THE POLITICAL ROLE OF THE ISRAELI CHIEF RABBINATE IN THE TEMPLE MOUNT QUESTION

, April 15, 1999

Volume 11:1-2 (Spring 1999)  

 

The capture by Israel of the Temple Mount in 1967 opened a Pandora’s box of questions for religious authorities. These ranged from whether to rebuild the Temple and reinstitute the sacrificial service to whether to allow Jews to ascend the Temple Mount to pray. The official Israeli Chief Rabbinate adopted a mostly conservative stance toward the new circumstances created. Halakhic factors interplayed with governmental pressure to avoid hostile reactions from the Muslim world. This article examines the approaches of successive chief rabbis to the Temple Mount question, the discussions within the Chief Rabbinate Council, and the social and political contexts in which decisions have been made.

 


The outcome of the 1967 war and the reunification of Jerusalem caught Israel’s chief rabbis by pleasant surprise, as it did the country’s Jewish population and Jews worldwide. The Chief Rabbinate had to deal with a potentially new reality: for the first time since the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple the area of the Temple Mount was under Jewish sovereignty. As an institution recognized by successive governments as the spiritual head of Orthodox Jewry, the Chief Rabbinate has sought generally to adopt halakhically-acceptable positions which did not conflict either with official thinking or the broad non-Orthodox majority in Israeli society. The capture of the Temple Mount presented two possible scenarios: the reintroduction of Temple worship – bringing the biggest revolution in Jewish religious life for 1900 years – or to seek to “incorporate” the capture of the Temple Mount by the Israel Army within existing patterns of Jewish religious behavior. This article will examine the factors which led to the Chief Rabbinate choosing the second option, and their position on the issue in the period since.

The Third Temple

Three schools of halakhic thought on the Temple Mount question may be traced within the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. A first school favors building the Third Temple today. The only chief rabbi who backed this position was Rabbi Shlomo Goren, and this before the 1967 war and for a short period immediately following it (a period when Goren had not yet been appointed chief rabbi). At the 1962 Oral Law Conference, Goren said that if the Old City of Jerusalem would ever be captured from Jordan there would be a need to rebuild the Temple.2 After the Temple Mount fell to the Israeli Army on the second day of the 1967 war, Goren, then Army Chief Rabbi, asked Central Region Commander General Uzi Narkiss to place 100 kg. of dynamite in the Dome of the Rock.3 Goren repeated the need to blow up the Dome of the Rock at an all-day seminar on the Temple Mount for reservists in the military rabbinate. In the heat of war, where there was much bombing, such an action could have been carried out, Goren claimed, without even a formal military order to counter sniper firing from the Jordanians on the Mount.4 After the war Goren asked the Army’s Engineering Corps to measure out the precise location where the Temple had been situated on the plateau. The title of a paper he intended to present at the Oral Law Conference in August 1967, which was devoted to the subject of the Temple, was “Building the Temple Today.”5

Goren’s view that the Temple should be built today was based on a ruling of Maimonides which drew on the verse “And you shall build me a sanctuary.”6 Maimonides sets certain prior conditions; there was a need first for a return to the Jewish monarchy, the reinstitution of the Sanhedrin, and the end of Amalek. Some saw in the new State of Israel a return to Jewish monarchy, the existence of a functioning legal system as fighting off Amalek, and the Chief Rabbinate as the embryo of the Sanhedrin.

A second school held that the Third Temple will be built not by man but by the Messiah and there was nothing to do but pray and wait. This school is based on Rashi and Tosephot who draw on the verse “The Sanctuary, O God, which your hands have established.”7 Moreover, given that Jews are in a state of ritual uncleanliness in the absence of the “red heifer” it was forbidden to enter the area where the Temple was located. In the absence of precise data as to where it was located, these rabbis imposed a blanket ban on access for Jews to the entire Temple Mount. Proponents of this school included Chief Rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook, Isser Unterman, Itzhak Nissim, Ovadiah Yosef, Avraham Shapiro, Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, and Israel Lau.8 Segel has questioned whether Rabbi Kook, whose ruling influenced Shapiro and others, held that the Third Temple would be built by the Messiah. In examining Kook’s writings Segel has attempted to show that Kook believed that the Temple and the sacrificial service will precede the Messiah, and that statements by Kook before the 1929 Shaw Commission that the Temple would be built by the Messiah were, according to Segel, intended to assuage Arab claims that the Jews sought control of the Western Wall in order to build the Temple.9 Although Kook saw the struggle for the Zionist homeland as a primary goal, the sanctity of Jerusalem was of paramount importance.

