By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Over the last years there has been increasing media attention to small groups of Jews who ascend to the Temple Mount area and seek to show that Jews have a right to walk around the compound. They formulate their position based on religious freedom. In one iteration of this view the Joint Committee of Temple Organizations was quoted as saying: “John Kerry has positioned himself alongside Islamic fundamentalism in his efforts to prevent Jews praying at the Temple Mount, which is in total opposition to the US being the cradle of modern democracy, which takes pride in being the homeland of human rights.” Others basically argue that bans on Jewish prayer are an infringement on religious “freedom.”
Israel maintains a status quo in the compound whereby non-Muslims are allowed to visit the area around Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, called by Muslims the ‘Haram al-Sharif.’ This happens most days of the week and hundreds of tourists do the tour. Some Jewish activists also go up to the area. The Jewish religious visits are in contrast to long standing Ultra-Orthodox Jewish opposition to visiting the area, since in their view a person might transgress by stepping on the ‘holy of holies.’ But over time Jewish activists have decided that it is worth going up to the area and seek a real prayer experience. Israel police ban non-Muslims from praying, in cooperating with the Islamic Wakf, and those caught moving their lips are removed.
So we know the players: The Muslim organizations and the Kingdom of Jordan, which has a special role in enforcing the status quo, oppose these Jewish activists who they accuse of “storming” the Al-Aqsa mosque. Israel’s authorities seek to allow tourists to visit the area and maintain the status quo banning Jewish prayer. Most Orthodox Jews object to visiting the site. A smaller group of religious Jews and their Zionist supporters support prayer rights. An even more marginal group actively encourage the building of the Third Jewish Temple on the site.
And that begs the question, if there was a Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount, the very Jews who keep visiting it would be banned from visiting it, right?
Wait a sec. So those people who are activists for religious freedom would be banned from visiting the area if there was a Temple?
There are many depictions of the Temple complex and descriptions of its degrees of sacred space and organization. Solomon’s Temple was 60 cubits long, which is about 90 feet, and 20 wide, which is about 30 feet. The “inner sanctuary” was also about 30 feet by 30 feet. The Temple Mount constructed by Herod was far more massive. “The measurements given by Josephus, namely that each side of the Temple enclosure was the length of a stade, which is between 585 and 660 feet, seems to indicate a dimension which agrees neither with that of the Mishnah nor with that of the present-day Temple Mount enclosure which may have been expanded somewhat during the Islamic period,” says one account. The overall area was 480 x 300m (about the size of six football fields).
This massive complex had numerous colonnades and halls and rooms. An average Jewish pilgrim would enter the complex via an overpass near the Western wall and then walk through the southern Hulda gates after going to a ritual bath and then via tunnels that brought one to the courtyard. This area was divided into various sections reserved for different services. They were also organized by social differences, one section for non-Jews, for women, “Israelites”, “Levites” and priests. In the center of the compound would be the Temple itself.
Josephus recalled that “anyone was allowed to enter the outer area, which was therefore called the Court of the Gentiles.” Non-Jews were not permitted access to the other areas and a sign even warned them in Greek that they could suffer the death penalty.
If you were Jewish you still had to wade through a huge scrum of people to get anywhere. Even before Herod’s time there had been some 24,000 priests and 4,000 gatekeepers and 4,000 musicians. Over 1,300 Levites were hanging out at the Temple at all times to do their duties. The priests were divided into groups of 1,000 to perform their duties all day. There was fixed daily prayer and many details were regimented.
If we think back on all this it is obvious that many of the very people demanding “prayer rights” and “religious freedom” would be kept far away from the Temple if it actually existed. That’s a kind of irony. If there were a Temple, the activists would still have to be activists, demanding “rights” to go up to the Temple. This is worth considering when one hears the shrill appeals to “rights.” Would there be rights in such a scenario. Rights to pray where one wants and how they want? To dress as they please? Rights for women to go into the compound and with men?
Think about it, if there was a Temple there would be a Jewish-style Wakf (except they would wear white robes) to keep people visiting it in line…and separate men and women and such…they’d probably require formal declarations that one had been “observed in the mikvah” before ascending…and to prevent gentiles from “infiltrating” there would be “checkers” and one would have to bring bureaucratic documents attesting to one’s “Jewishness”…and of course men and women would be strictly segregated…
It is perhaps a convenience that it is as it is, because tourists might have more rights in a sense today to the area, than if it was actually a Temple compound run by priests and such.
Another thought: If there was a Temple then the haredim would run it, be careful what one wishes for, if they get a Temple then the activists will quickly be pushed out.