The Temple Mount (Har Habayit, in Hebrew) has been called a “tinderbox” and a “flashpoint,” a place where few Jewish leaders dare to tread for fear of starting a holy war.
It is a place where Jews and Christians are forbidden to pray and visitors often have experienced verbal abuse, and sometimes worse, from Muslim women and youth paid to harass them.
It is dominated visually by the golden “Dome of the Rock,” a seventh-century Muslim shrine built on the spot where two Jewish temples once stood — the first commissioned by King Solomon in 950 BCE and destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, the second (of Chanukah story fame) built over a long period, expanded by King Herod, and destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.
Since the 1967 Six-Day War, when the Israel Defense Forces liberated the Old City of Jerusalem and almost immediately handed sovereignty of the Temple Mount back to the Muslim Waqf, the main focus of Jewish prayer has become the Western Wall — the Kotel — a small segment of the Herod-era western retaining wall of the Temple Mount complex.
Though carefully monitored visits are permitted, and thousands of Israelis and tourists of all faiths have toured the Temple Mount since 1967 — including Israeli brides and grooms on their wedding day — the Waqf sees Jewish visits as provocative, while Israel’s ultra-Orthodox-dominated chief rabbinate officially forbids Jews from entering its precincts out of concern that they may violate the site’s permanent sanctity.
This proscription is not accepted by a growing number of mainstream Orthodox rabbis, who maintain that while Jews should avoid the specific areas where the Temple and its courtyard stood, they are permitted to walk around the rest of the Temple Mount, accompanied by a knowledgeable guide.
Among these proponents is Professor Jeffrey Woolf, associate professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and director of Bar-Ilan’s Institute for the Study of Post-Talmudic Halakhah (Jewish law). One of his many areas of specialty is the interaction between Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.
“The Kotel is not the most sacred place in Judaism; Har Habayit is,” Dr. Woolf told congregants at Teaneck’s Keter Torah, when he presented “What’s the Story with Har Habayit? Halacha, History and Politics” as part of a scholar-in-residence Shabbat program recently. (The lecture is available online at YU Torah; google YU Torah Dr. Jeffrey Woolf and Har Habayit.)
This is the message Dr. Woolf conveys during global speaking tours and interviews, including to media outlets that include Time magazine, Al Jazeera, NBC Nightly News, CBS Evening News, WABC-TV, and the BBC.
A student of the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, from whom he received rabbinic ordination at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in 1982, Dr. Woolf also earned a doctorate in medieval Jewish history and literature from Harvard. He is a leading advocate and spokesman for the development of modern Orthodoxy in the United States and Israel.
“I have been on Har Habayit a number of times, and personally found it one of the most moving, and spiritually formative, experiences of my life,” he said in an interview during his latest U.S. speaking tour. “I am in favor of Jewish prayer rights on the Temple Mount, and I believe this could be a paradigm for Jewish-Muslim coexistence.”
Dr. Woolf said that until modern times, the Temple Mount was the “northern star” of Jewish spirituality and national awareness. “Religious anthropologists emphasize there are places in religious life that draw believers and rivet their attention,” he said. “For Christians it’s the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, for Muslims it’s the Kaaba in Mecca, and for Jews it’s the Temple Mount.
“This finds expression in classical Jewish law and religious culture. There is a clear sense that Har Habayit is where everything starts and ends. You see it even in art, and not only Jewish art. Medieval maps of the world always had Jerusalem at the center, and that’s not just an artistic device. The Temple Mount was always on the Jewish agenda.”
Regarding the question of whether Jews may ascend to the site, he explained that prevailing tradition is to avoid the place where the Temple actually stood, given that in post-Temple times it is not possible to cleanse yourself of certain forms of ritual impurity that would defile the holy site.
“However, the overwhelming majority of the area we call the ‘Temple Mount’ was part of a platform built by Herod and does not have inherent sanctity, though portions of it do possess a lower level of sanctity according to Jewish law, so not everybody can go and not under all conditions,” Dr. Woolf said. Jews who go must immerse in a mikvah beforehand, and they may not wear shoes made of leather.
“There are Orthodox rabbis who say a Jew should not go because it is not clear where the Temple actually stood,” Dr. Woolf said. “Those who do go are absolutely convinced, based on literary and archeological evidence, that we certainly know where the Temple was not, and there is no problem going up if we prepare properly.”
