A Synagogue on the Temple Mount?

March 3, 2015

6 min read

Harry Moskoff

It’s obvious that at this point in history, Jews in Israel are nervous. The PM is going to Congress today for a Churchillian address to try and save Western civilization from a nuclear Iran. Last week we heard from the mainstream media that residents in the north have claimed to hear dull thumping sounds beneath the floor of their houses in the middle of the night. They are rightfully concerned that attack tunnels are again being built from Lebanon into Israel. In the south, Hamas has apparently begun the process of rebuilding their own tunnels with the newly acquired cement and building materials coming from the charity of international organizations. With the help of an agreement with the Obama administration, Iran would be fast reaching its goal in becoming a nuclear threshold state and realizing its potential to “wipe Israel off the map” (in their own words). Let’s face it, nowadays nearly every direction seems to hold an element of foreboding for the tiny Jewish State!

But wait – there’s hope! However, before we go on, please note that the solution suggested herein is by no means connected politically to the upcoming elections or any political agenda whatsoever.

So my question is: How can Israelis deal with this axis of evil and continue to live normal lives into the distant future. Put another way: How does the status quo need to change in order to accommodate a stable future for the State of Israel vis-à-vis its neighbors?

One direction we can look to is up. In spiritual terms, the Talmud states that there is a celestial Temple located directly above the place of the earthly one, i.e. – Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. The secret to Israel’s future lies with this most prized tract of real estate. Since on Mount Moriah there stood both the Temple of Solomon and the Herodian Temple, in the Muslim world it is widely feared that the Third Temple will also be on that same spot and that the time is nigh for just such an occurrence. Indeed, the Arabs fear that time is not on their side and is running out, requiring the necessity to finally acquire this piece of property once and for all in a final unilateral UN resolution. However, since relinquishing Israeli sovereignty over the area is no longer under negotiation, there might be some resistance to that solution. Is there a way of establishing a (not so) new status quo on the Temple Mount that would be agreeable to the UN, the EU and the USA (not to mention Israel)?

Well then, what we need therefore is a scenario on the ground whereby no nation will see anything to object to, as it’s only a matter of time before the PA unilaterally submits another UN Security Council resolution that will force a two-state solution along the 1967 borders – a decision that many right-wing Israelis will most likely deeply resent. Israel might want to take some unilateral action of its own with respect to a more solidified Jerusalem in general, and the Temple Mount in particular, with a view to alleviating some of that pent up anxiety, which might end up one day in a civil war, heaven forbid, if things do move ahead in this direction. If the Left gets into government, this is truly a viable scenario.

One thing we know for-sure (and we can see this throughout modern history) is this: The Temple Mount represents the future of religious toleration in Israel, and perhaps the world. Now here’s an idea: There is this really old concept of establishing another ‘house of prayer’ up on the Mount. Think of it: at the end of the day, this could provide all peoples with somewhat of a respite, a place they can go to pray, where they can flock and receive spiritual inspiration and healing, and a model of religious tolerance for all religion.

I can just hear it now: “You mean a synagogue on the Temple Mount? Preposterous! Incredulous. Blasphemy. Far-fetched even!

Maybe. But wait a minute. It has been done before! Not once; not twice; but believe it or not, (a whopping) SIX times since the destruction of the Second Temple there has been another place of worship on the Temple Mount!

Even the late Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, R’ Mordechai Eliyahu (1929-2010) apparently had plans for one to be located in the open area to the northeast of the Dome of the Rock, closer to the eastern wall of the Temple Mount, and indeed he made his intention clear when saying: “…that also the Children of Israel will enter into the areas that are permitted, in holiness and purity according to Jewish Law…”

Historically, is there a precedent for this, and how did this initiative originally start?

