By Nate Orbach March 20, 2023
Five young, clay-colored cows touched down at Ben-Gurion Airport in late September, greeted by a joyous gathering of rabbis and well-wishers. Flying cows from the plains of Texas to the Middle East is no easy task, and those waiting to greet the livestock celebrated the success of their years-long effort with a shehecheyanu, the Jewish blessing over something new.
These are no ordinary cows: they are red heifers, and as such any one of them might be the final missing ingredient needed for the coming of the Messiah — at least if you ask the rabbis who came to greet them. All of the rabbis are part of the Temple Mount movement, a loose coalition of groups and individuals working to rebuild the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem where the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque currently stand, and in so doing usher in the messianic age. Part of this grand plan involves restoring Temple worship, and for that to take place, the priests conducting the services must become ritually pure — a process that requires mixing the ashes of a slaughtered purely-red heifer with water from the Gihon stream, in Jerusalem.
Whether the red heifers meet the exacting requirements of Jewish law as prescribed in the book of Numbers — they may not have more than two non-red hairs on their body, and those two hairs cannot be adjacent — is another matter. But for those eager to see Temple worship resume after a 2,000-year hiatus, the arrival of five red heifer candidates in Israel is a pretty big deal.
The Temple Mount movement, for all its ambition, long languished in one of the most ideologically idiosyncratic corners of Israeli society. They faced opposition from the Israeli public, mainstream rabbinical authorities, the government, and the police — in addition to Muslims worldwide, for whom the Temple Mount compound is Al-Haram Al-Sharif (“the Noble Sanctuary”), the third holiest site in Islam, and who regard attempts at reviving Jewish Temple worship as a threat to the sanctity of the mosques, and to the political fate of the holy city.
But over the last few years, the movement has been extraordinarily successful at pushing past each of these sources of opposition. In what may be its greatest achievement yet, a striking number of Temple Mount activists now make up Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition, the most famous of whom is Itamar Ben Gvir, the Kahanist star of the last election who is now national security minister. With the surging movement at his back, Ben Gvir has returned the Temple Mount to the Israeli zeitgeist, inflaming tensions that have been steadily rising for years.
The situation is constantly on the brink of bloodshed. Last April, one of the more extreme groups affiliated with the Temple Mount movement, Hozrim LaHar (“Returning to the Mount”) offered a cash prize to anyone able to smuggle a lamb up to the site and perform the traditional Passover sacrifice. A few days later, in the middle of Ramadan, Israeli police raided al-Aqsa (for the second year in a row) in response to what they called a “riot.” This year, the holidays will again overlap, with Ramadan beginning this week.