A separate question for the chief rabbis concerns the condition that the Messiah precede the rebuilding of the Temple, and whether he has already come. At a meeting between Chief Rabbis Shapiro and Eliahu with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, in 1986, the three rabbis issued a declaration saying, “The Messiah has waited enough time. He has to come now.” But the Chief Rabbinate Council failed to relate to this declaration. Had the rabbinate acknowledged that the Messiah had come – namely, in the guise of the revered Rabbi Schneersohn himself – the time for the Third Temple would also have.10

The Israeli Chief Rabbinate and the Temple Mount QuestionThe Chief Rabbinate Council never discussed the question of building the Third Temple. The first meeting of the council after the capture of the Temple Mount was held on June 10, the last day of the war. The meeting limited itself to discussing the question of Jewish access, and the need to limit it. In so doing, Chief Rabbis Nissim and Unterman were following the view that the Messiah had to precede the Third Temple. Given the key role which Unterman and Nissim played in setting the pattern for how the Jewish People reacted to their new-old spiritual reality on the Temple Mount, an understanding of their positions is important. Nissim said, “We have entered the palace, and even reached the table but we are not yet accepted before Him. We have done all that is in our powers to do. All that is left to be done is in the hands of Heaven.”11 Unterman spoke in similar terms. “The Temple Mount has still not been freed, as mosques are situated on the Mount. When the Messiah comes and removes the mosques, then will be built the Temple.” Moreover, “the Messiah will come when nation does not fight nation. The erection of the Temple is dependent on world peace.”12 Temple rebuilding was also predicated, Unterman said, on preparing the Jewish People spiritually. There was also an absence of halakhic knowledge about the precise location of the Temple site.13 Even the First Temple was delayed until the period of King Solomon, he added.14 Like Goren, Unterman was also a messianist. But while Goren believed the age had come, Unterman was prepared to wait for an age of “world peace” which some believe will never come about. It may be questioned whether Unterman saw Temple rebuilding as a potential reality today.15

The Chief Rabbinate has also not discussed the question of offerings today.16 When Ezra returned from Babylon, offerings were reinstated on the site of the altar even before the Second Temple was dedicated. Then the precise site of the altar was known and a red heifer existed. The possibility of offering the paschal lamb, which according to Rabbi Akiva Eiger may be brought in a state of ritual uncleanliness, was not even addressed by the Chief Rabbinate. Another difference between Ezra and 1967 was that only 70 years had elapsed in the former case since the destruction of the First Temple, and the Temple and its sacrificial service remained a central focus of Jewish life. Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu gave his support to experiments to rear red heifer cows, and in 1989 conducted an inspection of reddish heifers. In 1981 Chief Rabbi Goren made an abortive attempt to tunnel underneath the Temple Mount towards the site of the Holy of Holies from the Hasmonean Tunnels partly in order to locate the Holy Ark.17

According to a third school of thought, Jews should be allowed to enter parts of the Temple Mount where the Temple was not situated. This school also accepts that the Temple will be built by the Messiah and not by man. Proponents of this school include Chief Rabbis Eliahu18 and, after altering his view in late 1967, Goren. Since the Temple buildings occupied only 15 percent of the original Temple Mount area, the size of which has since doubled owing to construction carried out by different occupying forces over the centuries, it is permitted to pray in those areas of the Mount where the Temple building was not situated. While the precise location of the building is a matter of dispute, there is a consensus regarding the areas where the building was not situated, notably in the northern and southern expanses of the Mount. According to this school it is permitted to pray in these areas. To be true, Goren’s standpoint was weak because while today research has narrowed the question of the areas where it is forbidden to enter, in the period following the 1967 war when Goren first advanced his view there was virtually no knowledge of these different possible locations.

While there is no religious obligation to pray on the Temple Mount, Chief Rabbis Goren and Eliahu saw a need to counter the growing de facto control of the Wakf by encouraging a Jewish presence on the Mount.19 In imposing a blanket ban on access to the entire Temple Mount, the other chief rabbis identified with the second school were apparently concerned that a Jew might inadvertently go from a permitted part to the forbidden part. Eliahu sought to overcome this by limiting Jews’ access to a synagogue he proposed be built in one of the permitted areas; entry would be made from the outer edge of the Mount and there would be no exit door from his proposed synagogue onto the Mount’s plateau.

Goren did not explain his change of view. Indeed, he went to considerable lengths to disassociate himself from his original position. In reaction to the activities of groups preparing for the Temple today by recreating the Temple garments and artifacts, Goren quoted the Book of Ecclesiastes: “All is vanity and a striving after the wind.”20

Access to the Temple Mount

From the outset, Unterman and Nissim imposed a ban on Jewish access to the entire Temple Mount. Within hours of the Mount falling to the Israeli Army on the second day of the war, Israel Radio broadcast a warning issued by the Chief Rabbinate not to enter the area of the Mount.21 In banning access to the Temple Mount, the chief rabbis were following Maimonides’ view that the Shechinah (Divine Presence) is still present at the spot of the Temple. Entry to it is forbidden and punishable with kareth(death by heavenly decree), given that Jews are in a state of ritual uncleanliness today in the absence of a red heifer, the ashes of which are required for the purifying process. By contrast, Raved has argued that the Shechinah’s presence became less strong once the Jewish presence was reduced, and that it will regain its fullness with the rebuilding of the Temple. Accordingly, entry to the place of the Temple is not subject to kareth. Given the uncertainty where the Temple building itself was located, Unterman and Nissim decided to impose a complete ban on the Mount. Dr. Zerah Warhaftig, the Religious Affairs Minister, who favored preserving the “status quo,” fearing that permission to Jews to pray on the Mount would enflame the Arab world, spoke to the two rabbis about the political dangers.22 But there was no reason to think that Unterman would act otherwise.23 Nissim appears inconsistent. In 1967 he was not only adamantly opposed to any Jewish access but even favored the erection of a sign forbidding Jews from entering the Mount.24 However, when in 1971 he was asked by Warhaftig for a ruling on whether Jews were allowed to pray on the Temple Mount, Nissim replied that “since Jews ascend it would not enter my mind to stop them from holding prayers services there.”25

When the Chief Rabbinate Council met on the last day of the war,26 there was a general consensus among the majority of council members that the Chief Rabbinate had to take a stand in warning Jews off the Mount. Rabbi Zolti, who was invited to attend the meeting as a member of the Religious Court, argued that “we are obligated to issue a formal warning” because of the penalty of kareth. The dynamic and widely respected Rabbi Zolti brought with him a prepared draft statement which was passed by the council without any alteration. In the statement, the Chief Rabbinate Council reminded the public that “in view of the fact that the holiness of the area never ceases, it is forbidden to ascend the Temple Mount until the Temple is built.”27 Rabbi Goldsmidt, a close colleague of Zolti, told the council that many Jews do not know of the seriousness of the matter, and even though some will not listen, we have an obligation to speak. Rabbi Halevi – who later, while Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, became a public advocate of Jewish ascent to the Mount – disagreed with the council and argued that the matter should be left to the local rabbi to inform his followers. But this ignored the seriousness of the kareth prohibition. Rabbi Abuhatzeira proposed that a sign be placed on the Mount warning that it was forbidden to enter the area and such a sign was later erected at the Mograbi Gate. The protocols of the meeting alluded to considerable uncertainty and ill-informedness among the participants about basic knowledge concerning the Temple Mount. Rabbi Arielli favored the preparation of a map delineating the “permitted areas” on the Temple Mount even though the chief rabbis had already placed the entire Mount – enveloped by its four walls – out of bounds. Unterman himself, who did not intend to allow Jews on any part of the Temple Mount, spoke of “the need for a partition.”28

Although the Chief Rabbinate mustered the signatures of some 300 leading rabbis in support of the public ban, hopes for a consensus were dashed by the behavior of IDF Chief Rabbi General Goren. Goren took a view diametrically opposed to the Chief Rabbinate and sought to enable Jews to pray in the permitted areas of the Temple Mount in order to weaken Muslim claims to it.29 From the Chief Rabbinate’s perspective, Goren’s concern about Muslim claims was overweighed by the penalty of kareth, by the fact that Jews’ access to the Mount was not in itself a mitzva, by the lack of knowledge of the location of the Temple and the danger that a Jew might stray from the permitted to the forbidden area. One of Goren’s goals in getting the Army Engineering Corps to map out the Temple Mount plateau precisely was to identify the forbidden areas, i.e., the locations of the First and Second Temples. Even if there was disagreement about Goren’s measurements, the Temple building took up only a very small section of the Temple Mount plateau, 187 x 135 amah out of 500 x 500 amah (61,256 square meters), which since the First Temple has more than doubled in size (today the Temple Mount area amounts to 145,564 square meters). The permitted area included the entire southern area of the Mount where the El Aqsa Mosque was situated and the area to the north which was added by Herod, areas recognized by all rabbinic authorities as not containing the Temple. Goren noted that Maimonides drew a distinction between access to the Mount and a prohibition on access to the Temple buildings on it. For more than 400 years, from the time of Omar (the second caliph who conquered Eretz Israel, 634-644) until 1080 AD, a synagogue existed on the Temple Mount, first on the site of El Aqsa and later in another area of the Mount. After this, individual Jews, among them Maimonides and Radbaz, still ascended to pray.30 In practice, Goren argued, the Chief Rabbinate’s action amounted to a continuation of the Galut – which was no longer relevant now that the Temple Mount had been returned to Jewish sovereignty.

In a confidential memorandum to the Ministerial Committee for Holy Places which he sent shortly after military hostilities had ceased, Goren proposed that

the prime minister should declare that the holy places of the Jews be placed under rabbinic supervision. All the Temple Mount is holy to the Jews and therefore it is in the jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbinate even though mosques were built there. Since it is forbidden for Jews and non-Jews alike to enter the Temple Mount the Chief Rabbinate should request the army to close the Temple Mount for everybody. This step should be taken immediately [Goren’s emphasis] before the military curfew is lifted and before free access is given. Now the Arabs are in a state of shock, and their only hope is to stay alive and not be massacred. Now is the moment to set the conditions and basis for the status quo proposed. Through such a step, the exclusive Muslim rule on the Mount will be circumvented. Later it will not be possible to do anything. If this proposal comes from the rabbinate rather than the government it will be seen as a religious matter of holiness rather than a political idea. And since entry will be forbidden for Jews, the Arabs cannot claim discrimination.

