Today, I had an aliyah (an ascent, from the Hebrew root 0-l-h, to ascend). Jews normally use this word to mean one of two things: saying the blessing over a section of Torah reading, or immigrating to Israel. I'm using it, for the first time, in the original sense, which is to ascend onto Har HaBayit (literally the Mountain of the House, normally called the Temple Mount in English) in Jerusalem.
If you thought the (Kotel) Western Wall was complicated, try Har HaBayit. It is venerated by Jews (as the location of the 1st and 2nd Temples), Christians (as near the Last Supper, Crucifixion and the Resurrection), and Muslims (as where Mohammad ascended to heaven). To this day, Jews from all over the world pray facing Har HaBayit, and many Muslims regularly pray in the Mosque there, as the holiest site after Mecca and Medina.
Its history is even more complicated, with Muslims building a mosque (Al Aksa) and a shrine (the Dome of the Rock) there and Crusaders digging under it in search of the lost Ark of the Covenant. After the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, the site along with the entire Old City passed under Jordanian control. It was only with Israel's victory in the Six Day War in 1967 that control falling into Jewish hands, after a 2000 year lapse.
The current state of affairs is very touchy at best. Jews (including outwardly religious Jews) are allowed up Har HaBayit, but are not allowed to pray. One man was even arrested last December for allegedly doing so. There are other stories about rabbis being allowed to pray in special circumstances, but holding any kind of regular Jewish services up there is completely impossible. It is still too fresh in everyone's mind when Ariel Sharon (before becoming Prime Minister) callously ascended to Har HaBayit with his entire security detail, providing one of the sparks for the 2nd Intifada.
So how does a religious Jew go about an aliyah? First of all, he or she must be as ritually pure as one can be in a post-Temple world. For men this is easy - go to the mikvah that morning before you go up, I used one at Ohel Shimon Yeshiva, near Rachel Imenu and Hizkiyahu HaMelech. If you go make sure to bring seven shekels in exact change.
For women, it gets more complicated. In short, women should not be in niddah (menstruating), or have engaged in (heterosexual) intercourse in the previous 72 hours. (This requirement should probably also apply to men with respect to homosexual intercourse.) Then women should also go to a mikvah (which can be somewhat difficult for unmarried women in Jerusalem).
The entrance is next to the south entrace to the Kotel plaza, near Zion gate. It opens around 7:30 AM, except for Fridays and Muslim holidays. The security allegedly checks for any Jewish ritual objects (bibles, prayer books, tallit, tefillin) and from what others have told me from their experience makes you leave them there. They did not ask me for any identification.
Ha HaBayit itself is gigantic. Much, much larger than I ever could have imagined. It is also very quiet and peaceful, which only adds to the enormous reverence of the space.
I wasn't quite sure where I was allowed to go as a religious Jew. The concern is that one should not enter the area that was once the Holy of Holies in the Temple, or be near the Ark of the Covenant. However, since Har HaBayit was significantly expanded in the Second Temple period, the South section (where the entrance is, near Al Aksa Mosque) is certainly safe for Jews who follow the purity precautions mentioned above.
Eventually, I saw three observant Jews on a tour. I followed them, figuring that they would know where not to go. Up until this point, I had been wearing a baseball cap over my kippah, and had tucked in my tzizit, so that the police wouldn't profile me as a potential agitator. Once I was with other religious Jews, though, (who were already being followed around by the police), I figured I could express my religion.
We ended up walking all of the way around Har HaBayit, only avoiding the raised platform that the Dome of the Rock is on. (This is apparently what it looks like inside.) Despite the regulations, these men quietly said Pslams, which were traditionally recited by pilgrims as they approached the Temple. Since the guards could not hear them, they certainly did not bother any Muslims praying on Har HaBayit.
We exited Har HaBayit on the Western side, though what was called "Chain Gate". This let us out right onto Rehov HaShelshelet (the Chain Street), in the Arab shuk. I had been here several times on my way to the Kotel, but normally would turn right 20 feet before this point to go down the stairs to the Kotel. I never knew what was beyond that point, and also never realized that the bottom of the shuk was the same level at Har HaBayit. Nor did I realize that, since the shuk slopes down when coming from Jaffa Gate, that Jaffa Gate is actually higher than Har HaBayit. I had only seen Har HaBayit from the Kotel and from Robinson's Arch, where one is looking up 50+ feet at it.
As soon as we exited, the three man began dancing and singing "Yibaneh HaMikdash" (He will build the Temple), a popular song that I knew well and had danced and sung to many times on Jewish holidays as part of the normal liturgy. I stopped to think. This was a much more direct application of this than I was use to, and was now directly contrary to Islam, since actually rebuilding the Temple would require tearing down (or at least moving) the Dome of the Rock. I ended up joining the men dancing and singing briefly, since I think that my metaphorical understanding of that song was still true, and that if I would happily sing it back in the United States, how could I not in the Old City in Jerusalem?
Throughout the day, though, I have been struggling with the notion of the Temple. It is ubiquitous in Jewish liturgy, a significant portion of the weekly Torah readings, and a major focus of everyday study of ancient Jewish laws and customs. Furthermore, as a meat-eater (though one who constantly attempts to limit his meat intake), I have no fundamental problem with ritual animal sacrifice (since I all of the meat I eat has been ritually slaughtered). Furthermore, I would hope that animals that are to be ritually offered to God in a Temple are actually better treated than the animals that I eat now.
That said, I don't think I can truly wrap my head around demolishing one of the holiest spots in Islam to rebuild our Temple. That would put us clearly in the camp of the Romans (who destroyed the 2nd Temple) and the Taliban (who destroyed numerous priceless Buddhist holy sites in Afghanistan).
So what do we do? Change the liturgy? That would be a colossal sea change for observant Judaism, which in many ways is still ritually living in a world that assumes that our nearly 2000 year post-Temple period is temporary. To accept that the Temple will never be rebuilt would truly be the end of Judaism as we know it, almost on par with the destruction of the Temple. Our holidays would change. Our connection to Israel would change. I don't think we're ready for that, or will ever be.
So, I leave Har HaBayit conflicted. In Bethlehem last Friday, I said that Israel would never relinquish the Old City. It would give up the entire Galilee first. After visiting Har HaBayit I'm more sure of that than ever. Where to go from here though, I don't know.