For all those who search for God and have not yet found him.

Shabbat, two weeks ago, I heard a remarkable sermon by Justin, our rabbi. He introduced it by saying that this time he would be sharing his “theology” with us. I am not aware that he ever gives a title to his sermons but were I to give a title to that sermon it would be “Beware of Jewish hubris or chutzpah.” I told him afterwards that I had been waiting for this sermon for 26 years – the number of years that Gail and I have been members of this congregation.

It takes courage to say what he said, namely, if I understood his words correctly, that it is chutzpah to think or let alone say that our faith is superior to other faiths. It is chutzpah to think or let alone say that our service of God is superior to that of non-Jews. It is chutzpah to think or let alone say that we know more about God than other religions. To think and to voice these kinds of attitudes is proof that our thinking is flawed.

Who are we Jews to make such statements given that we are an infinitesimally small portion of the world population? How is it that we have come to such a conclusion? According to the rabbi, this thought pattern of superiority has been handed down to us by our rabbinic predecessors who voiced this flawed mode of thinking for centuries.

I must make a confession: I am always appreciative of being honored by an aliyah, but the words of the blessing before the Torah reading tend to stick in my throat because of their intimation that we Jews are a “chosen” people.

I once shared this feeling with a rabbi-friend who suggested, “Why don’t you say instead of asher bachar banu mikol ha’amiym, “chose us FROM all the peoples,” asher bachar banu im kol ha-amiym, meaning, “chose us with all the peoples?” While “from all the peoples” sounds to me like a lot of chutzpah, somehow with all the peoples” does not quite make sense.

I always appreciate the honor of an aliyah but I am stuck with this portion of the blessing which goes against my belief.

But my problem is even more deep-seated than what concerns these few words.

As a Holocaust survivor, thinking just about daily about the murder of the Six Million among whom were fourteen members of my family, can I say the opening words of every b’rakhah as well as those of the Amidah, barukh atah adonay – Praised are you Adonay? And then continue honestly proclaiming, haEl haGadol, haGibbor vehaNorah, El Elyon– the Great, the Powerful and the Awesome God, the highest god?

The late Elie Wiesel suggested in his writings that during the Holocaust the “onlookers” who saw the tragedy and did not raise a finger to protest, let alone to stop the slaughter, were just as guilty as the perpetrators of the murders. I totally agree with Eli Wiesel. Now this raises, of course, the frightening question about him who, in the Amidah and in many other biblical texts, is called “great, strong,and awesome.” We encounter in English Bible translations the word el-shadday, translated as “Almighty,” as a title and an attribute of God. After the murder of the Six Million, the frightening question arises why this almighty God did not intervene, but let the smokestacks of Auschwitz belch out the smoke of hundreds of thousands gassed and cremated innocent persons.

In short: was the God whom we worship the most guilty of all bystanders by letting this tragedy and many other tragedies happen?

Who is this God, really? What kind of god is he? Or, is there such a god at all?

I have been chasing after the reality of the biblical God pretty much all my life long because I want to know!

The fact is that we know nothing about this God, just as the prophet Isaiah wrote in Isa. 55:8-9:

“for My thoughts are not your thoughts neither are your ways my ways, says Adonay. for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts [higher] than your thoughts.”

This said, I would think that all human speculations about God, preceding Isaiah and following Isaiah’s pronouncement, are human words and human characterizations of this very God. They are guesses – they are human responses to human feelings about events we humans are unable to explain at the present.

Renown Rabbi Jehudah heChassid or Judah the Pious of Regensburg who died in 1217 during the time of the deadly Crusades, in his beautiful shir ha-kavod or “Hymn of Glory” that in some synagogues is sung when the Torah scroll is taken from the aron ha-kodesh, proclaims:

“Without having seen you, I declare your praise:
Without having known you, I laud you and your ways.
They have imagined you, but never as you are;
They tell of your deeds, to portray you from afar.”

This, in my opinion, is precisely what you and I are trying to do here: we imagine and we portray from afar.