Such a ban, which could have lasted years, would have given the Chief Rabbinate time to study the problem including clarifying which areas are permitted to enter and which are not. Goren added that “if the Arabs are suspicious it is possible to give them El Aqsa.”31

Goren established his office on the Temple Mount, and held a day-long seminar there for reservists from the military rabbinate which was followed by a tour of the Mount. On Tisha B’Av, the fast day which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples, Goren and a group of followers brought a Torah scroll, an Ark for the scroll and some benches to the Temple Mount and began the Minha service. After the service Goren announced that he would hold prayer services there on Yom Kippur. It was only the personal intervention of Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin which put an end to Goren’s plans. In an attempt to bridge the gap between Goren and the two chief rabbis, Warhaftig, with whom Goren had earlier discussed his views, sought to arrange a meeting between the three, but Unterman, who had been insulted by Goren’s failure to consult first with the chief rabbis, refused to meet him.32

One of the products of Goren’s research was his discovery that the Holy of Holies was not situated on the traditionally accepted site of the Dome of the Rock as advanced by the Radbaz. Goren believed that the so-called foundation stone (or even shetiyah) is not the stone situated in the Dome of the Rock because the Jewish sources say it is three fingers above the ground level. In reality, it is the height of a man. Goren argued that the height of the foundation stone should be lower today because successive conquerers since the Second Temple period raised the level of the plateau. It led Goren to conclude that the commonly accepted place of the Holy of the Holies is in fact the site of the outer altar, and the stone is the even shittin at the side of the altar used for discharging wine and water from the offerings. This, together with the fact that the cubit measurement (the “amah“) on the Temple Mount was only 54 cms (not 58 cms, the ruling of the Chazon Ish) – because the height of a step (or half amah) on the Mount is only 22.5 cms – led Goren to claim that the entire Temple building was located more westerly. Even though the Dome of the Rock was situated where the Temple was, it was not on the Holy of the Holies.33

Subsequently, Goren altered his estimates. Now taking the amah as 58 cms (Goren did not explain why he changed his view), he ruled that the meterage of the Temple Mount was less than he had held originally (the width of the Mount from east to west was 290 meters instead of 305.75 meters). This did not change his claim that the Dome of the Rock was on the site of the outer altar, but it did alter the areas where he said it was permitted for a Jew to enter. (Entering the Mograbi Gate, one could turn northwards to a depth of 39 meters. From the eastern wall one could walk along it to a depth of 53 meters, and from the north there was a permitted area of 52 meters southerly.)34

 

Reversing the Status Quo

By the time Goren was appointed Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in 1972, a status quo had evolved: Haram al-Sharif (Arabic for Temple Mount) for the Muslims and the Kotel Maaravi for the Jews. The chances for change were clearly less than they were in 1967. He nevertheless sought to advance matters at both the halakhic and political levels. He initiated a discussion of the Temple Mount at two consecutive sessions of the Chief Rabbinate Council in March 1976. A somewhat controversial figure, the chief rabbi wanted a change in the public ban on access issued by Unterman and Nissim to come from as wide a circle of rabbis as possible. While the Chief Rabbinate might have been regarded as the embryo of the Sanhedrin, as Rabbi Eliashuv had put it earlier in his book Sefer Yamin, Goren had lost credibility in halakhic circles particularly because of his handling of the “Brother and Sister” conversion case. Goren’s initiative followed on Magistrate Judge Ruth Orr’s decision in January of that year to acquit eight Jews who had been arrested by the police for praying on the Temple Mount. Arguing that the 1967 Holy Places Law guaranteed free access for all, Judge Orr called for separate hours to be drawn up for the two faiths as was the case at the Tombs of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

Goren lectured the Chief Rabbinate Council about his research, but he met with disappointment. Apart from one rabbi who argued that “it was permitted to enter up to 150 meters and that the rabbis should themselves tour the permitted areas,”35 the council declined to make any change. Although the council included rabbis who were close to Goren, among them Rabbis Oshpazai, Takhursch and Kappach, they were too traditional to make the revolutionary change Goren hoped for. The council “called on Rabbi Goren to publish his research together with the measurements he took, following which the council will then discuss the matter in a broader setting with leadinghalakhic authorities.”36 With Rabbis Oshpazai, Takhursch, and Eliezer Shapiro each proposing that Goren publish his research, and with Rabbi Mordechai Lofus suggesting that a larger assembly of leading rabbis than the council was needed to change the rabbinic ban, given the seriousness of the matter, the result, according to Rabbi Takhursch, was “the removal of the issue from the agenda.” Yet, even if the Chief Rabbinate Council had reversed its decision, many other rabbis, such as from the haredi camp, would have boycotted the decision.

At the political level Goren failed to sway Prime Minister Menachem Begin to ease the stance of successive governments not to allow Jews to pray on the Mount. This was despite the fact that in 1967 Begin, as a member of the Ministerial Committee on Holy Places, was critical of the committee’s decision to direct Jews to the area of the Western Wall instead of praying on the Temple Mount.37 It is not surprising, therefore, that in the absence of political or rabbinic backing, Goren himself failed to issue a public heter (halakhic permission) giving access – although he did speak generally about the fact that there were permitted areas and replied to individual Jews who turned to him that they could enter the Mount in these areas if they were not wearing shoes and after mikva immersion. He also gave permission to some scholars to enter the area to carry out research, and to the Knesset Interior Affairs Committee in 1986 to examine Wakf infringements of non-Moslem artifacts on the Mount.38 Had Goren been able to generate a consensus among the rabbinate, the politicians would have found it difficult to remain opposed.

