7:00AM BST 12 Sep 2013
Rabbi Chaim Richman shows me into a darkened room, strokes his beard and pulls out his smartphone. He has a specially designed app that works the lights. The room illuminates. He taps the screen again, and a heavy curtain slides open. There, resplendent in brilliant gold – and rather smaller than I expected – lies the Ark of the Covenant.
“This isn’t the real lost ark,” he says. “The real one is hidden about a kilometre from here, in underground chambers created during the time of Solomon.” I look at him askance. “It’s true,” he says. “Jews have an unbroken chain of recorded information, passed down from generation to generation, which indicates its exact location. There is a big fascination with finding the lost ark, but nobody asked a Jew. We have known where it is for thousands of years. It could be reached if we excavated Temple Mount, but that area is controlled by Muslims.”
Welcome to the Temple Institute exhibition, in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem. A plush, hi-tech gallery, spanning 600 sq ft, it hosts a collection of vestments and sacred vessels to be used by the Jewish high priest. This is not a museum, insists Rabbi Richman, 54, the international director of the organisation. Apart from the Ark of the Covenant, every artefact on display has been painstakingly created in accordance with Biblical instructions and is intended for actual service in a “third Jewish temple”, which will be built as soon as possible.
Central to the collection is a high priest’s costume made out of azure and gold thread with a breastplate featuring 12 large gems. Cost: £160,000. There are also intricate silver trumpets and wooden lyres, pans to collect the blood of the sacrificial lamb and a large stand for the ritual bread. Outside, on a platform overlooking the Western Wall, stands an ornate 1.5-ton candelabra covered in 90kg of gold worth £1.3 million.
All have been designed in consultation with 20 full-time Talmudic scholars, who the institute pays to study the elaborate, 2,000-year-old laws governing the construction of temple artefacts. But, before you accuse Richman and his colleagues of being old-fashioned, the Temple Institute has drawn up plans for the new temple that include two very contemporary features: a monorail, to transport visitors right to the door, and a 6ft-high computerised water dispenser with 12 taps so that an entire shift of priests can wash their hands at once. This, Richman tells me, has been designed so that a twist of the tap will release the precise amount of water stipulated in Jewish law.
“There is no reason why we shouldn’t use technology, which is the modern miracle, alongside the heavenly miracles,” the rabbi tells me. “It’s part of our vision of [the temple] as a realistic potential in our times. I’m sure it will have elevators, underfloor heating and a car park.”
This may sound fanciful, but in the febrile atmosphere of Jerusalem – a holy city for three world religions – Richman’s ideas are highly inflammatory. The proposed location of the new temple is the Temple Mount (or Haram al-Sharif in Arabic), one of the most disputed places on the planet. The First Temple, built by King Solomon 3,000 years ago, stood on this site, says Richman, and the Third Temple must be erected in the same place. Unfortunately, the area is already occupied – by an Islamic shrine known as the Dome of the Rock, the shimmering gold roof that dominates the Jerusalem skyline, and the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest place in the world for Muslims.
Many Palestinians fear that Israeli extremists are plotting to destroy both and with a certain amount of justification; in 1984, a plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock by a group called the Jewish Underground was uncovered by police. Other Palestinians believe the threat comes from the Israeli government itself. In 2000, the then Israeli opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, visited the site to underline Israel’s control over the area, a move that sparked the second intifada, during which 1,000 Israelis and 3,000 Palestinians died. And recently, a string of religious and political figures, including Richman, have asserted the right of Jews to pray on Temple Mount, a request that – if granted – would lead to violent clashes, say Palestinian leaders, and provide Israel with an excuse to place the area under military control.
“The Israeli strategy is to take it over,” says Mahdi Abdul Hadi, chairman of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs. “We don’t want to share, not because we don’t accept them, but because we don’t trust them.” The Palestinian Authority has been even more forthright. “[The Jewish desire for the area is] totally unacceptable, and could transform the region into a powder keg,” said president Mahmoud Abbas in May. Sheikh Mohamad Hussein, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, agreed. “Muslims in Palestine and elsewhere will never accept this provocation and will try to thwart it by all means necessary,” he said. “This is the ultimate red line for us. The Israelis and the world should listen carefully to what I am saying.”
Overall, Richman’s institute has spent more than $30 million – thanks mostly to donations from private Jewish philanthropists – and upgraded to its new hi-tech gallery in May after 22 years in a smaller premises down the road. And, although its exhibits are only open to the public by appointment, it is by no means short of punters: a million people have visited over the past 12 years.
Nevertheless, even among the religious Jewish community there are those who view Richman and the Temple Institute with suspicion. Michael Melchior, an Orthodox rabbi and former member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, refers to the organisation as “irresponsible”.
“We pray for holiness, but we also need to be careful of others’ desire for holiness,” he told the Jewish Post newspaper. “The moment you want to translate that into building a temple, you upset the sensitive balance we’ve created here, by which we exist.” Richman refutes such claims, pointing out that he isn’t calling for the destruction of either the Dome of the Rock or the Al-Aqsa mosque; he is simply asserting that it is a central Jewish obligation to prepare for the rebuilding of the temple. Nevertheless, his continual trips to the disputed area, along with other Jewish activists, have generated huge resentment and the rabbi has been arrested by Israeli police many times – sometimes for “weeks on end”.
