By F.M. Loewenberg, Middle East Forum—

Few beliefs have resonated more widely, or among a more diverse set of Israelis and Jews, than the perception of the Western Wall as Judaism’s holiest site, the place where they feel the greatest sense of sacredness, “the holy of holies of Jewish national unity” to use the words of the Wall’s rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz. Chief rabbi of Jerusalem Shlomo Amar has similarly asserted that “no one can annul the holiness of the Western Wall, not the government, not the courts.”[2]

But when did the Western Wall become the holiest Jewish site? Historical evidence suggests that the Temple Mount was actually Judaism’s “holy of holies,” and that the Western Wall’s venerated position is a relatively late development with a more prosaic and even non-Jewish origin. Would these facts change the tenor of the debate about the Western Wall’s future status? And can they help ameliorate the widening schism between Israel’s Orthodox religious establishment and the Diaspora Conservative and Reform movements over this holy site?

Worship Sites, Post-Temple

The Second Temple in Jerusalem was for centuries the central site for Jewish worship, which was mainly sacrificial at that time. Although the temple itself was built and completed in 515 B.C.E. by Judeans who had returned home from the Babylonian exile, a major refurbishing of the temple was begun by the Roman client-king Herod the Great around 19 B.C.E. Today’s Western Wall is actually only a small portion of the retaining wall erected by Herod to encase the natural hill known as Mount Moriah or the Temple Mount in order to allow for the creation of an enormous platform upon which the revamped temple stood.

Once the Second Temple was demolished by the Romans in the year 70 C.E., prayer replaced sacrificial worship. Most scholars agree that Jews offered prayers on the Temple Mount even after the destruction of the Second Temple. “During the first period after the destruction of the Temple of Herod, the Jews continued to go and weep at the ruins of it,” read a report by the British Royal Commission, established in 1930 to determine the claims of Muslims and Jews at the Western Wall. The report also noted that “the Jews’ wailing-place at that time seems to have been the stone on Mount Moriah where the Mosque of Omar [in the Christian Quarter] now stands.”[3]

Roman emperor Hadrian put down a bloody Jewish insurrection in Judea, circa 132–36 C.E. The emperor punished the Jews by barring them from the Temple Mount for their prayers. Yet there is no indication that they prayed at the Western Wall of today.

But before long, all this changed. Early in the second century the Roman emperor Hadrian prohibited Jews from worshipping on the Temple Mount. They were permitted to assemble for prayer only on the Mount of Olives from where they had an unobstructed view of the ruins of the Second Temple. The prohibition to ascend the Temple Mount was strictly enforced during Hadrian’s lifetime, but the periodic need to re-issue the decree by subsequent emperors suggests that enforcement was often lax after his death. In fact, Jews did pray on the Temple Mount during the remainder of the second and most of the third centuries, but even when they were prohibited from doing so, there is no indication that they chose instead to pray at today’s Western Wall.[4]

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