When the Temple Mount was on the Bartering Table
This past Sabbath marked the yahrtzeit, the Jewish day of passing, of Rabbi Shlomo Goren founder of the IDF Rabbinate and Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel. He is perhaps most famous for his emotionally charged iconic picture at the Western Wall in 1967 alongside the Israeli paratroopers who fought back the Jordanian forces.
Because of the staunch official position of the Israeli Rabbinate Goren’s personal viewpoint on the Temple Mount was rather shadowed. The Rabbinate, although never publishing a complete halachic ban, have announced multiple times since the 1967 victory and the annexation of the Temple Mount that Jews ascending the Temple Mount should not be encouraged due to the site’s sanctity in Jewish Law. However, Goren himself ascended the mount many times and even attempted to build a synagogue on the site. His interest in the holy site turned into passion as he commanded military engineers to conduct measurements of the site to aid his research into the Temple Mount. Eventually he would publish his research and official halachic stance allowing and even encouraging Jewish visitation to the holy site.
In the introduction to his book Har HaBayit he wrote: “This treatise was already ready [for publication] immediately following the Six Day War but I kept it to myself for 26 years owing to the new halachic issues which appeared to me as ‘new to the morning’ in relation to the halachic permissibility of entering the Temple Mount. Such had I feared lest this generation not be prepared properly to the opening of the Temple Mount before the Jewish worshipers ...”
Goren’s doubt concerning the ‘spiritual level’ of his generation is a familiar claim from those Rabbinic figures whose condescending attitude towards their own people drives their reservations concerning ascending Mount Moriah, the center of Judaism. However, he greatly changed his views for a number of reasons that became clear to him as time went on.
His fear of losing the Temple Mount was a big factor in this change, as he continued in his introduction: “Presently, when the Jewish sovereignty on the Temple Mount is at risk, Mount Moriah is liable to become the topic of negotiation between us and the Arab countries. And regretfully there are those politicians among us who are prepared to negotiate our sovereignty on the Temple Mount and they rely on the prohibition, so to speak, of the Rabbinate concerning ascending the Temple Mount. This prohibition is liable to become a pretext to extradite the very Holy of Holies of the Israeli nation to the Muslims.”
Goren’s fears would be realized in the summer of 2000 when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak would meet US President Clinton and PLO Chairman Arafat at Camp David. In the midst of the intense debates attempting to reach an agreement between Israel and the PLO the subject of Jerusalem and specifically the Temple Mount featured prominently. Neither side wanted to sign any document that would renunciate any claim over the Temple Mount or Jerusalem.
After Clinton left in the middle of the discussions for the G8 Summit, the stalemate only worsened. Barak allegedly locked himself in his room and refused to leave to talk to Arafat and claimed that Clinton had not upheld his promise to force the Palestinians to follow the American offer. At this point, the Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Shlomo Ben-Ami began talks with the American Legal Adviser to the State Department Johnathan Frenkel. They determined alternate possibilities concerning Jerusalem to be put forth by Clinton to both sides. It included, among others, the following:
1. Division of the Temple Mount into two levels: Palestinian upper level and Israeli lower level and Western Wall.
2.Shared sovereignty that will determine how to divide responsibilities.
3.Palestinian “religious/administrative” sovereignty and Israeli “general” sovereignty.
As Ben-Ami and other Israeli representatives explained to their PLO counterparts, Israel only really wants symbolic sovereignty over the Temple Mount and therefore the only real demands of Israel concerning the site are aimed at three points: security at the site, the prevention of archaeology-destroying digs there and the designation of a Jewish prayer place.
This was the first time in history that an official ‘request’ for Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount was formulated by the Israeli government. Arafat’s response was twofold: He first told Clinton that “If the Israelis stubbornly continue their demand to pray in the Haram there will be an Islamic uprising.” He also mentioned that the Rabbinate itself prohibits Jews to visit the holy site and that Moshe Dayan, Minister of Defense in the Six Day War and “considered a war hero by Israelis,” prevented Jews from praying at the site. (The Institute for National Security Studies.)
Goren’s greatest fears were realized less than a decade after publishing his treatise on the Temple Mount.
Eventually Barak would announce the failure of the meetings with Arafat in a statement claiming that he could never give up the “holy places of Israel.” The meaning of which is that the Temple Mount was the major reason the two sides could not reach a conclusion.
Rabbi Hillel Ben Shlomo, a well known rabbinic figure active on the Temple Mount for decades, recalled his visit to the Temple Mount the day before Barak’s announcement. Before the Second Intifada around 20 Jewish visitors would visit per month (in contrast to today where about 80 Jews visit per day). At that time, the Temple Mount was open on the Sabbath. He had brought 19 other friends with him - a number the police at the mount was unprepared for. During the 90s the Israeli police were used to taking up Jews in pairs; they would only allow two Jews at once on the Temple Mount. As the group waited their turn in silence, a group of Jewish extremists began to form around them shouting at them that by their ascent to the Temple Mount they deserve Divine Retribution according to Jewish Law - a claim that has no basis in halachic sources. In order to deal with the escalating scene outside the Temple Mount entrance quickly the police then decided to take up groups of four instead of pairs. As a result, the Jordanian Wakf decided to close the mount to all people including tourists because 4 Jews would be taken on a short circuit around the mount. After a few hours the police were finally able to take control of the Temple Mount - an area under the sovereign control of Israel and thus under police responsibility - and took up the ‘bigger’ groups.
As worshipers and visitors of the site today, were we to compare the bizarre and saddening situation of the Temple Mount then to the situation we find it in today, we would find a stark improvement. To me it is clear that Rabbi Goren’s assessment has been proven to be completely accurate. More and more Jews visiting their own holy site drastically improves the experience for all. In essence, it protects the site from extremists who seek its exclusivity and zealously trample equality for all those who respect its full history and holiness.