Today, he is making yet another visit. As the heat of the day approaches, Richman takes me up a rickety wooden ramp and onto Temple Mount, protected by an armed police escort. The atmosphere is tranquil, even ethereal. Palestinians are strolling across the forecourt, milling around the entrance to the Muslim shrine, and relaxing in the shade. Yet as soon as the rabbi is spotted cries of “Allahu akbar” ring out. Our policeman adjusts his weapon and directs us into a less conspicuous corner. Shadowing our small party is a representative of the Waqf, the Islamic trust that administers the Temple Mount. His job is to make sure that the rabbi does not attempt to pray.
From Richman’s point of view, this is a complete infringement of his constitutional rights. The Temple Mount is believed to be the site of the Foundation Stone, the Holy of Holies, from where God gathered the dust to create Adam. But ever since the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in AD70, Jewish entry has either been banned or severely restricted by Christian and Islamic rulers. Even after Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967, the area was considered so sensitive that Palestinians were allowed to retain day-to-day control.
“Jews believe that even mentioning a sick person’s name in this place is an amazing thing for healing,” says Richman. “Yet I am not allowed to pray, in the holiest place of my own homeland. So I have to do things like this.” He breaks abruptly into mumbled Hebrew liturgy, gesticulating with his arms as if continuing the conversation. The Waqf man eyes him suspiciously, and the Israeli policeman eyes him in turn. (Other visitors have been even more overt – singing and lying on the ground to pray.)
For these reasons, the rabbi refers to himself as a “displaced person”. Contrasted with the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and the continued Israeli presence on the West Bank, this could be perceived as, well, a bit rich.
“That’s just a distraction,” he says. “This is about God’s territory. Islam took advantage of our exile and began to squat on Temple Mount and deny that Jews were ever here. We have a birthright to this place, and I don’t see why we should be embarrassed about it.” Although the rabbi expresses his views with certainty, many of his facts are disputed. There is no agreement, for example, about the location of the Ark of the Covenant. Shimon Gibson, a biblical archaeologist at the Albright Institute in Jerusalem, believes that when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem in 587 BC, they removed the gold from the ark and burned the wooden frame along with the rest of the wood from the temple. Other scholars believe it was taken to Africa.
There is also precious little archaeological evidence for the location of the First Temple, although the location of the Second Temple, built in 516 BC, is more certain. Razed by the Romans, one wall of the courtyard that surrounded the temple – the Western Wall – remains and has become a focus of Jewish prayer.
I ask Richman whether his plans involve the demolition of the Dome of the Rock. He pauses. “I don’t like to speculate about highly sensitive matters,” he says. “But there is only one place where the temple will be built, and it is where the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque are currently standing.” This sounds like a veiled ambition for war, especially against the backdrop of new peace negotiations when extremists on both sides feel threatened and are in volatile mood. “That’s not what I meant,” says Richman. “A prophecy indicates that one day, the Islamic world will accept the idea of a Jewish temple here, become harmonious and usher us in.” Another miracle, I ask? “Right.”
This may seem like the words of a zealot. But although much mainstream public opinion believes Richman and his associates to be troublemakers, such is the potent mixture of religion, culture and politics in the Holy Land that a sizeable portion of Israeli right-wing opinion is sympathetic to his position.
Jewish visits to the Temple Mount plaza rose 30 per cent in 2012, according to estimates by Jewish worshipper groups, due, partly, to the fact that several scholars have identified specific areas of holiness on the plaza. (According to tradition, it is sacrilege for a Jew to set foot on the spot where the Holy of Holies stood, but some areas of the Temple Mount have now been deemed “safe” to walk on.)
The issue began to be framed as a campaign for religious equality and a time-sharing scheme was proposed, allocating certain hours for Jewish worship, in a similar way to a scheme already in existence at Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs, also a holy site for both Muslims and Jews. Arieh Eldad, a right-wing politician who proposed this plan, accused Palestinians of using the threat of violence to keep the plaza to themselves. The Israeli Supreme Court then upheld the right of Jews to pray on the plaza, but only if such action did not incite “a disturbance to public order” (which the Waqf says is what Rabbi Richman’s praying does). Following this logic, the Mount was closed to non-Muslim visitors during Ramadan in July and August.
Moshe Feiglin, a member of parliament for the ruling Likud party, registered his anger by staging a protest visit. “I call for everyone who hears us to come here, to understand that they are giving the very heart of Jerusalem to foreigners, to Islam,” he told Israeli media. “We need to understand that there needs to be sacrifice here, that 1,000 people show up ready to make sacrifices, ready to be arrested”. His clarion call was not answered in quite these numbers, but scores did come and protested in silent prayer outside the locked Temple Mount gate before dispersing.
Richman, for his part, says he is no longer looking to get arrested. “It’s not that I’ve lost my fire,” he says. “It’s just that at the age of 54, I want to see my children at night.”
The rest of our tour of Temple Mount is conducted in a stop-start rhythm, dictated by the nervy policeman. The rabbi is mainly concerned with showing me how in his view, Palestinian “temple deniers” have attempted to destroy all evidence of the Israelite temple, in an effort to undermine the Jewish claim to this place. There, he says: a broken marble pillar. There, a collection of discarded cedar beams. There, the remains of a staircase.
“We are ready to restore this place to its former glory,” says Richman. “And we have priests who are ready to serve in the Third Temple. That would be a much smaller miracle than the establishment of the state of Israel. Here we are, in our homeland, and we have the power to build the temple whenever we want! God must be wondering what we are waiting for.