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Thoughts on the Synagogue

Over the years I have been affiliated with a variety of Jewish institutions.  Some have called themselves “synagogues.”  Others prefer the term “Temple.”  Many go by the name of “Congregation.”  I also know of some who call themselves “Centers.”  I believe Mordecai Kaplan came up with that name when synagogues in the ‘30s and 40s put in gymnasiums and swimming pools, like JCCs, in keeping with his notion of “Judaism as a Civilization.”  One can still find an occasional “shul with a pool” in some cities.  My last congregation in New Jersey had created a magnificent ballroom out of its former basketball court.  On reflection, it seems that these different terms that one encounters have somewhat different connotations and may, perhaps, reflect the specific focus of that community.


Personally, I like to go to “shul.”  That’s the term my father used and his father before him.  My grandfather belonged to the “High Street Shul.”  It probably had another official name, but that is the way everyone referred to it.  When they moved uptown to Arlington Street, they became the “Arlington Street Shul.”  Today, I see, it is known as “the Yeshiva Gedolah of Bridgeport.”  “Shul” comes from the Yiddish word for school and emphasizes the synagogue as a place where one comes to learn Torah.  My grandfather was a Talmid Chacham, a scholar to some extent, though in this country he supported his family with a grocery store.  He writes in a brief memoir that he wasconsidered very good in the Yeshiva in which he studied as a child and as a young man and had thought about the possibility of becoming a rabbi, before leaving “Russia” (Belarus) in 1903.  He did not become ordained, but I understand that he did find some time over the years to spend in shul studying sacred texts with the local rabbi and other interested congregants.  The library he left behind is mostly comprised of Yiddish books, but there are some serious Hebrew texts as well.  Though technically there is a difference between a synagogue and a study hall, the latter is known as the Bet Midrash (Bays Medreshis the way many Yiddish speakers pronounce it.)  Many Batei (plural) Midrash serve also as places to pray, hence the tendency to conflate the two institutions and to call a synagogue a “shul.”  The addition of an actual school wing with classrooms to most congregations in our time makes this designation even more appropriate.


In the wilderness, as the Israelites traveled for 40 yearstoward the Promised Land, we read of the creation of a central shrine in Moses’s day. It has various names as well. We find in the Book of Exodus, that God asks Moses to have the people donate various materials and to make for Him a “Mikdash.”  That term comes from the root “Kodesh” “holy.” It is a holy place, a sanctuary. Its purpose,God tells him: “v’shachanti b’tocham,” I will dwell among them.  We note that God did not say that He would dwell in it, but rather that it would represent God’s presencedwelling among the people. In the book of Isaiah, the prophet says explicitly that since the Heavens are God’s throne and the Earth is His footstool, how could anyone possibly build a house for the Lord to dwell in? This placethat Moses is instructed to construct, we are told by the sages, was necessary after the initial alienation of humankind from God back at the beginning of time.  Back then, God is said to “walk” in the Garden of Eden, but now we need to make a place, clear away a holy place, for God.  Having done so, God then calls this structure a “mishkan,” “a dwelling place.”  This term repeats many times in the narrative of the Torah, beginning in parashatTerumah, as Moses is instructed regarding the construction of this central shrine.  “Mishkan” is often translated as a “tabernacle,” which indicates that it is a temporary structure, a tent. Later, in the next parashah of Tetzaveh, we find it called by another term, “ohel moed,” the Tent of Meeting.  It seems that the term “Mishkan” isthe structure seen from the divine perspective, while the Israelites view this structure as the “Ohel Moed.” Later, the term “Mishkan” reappears and then several times, both terms show up together, “Mishkan Ohel Moed,” In a sense, these two terms indicate a joining of efforts between God and humankind. This Tabernacle is a place for humans and God to commune.


The Mishkan continues to be used in various locales once the people enter the land of promise, until the time of King Solomon when a new structure is constructed to replace it.  In the Bible this new building is called simply Bet Adonayor Bet Elohim, the House of God.  That term appears over 200 times.  Only in rabbinic times does this house take on the more familiar term of Bet HaMikdash which we generally translate at the Holy Temple, a house of holiness.  It is this Temple to which our ancestors came on pilgrimage three times a year with their offerings.  Twice each day sacrifices were presented by kohanim on behalf of the nation.  All of this is described in elaborate detail by our sages in the Mishnah and the Talmud.  No other location was to serve in this capacity and thus once the Temple was destroyed, we had no actual Temple.  After the Babylonian Exile, a second Temple was built in the last years of the 6th century BCE, and we talk about it as an important element of the Chanukah story, several centuries later.  Years later, King Herod makes massive improvements upon this structure and this magnificent Second Temple is the one that is ultimately destroyed in the year 70 CE by the Romans.  Throughout the centuries, in our liturgy, we have offered prayers for its rebuilding and the restoration of our worship to that holy place.


