Yehudit Dasberg, said some things are in their power and “the rest will be done by the Lord.”
Another, Michal Ben Omri, chimed in: “Imagine you want to go into your bedroom with your husband but you can’t, because someone else is there. You tell him, ‘Please move,’ but he says, ‘No, I’m not moving.’ You tell him, ‘This is my home,” he tells you ‘So what?’… would you agree to that?
“The Holy of Holies is the Lord’s bedchambers with the people of Israel,” she said. “Someone is in my bedroom.”
The group’s spokeswoman and lobbyist, Rivka Shimon, noted that her grandparents had been labeled crazy when they left Poland to come to the Land of Israel before the Holocaust. It saved their lives when all others perished, she observes.
Persico warned that the movement’s efforts could become a real threat to regional stability should they receive “political backing” and “when real action is taken to change the status quo.
“Anyone who tries to change the status quo at the Temple Mount is playing with fire,” he said.
In the halls of Israeli power, Shimon is intent on eventually doing just that. In recent years she has been paying increasingly frequent visits to the Knesset. She said her audience, though not speaking openly of a third temple for now, has become more and more receptive to the group’s call for Jewish prayer rights on the Mount.
Among the Knesset members she considers to be her supporters are Jewish Home MKs Shuli Mualem and Bezalel Smotrich, as well as Sports and Culture Minister Miri Regev and Likud’s most recent addition to its lineup, Yehuda Glick — a well-known Temple Mount activist.
Shimon admitted that forging a democratic path to a new temple is only the first stage in what she envisions as a fundamental transformation of the state into one guided by the light of Jewish faith, when the lawmakers of a secular government are no longer the leaders of the Jewish nation.
Not the she wants to shut down the Knesset entirely. The legislature, she said, could continue to handle the particulars of daily life in the new Temple-led society.
“The small stuff,” she said, smiling.