Even if the chief rabbi alone had given a public heter, this would have contributed to a wider discussion of rabbis outside the rabbinate. Goren did not issue a heterbecause he was himself hesitant about the specific question of the status of women and thought it would be problematic to enforce. Women who are menstrually unclean or have had sexual relations in the previous three days cannot enter the Mount. Moreover, women who have given birth and have not offered a required post-natal sin offering in the Temple are also forbidden from entry. In practice, only women who have never given birth have the potential today to enter the area. Furthermore, a prohibition was issued in North Africa five hundred years ago against single women immersing in a mikve. “That men would enter and women, even religious ones would stay aside – forget it,” Goren told a group of rabbis in March 1981.39 (In the introduction to his book Har-Habayit, Goren writes: “This generation was not qualified to open the Temple Mount for people to pray and in particular for women.”) According to Rabbi Sha’ar Yashuv Cohen, Goren’s brother-in-law, addressing the Chief Rabbinate Council in January 1986, “Rabbi Goren wanted to allow access for men but was afraid women would also enter.” Goren’s concern may be questioned since if appropriately explained believing women will accept the ban like they accept other halakhic strictures applying only to women. Thus, Shlomo Goren, the rabbi who after the 1967 war began the task of measuring the Mount in expectation of the phone call which never came from the government to build the Third Temple, failed in this goal. He did, however, author a set of halakhic responsa about the laws of the Temple Mount, Har-Habayit.40

His Sephardi colleague, Chief Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, took an opposite view which he repeated in the years since 1967, that access to the entire Mount was forbidden until the precise location of the Temple building would be verified. In a paper to the 1967 Oral Law Conference, he examined the views of Raved and Maimonides regarding the sanctity of the Temple today and extended the ban to the entire precinct in accord with the Chief Rabbinate’s ban.41 He also prohibited a security officer from entering the Mount area other than for reasons of pikuah nefesh, a danger to life. The officer should resign from the security services rather than carry out the order, Yosef said. In 1994 he issued a pesak that it was forbidden to touch the Kotel.42 Yet he ruled in 1975 that it was permitted to remove the vegetation growing through the rocks of the Kotel which a professional engineer believed endangered the safety of the wall. (Goren turned down the same request, arguing that “the vegetation symbolized the Destruction and noted that the Kotel had survived thousands of years without the removal of the vegetation.”)43 Notwithstanding his strict opposition to Jews’ ascent to the Mount, Chief Rabbi Yosef in 1982 established a subcommittee of the Chief Rabbinate Council to examine areas where it might be permitted for Jews to enter. Among the three rabbis he appointed to the subcommittee were Rabbi Eliahu and Rabbi Lior of Kiryat Arba who is an ardent supporter of Jews having access to permitted areas.44(The subcommittee did not produce a report.)

Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapiro forbade access to the Mount. In so doing, he and other rabbis reflected the view of Chief Rabbi Kook, who had told the 1929 Shaw Commission that it was forbidden for Jews to ascend.45 Yet Shapiro’s position has taken into account the challenge to Jewish rule posed by Arab aspirations and the Wakf. Following the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace agreement, which gave Jordan preferred status in future Israeli-Arab talks regarding the holy places in Jerusalem, Shapiro limited access of Jews to the new area of the Mount extended by Herod to the north where there was no question of the Temple building’s location. He insisted, however, that a fence be erected to separate the permitted areas from more southerly areas to prevent Jews from straying there.46

 

A Synagogue on the Temple Mount

Shapiro’s Sephardi colleague, Chief Rabbi Eliahu, proposed the erection of a synagogue on the Mount which would have a glass wall from which those inside could look out onto the site of the Temple building. Without any door from the synagogue leading onto the Mount, there would be no danger of entering the forbidden area. As Eliahu noted: “If the boundaries would be drawn, it is possible to enter the permitted areas but it is necessary to have stone markers or a fence.”47 The synagogue, Eliahu said, would be taller than El Aqsa or the Dome of the Rock in order that “the mosques would serve as a memory of the Hurban (destruction).” Eliahu variously located his proposed synagogue behind the El Aqsa Mosque (above Solomon’s stables) and in the north by the Omriyah School, both sections of the Temple Mount plateau where the Temple had not stood. In one sense Eliahu was not proposing a solution which could be implemented immediately, in contrast to Goren, because in reply to an essay by Rabbi Zalman Koren “A Proposal for a Prayer Area on the Temple Mount in These Times” in the halakhah annual Tehumim, Eliahu wrote: “Entry by Jews, if with certain limitations, is fine if we would have total control over all who enter.”48 After the 1994 Israel-Jordan Agreement, Eliahu, together with Shapiro, backed Jewish access to the Mount, even though there was by then no chance of erecting a synagogue.

