The shocking upsurge in deadly attacks in Israel cannot be disconnected from efforts of some Jewish organizations to dramatically change the Temple Mount status quo, backed by inflammatory statements and actions of leading politicians.
To be sure, not all Jews yearn to abolish the fragile status quo of the holy site. Several prominent Jewish leaders, including one chief rabbi, have called on Israeli Jews to refrain from visiting the Mount. These statements invoke either halachic prohibitions to enter the holy site or pragmatic considerations urging a policy of restraint, as to not spill oil on this fiery issue. While commendable, both approaches shy away from two essential misconceptions reflected in the Temple Mount’s growing centrality — for secular Zionism and for the Jewish religion alike.
Zionism advocates for Jewish self-determination in a national home. Its emphasis is on national self-identity rather than on religious or cultural. Zionism was never free from utopian and even messianic sentiments. Yet its leaders were repeatedly cautious to ground their hopes in the universal rights of national groups to self-determination. Accordingly, the founding fathers of Israel, as well as its leaders until recently, were always careful to show rhetorical respect to the Jewish holy sites, above all to the Temple Mount. At the same time, however, they made sure to prevent such places from becoming foundational to Israel’s sovereignty. Instead, it was the Israel Defense Forces and Israel’s law enforcement and judiciary that were crowned as primary representations of Israel’s nationality, statehood and, most important — sovereignty.
Those who argue that Israeli sovereignty is hollow until the state fully realizes its sovereignty over the Temple Mount are in fact negating the astonishing success of Zionism in establishing a sovereign Jewish state, along with all its secondary achievements. If Zionism cannot be fulfilled without Jewish dominance and ostensible presence on the Temple Mount, then it means little. A regionally unparalleled military power, strong governmental institutions, a vibrant economy and impressive Hebrew cultural community are what secure Israeli sovereignty.
Leaders who warn that a cautious approach to the Temple Mount will lead to a collapse of Israeli sovereignty at large are recklessly nullifying Zionism’s ideological core as well as its greatest triumph — the sovereign State of Israel.
But isn’t the Temple Mount the single most holy place for Jews? Yes, it is, in a legal and symbolic sense. No, it is not, in a deeper and more essential sense. Rabbinic Judaism (or simply Judaism, as we call it nowadays) devotes a special space for the temple and its worship in liturgy, mysticism, Halacha and daily praxis. The temple and its mountain are ever present in the daily Jewish itinerary. Yet it stops on that level.
Judaism as we know it developed after the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E.; its very essence is alien to the notion of a functioning Jewish temple. The rabbis have thoughtfully replaced temple sacrifice with oral prayer, priests with sages. Most important, Judaism shifted the site of divine revelation from a holy place — the temple — to the holy text, the Torah. Unlike the shattered temple, Torah enabled the divine word to be heard everywhere and any time.
So, while the Temple Mount remains at limited-access according to Jewish law, as a result of its unfading holiness, the temple itself has become redundant for meaningful Jewish existence — some would even say incompatible.
We need not renew the Temple as of old. Meat eaters and vegans alike can agree that there are worthier ways of addressing the Divine than through animal sacrifice. But even if this new temple burned only plants, indeed even if it were solely a shrine of liturgical worship, the temple would mark the end of Judaism. For Judaism today believes that God can be equally approached from any place. If a single geographical holy spot becomes the privileged site of connection with God, current forms of addressing Him will be pushed aside.
Synagogue prayer will be relegated to the role of symbolic gesture, a mere metaphor for the true temple worship. Worse yet, Torah — its study and ongoing interpretation — will cease to be the primary place in which Jews seek God’s revealed word. Through the temple, God will be bound again to one place, and access to Him mediated through human clergy.
Preaching that a new “third“ temple is the full realization of Judaism is not only audacious, it is offensive. For the sake of both Zionism and Judaism, Israeli leaders and their Jewish voters ought to let go of the Temple Mount obsession, or it will destroy all that is so dear to them.
Hillel Ben-Sasson is a visiting assistant professor of Israel studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary.