December 15, 2023

What are we praying for?: Reimagining the Third Temple in Jewish Thought and Politics

By Rachel Z. Feldman

Five Temple activists, viewed from behind, pray on the Temple Mount, with the Dome of the Rock in the distance ahead of them.
Third Temple activists pray on the Temple Mount, facing the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Photo by the author.

Author’s note: This text was completed before Hamas’s attack on October 7th. It is noteworthy that Hamas named its attack “Al-Aqsa Storm,” and claimed that increasing numbers of religious Jews entering the Al-Aqsa Mosque was among its primary motivations for the timing of the attack. Temple activists immediately took to social media and encouraged Jews to ascend the Mount in greater numbers. On December 7th, the Temple movement organized a march from Damascus Gate to the Temple Mount to demand removal of the Waqf and “full Jewish sovereignty” over the site. Such emboldened actions are the result of years of vocal and monetary support from far-right ministers in the ruling Likud party, who uphold policies of continued territorial expansion, dispossession, and the forced transfer of Palestinians. What is clear is that the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa remains a potent and incendiary symbol at the heart of the conflict, for both Israelis and Palestinians. In 2000, the Second Intifada began after Ariel Sharon provocatively walked on the Temple Mount, and in 2015–16, the increased presence of Temple activists there was one of the provocations that incited the so-called “Intifada of the Knives.” The Temple Mount has consistently been a trigger point of extreme violence throughout the history of the conflict.

“You have to try to erase the mosques in your mind,” Miriam explained as we entered the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif compound. Miriam, an activist with the Third Temple movement, had agreed to allow me, a Jewish woman and anthropologist, to observe one of her guided pilgrimage tours to what many consider Judaism’s most sacred site. The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is the location of the First and Second Israelite Temples, where the presence of God was believed to reside, until the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. According to Jewish tradition, the Temple Mount is the point from which the entire world sprang forth during creation, and the location where Abraham came to sacrifice his son Yitzhak.

When we first met in 2014, Miriam was part of a much larger movement of activists who were, and still are, bringing increasing numbers of religious Jews to the Temple Mount to tour the site and pray. This move departs from centuries of rabbinic prohibitions against Jews stepping foot on the Temple Mount, largely because the places within the site that were prohibited to Jews who were not Temple priests (kohanim) were not precisely known, so it was best to avoid the whole area (according to rabbinic tradition). “Try to hear the ancient melodies of the Levites singing and playing harps,” she encouraged her group as we walked around the perimeter of the Temple Mount accompanied by armed Israeli border police and representatives from the Jordanian Waqf.1 “Imagine the kohanim offering sacrifices and the great column of smoke that rose to the heavens from the mizbe’ach (sacrificial altar) right over there. Smell the Temple incense in the air!” She paused in front of the Dome of the Rock, the mosque that marks the prophet Mohammad’s ascent to heaven, and quoted a prophetic text from the Hebrew Bible:

וַהֲבִיאוֹתִים אֶל־הַר קׇדְשִׁי וְשִׂמַּחְתִּים בְּבֵית תְּפִלָּתִי עוֹלֹתֵיהֶם וְזִבְחֵיהֶם לְרָצוֹן עַל־מִזְבְּחִי כִּי בֵיתִי בֵּית־תְּפִלָּה יִקָּרֵא לְכׇל־הָעַמִּים׃ 

ישעיהו 56:7

I will bring them to My sacred mount
And let them rejoice in My house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
Shall be welcome on My altar;
For My House shall be called
A house of prayer for all nations.  

Isaiah 56:7

According to certain rabbinic interpretations of biblical prophecies, including Isaiah 56:7, the Temple Mount will be the location of a third and final Temple in the messianic era following the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. Today, there is a growing movement based in Israel that strives to physically build the Third Temple in Jerusalem, to renew a Jewish priesthood and animal sacrifices, and to transform Israel into a biblical-style theocracy, with the goal of initiating messianic times for all of humanity.

My visit to the Temple Mount with Miriam occurred at the beginning of what would become nearly a decade of anthropological research on the Third Temple movement in Israel, research that appears in my forthcoming book Messianic Zionism in the Digital Age: Jews, Noahides, and the Third Temple Imaginary. In it, I argue that the Temple Movement has attained unprecedented support in Israel, gaining access to state funding and political backing by right-wing parties, including the majority Likud party. Moreover, the movement has not only gained acceptance in Israel amongst religious and secular nationalists but it has globalized as well, capturing the imagination of non-Jews around the world thanks to the connective power of the internet and social media. 

For eight years, I followed the specter of the Third Temple from the streets of Jerusalem, where Jewish priests are renewing the practice of animal sacrifices (discontinued for thousands of years), to communities around the world, who, inspired by messianic visions of the future Temple, have departed Christianity and adopted new spiritual identities as the Children of Noah. “Noahides,” as they call themselves, adopt variations of Jewish rituals, follow Jewish law (halacha), and study Torah with Orthodox rabbis, including rabbinic leaders from the Temple movement in Israel—but without officially converting to Judaism. Many Noahides believe it is their destiny as “righteous Gentiles” to play a supportive role to Jews, the “Children of Israel,” in initiating messianic times and rebuilding the Temple, the “house of prayer for all nations” described by the prophet Isaiah. As I conducted fieldwork in locations around the world, from Texas to the Philippines, Noahides quoted biblical prophecies to me that they believed foretold the events of today, and the Temple movement. For example, Zechariah 8:22-23: “The many peoples and the multitudes of nations will seek the Lord of Hosts in Jerusalem. Ten men from the nations of every tongue will take hold: they will take hold of every Jew by the corner of his cloak and say, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’” Texts like this, they insisted, described an imminent messianic future for all of humanity. Zionism opened the doorway to this future, but its full actualization still hinged on rebuilding the Temple to restore God’s abode in Jerusalem.

As I heard on more than one occasion, building the Temple not only meant the end of exile but the end of Judaism altogether: namely, the end of a rabbinic Judaism that served as “temporary” (in their view) framework for an “incomplete” Jewish life outside of Israel and a return to ancient Israelite religion.

The story of the global Children of Noah is much too big for this essay; curious readers can explore the topic in greater detail in my book. Instead, I want to use this opportunity to share some reflections from my fieldwork with Third Temple activists in Israel, and ultimately, to advocate for a serious reengagement with the question of the Temple in Jewish prophetic, mystical, and liturgical texts. Are there other ways to imagine and engage with the Temple in our vast textual tradition? What alternatives are possible? As activists re-engage with a physical notion of the Temple, a crucial counterpoint to their activism is the rabbinic engagement of the Temple over the centuries—in which the rabbis deterritorialized and abstracted the Temple, and in the process, transformed it into a rich metaphorical and mystical tool for examining our relationship to the Divine, wherever we are on the planet. 

Reflections from the Field: Third Temple Activism and the End of Diasporic Judaism?

When I first began my research, there was little anthropological work on messianic activism in Israel, and the existing work had been done primarily by historians and scholars of Jewish thought who focused on the theological writings of male, mostly Ashkenazi rabbinic figures. I wanted to utilize ethnographic methods to tell a different story, one that paid equal attention to rank-and-file activists as it did to the religious elite, and that brought issues of race and gender to the fore. I wanted to meet the individuals who were reading prophetic texts as architectural plans for the future, and document how particular messianic imaginations emerged and proliferated with the help of digital tools. Finally, I wanted to comprehend why the Temple, so beautifully abstracted and metaphorized in Jewish thought and mysticism for centuries, had reemerged as a site of collective longing and as the imagined conclusion of Zionism.

As a researcher, I hoped that an ethnographic approach to Temple activists and their biblical source texts would push beyond the “religious fundamentalism” narrative still widely mobilized in journalism and academic literature on contemporary Israel. In the Israeli context, this narrative tends to replicate an artificial religious/secular binary that relegates religious “others” to the margins as “extremists”—a view that effectively obscures the way these communities and movements intersect with centers of state power, thereby protecting the assumed moral superiority of the secular, liberal establishment. As I detail in my book, it was precisely the Temple movement’s convergence with the goals of the so-called “secular” state that enabled its entry point into the political discourse. Zionism has always been premised on redemption and return, even in its more secularized iterations. If the Temple movement had succeeded in infiltrating the mainstream, gaining access to state funding and police protection, it was not because ministers from the ruling Likud party wanted to start sacrificing animals again; rather, it was because the Temple movement is deeply compatible, and indeed beneficial, to an ongoing project of territorial annexation and ethnonational domination supported by Likud in the Knesset. 

Simply spending time with Temple activists complicated and challenged many of the prejudices and preconceived notions I had about Israel’s religious right wing. As I entered their lives and sat around their Shabbat tables, I began to better understand the social conditions, religious motivations, and intergenerational traumas that inspired their activism. I learned to appreciate the place of my interlocutors within intra-Jewish racial hierarchies and class inequalities, and the social nuances hidden under the convenient, homogenizing label of “religious fundamentalism.” 

For example, it was evident that the Temple movement was disproportionately led by Ashkenazi rabbis, while its ranks of activists “on the streets” were filled with Mizrahim whose families had arrived in Israel from North Africa and the Middle East. In Israel, Mizrahim have drifted to the right politically for decades, a tendency that testifies to the failure of the Israeli left to address issues of racism and social-economic inequality that have severely impacted Mizrahi communities. It is also important to note that most of the younger activists in the Temple movement are second-generation West Bank settlers, many of whom had lost friends and family during the Second Intifada. While their parent’s generation had successfully established the settler movement, regaining control of the Temple Mount would be the contribution of their generation. Like their parents who were part of Gush Emunim (the national-religious settler movement), this generation believed more in the power of prophetic texts to bring “peace” than any “secular” government.2 The ideals of democracy and international law, Temple activists often explained to me, were “Western” ideas that were “foreign” to halacha, the intergenerational corpus of Jewish law. 

After three consecutive years of interviews and fieldwork based in Israel, I came to understand that, for Temple activists (re)building the Temple was about unapologetically reclaiming a “native” Israelite culture that, they believed, Jews had been denied through centuries of exile, persecution, and assimilation. In addition, the Temple was perceived as the culmination of Zionism, a project that had already come so far in manifesting biblical prophecies of the Jewish return to Zion. Given the miraculous “success” of the Zionist project to date, the fact that the Temple Mount remained under Muslim control was, in the eyes of the Temple activists, nothing short of stunning hypocrisy, in both political and spiritual terms. Surely, if Jews managed to conquer and control the land promised to them by God, my interlocutors explained, they would not stop short of regaining control over their holiest site. And surely, if Jews managed to uphold hundreds of statutes in the Torah for thousands of years of exile, then they would not neglect the hundreds of additional commandments specific to the Temple that could once again be performed in the holy land of Israel. Interviewees challenged me, asking, “Were the daily animal sacrifices commanded by God any less important than circumcision, wrapping tefillin, or eating matzah on Passover?” 

On the one hand, I wrote my book to humanize my interlocutors and push back on the simplistic and sensationalized ways in which they are often presented in the liberal media, where religion becomes a convenient scapegoat for the intractability of the Israel-Palestine conflict. But I did not write it to excuse them, and I do not want to obscure the settler-colonial power dynamics in which they remain embedded. I could not adopt their theology, but I did learn to take their theological claims seriously when they insisted that building the Temple was necessary to end the physical and mental exile (galut) of the Jewish people. 

As one activist explained: “Now there is a country of seven  million Jews, museums, and hospitals. All the signs are here. The redemption is going forward, and whoever doesn’t see that is crazy.”

As I heard on more than one occasion, building the Temple not only meant the end of exile but the end of Judaism altogether: namely, the end of a rabbinic Judaism that served as “temporary” (in their view) framework for an “incomplete” Jewish life outside of Israel and a return to ancient Israelite religion. Achieving redemption, my interlocutors explained, meant departing from the disembodied diasporic religion that had abstracted the Temple into prayer. Judaism—as it had been practiced for the last two millennia—was only an interim measure for survival in exile, but it was now becoming obsolete, according to Temple activists, because the exile had been reversed and the Jews had returned to the Land of Israel. Building the Temple in Jerusalem would complete this process of re-embodiment and re-territorialization. Jews would once again become Israelites in their native land and the Divine presence would once again dwell in Jerusalem enclosed within the Temple walls. 

As dumbfounded as more liberal audiences are by these views, and by the “fundamentalism” of Third Temple activists, my informants were equally astounded by their detractors’ inability to see their logic. As one activist explained: “Now there is a country of seven  million Jews, museums, and hospitals. All the signs are here. The redemption is going forward, and whoever doesn’t see that is crazy.” 

Two Temple activists stand directly in front of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, on the Temple Mount, in discussion. One holds a book, open to a page with an illustration of ancient Temple rites.
Two Temple activists stand in front of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, on the Temple Mount. Photo by Activestills.

The Temple in Jewish Prayer and Prophecy: What Exactly Are We Praying For?

After our trip to the Temple Mount, I sat down with Miriam for an interview. When I inquired about prophecy, she insisted that Isaiah was meant to be read literally: a massive physical Third Temple would eventually replace Haram al-Sharif and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and “the nations” (now righteous gentiles or Noahides) would come to recognize the one true God of Israel. Achieving this goal, she explained, would unite humanity under one common monotheism and moral framework, ushering in an era of world peace. Ultimately, this end goal justified the means: a program of territorial conquest, exclusive Jewish domination over the land and resources, and the removal of Palestinians from their lands as needed. “This is what we pray for three times a day,” she stated, quoting a passage from the Amidah prayer, one of Judaism’s most important texts that the rabbis referred to simply as “the prayer.” Three times a day, observant Jews recite the Amidah, petitioning God for basic human needs like health, knowledge, and sustenance, while also imploring God to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple, restore sacrificial rituals, and reestablish a Jewish monarchy in Israel.3

“This is what we pray for” was a repeated refrain in my interviews, and one that disrupted my own relationship to these prayers. After observing Jewish pilgrimages to the Temple Mount during between 2014 and 2016—tours that often ended in violent confrontations between Temple activists, Muslim worshippers, and Israeli police—I found myself struggling with references to the Temple in my daily prayers. I tried to recite the words of the Amidah with my own kavannah (prayer intention): Jerusalem was not only a physical place; it was a state of mind. “Service to the Holy of Holies” could mean a commitment to fighting for justice. Or so I tried to convince myself. But the deeper I went into my research, and the more reactionary violence I witnessed in response to the growing numbers of activists on the Mount, the harder it became to metaphorize something many people read literally. I soon took to skipping these passages entirely, unable to conjure up kavannah strong enough to overcome my discomfort with the words on the page. 

For years I found myself trapped in a state of cognitive dissonance as interviewees vividly described their Third Temple dreams and the utopian future they longed to create—conversations that felt tragically disconnected from the political reality on the ground, and the cycles of reciprocal violence, in Israel/Palestine. By the end of my fieldwork in Israel, I simply could not utter the words of the Amidah prayer anymore knowing that for many of my interlocutors, the text provided a moral and prophetic justification for acts of state violence aimed at furthering Jewish ethnonational and territorial dominance in Israel and the West Bank. All I could do was stare at the prayer on the page and wonder: What did Jews imagine when they whispered these lines to themselves, over the centuries, dispersed across continents? I do not believe that my great grandparents, praying in their shtetls in Eastern Europe, recited these lines with a kavannah of territorial conquest. Did they ever envision rebuilding the actual, brick-and-mortar Temple while reciting this daily liturgy?

Reimagining the Temple/Returning to My Prayer Book

Judaism as we know it—its ritual and legal structure—was formed around the absence of a central Temple and the Jewish people’s dislocation from the Holy Land. These conditions enabled the creation of rabbinic Judaism, a textual corpus that had to reimagine an ethno-spiritual community disconnected from its historical, geographic borders. The Temple too was disconnected from physicality, and its location on the Temple Mount was refashioned into a portable liturgical structure. In a state of diaspora, Jews could connect with divinity from anywhere in the world through the recitation of daily prayers, considered to be spiritual substitutions for the animal sacrifices that once took place on the Temple Mount. 

By the end of my fieldwork in Israel, I simply could not utter the words of the Amidah prayer anymore knowing that for many of my interlocutors, the text provided a moral and prophetic justification for acts of state violence aimed at furthering Jewish ethnonational and territorial dominance in Israel and the West Bank. 

Over the centuries, the very absence of a physical Temple inspired a rich canon of Jewish thought that elaborated on the symbolic and metaphysical importance of “the House of God,” as the Temple was known. In the Kabbalistic work Sefer Yetzirah, composed in the early centuries of the Common Era, the Temple appears as part of the sacred architecture of the universe, the container through which divine creative power flows and gives rise to the material world. A midrash from the sixth century, for example, imagines the future messianic Temple as transcending the physical space of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem to establish the entire world as the future House of God. 

Rabbi Kohen, brother of Rabbi Chiyah bar Abba said: Just as the Shekhinah [divine presence] is found in the Temple in Jerusalem, so the Shekhinah will fill the world from one end to the other, and this is what [scripture] means when it says : ‘And his kavod [glory] will fill the entire world, amen and amen.’ [Psalms 72:19]4

According to this vision, the task of humanity is to make the entire world an abode for divinity through righteous actions. Such mystical notions of the Temple proliferated in the post-biblical rabbinic literature. 

As I release my book into the world, I am left wondering what tools the Jewish tradition might provide to counter ethnocentric visions of biblical revival and Temple physicality that seem to inevitably stoke (if not invite) mass violence in the region. What would an alternative political theology of the Temple look like? Could Jewish ideas of the entire world as a “Third Temple”—the Kabbalistic notion of “the House of God”—motivate a radical ecological ethic, or a greater concern for global wealth disparities? In other words, might those who do not necessarily desire the renewal of Jewish theocracy in the land of Israel be able to think with the Temple productively, rather than simply against it? 

I do not have answers to these questions, but I do know that such a project can only begin by returning to our sources, to the textual spaces where diverse imaginations of the Temple live. Already in the Talmudic period, rabbinic commentators went so far as to argue that acts of loving kindness were not only of equal value to the sacrifices offered in the Temple but were ultimately superior: “Rabbi Eleazer stated: Greater is he who performs charity than [he who offers] all the sacrifices, for it is said, ‘To do charity and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice [Hos 10:12].’”5 Another example, in Mishnah Berakhot, states that if a Jew cannot turn their face in the direction of Jerusalem to pray, they may focus on projecting the words of their heart towards the Holy Of Holies instead. In this commentary, the Temple transcends geographic space, and through a guided visualization of its innermost sanctuary, it becomes accessible through heartfelt prayer.6

As for me, I am trying to learn how to pray again, to treat my prayer book as a generative home for Third Temple visions that transcend and reject ethnic chauvinism. With curiosity, I am searching the Amidah for a Jerusalem that is loved and passionately longed for, but never captured, never possessed exclusively by any one nation. The Amidah prayer alludes to this idea when it says to “build Jerusalem as an everlasting structure.” In Hebrew, the phrase that is used here is “binyan olam” (בניין עולם), which could also be translated as an “eternal structure,” or a “universal, global structure.” This suggests an understanding of Jerusalem and Temple-building that is beyond physical walls and nation-state borders. Furthermore, the root of the word “olam” in Hebrew is connected to the word “aloom” (עלום), meaning hidden or concealed. Maybe what is eternal, what is truly everlasting, is by necessity also hidden, beyond our grasp, evading containment. And perhaps this universal-hidden Temple is one of the gifts of that exilic de-territorialized Judaism. Now, when I pray, I try to imagine that boundless, borderless Third Temple. The one that traveled with my ancestors in their prayers across oceans, teaching them how to build holy homes wherever they went. 

