- Israel at Sixty:Remarks at the 2008 Rabbinical Assembly Convention1
If you ask any Jew today what is the holiest Jewish site, he or she will invariably reply: the Kotel. However, that was not always the case. It is true that the Kotel has been our holiest site since the sixteenth century2 but we now know, from eighteen different sources, that the holiest site in Israel in the 10th-11th centuries was the Mount of Olives.
As I have shown elsewhere, Jews would gather in large numbers on the Mount of Olives on the three pilgrim festivals, and especially on Hoshanah Rabbah. They would begin by making a circuit around the gates of Jerusalem reciting special prayers and then ascend the Mount of Olives. There they would perform seven hakafot around a special sacred stone while reciting the traditional Hoshanah poems. The Kohanim would wear special clothing. The Gaon of Eretz Israel would stand on the special stone and declare the dates of the festivals, bless the Diaspora Jews who had donated money to the Palestinian yeshivot, and excommunicate sinners such as the Karaites. It is difficult to reconstruct all of the elements of this fascinating ceremony, but it is clear that during the tenth and eleventh centuries the Mount of Olives became a surrogate Temple Mount on which Jews imitated certain laws and customs of the Second Temple.3 [End Page 26]
Furthermore, in the eyes of many Jews, some parts of the Kotel, the Western Wall, are holier than others. In June 2007, I was scheduled to conduct a double bar mitzvah service at Robinson's Arch, also known as the "Kotel Masorti," which is at the southern end of the Kotel, in the Davidson Archaeological Park. A few months before the ceremony, the mother of the children called me up and said that the children have decided to hold the ceremony at the "real" or "regular" Kotel. In other words, the Kotel used for the past 500 years is "the real Kotel" while the southern end of the Kotel, which is much deeper and more impressive and begins on the street built by Herod, is not.
Similarly, since 1967, rabbis have been arguing over the holiness of the Temple Mount—is it still holy 1,900 years after the Destruction of the Second Temple and if so, which parts are holy and which are not?4
Similarly, the year 5768 (2007-2008) was a Shemitah or Sabbatical year in Israel and there was a lively debate as to which parts of Israel are still holy and how should Shemitah be observed.5
Finally, there is the ongoing debate about ceding parts of the Land of Israel to Arabs, in exchange for a peace agreement. This too is integrally related to the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael.6
In general, it is clear that the Bible thought that some places are holier than others. This is evident from episodes such as Jacob at Bet El (Genesis 28:16-17), the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:5), and Joshua at Jericho (Joshua 5:15).
It is also clear from Rabbinic passages such as the following:
Mishnah Kelim 1:6-9 lists ten degrees of holiness:
The Land of Israel is holier than any other land. . . . The Temple Mount is still more holy, for no man or woman who has gonorrhea, no menstruant, and no woman after childbirth may enter therein. The Rampart [an area of ten cubits surrounding the Temple itself] is still more holy, for no gentiles and none that have contracted ritual impurity from a corpse may enter therein. The Court of Women is still more holy, for a person who has immersed himself that very day [but the sun has not yet set] may not enter therein, yet none who enter would thereby become liable to a sin-offering. The Court of Israelites is still more holy, for none whose atonement is yet incomplete [i.e. who have not yet brought a sacrifice] [End Page 27] may enter therein, and a person who does enter would thereby become liable to a sin-offering . . .
Berakhot 30a discusses the correct direction for...