The wall stands; attitudes shift.

Photographer: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images

Virtual Reality and Dangerous Fantasy in Jerusalem

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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You never know what you’re going to get on a visit to Jerusalem. The latest addition to the Holy City is -- I kid you not -- a virtual-reality experience at the foot of the Western Wall. Tackiness aside, the virtual tour of an imaginatively reconstructed ancient Israelite temple does carry a worrisome message for the future of peace in the Middle East: The once-radical idea of rebuilding the temple on the site is gradually getting mainstreamed.

I was at first taken aback by the numerous signs advertising the virtual-reality tour near the heavily guarded entrances to the Western Wall plaza. As my VR-consultant (aka my 11-year old son) put it, “Isn’t it a little strange to have virtual reality when you’re actually at the real thing?”

I agreed, because I assumed, as he did, that the VR tour must be about the site itself, sort of like the Imax movie about the Grand Canyon that you can watch just before entering Grand Canyon National Park.

How wrong we were. As it turned out, the VR tour at the Western Wall made perfect sense -- because it wasn’t about the wall at all, nor about the nearly 2,000 year history of Jewish prayer and veneration at the site.

Instead, the tour immediately plunged the participant back to Herod’s temple. Over the western retaining wall we flew, straight into the second temple complex -- imagined in the style of Cecil B. DeMille.

The denizens wore colorful, generic Old Testament-style outfits. The trumpets, known from the Bible and rabbinic sources, played fanfares vaguely reminiscent of the Brandenburg Concerto. Figures reading portable scrolls, presumably of biblical texts, swayed convincingly -- and anachronistically -- in the manner of Orthodox Jews.

All this would be nothing more than twee -- like the garish hypothetical colors of the temple interior -- if it weren’t a manifestation of a change in the attitude of national-religious Israelis toward the Temple Mount or (as they don’t like to call it) Haram al-Sharif.

In 1967, when Israel took the old city of Jerusalem from Jordan, most Orthodox Jews viewed the temple precincts as so holy that they were not to be visited. Laws of ritual purity were understood to pose a potential bar: Many rabbis noted that it was difficult to know exactly where on the plaza ordinary Israelites were permitted to go even when the temple stood.

Today, the ultra-Orthodox mostly hold the line and continue to eschew Temple Mount visits. But among national-religious Israelis, the norm has changed drastically. Visits are commonplace, and sometimes politically provocative. Believers are encouraged to immerse themselves in a ritual bath and to wear nonleather shoes in fulfillment of the ancient Jewish law of visiting the temple. And what was once a rabbinic stance of studied ignorance about the plaza’s historical geography has been replaced by a sense of confidence in where faithful visitors can set foot.

The process of change was complex, and is in need of systematic study. But any historical analysis will have to take account of the activist groups engaged in various public displays of commitment to rebuilding the temple -- soon.

We encountered one such group at the entrance to the virtual-reality tour. A bunch of teenagers, dressed in the distinctive garb of messianically oriented religious settlers, were gathered around three middle-age, bearded men who were amplified by enormous speakers mounted on a pushcart.

The group was embarking on a monthly march called “sivuv she’arim,” which translates as “encircling the gates.”  Organized by an entity called El Har Hamor (roughly, “To Mount Moriah!”), the march has its own website. Its participants parade through the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem in the evening after dark, pausing near the locations of the ancient gates to the plaza to recite psalms. Along the way, they sing loudly. This has been going on monthly for 15 years.

Adding to the strangeness of the march are the accoutrements. The marchers carry large blue banners adorned with an image of the sanctuary of the temple and carrying the biblical phrase, “Let them make me a sanctuary” (Exodus 25:8). The leaders wear peaked hats adorned with the same image -- similar in style to those hats worn by North Korean generals or Salvation Army band leaders.

The hats are, I believe, part of the uniform of the “Temple Guard,” a self-appointed group that calls for the restoration of the temple and warns other Jews about the appropriate way to visit. Like the group that organizes the marches, the Temple Guard is loosely associated with the radical West Bank yeshiva known as Od Yosef Chai, “Joseph still lives.” I’ve written about the yeshiva before, in connection with its messianic spiritual guide and the anti-Palestinian violence perpetrated by some of its students.

According to reports, past marches have included thousands of participants. The one I saw had perhaps 150.

The teen marchers did not look fervent or fired up. They looked as though they were participating in a familiar routine. One or two of the boys were casually smoking cigarettes while waiting for the march to start. None was listening to the leaders very attentively.

The routinization of radical charisma is precisely the story here. Fifteen years of activism are having the effect of making the rebuilding of the temple into a mainstream Orthodox idea -- the kind of idea that can be made into a slick VR tour.

That tour will be viewed by thousands of Western Wall visitors who may otherwise not have thought of the temple at all except as a lost abstraction. And perhaps needless to say, each one who dreams of a rebuilt temple pushes the possibility of peace between Israelis and Palestinians just a little further off into the realm of the impossible.

  1. The meditative practice of swaying is almost certainly medieval, with the first clear account appearing in a 12th century philosophical treatise.

  2. Technically, “circumambulating” is the right word -- as at the Kaaba in Mecca.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net