by Seth J. Frantzman
Rabbi Chaim Richman of the Temple Institute gives an inside look into the struggle for Jewish prayer rights on the Mount.
The line at a quarter past seven in the morning is already burgeoning with tourists eager to see the Temple Mount. Visiting hours are supposedly from 7:30 to 10 a.m., Saturday to Thursday, but it seems best to get there as early as possible. Standing next to an iron gate by the security hut is Rabbi Chaim Richman, the international director of the Temple Institute in Jerusalem, and his assistant Yitzchak Reuven.
Richman often gives tours of the Temple Mount to foreign visitors, such as US politicians and others. Today he is interested in illustrating the restrictions imposed on Jews who seek to visit the site.
His Temple Institute was founded in 1987 by Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, who served in the Paratrooper Brigade that liberated the area in 1967. The institute’s website notes that it is dedicated to the “biblical commandment to build the Holy Temple of God on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. Our short-term goal is to rekindle the flame of the Holy Temple in the hearts of mankind through education.”
When Israeli troops first ascended to the site that is reputed to be the spot where the Jewish Temple stood in the time of Solomon and Herod, Col. Mordechai Gur of the paratroopers famously said, “The Temple Mount is in our hands.” In recent years, however, several groups and organizations have emerged that argue Jewish religious rights are curtailed in the area.
“If they see a Jew with a kippa [at the security hut] they separate us; it’s a type of apartheid. There are those who try to hide their religiousness and go incognito, but I disapprove,” said Richman.
As we approach the security guard our IDs are taken, and we are asked to wait at one side. The legion of foreign tourists is allowed to proceed, while the IDs of the several religious Jews with us are checked. Religious prayer items, such as tefilat haderech, are kept by security until the owners return. Tefillin are not permitted; one may wear a kippa and tallit katan under his shirt.
The exact nature of the restrictions is not clear. In August, when Jewish worshipers protested their being barred from entering the Mount, the police noted that although the Supreme Court has upheld Jewish prayer rights, the police are allowed to prevent a disturbance to the public order.
Richman has been coming for 28 years. “In the early ’80s you couldn’t even wear a kippa… you can’t wear a shirt with the flag of Israel or political statements on it, and Christians must put away crosses when they enter… there is this sensitivity to Muslim reactions.”
Richman emphasizes that he doesn’t have a hidden agenda.
“Our goal is to have a special experience, this is the holiest place, the idea of kedushat makom [the sanctity of a specific place] is present.”
He contrasts the special experience he feels and believes all Jews should feel at the Temple Mount with what takes place at the Western Wall.
“With all due respect to the Kotel, it is not holy, it had no significance in the Second Temple Period, it is a retaining wall for the Mount... a wall – in its essence – keeps you out. It is an example of exile; it has no connection to our [current] reality in Israel.”
Richman argues that before the 1700s, the Western Wall was not a center of Jewish pilgrimage. He notes that major Jewish figures such as Maimonides went up to the Temple Mount, even at great personal risk. He says that Benjamin of Tudela, a famous Jewish traveler of the 12th century, wrote about going to the eastern wall of the Old City. He argues that the whole tradition of Muslims sanctifying the area’s “Golden Gate” in fact dates from the time when Jews held that area to be important.
So does Richman not feel anything unique at the Western Wall? “I don’t like to put it down or slaughter sacred cows. I am frustrated by the mentality of those at the Kotel who wait for something to happen. What we doing knocking out heads against this wall?” WE ASCEND the metal ramp that leads to the Mughrabi Gate of the Mount. It was put in after the old earthen ramp collapsed in 2004. Since then, the “temporary” metal ramp built atop scaffolding that takes up part of the women’s section of the Western Wall has been the mechanism for non-Muslims to ascend. Just before the gate there are plastic shields, ready for riot police should a disturbance break out. The air is crisp, it is still early, and we are met at the gate by several men from the Wakf Muslim religious trust.
