Rebuilding Temple in Jerusalem: holy work or holy mess

No praying. No kneeling. No bowing. No prostrating. No dancing. No singing. No ripping clothes.

These are the rules that Jews must abide by when visiting the Temple Mount, the site where the First and Second Holy Temples once stood, located above and behind the Western Wall in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City.

Though the area is under Israeli sovereignty, the mount — known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif — is controlled by the Islamic Wakf, a joint Palestinian-Jordanian religious body. As the site of the Al-Aksa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the Temple Mount attracts daily crowds of Muslim worshippers.

A model of the Second Temple at an exhibit of Third Temple vessels in Jerusalem

Under Wakf regulations, Jews may access the mount for only 41⁄2 hours per day and are forbidden from praying there.

But when Rabbi Chaim Richman stands just outside the Dome of the Rock, surrounded by Muslim visitors, he whispers a chapter of Psalms.

“God will answer you on your day of trouble,” he mutters on a recent visit. “The name of the God of Jacob will protect you.”

A frequent presence on the mount who knows the guards by name, Richman is the international director of the Temple Institute, an organization based in the Old City whose singular goal is to rebuild the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

Just before Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples and was marked this year on July 15, the institute released a video showing Jewish children donning tool belts and leading their fathers out of synagogue to begin the Temple’s construction.

“Our goal is to fulfill the commandment of ‘They shall make a Temple for me and I will dwell among them,’ ” Richman says, quoting Exodus.

Following the Second Temple’s destruction in 70 C.E., most rabbis adopted the position that Jewish law prohibits reconstructing the Holy Temple prior to the age of messianic redemption.

The Temple Institute takes a different position. “There are no Jewish legal barriers” to rebuilding the Temple, Richman says, only political ones.

The high priest’s diadem, created for use in a future Holy Temple by the Temple Institute photo/jta-ben sales

The institute isn’t shy about advocating what many see as a radical goal: replacing the mosque at the Dome of the Rock with a new Jewish Holy Temple. A painting in the institute’s exhibition depicts this scenario, with the city’s light rail line taking residents to the mount. The organization has formulated a program for where the building will stand and what its vessels will look like, aided by 20 men who study Temple law full time. The products of this research — 40 ritual objects — are on display in Plexiglas cases at the institute’s headquarters in the Old City.

Silver trumpets to be blown by priests and a wooden lyre are perched next to two deep pans with long handles — one for collecting blood from small sacrificial offerings and another for large sacrifices such as the Passover lamb.

In another room, mannequins with beards wear the priestly vestments; one is dressed as the high priest. His outfit of azure weaves, gold thread and a breastplate with 12 precious stones took 11 years of research and $150,000 to complete. Next to these figures stands a massive 12-spigot sink with electric faucets — technology that Richman says will be permitted in the Third Temple.

The institute’s crowning achievement — a golden, 200-pound, seven-branch menorah destined for the new structure — stands outside in a case overlooking the Western Wall.

Many Israelis view the institute and its work as a danger to the status quo that has kept this site holy to Muslims and Jews from turning into a tinderbox.

In 1984, Israel’s security services stopped a group of Jewish terrorists conspiring to blow up the Dome of the Rock’s mosque; they reportedly got very close to achieving their goal. Ever since, authorities say they have kept a close watch for any attempts to disturb the peace there.

Chaim Richman, international director of the Temple Institute, with a replica of the holy ark

Though observant Jews pray thrice daily in the Amidah prayer for the Temple to be rebuilt, few do anything about it. That’s as it should be, says Michael Melchior, an Orthodox rabbi and former Knesset member who is considered a religious moderate.

“We pray for holiness, but we also need to be careful of others’ desire for holiness,” Melchior said. “The moment you want to translate that into building a Temple, you upset the sensitive balance we’ve created here, by which we exist here.” He called Temple construction advocates “irresponsible.”

Given the obstacles to breaking ground on a Third Temple, the institute also has taken up a more modest cause: expanding Jewish rights on the Temple Mount to allow unrestricted access and prayer. In that endeavor, Richman is joined by several right-wing Knesset members and a group of archaeologists who say the Wakf is reckless with archaeological remains at the site. Moshe Feiglin, a nationalist Likud Knesset member, made a practice of visiting the Temple Mount monthly until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu banned him from the site in order to prevent trouble.

Richman says the institute is doing God’s work, and support for its goals is growing.

“The point is that we can’t live without the Temple,” Richman says. “It’s not about building, it’s about a concept: the idea that all of human experience can be elevated to a sense of divine purpose.”