Eliahu also sought to focus the Chief Rabbinate’s Council on the Temple Mount question. “The Chief Rabbinate should deal with the difficult halakhic subject of the Temple Mount in our times; teams of rabbis, talmudic scholars, and experts should clarify the issues one by one…how far it is permitted to enter, how one should behave in these areas, etc.49 The council itself did not take kindly to the fact that Eliahu came out with his proposal for a synagogue on the Mount without first consulting the council. Eliahu also ceded to pressure from Gershom Solomon, head of the “Temple Mount Faithful” which favored prayer access for Jews, to address the council. In the council discussion, Rabbi Shalush, who backed Eliahu’s call for prayer access, said that “it was irrelevant for the council to relate to the political complexities on the Mount of such a step; the council should decide according to purely halakhic considerations.” But the rest of the council rejected Eliahu’s call; the halakhist Rabbi Shaul Yisroeli said that the council was not a halakhic body which could decide on such matters.50 The council decided that no change should be made to the 1967 ban on access. The Eliahu proposal illustrates the respective strengths and weaknesses of the Chief Rabbinate. The chief rabbi is a halakhic force of his own irrespective of the council and the stance it adopted; yet he is clearly stronger if he has the council’s backing.

Despite the setback, Eliahu and Shapiro continued to act. After the Knesset Interior Committee reported after their visit that there was evidence of illegal building activity by the Wakf, the Chief Rabbinate Council asked the government to intervene. Potentially more significant, the Chief Rabbinate decided to ask individual rabbis to clarify the issue of permitted areas for Jews and to present their views to a special three-man subcommittee including Rabbi Lior and Rabbi Simcha HaCohen Kook of Rehovot. In this it reversed the council’s decision on the last day of the 1967 war not to allow individual rabbis to decide, and appeared to prepare for the possibility of Jews being able to access the Mount.51

In 1993 Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, a disciple of Rabbi Yosef, was appointed as Sephardi Chief Rabbi and vehemently opposed any change in the 1967 ban. His Ashkenazi colleague, Chief Rabbi Lau also followed this line and would not take a position opposed by the entire haredi camp. Of Eliahu’s initiative in 1986 Lau remarked: “To deal with it in the way the council is doing is not only unrequired but even does damage. But to dismiss the matter and not to deal with it at all is to be like an ostrich.”52 Yet Lau failed to make any major initiative. Indeed, in 1997 the Chief Rabbinate Council reconfirmed the ban on access for the third time since 1967.

 

A Status for Jordan

At the same time, the position of the Jews on the Temple Mount continued to weaken. The 1993 Oslo accords produced a struggle for power between the Jordanian mufti and the Palestinian-appointed mufti for control of Haram al-Sharif, in which the latter won out. As a result, the Temple Mount became a greater focus of attention for popular Palestinian opinion, reflected in increased numbers of Muslims visiting the holy places on major Islamic holy days.

In the peace agreement between Jordan and Israel in 1994, Jordan conditioned its signature on inclusion of a clause which gave Amman a preferred status in future Israel-Arab talks about the Temple Mount. The clause ran counter to the view held by the Chief Rabbinate in particular and Orthodox Jewry as a whole that Israel had sole sovereign status. In its statement praising the peace agreement and the formal end of hostilities, the Chief Rabbinate Council added that “the prime minister had promised the rabbinate a place in the agreement….The Temple Mount and the place of the Temple are holy to the People of Israel, and the inner heart and prayers of the Jewish People. Our holy historical right is beyond question.”53 Rabbi Lau was surprised at the lack of public reaction or criticism to what he regarded as a surrender of the Jewish People’s sole sovereign right. But the surprise was ill-placed since it was the product of the basic assumption of the rabbinate’s stand since 1967, namely, that “no presence was enough to guard Jewish rights.”

In the negotiations which led to peace with Jordan, the Chief Rabbinate demanded to have formal status at the talks, yet only the Religious Affairs Ministry was granted this. The rabbinate was concerned that the political rather than the halakhic element would dominate in any talks. When Lau took up the matter with Prime Minister Rabin afterwards, Rabin replied that he had neither added the Religious Affairs Ministry to the agreement nor did he know about it. The National Religious Party took up the matter with Rabin, but came away with a promise of a vaguely-defined consultancy role for the Chief Rabbinate.

For Rabbis Unterman, Nissim, Yosef, and Bakshi-Doron there was little concern about the political “threat” from the Arabs. God would build the Temple in His time, and the Temple would descend from Heaven, according to one reading of Rashi and Tosephot. Withstanding pressure from rabbis and others following the peace agreement with Jordan, Bakshi-Doron said in 1995 that any permission to enter “permitted areas” will be ineffective because people will not differentiate between the permitted and forbidden areas. Nor will people worry about ritual purity. “The best way to strengthen Jewish sovereignty is to say that the entire Mount is holy. To say that some sections may be entered will weaken the Jewish right to the other, more important forbidden area,” he argued.54 Bakshi-Doron’s convoluted logic is troublesome because both signs and even a simple barrier could, it is argued, be erected to indicate to the believing Jew the permitted areas, and the forbidden areas could be declared “most holy to the Jews.” Secular Jews enter the area today. Another reason these rabbis had not permitted access was “pikuah nefesh” the need to avoid any change in the Temple Mount that might embroil it in further Arab-Israeli bloodshed, which could also have negative repercussions for Jewish communities abroad. After Eliahu raised his idea, Sheikh Said E-Din El Alami, chairman of the Supreme Muslim Council, said that any attempt to build a synagogue would be done on “the corpses of a million Muslims.”55The fact that there had been a centuries-old halakhic ban on ascending the Mount meant that even if the political circumstances had altered as a result of the 1967 war, the halakhic circumstances had not.

