The Nationalist Heresy of Temple Mount Activism

For Israel’s right-wing religious Zionists, ethnonationalism has overwhelmed the commitment to Jewish law.

Joshua Leifer
January 18, 2023

Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir visits the Temple Mount on January 3rd, 2023.

Minhelet Har Habayit

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On January 3rd, Israeli Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir visited the Temple Mount, or Haram-al Sharif, in Jerusalem. After years of intensified incursions by Israeli forces that have heightened tensions in the area, Ben-Gvir’s visit intended to send a message: He and his party of messianic religious nationalists hope to replace the Dome of the Rock with the Third Temple, and they were openly daring Palestinian protesters and resistance groups to stop him. In the days leading up to Ben-Gvir’s ascent to the Temple Mount, Hamas leadership in Gaza described Ben-Gvir’s impending visit as a “detonator” and vowed it would respond forcefully. In the end, however, the provocation was relatively uneventful: The usually pugilistic minister spent a quick 13 minutes at the site and refrained from praying there. (The delicate “status quo” on the Temple Mount officially allows Jews to visit but not to pray, although in recent years Israeli authorities have increasingly allowed groups of right-wing messianic settlers to hold prayers.)

Ben-Gvir’s move was nonetheless condemned not only by foreign diplomats, who warned against attempts to change the “status quo,” but also, and perhaps even more forcefully, by Israel’s Orthodox authorities, who consider ascending the Temple Mount a violation of halacha (Jewish law). Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi, wrote an open letter to Ben-Gvir stressing the “stringency of the ban” on ascending the Temple Mount and warning that doing so could “lead the many to sin.” Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Shlomo Moshe Amar, wrote that he was “astounded by how a Torah-keeping minister in Israel could violate the law of the Torah in public.” An editorial published by the Ashkenazi Haredi newspaper Yated Ne’eman denounced Ben Gvir’s act as a “serious halachic violation that contravened the rulings of generations of great Torah sages.” (Almog Cohen, an MK from Ben-Gvir’s party, responded with a pun on the newspaper’s name, stating that it was not loyal—ne’eman—to the Jewish state.)

Ben-Gvir and the Jewish Power party he leads are, at least on paper, Orthodox religious nationalists, committed at once to the strictest adherence to religious law and to the idea that the founding of the secular state of Israel is part of the opening stages of the messianic age. Yet over the last several decades—beginning with the Oslo Peace Process in the 1990s and culminating with Israel’s 2005 unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip—Israeli religious Zionism has undergone a series of crises that have led to a break with the Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law, especially on the issue of the Temple Mount. “[Religious Zionist] identity is now based more on mythic ethnocentrism than on Torah study,” Shalom Hartman Institute Research Fellow Tomer Persico writes in his essay, “The End Point of Zionism.” “Ethnocentric consciousness is replacing halachic sensibility.” Indeed, there is perhaps no starker example than the Temple Mount to illustrate how the messianic ethnonationalism of Israel’s right-wing religious Zionists has overwhelmed their putative commitment to Jewish law—a dynamic that could have disastrously violent consequences now that they are in power.

Orthodox rabbinical authorities have long held that Jews are strictly forbidden from ascending to the Temple Mount. According to Jewish law, entering the site—which housed the Second Temple two millennia ago—requires a special purification ritual, washing with water mixed with the ashes of a red heifer, a type of cow not seen since the Temple’s destruction. In addition, because the precise location of the Temple is unknown, ascending to the site risks trampling on the Kodesh HaKodashim, the Holy of Holies, which housed the Ark of the Covenant.

While there have long been individual Jews who have ascended to the site—adventurers, tourists, and messianic pilgrims—they did so in violation of the rabbinic consensus. “All the leading poskim (rabbis who issue halachic rulings), both ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionist, decreed it forbidden to visit the Temple Mount,” Persico writes, noting that this ruling was reiterated by “all the great figures of recent generations.” Yet after Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank began in 1967, that consensus started to fray. As scholar Motti Inbari put it in Jewish Fundamentalism and the Temple Mount, “Until the Six-Day War, the question of Jews entering the Temple Mount was purely theoretical.” Amid the messianic fervor that engulfed the country, hardline settler activists began to demand a reconsideration of the Temple Mount ban. Many rejected the restriction on Jews praying there. Some activists, especially hardline religious Zionists, began to call for the building of the Third Temple—and the destruction of the Dome of the Rock, the Islamic holy site that sits there, in the process—an act they believed would help usher in the messianic age.

