Three Israeli and Jewish viewpoints suggest a different perspective on the holiness of the site and the meaning of sovereignty over the Temple Mount. Israel Knohl relates to the partial fulfillment of Yeshayahu’s vision; Elhanan Reiner explains the idea behind aliyah le’regel; and Menachem Fisch explains that the holiness of place is not connected to ownership.
Yeshayahu’s vision of the nations thronging to the Temple Mount in the Final Days – “And it shall come to pass in the end of days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established at the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it” (Yeshayahu 2:2) – does not state that the nations will come to the Mount in order to receive the Torah as Jews.
Yeshayahu spoke of the gathering of the nations to Jerusalem, to the Temple Mount, in order to encounter the one God and to receive instructions and guidance from him. It should be remembered how unrealistic that idea appeared in his time: During the second half of the 8th century BCE, the whole world, apart from the small nation living in the Land of Israel, was made up of idol worshippers.
Therefore to a certain extent, it is possible to view the fact that Muslims today, who according to the Pew Institute constitute close to one quarter of humanity, believe in one God, reject idol worship and wish to pray to the one God in Jerusalem, as a partial fulfillment of Yeshayahu’s vision. Since we are not living in the Messianic era, and in any case cannot rebuild the Temple, there exists today a situation in which it is possible to positively view the fact that Muslims come to the Temple Mount to pray to the one God, that they strictly reject divine images and pictures and ensure that other gods are not worshipped on the Mount.
Thus, apart from the questions of sovereignty and control and confrontations of this type, I think that we should view the issue of the Temple Mount through the lens of Yeshayahu’s great prophetic vision and hope that the partial fulfillment which we see today is the beginning of a process that will lead to its total fulfillment: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (ibid. 4).
The oleh le’regel is not able to reach his destination – there will always remain one step that he has not taken. He will never take the last step, following which there are no more. Even when he has almost reached his goal and can see the Holy of Holies before his eyes, he sees it from a distance and cannot approach. This is one of the foundations of aliyah l’regel. “The Lord hath said that He would dwell in the thick darkness” (Chronicles II, 6:1). Therefore, when a man faces the Holy, he has essentially arrived, despite or because of the last step that he cannot take.
This has been a basic tenet of the religious view of the Temple Mount since the Destruction. The Western Wall is a powerful metonymy for the concept of being on the threshold, which internalizes the idea of approaching but not quite reaching the Holy. The metonymy of walls that enclose the Holy but are essentially open constitute the actual threshold of the House of God. It is similar to God putting Moses on Mount Nebo: “There you will not go” (Deuteronomy 32:52). You can see from there what you cannot see from here. This is “from Mount Scopus and closer” (Talmud Berachot 61b). And this is the circuit of the gates which the oleh l’regel followed around the Temple. Not to the straight line leading to the site; and he has no choice but to stop. Instead, he circles it again and again and the holy place is always before him.
The power of the site’s presence is not manifested in reaching it but in approaching it. This is essentially the idea on which the Temple is based: olim l’regel gather there and in that way sanctify it; by approaching it, they experience its presence, but the Holy of Holies, the heart of their objective, they do not reach. The state of not quite arriving, of stopping on the threshold, is what makes the aliyah l’regel to the Temple into a journey that is so important and meaningful. This seemingly Diaspora attitude accurately expresses the idea of the Temple. Only the Cohen Hagadol enters the Holy of Holies once a year.
The Temple concept is based on the journey to the Temple, a journey which is not meant to end at its destination. It is the eternal, unfinished journey. The desire to destroy the Holy, not knowing the boundaries of holiness, is to desecrate it. It is not a religious desire to reach the holy place. It is empty nationalism that sanctifies the foothold. It demands the foothold but does not realize that the price of achieving it is its secularization.
The solution of the Temple Mount problem lies essentially in the recognition that the holiness of a place is not connected to its ownership and does not require sovereignty over it. Our perspective on the Temple Mount is a result of the way in which we think about holiness and the link between holiness and ownership. If there is no demand for ownership, that same object can be holy in various ways to various religions without any difficulty arising. The Bible is the holiest text for both Christianity and Judaism without its holiness to the other religion impinging in any way on its value in the eyes of believers in either religion. Furthermore, the holiness of holidays to more than one religion does not generate a demand for ownership over them. Individuals can be considered holy by various religions without a believer in one of them taking insult from the idea that he is also considered holy by a member of a different religion. Even the holiness of places can exist simultaneously for more than one religion without the question of ownership arising.
The question usually arises when the holiness of a place requires, from a religious point of view, that ceremonies and rituals take place there. However, there are solutions even to this problem. For example, the time-sharing arrangement that exists in the Machpelah Cave suggests to me that the holiness of the cave would not be diminished one iota if it were under joint ownership, under the ownership of a third party or under no one’s ownership.
So too with the Temple Mount it is possible, with a bit of goodwill and the recognition of the real rights of others to its holiness, to arrive at arrangements for sharing. But that is not the question before us since on the Jewish side only a very small and unimportant minority is interested in the renewal of rituals on the Temple Mount. The vast majority of the observant Jewish public is of the opinion that going up to the Temple Mount is, in any case, prohibited in our time while the non-observant public is totally uninterested in the idea of Temple worship. What bothers them is that there is a mosque on territory that is meant to be ours and that the Temple Mount’s religious administrators – the Wakf – act as if it they are the owners. However, this is not a theological issue since the question of who is the sovereign owner does not add or detract from the holiness of the site. This is a dispute based on nationalism: the attempt to show who is stronger, who is in charge.
There is no reason that, at a time when the dream of the Temple remains confined in our hearts until the End of Days, we cannot relate to this place from a distance as we do now; that is, without demanding exclusive ownership over it. The secret of success, whether on the Temple Mount, in the Old City or in the Machpelah Cave will be to maintain the uniqueness of their holiness for all religions without demanding exclusive sovereignty over them.