 

The Western Wall

The focus of the Chief Rabbinate’s efforts in the aftermath of the 1967 war turned towards the Western Wall, which over the previous four hundred years had become the symbol of pilgrimage for Jews. The capture of the Western Wall was a double celebration. First, the Jews had enjoyed no access to the Wall since 1949 after the Jordanians reneged on the armistice agreement and failed to honor the clause which guaranteed Jewish access to the Western Wall. Second, the Wall was now in Jewish hands, and the Jews would no longer be subject to limits on worship imposed by the British authorities under pressure from the mufti. The area in front of the Kotel was enlarged after the end of hostilities in 1967 with the demolition of the Mograbi Quarter. In demanding control of the Wall, the Chief Rabbinate was anxious that the Wall should not fall under the responsibility of the Religious Affairs Ministry, given the rabbinate’s criticism of how Dr. Z. Kahana, the ministry’s director-general, had earlier turned King David’s Tomb on Mount Zion into a tourist attraction. But as soon as the Western Wall was handed over to the Chief Rabbinate, it opened up a pandora’s box of disputes regarding secular-religious relations.

As a wall of the Temple Mount, the Kotel had intrinsic holiness. The Chief Rabbinate introduced a number of steps to turn the area into a synagogue. Most controversial was the segregation of sexes. These steps brought the Chief Rabbinate into direct conflict with Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, who said that “the Kotel was not a synagogue. There is something offensive about it.”56 The Chief Rabbinate countered attempts by the National Parks Authority which had wanted to turn the plaza into an archeological attraction. An architectural plan to develop the enlarged Western Wall area into a two-level plaza – one for worshippers, the other for tourists – was rejected by Nissim who said that the entire area was holy. The implications of Nissim’s stand were not only that the Wall itself was invested with holiness but even the area in front of the Wall was holy.

Nissim said that all the four walls of the Temple Mount were holy, since the Shechinah was still present on the Mount even though the Western Wall was the only remaining wall. Unterman said only the Western Wall was holy. Their differences came to be expressed in the question over archeological digs along the walls which uncovered much evidence of the Herodian era and the City of David. Nissim also charged that the digs would upset the prayer services. Professor Benjamin Mazar was given permission to dig along the southern wall on condition that it be defined as “uncovering the Wall” rather than as “an archeological dig.” Unterman’s view that only the Western Wall had intrinsic holiness won out over Nissim’s. Yet the dig itself continued also along the section of the Western Wall between the southern wall and the Mograbi Gate – resulting, in effect, in the rabbinate having to share the Western Wall with the archeologists.

 

Conclusion: Strengths and Weaknesses

In addition to determining the character of the Western Wall plaza, the Chief Rabbinate – the creation of Rabbi Kook designed to give a single united voice to Orthodox Jewry, indeed a forerunner to the Sanhedrin – can draw certain comfort from handling the Temple Mount issue. The overwhelming number of Orthodox Jews accepted the prohibition against entering the Temple Mount area enunciated by the Chief Rabbinate immediately after its capture. Yet the Chief Rabbinate failed to get the general population to adhere to or the government to legislate such a ban. Indeed, there was little sympathy for the ban among the wider public; in 1981, 53.4 percent and in 1971 51.7 percent of Israelis polled said that the rabbinate’s ban was unjustified.57 The Chief Rabbinate appears in a number of proposals for the future status of Jerusalem, as a would-be member of a committee of the different religions which would administer the holy places. The rabbinate’s halakhic judgement gave strength to successive governments wishing to avoid inflaming Arab-Israeli tensions, producing a commonality in outlook between politicians and rabbis on the issue.

Yet as a body appointed by the government and as the voice of religion to the modern non-orthodox majority, the rabbinate evinced weakness. The manner in which the Chief Rabbinate expressed its halakhic view reflects in part its institutional setting.58 Despite its official status, its views were not always accepted by governments if they did not coincide with government thinking. After the 1967 war, Unterman favored responsibility for the Temple Mount being handed over to the Chief Rabbinate, but he failed to persuade the government. In another case, when Chief Rabbi Goren sought to persuade newly-elected Prime Minister Menahem Begin to allow Jews access, Goren came away persuaded that such a step would result in bloodshed. The Chief Rabbinate’s own analysis of the political balance of power on the Temple Mount was sometimes ill-informed or muddled partly as a result of its ties to the government.59

The question of the status of non-Jews on the Temple Mount illustrates the submission of the Chief Rabbinate to the politicians. As the place where Prophet Muhammed ascended (or, according to an alternative tradition, dreamed that he ascended) to Heaven to receive the tenets of Islam from Allah, the Dome of the Rock has undoubted significance to Muslims. The Temple Mount is important to Christians as the place where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus chastized the money-changers, and as the site of his trial. Yet the ban by Unterman and Nissim failed to address non-Jews, who are in a permanent state of irreparable ritual uncleanliness. While the chief rabbis have noted the problem of non-Jews on the Temple Mount,60 there has been no major initiative by the Chief Rabbinate, if only declaratory to ban non-Jews in the way that the Chief Rabbinate has done regarding Jews. This is surprising given that the Chief Rabbinate was originally conceived in part as a link towards the other faiths.61 That an initiative by the Chief Rabbinate Council to ban non-Jews is unlikely to be carried out by the politicians is no reason for the defenders of halakhah not to speak out publicly on the grave matter.