And this is precisely what the folks and practitioners of other religions are doing as well and honestly so. So, it is very much wrong to see ourselves as specially favored to know and to do better. Doing so is chutzpah.

Having heard these my words, you may wonder, what I am doing here in this Jewish congregation. So let me explain.

I am here for several reasons.

  • I believe in community and especially in Jewish community. The term synagogue, a Greek word, means (lead-together) and this means “community.”
  • I love the people of this community, past and present, – who have been providing for Gail and me a spiritual home and all that goes with it, namely friendship and fellowship and care.
  • I love the Hebrew language which I have taught for decades, the language heard in this place very often .
  • I have made peace with the words I do not believe-in because they are beautiful and well-intentioned words, albeit fallible and flawed.
  • I am able to use the word “God” with all its adjectives FINALLY again, and it is here that enters my theology I want to share with you.
  • I love Judaism because of its teaching-values which I admire and consider indispensable for the ongoing life of our planet. So – -when we sing al-shlosha devarim haOlam omed, al ha-Torah, veal ha-Avodah veal gemilut chassadim, “The world stands on three principles: on Torah, on work avodah (which in Hebrew also means worship), and on good deeds,” I believe this with all my heart and try to live by these values.

But this change in my attitude became possible thanks to my many years of study and reflection on biblical and other so-called holy texts. I finally arrived at the conclusion that the term GOD is really a metaphor for these great Jewish values that I admire and try try hard to live by, the greatest of which is LOVE which I consider to be a synonym for the word God.

Now a few words about God and LOVE.

How do you and I define God and love??

If I were to ask you individually how YOU define God, I’d probably receive as many answers as I would ask people – perhaps a few more, because we are Jews.

Now if I were to ask you to define LOVE, I’d also receive many answers, And this makes sense, because all I would receive are definitions couched in human words.

It is virtually impossible to define either Love or God by means of words because words are unable to express all that the nouns”God” and “love” contain.

How do you express with words an emotion like the breaking of your heart when you stand at the grave of a beloved person or when I see on TV the little skeletal kids in a coma or dying of starvation, say in Yemen? This kind of experience makes my upper chest to physically contract – cave in – to the point that it hurts physically.

How do you describe with words the laughter that wells up in you? How do you describe in words your sexual attraction to a person? How do you explain your fear standing by the bed of a person fighting for her life?

There simply are no adequate words for any of these emotions.

But does that mean that the lack of our ability to adequately express our feelings or emotions suggests that these emotions are not real? I do not think so and I am sure you probably agree with me. In fact there is nothing more REAL than these feelings that well up within us on such occasions.

What I am suggesting then is that the word G-O-D or the word L-o-v-e are realities that defy description and definition.

Neither one of them are NOUNS! Grammatically – YES, of course. In their truest and deepest sense – NO!

Here then is my theology —

The word GOD is a metaphor. It expresses for me the values of Judaism. When I say adonay , I do not think of a person or some embodied spirit. Instead, I think of the biblical values such as “Love your neighbor as yourself,” or “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor!” which have come to us from our ancestors in the faith, to be shared with the rest of humanity.

The words “God” and its synonym “Love” – are not static expression. Words can never convey what they really mean. They have to be lived and only by living them can we hope to transmit their life-giving richness to others.

And so, in my opinion, both Love and God, while grammatically nouns, are in their deepest and truest sense verbs.

Love and God-liness is something you do.

Shabbat shalom!

The Ancient Synagogue: A Mini-Introduction, Essay # 4

At the end of last month’s essay and in connection with the Akedah (the binding of Isaac) floor mosaic in Israel’s Beth Alpha synagogue, I expressed amazement over the artist’s graphic depiction not only of the persons involved in the biblical story (Gen. 22:1-19) but also of the hand of an angel or the very hand of God from above. Considering the second commandment’s prohibition of making “…a statue or any form that is in the skies above or that is in the earth below or that is in the water below the earth. You shall not bow to them and you shall not serve them. Because I, YHWH, your God, am a jealous God…” (Exod.20:4-5), the incorporation of a transgression of this commandment in a synagogue seems inexplicable and even downright scandalous.

