Experiencing Temple Space

Just before the fast day of Tammuz 17 in the Hebrew year 5781 (2021), an inspirational picture commenting on the significance of the day, pops up in my Facebook feed. Tammuz 17 is a day that in the Jewish calendar marks the beginning of the three weeks of mourning for the destruction of the two temples in Jerusalem. A Stockholm-based rabbi captures his children building a 3-D model of the (Second) temple. Referring to a classic rabbinic interpretation of the Jewish sacred scriptures (Tanchuma Tzav14), the rabbi writes that if we study the laws and construction of the temple, “G-d considers it as if we actually built it.”

The text that the rabbi is quoting from, envisions a scene in which God shows the prophet Ezekiel a plan of the temple and demands the prophet to instruct the then exiled Jews about the measurements and design of the building. Ezekiel replies: ”why are You telling me to go and tell Israel the form of the temple; they are now in exile in the land of our enemies – is there anything they can do about it? Let them be until they return from the exile. Then, I will go and inform them.” God answers Ezekiel: “Should the construction of my temple be ignored because my children are in exile? The study of the design of the temple as detailed in the Torah can be equated to its actual construction. Go tell them to study the form of the Temple. As a reward for their study and their occupation with it, I will consider it as if they were occupied with the building of the temple” (Midrash Tzav 14, paraphrased and translated by me).

A constant occupation with the elaborate details of the many plans of temple architecture, runs steadily throughout the millennia of Jewish civilizations. In various historical contexts, Jews are continuously engaging with imagined temple space as a channel to draw closer to the Divine Presence. This engagement with the spatial construction of the temple, is in center for my dissertation The Hypertemple in MindExperiencing Temple Space in Ezekiel, The Temple Scroll and Mishnah Middot.

In my dissertation I perform a theory driven close reading of selected sections of Ezekiel (chs. 40-48), the Temple Scroll (cols. 2/3-13:8, 29:3b-47:18) and Mishnah Middot, in order to explore how the architectonic descriptions of the temple in these works may have been used to create temple space in the minds of their immediate audiences through the act of using these temple plans within the fabric of religious tradition. The three texts have in common that they propose an architectural layout of the temple, yet they are spaced out over several centuries and various historical settings: Ezekiel’s sanctuary description saw the light of day against the backdrop of the realities of the Judahite exiles in sixth-century Babylonia; The Temple Scroll was composed and used while the temple still existed in Jerusalem; Mishnah Middotwas composed at a time when the temple had been destroyed for over a century.

I demonstrate that these antique Jewish temple descriptions are verbal and imaginative constructions that take shape (or are “built”) in the minds of the immediate audiences through the act of engaging with the narratives within the fabric of religious tradition. I argue that these architectural descriptions simulated a temple space that could be experienced virtually, like modern day computer simulations that temporarily disrupt the conditions of the physical reality. By tapping into the cultural resources of temple tradition, the descriptions invited the audience to place themselves in the imaginative “premises” of the narrative in order to reimagine actual circumstances tied to their physical reality.

The notion of immersive and interactive factors enabling the immediate audiences to experience temple space by engaging with architectonical temple descriptions, is my contribution to the understanding of how the symbolic system of the temple was enacted on a synchronic as well as a diachronic level in Jewish antiquity. Jewish engagement with the temple(s) transmitted through the channels of antique media culture or through the algorithms of the present, points to one end that is as current in Babylonian exile in 586 BCE as in the Jewish community in Stockholm in 2021: The Temple is a state in mind that you can enter by engaging with temple descriptions.

Natalie Lantz is PhD in Hebrew Bible at Uppsala University, Sweden. She also translates modern Hebrew fiction into Swedish and lectures on Hebrew literature throughout the millennia. Lantz received a scholarship from the Donner Institute in 2022. Lantz’s article “A guide for the perplexed: a student’s navigation through Jewish studies in Sweden” has been published in Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensis volume 27.