As we know, during the Babylonian Exile and ever since, another institution was created. The synagogue developed and worship services without sacrifices of animals took the place of the Temple offerings.  The two institutions co-existed until the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, when only the synagogue remained up to the present. Jumping ahead from Roman times to the 19th century, when the Reform Movement began, the early Reformerswere concerned that Jews often were seen as aliens in the countries in which they had lived for generations.  They felt it was important to stress our loyalty to the countries where we resided. At that point, it was suggested that it was no longer realistic to believe that we would ever return to the land of Israel, that Jerusalem would be re-established as our Holy City, and that the Temple would be rebuilt. Famously it was claimed that Germany, where Reform began, was now our Israel, Berlin was our Jerusalem, and our synagogue, our Temple. We know how that turned out.  In this country, there were those who rewrote the verse we sing before taking out the Torah as “Out of Cincinnati will come forth Torah and the word of the Lord from Washington, DC.” Even today with the celebration of 75 years of Israeli independence, the rebuilt city of Jerusalem, there are those of our Orthodox brethren still waiting for the Temple to be rebuilt and others who look at that magnificent 7th century Dome of the Rock sitting in its place and do not realistically expect a new Temple to appear on that mountain any time soon.  


It is out of this classical discussion that Reform Jews customarily have referred to their synagogues as “Temples” and as the term took hold, some more traditional congregations have preferred that nomenclature as well.  To me, calling a synagogue a Temple indicates that the emphasis in that congregation must be on the rituals of prayer that replace the ancient sacrifices.  Isaiah called the Temple, Bet Tefillah, ‘a house of prayer for all people”.  Thus, we have the Bet Midrash (the shul) and the Bet Tefillah (the Temple.)  In some parts of the country, however, Temples are exclusively Reform institutions, thus in Charleston, SC. the congregation I served in the ‘90s,emphatically called itself “Synagogue Emanu-El,” to emphasize that it was not a (Reform) Temple.  The Temple in Charleston, by the way, has retained its original Sephardic designation for nearly 275 years and is known as Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, the Holy Congregation of the House of God, (KKBE).  I also know of more traditional congregations that use the term “temple,” such as Temple Gates of Prayer in Queens.  At this point, the terms are nearly interchangeable, hence Temple B’nai Israel.


However, our synagogues are more than just those two functions of study and prayer regardless of what we call them.  The word “synagogue” comes from the Greek and is a place of gathering, just as the Israeli Knesset, is the National Assembly.  In Hebrew the term is “Bet Knesset, a house of assembly.” It is a center where the community gathers for all sorts of functions: celebrations, fund-raising events, forums for speakers, meetings for the benefit of the congregation or the community.  Though weddings can be held in all sorts of venues, often it is the synagogue that welcomes the bride and groom and their guests to join in matrimony and to rejoice on such auspicious occasions.  Likewise, while many brith milah ceremonies take place at home, frequently, nowadays, families choose to hold these rituals of welcome to their newborn children, both boys and girls, in the synagogue.  Unfortunately, on occasion, the synagogue also serves as a chapel for funerals where members are brought for one last visit before interment at the local cemetery.  After they are gone, we gather to remember them with plaques on the wall and the Yizkor memorial prayers concluding each holiday.


For many of us, the synagogue holds precious memories of years gone by.  Every so often, a former member of this congregation shows up at our doorstep and wanders the halls, looking at the pictures and plaques and recalling the history of our nearly 120 years and their connection to family members long gone who were dedicated to the life of this congregation.  One can pray or study at home or elsewhere.  In the past few years, we have become acquainted with various means of on-line connection;Zoom has taken over our lives. Yet our tradition insiststhat there is nothing quite like being a part of a gathering in the synagogue, in person, joining with others in prayer and study and fellowship.  We come together to celebrate. Here we form a community to answer “amen” after the Kaddish for our beloved departed. Our voices blend in a sacred chorus that just doesn’t work with the delay on Zoom.


As we cautiously come together once more, we urge our members, their guests, newcomers, and former affiliates to come back into this House of God once again. We haveadmittedly been struggling to gather a minyan, week after week, even with the inclusion of women in the prayer quorum, in our traditional, yet egalitarian, service. A faithful remnant shows up week after week, but we could use a bunch more.  We encourage people to come home to the synagogue, to establish a regular schedule of attendance, weekly, biweekly, monthly, whatever works for you.  We are anxious to see you once more.  Pray with us, celebrate with us, and stick around to schmooze as well.That’s all part of the package.

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