It was not long before this new messianic orientation translated into extremist deeds. In the early 1980s, several leading extremist settlers who were part of a terrorist group known as “the Jewish Underground” were arrested for plotting to blow up the Dome of The Rock. The same period saw the entrance of messianic Third Temple activism into the parliamentary arena under the umbrella of the far right: Yisrael Ariel, founder of the Temple Institute, ran in the second slot on Meir Kahane’s Kach party ticket in 1981 elections (although the party won only one seat: Kahane’s). Kahanism and the Third Temple Movement have been closely linked, if not nearly synonymous, ever since.

Nevertheless, Temple Mount activism remained on the radical fringes of Israeli religious Zionism. That changed in the 1990s, when the Oslo Peace process—which proposed Israeli territorial concessions to the newly created Palestinian Authority—provoked a crisis for the dominant, mainline religious Zionist political theology as articulated by Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Mandatory Palestine, and his son and successor Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook. In the Kookist schema, the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel marked the dawning of the era of redemption: In this formulation, secular Zionists and the secular state of Israel were, however unwittingly, the instruments of divine will, bringing closer the messianic age. But the Israeli state’s apparent preparation to evacuate parts of the biblical Land of Israel after Oslo cast its messianic credentials into question: What did it now mean that instead of progressing toward the fulfillment of the prophecy, it appeared to be regressing, undoing the work that the right-wing settlers had done for decades?

For religious Zionist rabbis, this crisis of political theology required a dramatic reconceptualization of the legal status of the Temple Mount. In 1996, the Committee of Yesha Rabbis—Orthodox, religious Zionists hailing from settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories—decided that the old halachic precedent no longer applied, ruling that Jews “are permitted and even encouraged to enter the Temple Mount,” in Inbari’s words, provided that they “undertake special ritual purification before doing so.” The Yesha rabbis argued that ascending the Temple Mount was now necessary to prevent Israel from relinquishing its sovereignty over the site. According to their logic, Inbari told Jewish Currents in an interview, “these were exceptional times that called for exceptional measures.”

Temple Mount activism accelerated through the 1990s and early 2000s. In 2005, Israel’s unilateral “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip marked “the final breakdown of the Kookist interpretation” of religious Zionism, Persico told me. With the image of Israeli soldiers pulling Jewish settlers from their homes and synagogues, the Israeli state was no longer a credible vehicle for religious redemption, and the Kookist schema was “left with no messianic vision,” he said. “The Temple is a substitute for the messianic vision.”

Still, Temple Mount activism would not have gained such a foothold in Israeli politics if it did not strike older, mystic chords within Zionism, Persico explained. The Temple Mount has long been “a focal point for nationalistic claims” that can be traced “back to the underground right-wing organizations” of the pre-state period, he said. The far-right Lehi militia, for instance, called for the building of a Third Temple as part of its broader vision of Jewish nationalist revival. While the Temple Mount diminished in salience during the decades of Labor Zionist hegemony following Israel’s founding, its nationalist significance never entirely disappeared. By the 2010s, Perisco observed, support for visiting the Temple Mount among Likud politicians had grown “from virtually nil to almost half Likud’s Knesset members.”

The rise of Itamar Ben-Gvir to the position of Minister of National Security reflects not only the embrace of Temple Mount activism by the Israeli mainstream; it also represents a fundamental shift in the movement’s relationship to the state. From the pre-state militias to the Jewish terrorists of the 1980s and Kahanists (who sought a revolutionary overthrow of the existing regime while also embracing parliamentarism) to the turn to messianic radicalism after the disengagement from Gaza, Temple Mount activists have almost always been at odds with the Israeli government. In recent decades, Temple Mount activists have often expressed an ideology that Inbari calls a “theocratic post-Zionism,” which aims to replace the secular Israeli state with a halachic kingdom ruled by both a monarch and, in some visions, a Sanhedrin, or rabbinic court. But now the party representing the messianic insurrectionists is part of the governing coalition, and its leader oversees the ministry whose mandate has been to keep them in check.

