The Emergence of Spirit in Extended Reality and the Speculative Synagogue
These words, which pass through your consciousness as you read them, as they passed through mine as I write them, are divine. They are divine in so far as all words are divine. All language is sacred when exchanged with the living language of others; constitutive others who also have the conscious capacity to listen, understand, and respond. It is in this supernal reflection of thought that hidden light becomes visible. And in that exchange, which may be manifested in the exegesis of sacred texts or in the practice of prayer, as much as in the profane encounters with strangers, friends, and even enemies, a dialectical process unfolds that expands consciousness across the long stretch of big history. In a mystical sense, an immanent God is historical as well as natural. God as culture. God as discourse. God, or some aspect of God, as the immanent aggregation of all consciousness, all representations, all conversations, in all times and all places, including here and now.
This dialectical process, with analogs in the Jewish mystical tradition, was formalized by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) in the early years of the 19th century, but goes back much further to ancient Jewish and Greek antecedents . From this dialectic, consciousness emerges in an iterative process of negation and synthesis. Hegel’s term for this aggregated consciousness, the sum total of all discourses, so to speak, is Geist (or Spirit), which could also be translated as Mind. This development of Spirit as a historical process has been further developed by many thinkers since Hegel’s time, including thinkers as diverse as Karl Marx, Walter Benjamin, and Francis Fukuyama, among many others. This dialectic, the rub of opposing ideas against each other, ‘this’ against ‘that,’ is the grand project of our species. It is the process that manifests progress, taking on new refinements from generation to generation. Geist, in this sense, is an aspect of the discursive evolution of culture and technology, as we advance towards rationality and away from alienation, always approaching what the Hegelians, both Young and Old alike, called the end of history, and what the Kabbalists called Olam Haba, the world to come .
It is always the end of history… especially now.
Now, in the most recent phase of history, this holy discourse, this grand project, and the public sphere from which it emerges, has taken on both virtual and physical dimensions. These dimensions are both ideal and material, both sacred and profane. The widespread adoption of new technologies such as social media, telepresence, and Extended Reality (VR, MR, AR) to name just a few, have become fundamental conditions of the public sphere, and have altered consciousness and its manifestation as Geist in ways that are still being worked out. In addition to the often commented on political and economic dimensions of these innovations, there is a less well understood spiritual dimension as well. These technologies have established new affordances for the manifestation of Geist by fundamentally altering how we gather, how we pray, and how learn within the boundaries of culture and community, within the limits of the knowable mind of God.
The Speculative Synagogue
I invite the reader to speculate about the way these emerging technologies, and the affordances they offer for new social relations, might shape the next iteration of discourse, the next phase of a dialectical process that produces both spiritual and material progress.
This is a much larger question and project than can be addressed in this scope of this essay, but we might find it useful to consider these questions within the bounded framework of Speculative Design, and to apply these questions to the development of new modalities for sacred space. Speculative Design is a discursive design practice which produces artifacts and scenarios that allow for the critical development of future possibilities . Speculative Design doesn’t necessarily represent what will be, but rather what could be, and translates the abstraction of those speculations into concrete artifacts and scenarios that can be profitably critiqued. As a historical critique, it allows us to imagine new possibilities that evolve from precedent. As a design strategy, it permits us to bracket off the technical “how” questions in order to explore the ethical “why” questions, and vice versa. Speculative Design is a creative strategy that can catalyze the mystical imagination, translating the abstraction of consciousness into the concrete practices of culture and community.
Let us consider the development of sacred spaces as a starting point, both as vessels for the aforementioned discourses and practices of community and culture, as well as places that provide affordances for an encounter with the divine, as manifested immanently through community and culture. In the Rabbinic tradition, at least since the time of destruction of the Beit HaMikdash (the Temple), and up until fairly recently, these spaces have usually been described as synagogues.
But as our experiences of culture and community becomes increasingly virtual, the model for the synagogue has remained stubbornly physical. As institutions, synagogues have become somewhat alienated from the communities they serve. When we think of a synagogue, or a church or mosque for that matter, we tend to think of a physical building, if not the institution it embodies.
As a thought experiment, and an exercise in Speculative Design, let us consider a virtual synagogue, a speculative synagogue, which could be conceptualize as existing completely within the dimensions of the emerging metaverse (or whatever is currently being described as the metaverse), or as a hybrid, on a continuum of sacred spaces that exist in an augmented or mixed reality. The technology is in its infancy, but the discourses that could shape these new spaces are ancient.
What questions should we consider as we develop new design modalities for the speculative synagogue? There are many questions to consider, but we might start with these three, which attempt to articulate three kinds different but related discourses which inform the dialectical emergence of Geist:
How do we learn? As related to Jewish study, and to dialectical hermeneutics more generally, how might a virtual beit midrash (classroom/study hall) create affordances for a discursive and dialectical understanding of the arc of Jewish tradition and its context within universal history? How might we learn from each other, and what new possibilities for consciousness might emerge from that learning? What might a classroom in the Speculative Synagogue be like?
How do we pray? What are the halakhic (legal) constraints for designing sacred spaces in virtual environments? For example, is telepresence permissible and sufficient for the gathering of a minyan (quorum), or is there something essential and necessary about physical presence to fulfill the mitzvah (commandment)? What are the necessary conditions for communal prayer, and what new possibilities for consciousness might emerge in those prayers? What might a sanctuary in the Speculative Synagogue be like?
How do we gather? What are the conditions for cultivating community and shared culture within these kinds of virtual spaces? How might we encounter each other, and what new possibilities for consciousness might emerge from those encounters? How might remote communities, not bound by geography, transcend alienation, and achieve a deeper communion with each other and a shared experience of the divine [5,6]? What might a social hall in the Speculative Synagogue be like?
A Speculative Design Scenario: The Beit Hamikdash
The following is a speculative design scenario, a thought experiment, and an exercise in imagining the Beit Hamikdash (Temple) to provide a backdrop against the project introduced above. The intention here is to temporarily bracket off the political aspects of the problem, which can seem intractable, as much as possible, in order to explore the religio-technological possibilities; possibilities that honor the existing structures on the Temple Mount and respect those who already pray there. This scenario poses architectural questions, too. Could such a scenario — one that employs Extended Reality (i.e. Virtual, Augmented, Mixed Reality) — satisfy both the architectural and halakhic design constraints? Could it offer new models for peacemaking? Why or why not?
Consider the following speculative design scenario:
The Kohen (high priest) ascends the Temple Mount and prepares. They approach the perimeter of the Dome of Rock and enter. All the necessary accouterments are waiting inside the building… physically, crafted in all the appropriate materials. The Kohen whispers in Hebrew, and the space suddenly transforms. An array of projectors, screens, and technology not yet imagined, fill the interior with light, and reshape the space into the perfect simulacrum of the interior of the Beit Hamikdash. The Virtual/Mixed reality is so immersive, and so impressive, that they consider it a miracle of 21st (or 22nd) century technology.
The Kohen approaches the Holy of Holies, but what happens next isn’t clear. Eventually, the Kohen prepares to leave, and with another whisper, the architecture returns to the way it was before, ready for Muslim prayer. As they leave, the Kohen reflects on the sanctity of the place and pronounces their gratitude to those who have been its custodians for so many centuries. They marvel at the architecture and feel the presence of Hashem.
Of course, there is much a sketch like this leaves out. There are many other questions that require careful consideration in order for speculation to become actualized. Speculation can transcend its own abstraction. It can progress from the inherent abstraction of thought and discourse towards the design of concrete artifacts and experiences, which can be tested, critiqued, and iterated upon. Every iteration is another opportunity to ask a new question.
There are architectural questions to consider; questions of how the institutional program of synagogue or a temple (or the Temple) might be given shape in an extended reality environment. There are technological questions as well; questions about the ways we might encounter each other in extended reality spaces. And there are metaphysical questions, which ground everything else; questions about the extent to which we can know the mind of God by knowing our own minds as an expression of culture and community. This sketch is a design prompt, an initiation, and invitation, to imagine and create the next iteration.
 Dunne, Anthony, and Fiona Raby. Speculative everything: design, fiction, and social dreaming. MIT press, 2013.
 Gonsher, Ian et al. “ Designing the Metaverse: A Study of Design Research and Creative Practice, from Speculative Fictions to Functioning Prototypes.” Proceedings of the Future Technologies Conference. Springer, Cham, 2022.
 Gonsher, Ian, “The Book of Ezekiel and the Speculative Design” (2020). Scholarly Research. 2. https://digitalcommons.risd.edu/hpss_scholarlyresearch/2
 Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Phenomenology of spirit. Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1998.
 Parker, Priya. The art of gathering: How we meet and why it matters. Penguin, 2020.
 Thurston, Angie and Ter Kuile, Casper. (Producers). How We Gather. Accessed June 11, 2015. https://caspertk.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/how-we-gather.pdf