Jerusalem — “Warning.” The Hebrew sign at the entrance to the tourist bridge rising from the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem’s Old City issues a stern reminder that Temple Mount complex — the holiest patch of real estate in Jewish tradition — is off limits to Jews under many interpretations of halachic Jewish law.
That doesn’t bother Rabbi Chaim Richman, the international director of The Temple Institute, as he waits to go through X-ray machines and metal detectors at the entrance to the bridge. He does not agree with the ban by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, and has been coming here for decades to pray in a place where he feels there’s the most direct link to the divine.
But Jewish prayer is not only controversial in Jewish theology. It also challenges the so-called status quo on the Temple Mount under which Muslim religious authorities have remained in charge of daily affairs, even after Israel captured it in 1967. Fears that Israel might be moving to boost control over the Temple Mount have helped spark deadly clashes in the past, and it’s a subject that’s closely monitored today from neighboring Jordan and Ramallah to Washington, D.C.
That explains why Rabbi Richman always gets a special escort of two Israeli policemen and one security guard from the Muslim Waqf, the organization that administers the holy sites there. After years on the fringe of Israel, increasing numbers of Jewish religious activists have been seeking to ascend the Temple Mount, and mainstream politicians are pushing Israel to assert more sovereignty.
Standing at a distance of about 20 feet, the policemen scrutinize his movements to ensure he doesn’t pray — that means no bending down, no swaying, no silent movement of lips, or closing of the eyes for an extended period. Those are actions that Rabbi Richman and other activists have been arrested for in the past. He says that now he’s more “circumspect.”
“They have to have special clearance for us,” he said. “They work together to ensure that we don’t get away with anything, which might be to silently pray. … They sometimes watch you very carefully. It’s all very strange.”
While there are no laws forbidding Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, Israeli courts have ruled that the government can prohibit it for security reasons. Since then, Jewish activists have been arrested for praying there on the grounds that it could threaten stability by inflaming Muslim religious sensibilities.
In recent weeks and months there’s been heightened focus on the Temple Mount. Politicians like Housing Minister Uri Ariel and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein have made public calls on behalf of the Temple Mount. Secular politicians like Danny Danon of the Likud Party have joined them.
The status quo that Rabbi Richman has dedicated his career to upending was established in the first moments after Israel captured the Temple Mount during the Six-Day War. Noticing Israeli flags flying on the plaza, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan instructed soldiers to lower them.
Dayan’s edict was reinforced by a majority of Israel’s rabbinic establishment, which believes that entering the Temple Mount should either be left for messianic times or a clarification of where the borders of the Temple’s holiest restricted area, pre-dating the mosque, is understood to be.
“Since  then there’s been a delicate, but efficient status quo on the Temple Mount,” said Daniel Seidemann, a Jerusalem lawyer and peace activist who monitors Israeli activity in the eastern half of the city claimed by Palestinians as their capital.
Seidemann describes the Temple Mount as the spark for religious extremists on both sides to spur conflict. Recognizing the potential for violence, U.S. Defense Department officials have sought briefings on Temple Mount news because they believe it could affect the safety of troops as far away as Afghanistan, he said.
“They understand that this isn’t a freedom of religion issue — it’s a national security issue; they know that what starts in Jerusalem doesn’t stay in Jerusalem. … This is where the tectonic plates of the Arab, Jewish and Christian world all grind up against each other.”
Seidemann says that the Jordanian monarchy — which claims to trace its lineage to the Prophet Mohammed and sees itself as the prime Muslim caretaker and stakeholder at the Temple Mount — considers changes in the Temple Mount status quo as affecting national security. “It’s an existential issue to the legitimacy and stability of the Kingdom,” he said.
He praised Prime Minister Netanyahu for refusing to tinker with the status quo and not allowing Jewish prayer, but said he should do more to limit provocations by the hardline activists.
Back on the Temple Mount, Rabbi Richman walks in a counter-clockwise circle around the perimeter. He starts at the southern end, walks past the Al Aqsa Mosque, then to the eastern side walking north to the golden Dome of the Rock — the site of King Herod’s Temple — and then west to the side adjacent to the Western Wall.
It’s a practice known as Circling of the Gates rooted in the Book of Psalms. When he passes groups of Muslim pilgrims, they begin chanting “Allahu Akbar!” (God is Great) — which he says is a form of protest recently inspired by the Waqf authorities.
With his security detail trailing close behind chatting about Spanish soccer, Rabbi Richman points to stones and colonnades that he says are antiquities dating to the Temple period but are languishing because Israeli authorities don’t have control. He points to stones on the plaza floor, which he says were part of the First Temple, others are the thresholds for Jewish visitors during Temple times.
Finishing up the circle on the western side of the mount, he claims Jewish links to the stones of the Western Wall only developed several hundreds of years after the Temple’s destruction, and that the focus on what was the retaining wall of the Temple is a remnant of Jewish exile. He says it is difficult to be satisfied praying there.
“This,” he said, meaning the Temple Mount, “is the place where the Jewish people are commanded to pray, not there,” he said, referring to the Western Wall.
At the end of February, Israel’s Knesset held what was billed as its first-ever debate on whether Israeli authorities should insist on greater access to the site and allow Jews to pray there. During the debate right-wing parliament members both religious and secular argued Israel was afraid to exercise its sovereignty on the Temple Mount.
Moshe Feiglin, a Likud parliament member,
argued that unless Israel exercised full control, Israel’s existence would be temporary. “Without the Temple Mount there is no home. Whoever controls it controls the country,” he said.
Left-wing parliamentarians shot back during the debate that the real purpose behind the push over the Temple Mount is to inflame relations between Israel and the Arab world. Indeed, the parliamentary discussion sparked rock throwing by Muslim worshippers at security forces, and Jordan’s parliament voted to expel the Israeli ambassador there in protest.
The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, accused the government of allowing Jewish extremists into the Muslim holy site.
A day after that Knesset debate, however, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesperson told the Jerusalem Post that Israel’s government has no intention of changing its policy. Netanyahu grappled with deadly riots across the West Bank in 1996 when the government opened a tourist tunnel that ran across the base of the Western Wall.
In recent weeks, a group of Religious Zionist rabbis signed a letter urging the government to erect a synagogue on the Temple Mount. One of the signatories was Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of Efrat and former leading New York spiritual leader, who said that even though he believes in a two-state solution and that a unilateral move would spark a war, a peace agreement should include a deal to add a place for Jewish prayer on the complex.
“I don’t think the government has made as much of a statement as it should have made that this is a holy shrine and we should be able to pray there,” he said. “My American experience teaches me that if you don’t use it you lose it. We’ve given the impression that we don’t hold the Temple Mount dear, and we don’t care under whose sovereignty it happens to be.”
But Rabbi Richman goes further. He has devoted his career to studying the rituals and commandments performed in the ancient temple, and his institute in the Old City features a museum-like display of vessels that were commissioned to biblical specifications in order perform those rituals in the future. In a room representing the Holy of Holies, Rabbi Richman uses a smartphone app to draw a curtain revealing a replica of the Ark of the Covenant. At the institute’s museum, pictures depict the mount in antiquity, and a rebuilt Temple in place of the Dome of the Rock, set against the backdrop of modern Jerusalem.
Asked about when and exactly how he envisions a Third Temple, Rabbi Richman demurs. That’s a political question he says that depends on when the “when the people are ready” to rebuild. As for the geopolitical fallout, he believes Israel shouldn’t be viewed as the problem in such a scenario, saying, “Do I have to apologize for the fact that Islam squatted on that spot?”