On the Holiness of the Temple Mount

I have been reflecting on the notion that the Temple Mount is holy from a Jewish perspective, and thought I would offer some thoughts on the subject, as someone who visited the site yesterday in spite of the rabbinic warning I mentioned in my previous post.

Even from an insider’s Jewish theological perspective, it seems that it would be problematic to regard the Temple Mount as an inappropriate place to go.

First, for there to have been a first and second temple – and for there to be a third on that spot or anywhere else – would require builders and rebuilders being on the site of the temple’s construction to carry it out. (One of the artifacts in the Israel Museum includes not only the owner’s name but his self-identification as a “builder of the temple.” And so presumably temple-builders of the past believed that first they build a temple, then the deity came to dwell there, at which point restrictions of access came into effect.

Second, if one believes that God allowed the Romans (and before them the Babylonians) to destroy the temple, then that involved God allowing access to the place, precisely out of a divine wish to desecrate and destroy the temple. Surely having done that, the site’s status as temple was ended, whether permanently or temporarily.

And if anyone wishes or expects a third temple to be constructed on that site, then unless they expect it to be built miraculously, it will involve builders being present on the site.

Finally, it might also be argued that, if God were displeased with there being people visiting the site, we might expect earthquakes, lightning strikes and sudden spontaneous fatalities to be more common there. Does it make sense for human beings to defend the sanctity of a site when the deity associated with it shows no interest in doing so? I make this last point because the history of Jerusalem does not provide clear indication of divine favoritism towards any of the groups whose quarters are a historic part of the city. All have build great edifices, and all have seen them demolished or damaged by invasion.

Have you visited the Temple Mount? If so, what was your impression? If you refrained from doing so for religious reasons, what do you think of the line of argument I have tried to offer here?

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  • Bob MacDonald

    Your question is more general – concerning holiness and place. I would like to respond because it is a primal thing of considerable importance. When restriction is applied by humans to such a place, though, I think it is often for reasons other than holiness. The problem with your question is that you work against those who restrict access whatever their stated reason is. So I will give this some thought before any further response.

    But briefly – I have no restrictions re place and holiness. The veil is torn.  I have now seen the 3d views of the Al-Aqsa mosque. I was sorry that it and the dome of the rock were not open to visitors. I walked in some forbidden places on the north wall – no railings – but I came down before falling. It was a large empty space for the most part with some remarkable Mamluk architecture.

    I suppose that if it were open, there would be too many visitors.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    I have thought that the particular sort of taboo associated with the temple mount is borne out the reality of the place being off limit to Jews for so long. That God doesn’t defend the honor of the site from barbarians is probably due to same reason he lets the innocent suffer at the hands of the wicked, what ever that may be.

     Should a reasonable opportunity be presented for Jews to reclaim the area, I bet people would have a new perspective on what can go on at the site.   Currently the new attitudes are  away to save face without a self destructive necessity to vindicate God by eliminating Gentiles from the holy city.

  • Geoff Hudson

    Priests can imagine that they are the holy ones.  But builders are the salt of the earth.

  • Gary

    I think there are a number of references in the bible to “built by hands”….in a rather derogatory manner for both idols and the temple. Hand, being human, compared to God. So one of many reasons humans building anything there is rather unimportant, I would think, unless it was building friendship, love, bridges between peoples, etc. I’ve been to the temple mount two times. The first was on a Friday, everything closed since the Moslem’s were lined up, and worshipping there….I remember the stares from them at us, tourists, as we walked down the alley to at least get a peak at the mount. Dislike may be a mild term for the stares. I went on another day, and circled the Dome of the Rock, but didn’t go in. I had to leave my backpack outside, and I didn’t want to take the risk, since I had everything important to me in it (passports, camera, etc).

  • Anonymous

    What on earth would make one spot of the earth more holy to a theoretically omnipresent God? This theory is shared by Judaism, Christianity and Islam. God, on this theory, is in your colon, genitalia, keyboard, toilet and keyring. He is in the strip club, the penitentiary, the gambling hall and the tavern in every way as much as he is in the temple, the monastery, the mosque or the cathedral.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Evan, I think you may have answered your own question. Perhaps the main motivation was to have the deity be thought of as uniquely present in a place set apart, clearly distinct from strip clubs and your colon. :-)

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Gary, that was another reason I decided to have this be a camera-free day. Since my only “camera” on this trip is an iPad, I was obviously reluctant to leave it somewhere that I wasn’t sure it would be carefully guarded.

    Although it is not useful in caverns, crypts and tombs since it doesn’t have a flash, I have been pleased with the quality of the photos taken with the iPad. Any failings in their quality have been due to me rather than the device. :-)

  • Bob MacDonald

    Nice set of responses. I have posted more here. Hard to focus. 

  • Thomas

    Hi James,

    My understanding on the Temple Mount issue is as follows:

    – The reason Jews are forbidden from entering the Temple Mount (or more specifically, the place on the Temple Mount where the Temple itself once stood) is due to ritual impurity. Surely a place of holiness cannot be accessed by anyone at anytime- just as it is inappropriate for someone to show up to Easter Mass in his underwear and reeking of alcohol, the holiness of the Temple Mount requires a certain elevated level of holiness among visitors.

    – Now, my understanding is that the reason Jews today cannot access it today is because a red heifer, used for purification, has not been found, and thus cannot be used to purify one’s self before going to where the Temple stood. Even in Temple days, a relatively small number of cows, since they were ground into dust and mixed with water, lasted for a significant amount of time. So my understanding is that, theoretically, yes, if a legitimate red heifer were found tomorrow, Jews would be able to ascend the Temple Mount.

    So in terms of your questions, I think:

    1/ Once a red heifer has been found and its ashes utilized, yes, builders could ascend the Mount for construction.

    2/ I’m not sure I see that just because the first & second temples were destroyed, means there is no inherent holiness in that space. After all, the very existence of the 2nd temple, to me, seems to demonstrate that just because the 1st temple was destroyed, another one could rise in that same space- so I don’t think anyone could say after the destruction of the first temple “see, this site’s status has ended”- the very existence of the 2nd temple I think shows that is a very rational possibility. So perhaps the thinking is not that the land has lost its inherent holiness- merely that the populace is not deserving of it at that time, or another reason you and I do not know.

    3/ I think similar to #2 above. After the first Temple, someone could say the same thing, that clearly god’s message was that this land has no centrality anymore, but that nonetheless a Second Temple was built. Based on that, I think it’s going too far to suggest the land lost any centrality, but especially also due to Ezekiel 40-47’s apparent third temple, and that while that land has no temple now, Ezekiel does seem to have a grander picture in mind.

    With the previous temples, Jewish writings and their traditions say only a handful of red heifers were ever used, due to being grounded & mixed with water, lasted a significant amount of time, so red heifers are not a typical occurrence. So theoretically, if a heifer were found tomorrow, my understanding is that Jews could technically ascend the Temple mount and technically, from a perspective of ‘tumah,’ could in theory work on building a temple.

  • http://www.henweekends.co.uk/budapest-hen-party/ budapest weekends

    Wayne Stiles always writes enthusiastically about places in Israel that have a connection with the Bible. In his latest article for the Jerusalem Post, he describes the steps leading up to the Double Gate of the Temple Mount.Thanks