[ by Charles Cameron — growth and mainstreaming of Rebuild the Temple movements in Israel, parallels with perceived slights against the Prophet of Islam, volatility of the situation ]
You saw the New York Times headline, New Clashes at Site in Jerusalem Holy to Both Muslims and Jews? That was just a taste, here’s more of the story:
Haaretz has posted three pieces in the last couple of days about the movement to build a Third Temple on the Temple Mount / Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem. I’ll give you the title, link and brief summaries of for the two shorter pieces, and some significant quotes from the Longer one.
I’d also like to suggest considering the issues here as analogues of those in the recent “blasphemy” incidents.
We might think in terms of freedom of speech being akin to freedom of worship — but we should also consider the dangers inherent in what would likely be perceived as a huge provocation, in what may be the most volatile hot-spot on earth.
Consider: building the Third Temple might involve the destruction of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, whether by an act of God or by human intervention. Whether it would or not is in dispute, as we shall see — but as we shall also see, attempts to destroy it have already been made…
Bearing that in mind..
Once consigned to messianic extremist fringes, movements fighting the ban on Jewish
prayers on Temple Mount are now endorsed by moderate rabbis. Even the Education Ministry has taken sides by encouraging pupils to visit the site.
If that’s accurate, it’s a significant shift in relation to what my American-Israeli journalist friend Gershom Gorenberg called in his book about the Mount, The End of Days, “the most contested piece of real-estate on earth” — for a quick overview of the importance of the site, see my piece of that name from July of this year.
Police currently enforce the Muslim ban on Jewish prayer at the site, citing security concerns.
Put those two pieces together, and you have a sense of momentum gathering for an epic clash, one which would have immense apocalyptic significance in terms of those eagerly awaiting a Coming One in each of the three Abrahamic traditions
More than 90 percent of Israel’s religious public wants to be allowed to pray at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Some groups, though, wish to go even further and build a Third Temple in place of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. What fuels the dreams of these Jewish extremists?
Shany Littman, the author of this impressive magazine-length piece which is behind a paywall on the Haaretz site but has been reposted here, expresses through the voices of a diverse group of people she met and talked with, the deep-seated longing behind the movement —
I pray for it three times a day and I wanted to take seriously what I say. I say, ‘Next year in rebuilt Jerusalem.’
and the theological logic behind that —
It is the heart of Judaism. Numerically, one-third of the 613 commandments are not fulfilled today because of the absence of a Temple. The Temple is the Jewish public sphere that we lost. I want a transnational Judaism, which will encompass all the commandments.
the sacred politics —
I want to take the movements to a place that is more sensible: a Temple-based state, where the state’s entire content revolves around the Temple.
the somewhat archaic-sounding motivations involved —
the fulfillment of the three commandments the Israelite nation was given in anticipation of its imminent entry into the Land of Israel: to appoint their king and establish his kingdom, to wipe out the seed of Amalek and to build their Holy Temple.
the progress that has already been made in terms of preparation —
only two vessels that are not yet ready are the Ark of the Covenant, which cannot be reconstructed because it contained the stone tablets from Mount Sinai, and the huge external altar, on which the sacrifices were performed.
and recent trends on the part of Israeli police and politicians that seem to show an increasing willingness to allow Jews to pray in what is, after all, their holiest of holy places.
I have been pondering these things, and I think we can helpfully, if carefully, draw a parallel between the extreme caution with which the Israelis have approached the issue of the potential for Jewish behavior — up to and including the possible removal of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and or Dome of the Rock — enraging not just Jerusalem’s Palestinians but the Islamic world, and the far smaller provocations of Charlie Hebdo, the puerile video, and the Qur’an-burning Revd. Jones.
Consider the rules and regulations invoked by the Israeli poloice on Jewish visitors to the Mount (compare also the rabbinic decree in the “traffic sign” at the top of this post):
Because this was the month of Ramadan, no food or drink was to be brought. Also forbidden were praying, bowing, kneeling, singing and anything that might disturb the public order. And have a good day.
Prayer is banned — have I heard that phrase somewhere before?
Prayer is banned because it would be blasphemous — the ironies, the echoes, the resonances and paradoxes here are endless.
To understand the depth of feeling here — and remember, we are only examining the Judaic side of the issue here, and there are other perspectives in play — let’s peer a little deeper into the sacred / sacral motivation:
Sacrifice, not a very “contemporary” word but one with strong, archaic / archetypal meaning, is the heart of the Temple’s purpose:
Animal sacrifice was the primary ritual activity in the Temple. Rivka spoke of the practice yearningly. “Today it is hard to understand what sacrifice is,” she said. “When a person errs, makes a mistake, sins ? instead of bringing himself, he brings a substitute; he brings either an offering or an animal whose blood atones for his soul. This is something we have lost today. The media always talks about korbanot [the Hebrew word “korban” means both “sacrifice” and “victim”] ? victims of traffic accidents, victims of the peace process, victims of terrorism. And I say to myself, despairingly, that there is a place for korbanot ? and it is here. And what is the root of the word ‘korban’? It is from lehitkarev, to draw closer. To draw closer to Hashem.
