The holiest day in the Jewish year is Yom Kippur, which begins at sundown Wednesday. The holiest place in the Jewish world is the Temple Mount, which is located in Jerusalem.
The restriction on all but Islamic prayer on the Temple Mount was born of compelling practical concerns.
In ancient times, the Holy Temple that sat atop the mount featured prominently in the celebration of the holiday, as it did in other Jewish festivals. According to rabbinic tradition, this holiest of holy sites was located on the place where Abraham bound up his son Isaac to offer him to God before God instructed him instead to sacrifice a ram, making clear that Judaism forbids human sacrifice.
Even after the temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E., the spot has remained the holiest in Judaism. Across the millennia, while the site was occupied by pagans, Christians and Muslims, Jews the world over have continued to face toward it during prayer(as Muslims do toward Mecca).
And yet, now that Israel controls this most sacred piece of property, Jews are forbidden from praying there, even as Muslims can. The nearest place Jews are allowed to gather in prayer is along the Western Wall, the Herodian-era retaining wall surrounding the Temple Mount. Every year, thousands of Jews pray there instead on Yom Kippur.
From a purely reasonable perspective, unfortunately a rarity in the Middle East, a prohibition against praying at a religious site — not to mention Jews praying at their faith’s holiest one — is an absurdity. And yet, it was one that aides to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, the first Orthodox Jew to hold this position, had to reiterate this summer after comments he made that suggested “freedom of worship” was allowed to Jews on the Temple Mount. The aides clarified that Jews are allowed only to visit the Temple Mount, not to pray.
Yet the restriction on all but Islamic prayer on the Temple Mount was born of compelling practical concerns. Muslims had exclusively controlled the site after wresting it from the Crusaders hundreds of years ago, and it now holds two monumental Islamic edifices, the Dome of the Rock shrine and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Muslims believe that Muhammed ascended to heaven from the spot.
When the Temple Mount was captured along with the rest of Jerusalem by Israel in 1967 during the Six-Day War, the Israeli government gave administrative control of the site to the Jordan-based Islamic trust known as the Waqf. Israel declared that, in keeping with the long-standing status quo that had prevailed until that point, only Muslim worship would be permitted on the Temple Mount.To change the religious character of the place, Israel reasoned in 1967, would be a gross affront to the Muslim world. And so, for more than a half century, only Islamic worship has been permitted in order to keep the peace.
For Jews to push the prayer envelope on the Temple Mount in the face of the Muslims who are regularly present at the site is a provocation without a justification. And it’s a gift to Muslim extremists the world over who loathe Israel and search for every event, however tenuous, that they can portray as insulting or abusive.
Yet some Jews insist on asserting a claim to pray on this tinder box. On a recent visit to the Temple Mount, a proponent of Jewish prayer there had to be guarded by six armed Israeli police officers. Mosque officials and passers-by filmed him and circulated the videos on social media, resulting, as expected, in a potpourri of vitriol and threats on social media.
Personally, as a haredi Jew (often described as “ultra-Orthodox,” a description that grates), I believe that Jews today are forbidden by religious law from ascending the Temple Mount, as has been the consensus view of Israel’s chief rabbis. Standing on that sacred ground is forbidden until the Holy Temple is rebuilt, something that can only happen with the arrival of the messiah.
To overcome this religious prohibition, Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount today often claim to be following minority opinions on Jewish law. Some may in fact be motivated entirely by religious feelings, by their souls pining to utter Hebrew prayers where they were daily offered thousands of years ago. But many seem motivated more by nationalistic feelings than religious ones, by a desire to demonstrate Israel’s ultimate jurisdiction over the Temple Mount. To them, it seems no dissuasion that they must be accompanied by large numbers of Israeli police to find solace in worship.
Yet it is God alone that can herald a new era of history when, in Isaiah’s words, “a wolf and a lamb shall graze together,” when global peace will reign. In the interim, we are enjoined to not goad or incite other peoples or religions.
Israel’s faithfulness to its decision in 1967 to not change the character of the Temple Mount shows sensitivity and wisdom. Nationalists’ attempts to assert themselves on the Temple Mount show neither. Instead, they should join Jews at the Western Wall, along with Jews the world over, who will be offering heartfelt prayers on Yom Kippur for the arrival of ultimate, permanent peace.