With the extreme right in power, the biggest test of the tension between its eschatological agenda and the imperatives of governance will come in April, when Passover and Ramadan coincide. For the last several years, this period has seen consistent Israeli incursions into the Temple Mount area aimed at curtailing Palestinian access to the site, which Palestinians have generally met with resistance. Temple Mount activists have also recently attempted to carry out the ancient ritual of the Passover sacrifice on the Temple Mount, but have always been thwarted by Israeli police; last year four men who planned to sacrifice a goat and incite fighting between Arabs and Jews were arrested. “Is Ben-Gvir, now as head of the police, going to stop them again? I think he would allow it to happen,” Inbari said. Meanwhile, the Temple Mount movement has made strides in religious preparations for a more robust Jewish return to the site. “Now, in Israel, there are red heifers,” Inbari said. According to a September 2022 report in the Jerusalem Post, a Christian rancher in Texas had sent five of these specially bred cattle to the Temple Institute to be raised for later use in the Temple purification ritual.

It’s unclear whether Ben-Gvir’s contravention of Jewish law will prove politically costly with the Haredim. So far, both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi Haredi parties have been willing to work with Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party; the current coalition agreements have afforded them unprecedented power and they have no incentive to jeopardize their gains. The question remains whether, as the defenders of halacha in other arenas, they will decide to respond more forcefully to Ben-Gvir’s flagrant violations of religious law on the Temple Mount.

Much of the recent reporting on the new Israeli government by mainstream outlets has focused on the hardline religious character of many of the parties in the governing coalition. Indeed, this coalition has the most religious parties and the most religious members of Knesset of any in the body’s history. And yet to understand Itamar Ben-Gvir and the Temple Mount activists as merely, or even primarily, religious fundamentalists is to misapprehend their ideology: As their approach to the Temple Mount illustrates, they are first and foremost ultra-nationalists who have placed religion in the service of a territorial-maximalist, ethno-exclusivist agenda. The settler rabbis who ruled that Jews could ascend to the Temple Mount demonstrated an interpretative leniency that, in its insistence that historical conditions have changed and permit once religiously forbidden acts, has more in common with the liberal Reform and Conservative denominations that right-wing religious Zionists frequently denigrate than it does with Haredi Orthodoxy. “It’s a religious reform,” Inbari said of the religious Zionist embrace of ascending the Temple Mount. “And if reform is allowed, reform is allowed.”

Yet there is another way to understand the Temple Mount movement in relation to Jewish tradition. In his essay “Redemption Through Sin,” the great scholar of religion Gershom Scholem describes how the followers of the 17th-century failed messiah, Shabtai Tzvi, developed a doctrine of “necessary apostasy” to reconcile their messianism with the traditionalist Judaism in which they lived. Tzvi had flagrantly violated halacha and converted to Islam, but rather than leave the fold, his remaining followers reappropriated an old rabbinic concept—mitzvah ha’ba’ah ba’averah, a commandment that is fulfilled by a transgression—to reconcile their continued Jewish practice and messianic faith. “Here,” Scholem writes, “we are given our deepest glimpse yet into the souls of these revolutionaries who regarded themselves as loyal Jews while at the same time completely overturning the traditional religious categories of Judaism.” Such a reevaluation of the sacred and the profane, Scholem adds, is a common feature of messianic movements and spiritualist sects. The messianic religious nationalism of Itamar Ben-Gvir, Kahanism, and the Temple Mount movement is no exception. It is, then, much less an example of religious fundamentalism than an instance of nationalist heresy.

Joshua Leifer is a Jewish Currents contributing editor and a member of the Dissent editorial board. His essays and reporting have also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Jacobin, +972 Magazine, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book about American Jewish identity. He lives in New Haven, CT, where he is a history PhD student.