Indeed, the sacrifice of a red heifer is widely believed to be necessary to purify those who would enter the Temple grounds — note in this next paragraph the reference to the return of the Messiah:
According to religious belief, until the ashes of a red heifer are obtained, access to the courtyard of the Temple is prohibited for Jews (see Numbers 19:1-22 and Mishna tractate Parah). Water mixed with the ashes of a red heifer can cleanse people of the impurity of the dead, which clings to everyone. Tradition holds that there have been only nine ritually suitable red heifers, and that the 10th will appear upon the advent of the Messiah. The absence of the ashes of a red heifer, with the concomitant inability to become ritually clean, is one of the reasons that many Jews are unwilling to visit the Temple Mount. However, the Temple movement activists claim this is only an excuse, and that there is no problem obtaining a red heifer today.
Now back to “on the ground” realities — and risks, including the risks of terrorism and war.
This situation of contesting claims to one of the world’s most sacred sites the has been simmering for quite some time, and I think the gist of the three Haaretz articles could be read as “the stew’s beginning the bubble”.
For another glimpse of the potential volatility of the situation, we can turn to a decade-old piece by Jeffrey Goldberg in the NYT — though if the situation is as significant as I take it to be, you’d also be well-advised to read Gershom Gorenberg’s book The End of Days.
Back in 1999, Goldberg wrote a piece which carried the sub-head:
There are Jews who want to seize the Temple Mount by any means necessary. And Christians who want to see the Jewish Temple rebuilt — and destroyed to bring on Armageddon. And Muslims who will never give up the Dome of the Rock. Will the peace process be stalled by the apocalypse?
It’s a long magazine piece, and like Littman’s piece for Haaretz, well worth pondering. Here I’ll just pull a couple of excerpts that touch on how Temple movement participants view the possible repercussions of their actions. Gershon Salomon is the leader of one such movement, and not infrequently raises funds addressing Christian audiences.
“The mountain is within reach,” Salomon told me. “God is waiting for us to move the mosques and rebuild. The Jews may not be ready, but the Christians are.”
In Casselbery, I saw Salomon work the Christian congregants into a flag-waving — Israeli flag waving — frenzy. After, as the congregants lined up to give Salomon checks and even their jewelry to pay for rebuilding the Temple, I asked him, “Do you think these people believe that God will remove the Dome of the Rock, or that man must remove it?”
He smiled beatifically.
“They know that God will make this miracle happen.”
By the hand of man?
“Only God knows.”
[ … ]
I ask him how he would feel if someone blew up the Dome of the Rock.
“The question is, Why did they build their mosque on our holy mountain, anyway? Who gave them permission? God didn’t.”
Would you be saddened if the destruction of the Dome of the Rock led to war?
“I don’t think it will come to that. The Muslims know in their heart that this belongs to us.”
“But what if it did lead to war?”
Salomon smiled. “The Temple will be a reality. God has promised it.”
But what about war?
“O.K.,” he said impatiently, “so we’ll have a war.”
Returning to the Haaretz magazine piece, we can perhaps temper that last remark with a word of moderation.
Journalist Arnon Segal is the activist son of a member of the Jewish Underground of the 1980s — one of whose leaders, Yehuda Etzion, plotted to blow up the Dome of the Rock. His views are accordingly of considerable interest.
Contrary to the usual image of those who are involved with the Temple, they are a great deal more soul-searching and hesitant than people think. People did not want to join with Yehuda Etzion, who was the one who raised the idea [of blowing up the mosque].
“I think it is nonsensical to blow up [Al-Aqsa Mosque]. We would not have achieved anything by doing that. That is not how to solve issues. The Arabs are against the Jewish presence on the Temple Mount as such. If the State of Israel were to permit sacrifices to be made, that would already be enough to make me jump for joy. Obviously my inspiration is from home, but not from a fanatic place. I was not brought up to hate Arabs. But an as-yet unattained Jewish national purpose and the concept of the Temple Mount? those are definitely notions I got at home.”
Segal insists that the debate over the Temple Mount is basically an internal Jewish issue and is not related to the conflict with the Arabs. “I am not an enemy of the Arabs. I do not say that I don’t want Arabs on the Mount. Even Rabbi Dov Lior said that all nations are permitted to pray on the Mount. We will not tell others not to pray to God on the Mount, even though the Muslims do not respect our right to pray there. I am ready to leave them Al-Aqsa. But Al-Aqsa is not the whole Mount.”
And here is Segal’s pragmatic evaluation of the risk:
I don’t think the Arab states are lovers of Zion, even now; if they could destroy us, they would already have done it. The Temple Mount will not irk them more than other things.
Would you want to test that hypothesis in “real life”?