There were also limits to what the Chief Rabbinate could do because of its place in wider Israeli society. Aspirations to rebuild the Temple implied for some a return to ancient primitive animal sacrifices.62 The Chief Rabbinate suffers from a need to be sensitive to criticism from the wider community, including the secular media.63 The Chief Rabbinate failed to recognize that a change had occurred within Israeli society since the pre-World War II period when the Chief Rabbinate was accountable to a secular majority antagonistic to potentially troublesome ancient rites. By the 1970s and 1980s, and with the changed post-1967 political reality on the Temple Mount, part of the non-orthodox public related to the idea of a return to Temple life with wry amusement, and were at least not antagonistic on principle.

Individual chief rabbis who were sympathetic to advancing Temple Mount issues such as Goren and Eliahu were able to take certain incremental steps in initiating discussion of the subject in the Chief Rabbinate Council. It is in the realm of historical speculation whether had Goren and Eliahu been the chief rabbis instead of Unterman and Nissim in the fluid situation immediately after the 1967 war when key decisions were taken, whether the situation today would be different. Even so, the Chief Rabbinate as an institution failed to map out an independent role for itself, as was illustrated by the contrast in behaviour between Goren and Eliahu while in office and once out of office.64 In addition to the institutional limitations imposed on the Chief Rabbinate as a state body, the Chief Rabbinate displayed a lack of leadership and will on the Temple Mount theme. Both Unterman and Nissim after the 1967 war said there was a lack of general knowledge about the Temple.65 But neither they nor their successors took steps to fill the vacuum. After 1900 years of Jewish religious life without the Temple or the sacrificial order, there was a need to generate Jewish consciousness again to the centrality in day-to-day Jewish life of the Temple and in the practical details of the building and the service. That the Talmudic order Seder Kodashim was not generally learned in the yeshivot and had not been studied en masse for hundreds of years suggested the need for a major initiative by the chief rabbis to change religious educational priorities in line with the events of 1967.

By failing to provide leadership, the Chief Rabbinate unintentionally (or perhaps intentionally) contributed to delegitimizing the whole idea of Temple rebuilding. Those grassroots Israelis who sought to advance the idea by appealing to the courts to gain prayer access to the Mount were popularly perceived as extremists and renegades. Prayer at the Kotel became the ultimate in the Jewish experience. There was even less legitimacy for Jewish aspirations for the Third Temple in foreign circles, with the single exception of Christian fundamentalists who see the Temple’s rebuilding as a key development prior to the second coming of Jesus. The Chief Rabbinate also failed to generate respect for these aspirations among non-Jewish bodies. None of the plans for the future status of Jerusalem incorporate the Orthodox Jewish view that the Temple Mount is currently in a transitory phase and that the Temple will be rebuilt in the future. Of 62 proposals for the future status of Jerusalem from Israelis, Palestinians, other Arabs, the US, examined by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, not one endorses the Orthodox Jewish view.66 While acknowledging that Jews would be given access to pray on any part of the Temple Mount allowed by the Chief Rabbinate, Shmuel Berkowitz, for example, in one of the most detailed plans for the holy places, says that El Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock should be placed “under exclusive control of the Supreme Muslim Council.” (In guaranteeing “existing rights of worship,” Berkowitz refers to those appertaining on June 5, 1967.) From the Orthodox Jewish perspective, no solution today to the current de facto situation is better than any other where the issue of sovereignty or autonomy for Muslims on Haram al-Sharif would be addressed. The failure of the policy of banning access to the Temple Mount was illustrated by the Israel-Jordan peace agreement according the Jordanians de jure status on the Mount.

The Chief Rabbinate’s dependence on the wider world of halakhic learning encouraged conservatism. While it reflected a desire for consensus, it also reflected a lack of self-confidence or, according to some critics, the quality of those appointed to office.67 A vicious circle was created in which a conservative rabbinate influenced an unenthusiastic political establishment and vice versa. In one such instance, when asked by Goren why Jews are not allowed to pray on the Temple Mount, then newly-elected Prime Minister Begin replied “because the rabbis forbid it.”68 While the subject of celebrating Jerusalem Day was discussed at seven meetings of the Chief Rabbinate Council, building the Temple has never been discussed even in theoretical terms, and the question of access for Jews to the Temple Mount was discussed by the Council on four occasions.

The de facto control which the Wakf enjoys throughout the Temple Mount today and the Israel-Jordan peace agreement are testimony to a failure by the Chief Rabbinate to meet the challenges which existed after the 1967 war. Instead, it lost itself in a web of halakhic strictures which, however serious, could have been eased had the will and the institutional freedom existed.