“It’s time to build” — a new tagline being employed by the Temple Institute — encapsulates the group’s controversial mission to rally Jews to reconstruct the Temple that was the heart of their religion until its destruction 2,000 years ago.
Over much of those two millennia, mourning the loss of the Temple and longing for its restoration has been central to Jewish thought and practice.
“Our goal is to raise the consciousness of the Jewish people and all humanity toward the central role that the Holy Temple plays in the life of mankind,” said Rabbi Chaim Richman, the Massachusetts-born co-founder and the international director of the Temple Institute in Jerusalem. “We’re very much focused on getting the message out on all the channels of social media.”
Established in 1987 — 20 years after Israel conquered the Temple Mount and the Palestinian territories in the Six-Day War — the Temple Institute was one of the first groups to openly advocate the rebuilding of the two temples that once stood on the plaza.
The problem for supporters is that the Temple Mount is sacred to Muslims and Christians, too. The site includes the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aksa mosque, two of the most significant shrines in Islam. Israel chose to leave it under Muslim control in 1967, and Jewish prayer is prohibited there.
Ever since, even rumors of changes to the “status quo” — let alone calls to build a third temple in their place — have drawn international Muslim ire and Palestinian violence.
Some Israelis have always opposed the government’s decision not to reclaim the mount. In the 1980s, the Jewish Underground, a Jewish settler terrorist group, plotted to bomb the Dome of the Rock, in part to catalyze the construction of a third temple in its place. The Shin Bet thwarted the plot.
Richman said the Temple Institute opposes violence, and works “within the confines of the human condition, [Jewish law] and the political reality.”
The Temple Institute focuses on preparing the objects and skills needed for the sacrifice of animals and other rituals that were carried out by kohanim (priests) in front of crowds of Jewish pilgrims before the last Temple’s destruction.
The group also tries to build support for its mission and itself. Richman’s weekly TV and radio shows are on the Temple Institute’s YouTube channel, which has more than 17,000 subscribers. The group has more than 24,000 subscribers to its e-newsletter and more than 186,000 “likes” on Facebook. Most content is in English.
Many evangelical Christians in the United States support the group; for many, the construction of a third temple fulfills a prophecy about the second coming of Jesus.
The Temple Institute’s aggressive outreach has helped make it something of an institution in Israel. In 2013, an exhibition of the group’s preparations for a third temple moved from a small side street to a larger space near the Western Wall plaza. Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit each year, many taking a guided audio tour (available in nine languages) that ends with a life-size replica of the ark of the covenant.
The Israeli government provides some funding (though not reliably or significantly, according to its directors) and lets women to do their national service as institute tour guides.
The Temple Institute’s growth has coincided with increased mainstream support for Jewish access to the Temple Mount. A large minority of Israelis now oppose the restriction on Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, according to polls. And leading religious figures, Knesset members and ministers have called for rebuilding the Temple.
For many religious Jews, actively seeking the rebuilding of a third temple is not just politically provocative but spiritually suspect.
“The rabbinic model developed after the destruction of the Second Temple [in 70 C.E.] is the one that has set the tone for Jews, regardless of denomination, for 2,000 years,” Marcie Lenk, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, wrote in 2014. “The rabbis were responsible for creating the system of Judaism that would survive and thrive without a temple.”
Yuval Cherlow, a prominent moderate religious Zionist rabbi, said that while preparing to rebuild the Temple is a good thing, the first step is “re-creating society and yourself.”
“The prophets constantly emphasized that the pillars of the Temple are a society that is full of justice, charity and humanity, and without pride,” he said. “I really believe that if the Temple will be rebuilt in this situation, without those pillars, it will be destroyed again.”