The Wakf is ostensibly a religious trust that administers the holy site for Muslims, and administratively is still connected with the Kingdom of Jordan, which has viewed itself since 1948 as the traditional guardian of the Dome of the Rock and al-Aksa Mosque.
The Wakf personnel see themselves as guarding the sanctity of the place and they follow visitors around, sometimes at a distance, sometimes closely, and as Richman notes, pay special attention to religious Jews to see if they are moving their lips in prayer.
The Wakf man who attaches himself to our group looks like an Italian model who has fallen on hard times. Wearing a black golf cap he strikes a pose every time our group stops. The Israeli policeman escorting the group herds us along. We are not allowed to stop between the Mughrabi Gate and the entrance to al-Aksa Mosque, for fear that a “disturbance” might result. Our enforced passivity is contrasted sharply with Muslim women and men voicing their prayers loudly.
For religious Jews like Richman and Reuven who ascend the Mount, they view the experience as sanctifying a holy place. “It is like a portal here, a historic holy site; from here Adam, the first man, came; each prophet spoke of rebuilding the Temple. It is a reunion of the family of man, and a tragedy that we cannot express ourselves religiously.”
Over the years, the Chief Rabbinate and, prior to the state, Mandatory Palestine, imposed a ban on Jews visiting the site out of concern they might step on the Holy of Holies. As recently as December 2, chief rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef signed a declaration reiterating the Chief Rabbinate’s opposition to Jews visiting the site. Richman notes that the ruling is not really religious in nature at all.
“There are areas of wisdom that are special to each of us. Writing a Sefer Torah is special, but one who is an expert in that may not be an expert in being a shohet [religious slaughterer].”
For him it is acceptable to go outside the sanctified courtyards of the Second Temple. These areas exist around the modern-day Dome of the Rock, and extend outwards. Other Jewish visitors with us took a more rigorous view of where they could walk, preferring to stay farther away from the holy area. Richman narrows his eyes for a moment, pondering. “Rabbis have a response for new technologies, like smartphones, but for where the Temple stood, all of a sudden they are modest. There is a commandment to go to the Mount, Maimonides emphasized it.”
We proceed east from the entrance to the mosque, towards the eastern wall of the Mount. The Mount of Olives looms in front of us. Here we come to a place that has been paved over with new stones. The Wakf has undertaken digging and construction work on the Mount for years. New trees have been planted in years past, northeast of the Dome of the Rock. A bulldozer carts off broken olive branches from the recent snowstorm.
“In recent years, the Palestinians have stepped up their denial about the Jewish connection. They deny the Jewish presence. Up until 1948 the Wakf used to publish a book in English that noted the historical Jewish past, but Jordan changed it in 1948.”
Reuven notes that the area of the Mount is about 15 hectares (37 acres) and wonders aloud why there can’t be a solution found for Jewish prayer rights, as there is at other shared sites such as the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
“It has a reputation for being a tinderbox. For instance, the recent [2010 state comptroller’s] report about destruction of antiquities by the Wakf – there was concern if it was released it could cause political tensions.”
He notes that there are websites in Arabic that even show Jews on the Mount and accuse them of “storming” the site. As we proceed north of the Dome of the Rock, I ask if they have encountered any violence.
“There was a group of students from abroad that were stoned once. People follow and shout sometimes.” But in general, the feeling is one of relative calm.
After about 40 minutes on the Mount, we leave through the Gate of the Chain on the western side. A young boy is using a high-powered hose to spray down the entrance. We are slowly herded out, the Wakf men always carefully eyeing us. In the distance is a man with a beard and white kippa, who could almost be mistaken for a religious Jew.
“That was like a seven; I rate all the walks I go on here. All we are asking for is a real prayer experience. My father is ill, what is the danger? I don’t want to shout. It isn’t about ultra-nationalism, it is about responsibility. It is tikkun olam [repairing the world].”
“This is mainstream Judaism.”