Interview with Temple Institute

temple-institute-menorahOne of the most recognizable symbols of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem is the seven-branched golden menorah. Until recently it was housed in the Cardo, a pedestrian walkway found in the quarter. During the Roman occupation, the Cardo was the central road running through the entirety of the Old City with parallel colonnades and shops on each side.

The menorah, a central ritual object during the days of the Jewish Temple or Beit HaMikdash, was moved last year to a more prominent position out of the shade of the Cardo to one of the main walkways leading toward the Kotel plaza. Most tourists that have been through the Jewish Quarter are familiar with this “monument” but very few know anything about the organization responsible for its construction. That organization is the Temple Institute.

The Temple Institute, or Machon HaMikdash, is an organization whose self-assigned mission it is to make all possible and reasonable preparations for the building of the Third Beit HaMikdash. Founded in 1987 by Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, one of the paratroopers who was in the unit that captured the Old City of Jerusalem and ascended the Temple Mount in 1967, the organization has a dual mission of preparation, as described above, and education. Both elements are on open display at the organization’s museum, the Treasures of the Temple, found in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. See my previous post about my visit to the museum.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of interviewing Yitzchak Reuven, the assistant director of the Temple Institute’s International Department. The beginning of our conversation revolved around explaining the role of the Beit HaMikdash in Judaism today. Many streams of Judaism have emphasized the spiritual, non-corporeal nature of the Temple. Moreover, it has long been a trope in traditional Judaism that the moshiach (messiah) will be the one who will herald the building of the Third Temple. The Temple Institute does not accept this premise.

It is their belief that G-d does not give mitzvot (commandments) which are not meant to be fulfilled by human beings. So much more so, they believe, the responsibility of fulfilling these commandments cannot be perpetually deferred to a messianic era. Therefore, the Institute sees it as their mission to push the idea of the Third Temple forward, both by educating people, Jews and Gentiles, about the religious, ritual, and spiritual importance of the site, and by preparing the ritual objects which may one day be used in the Temple service itself.

On the level of education, they believe that it was because Jews were unprepared for and lacked the knowledge about the Temple that resulted in a failure of the State of Israel to begin the process of rebuilding with the capture of Har HaBayit (the Temple Mount) in 1967.  As such, they have dedicated much of their work to researching and raising awareness as to how rituals were performed in the days when the Temple stood, both first and second, and where the physical buildings themselves stood in relation to the mosques which currently occupy the mount.

They do this in part through guided tours and lessons given in their museum, and in part through periodic guided tours of the Temple Mount itself. As Ron Hassner has catalogued in his book, War on Sacred Grounds, it is in part this increasing trend of Jews and Israelis to visit Har Habayit which has broken down the post-1967 Rabbinical consensus banning Jewish presence on the Mount which arguably has been so critical to maintaining the fragile status quo.

Indeed, the Supreme Court has recently upheld rulings that as with everywhere else in Israel, freedom of worship should be preserved for all religions on the Temple Mount. The ruling stands with the caveat, however, that the police can prevent Jewish entrance to the Mount where deemed necessary for security. It has been this proviso which can be most credited with preserving the status quo. This has not prevented, however, new Rabbinic rulings on where it is permissible to walk on the Mount, state inquiries into wanton destruction of archaeological evidence, or increasing pressures to break the religious monopoly currently exercised by the Waqf in their control of the site.

In terms of “preparation,” the Temple Institute focuses primarily on researching and reconstructing the keylim (vessels) and other ritual objects and priestly garb specified in Tanakh as necessary to conduct the Temple Service. The fruits of their endeavors here can be seen on display at the museum. One of the primary criticisms they have received from the religious communities in Israel is that there is no way they can be sure that the objects which they are building are in fact accurate representations of what is required. In matters of such ostensibly direct contact between the mortal and the divine, they argue, there can be no room for error.

The Temple Institute’s position on this matter is largely that this mentality needs to be overcome. Evidencing the initial construction of the Second Temple, they point out that this effort was completed around 520 BCE by a small and largely economically destitute group of Jews who, once allowed by the Babylonian emperor, chose to return to the Land of Israel from exile in Babylon where the vast majority remained behind. Records from that time, largely from the Rabbinical literature, emphasize that the Second Temple was a small, modest structure in all ways less impressive than its Solomonic predecessor.

Having lost many of the ritual objects and likely practices implemented during the first period, they were forced to make do with the materials they had on hand. Yet Jewish scholars over the past 2000 years have not faulted their efforts. From this, the Temple Institute asserts that the building of Beit HaMikdash HaShlishi must come about as the result of human efforts. Perhaps, and only after that effort, will divine intervention offer guidance.

All this begs the question, of course, how does the Temple Institute perceive the present status quo, where the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock sit atop the plateau where they would like to see the Beit HaMikdash rebuilt? My host acknowledged that today’s geopolitical reality is such that even if the Knesset were to vote to rebuild it tomorrow, it would still likely not be possible. He noted that Israel is a work in progress and so is the Mikdash. Better to prepare for the day when it can be rebuilt than to do nothing at all.

As for the mosques, the Institute takes no formal position on the matter. They do believe however that rebuilding the Temple is the key to peace rather than a hindrance to it. Citing biblical passages where it is stated that the Temple will be a house of worship for all nations (Isaiah 56:7), they believe it could be a spiritual center for all peoples. My host claimed that as recent as prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, the Waqf which controls the Temple Mount saw the ancient history of this place as a source of pride and one of the main reasons for the importance of the mosques now found there. This evidence he drew from pamphlets published by the Waqf for tourists in that period which claimed the Mount was in fact the location of the two ancient Temples. Facsimiles of such pamphlets from 1925 and 1950 are available on their website.

Bottom line, my host told me that he and his colleagues have no wish for an apocalyptic end of days or the like. Since one cannot know what will be, he believes, we should not concern ourselves with it. For Israeli politics, he asserted, so long as Israel is not building the Beit haMikdash, it will be unable to deal with its other problems, whether they be internal conflicts or external pressures from the international community.

Given the broad theological scope and deeply religious nature of this organization’s mission, it is difficult to know how to approach it from a political science perspective. Their representatives do not lobby the government to change policy, nor do their donors seek political office. They do, however, seem to represent an undercurrent in Israeli politics which values not only the site of Har HaBayit but the symbolism of the Beit HaMikdash itself.

A recent poll conducted in Israel in the lead up to Tisha b’Av reports that some 49% of Israelis surveyed would like to see the Temple rebuilt, and another 27% said that they believe the Israeli government should take active steps towards making this a reality. On the reverse, 23% said the Temple should not be rebuilt and 48% believed the government should not take active steps toward reconstruction. While it is difficult to gage the mood of the Israeli body politic from a single survey, such results indicate that it would be foolish for policymakers to ignore the importance of this site to Jewish Israelis in forming domestic policy and shaping a final peace settlement with the Palestinians and the Arab world.

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