Jews went to the Temple Mount regularly throughout history, he added, and surprisingly Muslim authorities did not restrict this practice until Saladin reconquered Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187.
“There is documented evidence that there was a synagogue and house of study on the Temple Mount until the Crusader conquest in 1099,” Dr. Woolf said. “Maimonides reported in 1166 that he went and prayed on the Temple Mount, but not where the Temple itself once was, because he believed you couldn’t go there.”
So how is it that the Muslim world has come to see any Jewish presence on the Temple Mount as provocative?
“When Jerusalem was conquered by Saladin, it acquired a degree of religious significance that it had not previously possessed,” Dr. Woolf said. “In line with the Islamic view that there is no other religion than Islam, it laid exclusive claim to any number of sacred places to which it claimed a connection. That is the reason why Muslims assert that the Temple Mount and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron are exclusively theirs.
“More recently, Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, to which they never laid claim, has also been included. The same thing happened to churches.
“So, from the late 12th century on, Jews stopped going — not because they didn’t want to but because they weren’t allowed to. Their presence, certainly their worship there, was viewed as a blatant contradiction of Muslim hegemony.”
Now that more Jews are visiting the Temple Mount again, the Islamic Movement in Israel has fomented an organized campaign of intimidation to stop them, using hired groups of harassers who only recently were barred from the site by the Israeli government. In addition, the Islamic Movement has revived the claim that Jews intend to blow up the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount complex and build a third Temple in its place.
“This libel that the Jews are planning on blowing up Al Aqsa was first fomented by Hitler’s ally, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, in 1920,” Dr. Woolf said. “Every single major wave of anti-Jewish violence in Israel since then has been carried out under the same banner. Ironically, Al-Aqsa is not even on the Temple Mount proper. It’s on the Herodian platform extension.”
Jews who even look as if they might be praying on the Temple Mount are subject to arrest or banishment by the Israeli police, in deference to Muslim sensibilities and the specter of violence. “That’s a violation of the basic human right of a person to pray anywhere,” Dr. Woolf said.
“There are all kinds of people, but I can say without hesitation that the overwhelming majority of Jews who go there do not wish to be provocative,” he continued. “They simply wish to be in a place where according to our tradition God’s presence never leaves. As far as building the third Temple is concerned, I believe that to be in God’s hands.”
Prof. Woolf is among Jewish historians who see the issue of control of the Temple Mount as “profoundly theological and emblematic of the entire conflict between Muslims and Jews.”
Traditionally, Islam takes the position that land once ruled by Muslims can never legitimately be ruled by non-Muslims, he said. “There’s no such thing as shared sovereignty. From a Jewish point of view, however, there is nothing wrong with having both a synagogue and a mosque there. The prophet Isaiah said: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations,’ and Allah is the same God whom we worship,” said Prof. Woolf.
Prof. Woolf’s talk in Teaneck did not address the issue of pluralistic prayer at the Kotel. When asked about the recently agreed-upon compromise that would maintain the Orthodox status quo for worshippers at the Western Wall Plaza while establishing a new space for Jewish prayer in other forms at the southern section of the Western Wall, he commented: “I am happy they found a solution and I hope and trust they will set up the new area in a way that will provide for meaningful prayer while not impacting upon the priceless archeological finds there.”
He said he is deeply bothered by today’s ultra-Orthodox hegemony over the Kotel, pointing out that when the Western Wall Plaza was built after the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, the divider between men and women was mobile (it has since been nailed down) and the women’s section was 30 percent larger than it is now. In addition, following a 2004 earthquake that caused a mudslide and damage on the women’s side, there is no shelter from inclement weather for female worshipers.
“The other religious streams have gotten a new place to daven but Orthodox women are disadvantaged,” Dr. Woolf said. “That’s a very upsetting downside of the deal. The shortchanging of the women there is indefensible and inexcusable.”
A native of Boston, Dr. Woolf first came to Israel in 1983 for a year at the Hebrew University as a Lady Davis Graduate Fellow. He has been a visiting professor at Yale, Yeshiva, and New York universities, he has written 40 scholarly monographs, and written or edited four books. Among them is the most recent translation of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s “Kol Dodi Dofeq.”