How the Temple Mount Obsession Could Destroy Judaism
The shocking upsurge in deadly attacks in Israel cannot be
disconnected from efforts of some Jewish organizations to dramatically
change the Temple Mount status quo, backed by inflammatory statements
and actions of leading politicians.
To be sure, not all Jews yearn to abolish the fragile status quo of the holy site. Several prominent Jewish leaders, including one chief rabbi, have called on Israeli Jews to refrain from visiting the Mount. These statements invoke either halachic prohibitions to enter the holy site or pragmatic considerations
urging a policy of restraint, as to not spill oil on this fiery issue.
While commendable, both approaches shy away from two essential
misconceptions reflected in the Temple Mount’s growing centrality — for
secular Zionism and for the Jewish religion alike.
Zionism advocates for Jewish self-determination in a national home. Its emphasis is on national
self-identity rather than on religious or cultural. Zionism was never
free from utopian and even messianic sentiments. Yet its leaders were
repeatedly cautious to ground their hopes in the universal rights of
national groups to self-determination. Accordingly, the founding fathers
of Israel, as well as its leaders until recently, were always careful
to show rhetorical respect to the Jewish holy sites, above all to the
Temple Mount. At the same time, however, they made sure to prevent such
places from becoming foundational to Israel’s sovereignty. Instead, it
was the Israel Defense Forces and Israel’s law enforcement and judiciary
that were crowned as primary representations of Israel’s nationality,
statehood and, most important — sovereignty.
Those who argue that Israeli sovereignty is hollow until the state
fully realizes its sovereignty over the Temple Mount are in fact
negating the astonishing success of Zionism in establishing a sovereign
Jewish state, along with all its secondary achievements. If Zionism
cannot be fulfilled without Jewish dominance and ostensible presence on
the Temple Mount, then it means little. A regionally unparalleled
military power, strong governmental institutions, a vibrant economy and
impressive Hebrew cultural community are what secure Israeli
who warn that a cautious approach to the Temple Mount will lead to a
collapse of Israeli sovereignty at large are recklessly nullifying
Zionism’s ideological core as well as its greatest triumph — the
sovereign State of Israel.
isn’t the Temple Mount the single most holy place for Jews? Yes, it is,
in a legal and symbolic sense. No, it is not, in a deeper and more
essential sense. Rabbinic Judaism (or simply Judaism, as we call it
nowadays) devotes a special space for the temple and its worship in
liturgy, mysticism, Halacha and daily praxis. The temple and its
mountain are ever present in the daily Jewish itinerary. Yet it stops on
Judaism as we know it developed after the destruction of the temple
in 70 C.E.; its very essence is alien to the notion of a functioning
Jewish temple. The rabbis have thoughtfully replaced temple sacrifice
with oral prayer, priests with sages. Most important, Judaism shifted
the site of divine revelation from a holy place — the temple — to the
holy text, the Torah. Unlike the shattered temple, Torah enabled the
divine word to be heard everywhere and any time.
So, while the Temple Mount remains at limited-access according to
Jewish law, as a result of its unfading holiness, the temple itself has
become redundant for meaningful Jewish existence — some would even say
We need not renew the Temple as of old. Meat eaters and vegans alike
can agree that there are worthier ways of addressing the Divine than
through animal sacrifice. But even if this new temple burned only
plants, indeed even if it were solely a shrine of liturgical worship,
the temple would mark the end of Judaism. For Judaism today believes
that God can be equally approached from any place. If a single
geographical holy spot becomes the privileged site of connection with
God, current forms of addressing Him will be pushed aside.
Synagogue prayer will be relegated to the role of symbolic gesture, a
mere metaphor for the true temple worship. Worse yet, Torah — its study
and ongoing interpretation — will cease to be the primary place in
which Jews seek God’s revealed word. Through the temple, God will be
bound again to one place, and access to Him mediated through human
Preaching that a new “third“ temple is the full realization of
Judaism is not only audacious, it is offensive. For the sake of both
Zionism and Judaism, Israeli leaders and their Jewish voters ought to
let go of the Temple Mount obsession, or it will destroy all that is so
dear to them.
Hillel Ben-Sasson is a visiting assistant professor of Israel studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary.