Just A Thought: On synagogues

The synagogue signified a new era in Judaism.

Neve Shalom Synagogue in Turkey 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Neve Shalom Synagogue in Turkey 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Torah reading during the last few weeks introduced us to the Mishkan, its vessels, the priests and the services they would perform. The open reading of the “boring” technical details of the sacrifices is one of the most important aspects of Judaism and is one of the major differences between it and other religions of the time.
Other religions had what were called “mysteries.” This was a body of knowledge that was sacred, known only to the priests, and was forbidden to the masses. What went on in the ancient pagan temples was unknown to the masses and thus called a mystery. In Judaism, however, not only did everyone know exactly what went on in the Temple, but layman and scholar alike debated the intricacies of the divine worship, leaving nothing mysterious. The public reading of these passages served as the democratization of Judaism that would be even more democratized as we moved from the Temple to the synagogue.
The synagogue signified a new era in Judaism. No longer would there be only a single place of worship in Jerusalem, but synagogues were allowed to be built everywhere, even outside the land of Israel, thus easily accessible to all. No longer would the rites be performed by the kohen or Levite alone, but any adult male would be able to lead the services. Thus Judaism graduated from a small sphere of worship by a select few in a confined space, to a mass consumer product, bringing the light of Torah to everyone, no matter who they were or where they lived.
The word synagogue is the English rendering of the Greek word synagoge, which is a rough translation of the Hebrew term beit knesset (“house of gathering”). One would think that the sages would call the institution a beit tefila (“house of prayer”), but instead they chose the term beit knesset to inform us that the chief function of a shul (Yiddish), is to serve as a place for Jews to gather as Jews.
This institution of the synagogue would later serve as the paradigm for the Christian church and the Muslim mosque. It served as an example of how bloodless worship and abstract prayer can take the place of Temple sacrifice and reinforced the idea that God, and thus religion, was to be found anywhere you let it be found. Thus synagogues, churches and mosques were built anywhere and everywhere as is befitting a universal God.
Still, why beit knesset, why not beit tefila? The rabbis were very deliberate in their choice of words; what were they trying to teach us by using this term? While prayer was in fact the main use of a synagogue, it was not its only function. It was to serve as an embassy of sorts for Jews exiled from their homeland. It was where they gathered to not only pray, but talk, meet and socialize; a safe harbor for Jews to be themselves. Till this day, a Jewish traveler will wander into a shul in a new city, not just to pray, but to find out about kosher eating options and hopefully score a Shabbat invitation if needed. It taught the Jew that Judaism was not to be confined to a set time and place, but was to inform every aspect of his or her life.
Perhaps this is why the Reform movement in the 19th century preferred the term “temple” for its worship, replacing the word synagogue.
By fully embracing all things German and American, the Reform movement sought to turn the clock back by circumscribing Judaism to a set space, to a temple, like it was in Jerusalem. The movement had no need for an embassy or safe harbor, because it perceived their situation in exile to by idyllic. After all, if Berlin is your Jerusalem, then you might as well build your temple there.
For those of us who still prefer the term synagogue, we have to remind ourselves that a house of gathering, by definition, has to be open to all Jews of every stripe! Only when the shul is open to everyone can we even think about prayer. Our prayers are to be communal in both wording and form in order to make it clear that we are first and foremost a people, even before we are a theology. Only when we stood at Mount Sinai, k’ish ehad b’lev ehad (“as one man with one heart”), were we able to receive the Torah and we will continue to receive it in every generation if we remain firm in that vision that stood us strong 3,326 years ago. ■
The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot.