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Analysis: What Would Maimonides Say?

reprinted from The Jerusalem Post
Oct. 26, 2009

by Matthew Wagner

In the year 1165, on the sixth of the Jewish month of Heshvan, which fell 844 years ago this past Sunday, Maimonides, arguably the single most important rabbinic authority in Jewish history, visited Jerusalem and may have gone onto the Temple Mount.

In a gloss included in his Commentary on the Mishnah later found in a manuscript in Aleppo, Syria, Maimonides writes of his experience as he trekked through the then-desolate Land of Israel.

"I entered the great and holy place and prayed there on the sixth of the same month [Heshvan]," writes Maimonides.

"On the first day of the following week, being the ninth, I left Jerusalem and went to Hebron... The two days, the sixth and the ninth of Heshvan, I designated by a vow as festival devoted to solemn prayer and festivity."

These few lines written by Maimonides have sparked an intense - sometimes caustic - discourse between opposing streams of Orthodox Judaism. But they also led to rioting in east Jerusalem on Sunday as angry Muslims, claiming right-wing rabbis wanted to conquer the Temple Mount, clashed with police. Obviously, they had heard that some Jews wanted to commemorate Maimonides' pilgrimage with one of their own.

Jewish spiritual leaders who belong to the Zionist stream of Orthodoxy such as Rabbi Israel Ariel of the Temple Institute and Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch, head of the Birkat Moshe Hesder Yeshiva in Ma'aleh Adumin, see this account as clear proof that Jews are permitted to go up to the Temple Mount.

"There is no other place besides the Temple Mount that is called 'the great and holy place,' Rabinovitch said on Monday, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post, rejecting the possibility that Maimonides was referring to the Kotel.

"There is no doubt in my mind that he visited the Temple Mount," said Rabinovitch.

What was good enough for Maimonides is good enough for Jews of the present generation. But what about Arab opposition?

For Rabinovitch, maintaining a Jewish presence on the Temple Mount sends a clear message to the Arab world: The Temple Mount is the holiest place in the world for the Jewish people and Jews have a right to pray there.

This was the best way of combating Muslim denial of Jewish ties to the place. That's why he called on Jews Sunday, which happened to be the 844th anniversary of Maimonides' visit, to go up to the Temple Mount.

"From a religious and historical point of view we must keep control of that area," said Rabinovitch.

"Obviously we would ensure freedom of religious expression for Muslims. But Jews should also be allowed to pray on the Temple Mount as well, and if thousands of Jews were to demand to go up there there would be no way of stopping them."

Rabinovitch, along with other rabbis such as former chief Sephardi Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu and Haifa Chief Rabbi She'ar Yeshuv Kohen, recommends building a synagogue on the Temple Mount as a place of prayer for Jews.

Presently, police refuse to allow Jews to bring prayer book when small groups are permitted to visit. Any attempts by Jews to pray are immediately stifled. Jewish prayer activity is seen by police as an act that could ignite Muslim rage.

In contrast, haredi rabbis are vigorously opposed to going up to the Temple Mount. Kotel Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitz (no relation to Nahum), who has strong ties with the mainstream Lithuanian yeshiva leadership, told the Post last week that the reason why Jews do not go up to the Temple Mount has nothing to do with fear of Muslim violence.

"Jewish law, not the Arab world, determines when Jews can go up to the Temple Mount and when they cannot," said Rabinovitz.

"The reason we are not allowed to go up is because the Temple Mount is our Holy of Holies and we have not merited being able to purify ourselves as we need to. We hope to go up there. But the time has not yet come."

Meanwhile, Rabbi Aharon Moshe Levin wrote in a long article that appeared Monday on the Internet site "Haredim" that rabbis who supported going up to the Temple Mount were apikorusim (apostates).

He rejected the notion that Maimonides ever visited the Temple Mount.

According to Levin, Maimonides visited the Kotel as is the custom to this day. And that was what he referred to as "the great and holy place."

"Maimonides proscribed going up to the Temple Mount and that is the opinion of the vast majority of halachic authorities," wrote Levin.

"Those who go up to the Temple today and call themselves religious might be religious, but their religion is not Judaism," added Levin.

"Their religion is the warped, nationalisitic faith in the IDF's might and in the god of warfare and bloodshed. The goal of their actions is to incite and to cause trouble. Our rabbis have already taught us that someone who rejects even one commandment for ideological reasons is considered an apostate."

Both haredim and religious Zionists define themselves as Orthodox.

They might agree on 99 percent of Jewish practice. But when it comes to their theological perspective on a modern Jewish state they have diametrically different perspectives.

Religious Zionists tend to see the creation of the State of Israel in religious terms, as part of a larger process of redemption that has already begun. Ensuring a Jewish presence on the Temple Mount is a sign of Jews' appreciation for the incredible miracle of modern Jewish sovereignty and preparation for a future redemption that will undoubtedly include a rebuilt Temple.

In contrast, the haredi theological perspective is that the Jewish people are still deep in spiritual exile and the present physical reality of a Jewish state does not change the ruptured cosmic state of being out of God's favor. Being distanced from our most holy place of worship is an appropriate expression of that spiritual exile.

Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein, director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute, who agrees in principle with Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitz, believes it would best right now to behave like the haredim and allow the situation to calm down.

"We are suffering today for the the wrong policies we adopted after the Six Day War," said Goshen-Gottstein.

"Many are sorry today that we have lost contact with our historical and spiritual symbols. The Muslim world has taken advantage of our lack of presence there and is trying to erase all Jewish ties to the place," added Goshen-Gottstein, who believes in Muslim-Jewish dialogue. "The Muslim incitement going on right now is part of a larger phenomenon that includes how Israel is portrayed in Muslim textbooks and delegitimization of the State of Israel.

"But it is also wrong to try to do anything by force. The Arab world is suspicious of the Netanyahu administration. Even Jordan and Egypt have spoken out against any attempts by Israel to take control over the Temple Mount, even though we have no intentions of doing so.

"I hate to say it, but from a realpolitik point of view the haredi approach is probably the best option right now," Goshen-Gottstein said.



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