Let’s begin by going all the way back. Approximately 50 years after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D., Emperor Hadrian (76-138) granted the Jews permission to start building an edifice on the Mount, being eager to gain the cooperation of Jerusalem’s Jewish community. Unfortunately, this didn’t last too long and the project was stopped (see Genesis Rabbah 64:10). Afterwards, Constantine’s nephew Julian, who became Emperor in 361 A.D., turned his back on Christianity and issued an edict of universal religious toleration for all. Then, two years later he promised to rebuild a large building on the Temple Mount, taking the incredible step of ordering the imperial treasury to make available large sums of money and materials towards this effort. Unfortunately, this project too was halted, perhaps due Julian’s death or an earthquake (see Robert Panella, “The Emperor Julian and the God of the Jews,” Koinonia, 23 – 1999).

The next occurrence happened after the invasion of Palestine by King Khosru II of Persia (613), who succeeded in wresting control of Jerusalem, albeit briefly, from Constantinople. The new governor wasted no time in re-establishing a Jewish place of worship on the Mount, as was witnessed by the renown Jewish Rabbi and poet: R’ Elazar Kalir. About the restoration, he wrote:

When Assyria [Persia] came to the city… and pitched his tents there / he permitted the re-establishment of the Temple / and they built there the holy altar…

Further, even in the early years of Muslim rule, when Jerusalem was conquered by Arab forces in May 638, Caliph Umar issued the right for Jews to continue praying on the Temple Mount without interference in return for assistance in the taking of the city (see Jacob Mann, The Jews in Egypt and in Palestine under the Fatimid Caliphate – Ithaca: Cornell University Library, 1920). Note that the metamorphosis of the Mount into Islam’s third holiest site didn’t result in a total exclusion of Jews from the location. In fact, soon after the Muslim conquest, Jews actually received permission to build a small wooden synagogue on the Temple Mount! Most probably, there was an active synagogue on the Mount during most of the early Muslim period (see Abraham Benisch, trans., Travels of Rabbi Petachia of Ratisbon – London: The Jewish Chronicle Office, 1856). This fact is also substantiated by a Karaite sectarian by the name of Solomon ben Jeroham, who lived in Jerusalem between 940 and 960, and affirmed that “the courtyards of the Temple were turned over to them and they [the Jews] prayed there for many years.” Apparently, this makeshift synagogue was used even after the conquest of Jerusalem by the army of the Fatimid dynasty (969) until the Jews were banished by Caliph al-Hakim in 1015. But after a subsequent ruler cancelled Hakim’s eviction order, the Jews again returned to this synagogue, and worshipped right there on the Temple Mount until the conquest of the Crusaders. Even today, one can see Hebrew writings found on the internal walls of the eastern Golden Gate written by Jewish pilgrims about 1000 years ago.

Need I go on? Perhaps not – but indeed, there’s more that must be brought to light. The Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem ended in October 1187 as the Kurdish Muslim warrior Saladin regained control. And get this: even though the Temple Mount was re-consecrated as a Muslim sanctuary, Saladin permitted both Jews and Muslims to settle in Jerusalem and worship, to the extent of even permitting Jews to erect a synagogue on the site! (Emil Offenbacher, “Prayer on the Temple Mount,” Jerusalem Quarterly, 36 – 1985)

Moving into the Middle Ages, towards the end of the Mamluk period, the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, R’ David ben Shlomo Ibn Zimra (1479-1573) wrote that the city’s Jews regularly went to the Temple Mount to pray there, and that “we have not heard or seen anyone object to this” (Responsa of the Radbaz, vol. 2, #691). Chronologically, later on, because subsequent Ottoman rulers invested little effort in the upkeep of the Dome of the Rock or al-Aqsa Mosque, there was never any record of the Muslim clerics visiting the site or of having evicted Jews from praying in those places.

At face value then, having a place in some corner on the Temple Mount for Jews (and others) to pray didn’t seem like such a big deal back in those days, and even according to Jewish Law it was allowed to a certain degree, so why the big hullaballoo now?

What we do glean from all this history is that not only is there a precedent for such a ‘house of prayer’, but it was a working solution that was generally acceptable by the various governments for all parties concerned, and for long periods of time. Is there any chance of this happening vis-à-vis the geopolitical scenario in Israel today? No, but if it’s true that history repeats itself, the concept of re-establishing a modest place of prayer for all peoples in the holiest place on earth may indeed prove to have some merit in the future, for all of us. May it come soon.

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