If I agree with my interlocutors on one point, it is that I too want a Third Temple future: an everlasting, ecologically sustainable, planetary Temple-home where all humanity has an equal right to reside and seek refuge.


Rachel Feldman is an assistant professor of religion at Dartmouth College and a cultural anthropologist who specializes in Judaism, Israel/Palestine, messianic movements, and postcolonial studies. She is the co-editor of Settler-Indigeneity in the West Bank (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2023) and the author of Messianic Zionism in the Digital Age: Jews, Noahides, and the Third Temple Imaginary (Rutgers University Press, 2024), for which she received the Jordan Schnitzer First Book Award (2023) from the Association for Jewish Studies. Messianic Zionism in the Digital Age will be out in March 2024.

Footnotes

  1. After the 1967 War, Israel handed back control over the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif to the Jordanian Waqf, an Islamic heritage organization that continues to function as custodian, even though the Israeli army withholds the right to control, monitor, and enter the site at will. According to agreements with Jordan, Israelis and tourists may enter the Temple Mount during specific hours when Muslim worship is not occurring. Visibly religious Jews (as opposed to non-Jewish tourists or secular Jews) may only enter in small, supervised groups accompanied by Israeli police and guards from the Waqf, who watch to ensure they do not engage in politically inflammatory acts, Jewish rituals, or ostentatious prayer. It is important to note that not all religious Jews who participate in Temple Mount pilgrimage tours are connected to the Third Temple movement. Regardless, the visible presence of high-profile Temple activists and politicians entering the site has further inflamed political tensions and contributed to provoking cycles of violence. I explore these dynamics in much greater depth in my book. ↩︎
  2. Gush Emunim rose to prominence following the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israel took control of the West Bank. The organization formally dissolved in the mid-1980s, following a series of violent attacks on Palestinian Arabs by Jewish fundamentalists, which tarnished the movement in the eyes of the Israeli public, but its influence continues on in the organizations that sprang up in its place. ↩︎
  3.  וְלִירוּשָׁלַֽיִם עִירְ֒ךָ בְּרַחֲמִים תָּשׁוּב וְתִשְׁכּוֹן בְּתוֹכָהּ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּֽרְתָּ וּבְנֵה אוֹתָהּ בְּקָרוֹב בְּיָמֵֽינוּ בִּנְיַן עוֹלָם וְכִסֵּא דָוִד מְהֵרָה לְתוֹכָהּ תָּכִין: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהֹוָה בּוֹנֵה יְרוּשָׁלָֽיִם:
    And return in mercy to Jerusalem, Your city, and dwell therein as You have spoken; and rebuild it soon, in our days, as an everlasting structure, and may You speedily establish the throne of David therein. Blessed are You, Adonoy, Builder of Jerusalem.
    רְצֵה יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ בְּעַמְּ֒ךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל וּבִתְפִלָּתָם וְהָשֵׁב אֶת הָעֲבוֹדָה לִדְבִיר בֵּיתֶֽךָ וְאִשֵּׁי יִשְׂרָאֵל וּתְפִלָּתָם בְּאַהֲבָה תְקַבֵּל בְּרָצוֹן וּתְהִי לְרָצוֹן תָּמִיד עֲבוֹדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל עַמֶּֽךָ:
    Be pleased, Adonoy, our God, with Your people, Israel, and their prayer; and restore the service to the Holy of Holies in Your abode, and the fire-offerings of Israel; and accept their prayer, lovingly and willingly. And may You always find pleasure with the service of Your people, Israel.
    ↩︎
  4. Midrash Esther Rabbah 1.4
    ↩︎
  5. Sukkot 49b.
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  6. Mishnah Berakhot 4:5. ↩︎

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