Last week, a record number of Israelis visited the Temple Mount.
According to some sources, more than 1,200 Jews entered the holy site to mark the fast of Tisha b’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the Temple. Hundreds more were not allowed in because, unlike Muslims, Jews can enter the Temple Mount for only four hours a day through a single gate equipped with metal detectors.
This number of visitors in a single day is the highest since 1967. Even so, statistically speaking, it was a surprisingly low turnout, considering that seven million Jews now live in Israel. One reason for this is that a great many Israeli Jews simply don’t think much of the Temple Mount. For far too many, Judaism’s holiest site is a religious relic of the past. These Israelis would probably have agreed with Moshe Dayan, who, instead of establishing firm Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount in 1967, asked, “Why do I need this Vatican?” and handed it over to the Islamic Trust (Waqf).
But far more Israelis will not ascend the Mount for religious reasons. Still today, the rabbinic prohibition on entering the sacred compound is viewed by the majority as obligatory. The rabbinic ruling is predicated on the inability to determine where exactly the Temple once stood, meaning that one risks inadvertently treading on the area of the Holy of Holies. To do so would invite upon oneself the severe “cutting off” (Kareth) punishment, which means either death by divine hand or being cut off from the people of Israel.
The significantly large number of people who did enter the Temple Mount last week has prompted Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef to issue a special warning reminding the people that “Halacha [rabbinic ruling] forbids ascension to the Mount, and those Jews who do ascend desecrate the holiness of the Mount.” Rabbi Yosef’s opinion, shared by other leading rabbis, most of them ultra-Orthodox, is a powerful deterrent for many Jews.
However, if in the past this prohibition ruled supreme, today more and more rabbis are saying the exact opposite, that it is obligatory to ascend the Temple Mount. These rabbis, mostly from the national religious faction, justify their opinion by presuming to know which places on the Mount are off-limits. In addition, they say, because of the Israeli government’s appalling discriminatory policy against Jews, “the need to ascend the Mount is even more important because it has a ‘conquering’ aspect to it.”
This second group of rabbis is calling for nothing less than toppling the sacred traditional halachic ruling that is still very much in force. The record number of Jews who entered the Temple Mount on Tisha B’Av is a clear sign that the times are changing. It is most likely that in the future more and more Jews will reject the old dictum and ascend the Mount in greater numbers, challenging both the Israeli government and the Muslim world.