During the recent Succot festivities, an extraordinary meeting took place in the succah of rabbi Yosef Elyashiv in Jerusalem. Rabbi Elyashiv — now in his hundredth year — is a talmudic sage without equal in the Charedi world. As spiritual leader of the Degel Hatorah party (now part of United Torah Judaism, which has two seats in the current Knesset) he also naturally wields a certain amount of political influence within as well as beyond Jewish state.
These days, Rabbi Elyashiv spends most of his waking hours in religious study. But during Succot he took time out from his devotions to welcome to his succah no less a personage than the president of the state of Israel, Mr Shimon Peres. A touching photograph was taken, and widely circulated, of these two elderly gentlemen (Peres is nearer 90 than 80) deep in conversation. But what — you may ask — was their conversation about?
Before I answer that question, I need to provide some constitutional background.
In some countries, where the president is elected by popular vote, the office fulfils and is meant to fulfil an overtly political role. But in others the president is merely a ceremonial head of state, enjoying some residual powers but generally expected to be “above” politics. Israel is one such state. Elected by the Knesset for one term (only) of seven years, the president of the state of Israel is expected to stay out of day-to-day politics, and to spend his time instead formally welcoming foreign dignitaries, opening schools and hospitals, and engaging in purely charitable endeavours. Politics are the remit of the Knesset, and it so happens that the Knesset currently supports a viable government headed by a prime minister — Bibi Netanyahu. Mr Netanyahu is the prime minister of the state of Israel. Mr Peres is just its president. It is Mr Netanyahu who chairs the weekly meetings of Israel’s cabinet, on which Mr Peres, as president, has no seat at all.
That does not mean that Mr Peres should not visit Rabbi Elyashiv in his succah. On the contrary, it seems (or seemed) to me, in principle, entirely appropriate that he should have done so. But when I turned from the photograph of these two elderly gentlemen deep in conversation to various press reports about the subject-matter of their discourse, I became concerned. For theirs was not a private conversation about the weather, or their respective states of health, or their children, grandchildren and even (kein ein horah) great-grandchildren. Theirs was, in fact, a very public conversation about one of the most sensitive and inflammatory matters at issue in the conflict between Israel and its Arab and Muslim neighbours. It was about the right of Jews to ascend the Har Habayis — the Temple Mount — in Jerusalem.
Not to beat about the bush, Mr Peres appears to have visited Rabbi Elyashiv in order to meddle in matters that, as president, are not his concern, by asking him for a p’sak — a religious ruling — that forbids Jews from ascending the Temple Mount, whether for the purpose of prayer or merely sight-seeing.
Rabbi Elyashiv — whose standing in the Charedi world has been somewhat diminished of late by his ruling against shabbat elevators (a ruling that many Charedim are ignoring) — no doubt saw an opportunity to bolster his status, and duly obliged.
According to one report, the rabbi “asked Mr Peres to arrange that Jews be prevented from going up to the Har Habayis, both because the halochoh forbids this and because the Arabs would regard it as a provocation”. According to another, rabbi Elyashiv “agreed to Peres’ wish to publicise his ruling on the issue”.
Now, as to the question of whether the halochoh does indeed forbid Jews from treading upon the Temple Mount, there are in fact divided opinions, as I suspect Rabbi Elyashiv must know better than me. The Provençal Rabbi Avraham ben David (Maimonides’ contemporary and fierce critic) argued that since the Temple has been destroyed, a prohibition on Jews entering the Har Habayis could no longer be sustained.
What really interests me, however, are the motives that led President Peres to break with protocol and trespass upon a matter that is not his presidential concern. Did he act on his own, or with the knowledge (and approval?) of Mr Netanyahu? If the answer is yes, Mr Netanyahu owes us an explanation. But if the answer is no, Mr Peres needs to be reminded, very firmly, of the constitutional limits to his office.