How to explain this?

So let me share with you a text from Mishna which, in my opinion, is both instructional and amusing:

“Proklos, son of Phosphos, asked Rabban Gamliel a question in Akko, where he was washing in Aphrodite’s bathhouse. He said [to Rabban Gamliel], “Isn’t it written in your Torah (Deut. 13:18) ‘do not allow any banned items [from idol worshipers] to stick to your hand’? How then do you bathe in Aphrodite’s bathhouse?” He replied, “One does not respond [to religious questions] in the bath.” Once he exited, [Rabban Gamliel] said to him, “I did not enter her domain, but she entered mine. [Further], people don’t say ‘let’s make a bath as a decoration for Aphrodite. ‘Rather, they say, ‘let’s make a statue of Aphrodite as a decoration for our bath.’ “ Another reason: Even if someone paid you lots of money, you would not commence your idol worship if you were naked or sticky, nor would you urinate before [your sacred object]. But this [statue of Aphrodite] stands over the sewer and everyone urinates before it. If a [statue] is treated as a god, then it is forbidden, but if it is not treated as a god, then it is permitted [to be in its presence].”

(The above is taken from an article of R. Daniel Nevins of the Rabbinical School of JTS, “When does an idol own the bathhouse?” based on Mishna, avodah zarah 3:4)

If we think that Palestine in early post-biblical times was inhabited only by Jews, we are wrong. It was a diverse society where many non-Jews worshiped idols. The practical question arose whether Jews could use a public institution that was decorated with pagan imagery. There must have been ambivalence among the Jews about participation in general society. Rabban Gamliel, a highly esteemed rabbi, seemingly was an advocate for Jewish freedom in this respect.

While I do not know to what extent Rabban Gamliel’s orientation was accepted in Jewish circles it seems possible that his thought may have been applied to artistic expressions within Judaism and so also about graphic depictions of biblical scenes.

The argument may have been that one does not worship anything on which one walks or sits. It is possible that the central empty area in the ancient synagogue, often decorated by mosaics, was designated for those who participated in worship standing or sitting on the floor rather than on the stone benches along the walls. Perhaps for overflow?

The ancient synagogues were not exclusively used for worship. We know, in this connection, that the great Rabbis Yochanan and Abbahu also acted as judges and decided on legal cases in synagogue. So also funerals and especially eulogies for deceased teachers and religious leaders were held in synagogues. According to Josephus (1st c, CE), a political meeting was held in one of the synagogues in the city of Tiberias. Communal problems were discussed and decided there as well.

Summarizing, it seems that the synagogue combined with the Jewish community center of today resembles in many ways the characteristics of the ancient synagogue of Palestine. Then as also today there are some among us who endow the synagogue with sacredness and others who deny the synagogue any claim to sacredness. There was in the first three centuries a great variety of attitudes as well and no definite official position.

Now as then, two Jews hold three opinions and, as I see it, this is good!

The Ancient Synagogue: A Mini-Introduction, Essay # 3

The mishna has no tractate dealing with the synagogue. Regulations with regard to location, orientation and and architecture have been gleaned from splinters of texts from the tosephta and later additions to the mishna. The sources to draw from are scarce.

Rabbinic regulation for synagogue location fixes “the highest point of the city.” This may have been based on the past location of the Jerusalem Temple that was located on an elevated part of the city. Most Galilean synagogues were located on high commanding points.

Many of the synagogues were located near water. Was this based on ancient Jewish habits of reciting prayers near a body of water or the practicality of being close to water for the practice of tevilah or immersion in a natural pool of water rather than in a mikveh pool?

The physical orientation of the synagogue was determined by the principle of the orientation of the worshiper during prayer: Those outside of Israel should turn their heart [mind] toward Israel; those in Israel toward Jerusalem; etc., Following this schema, those in the North of Jerusalem turn south; those East of Jerusalem turn West, and so on.

Practically all excavated ancient synagogues both in Israel and in the diaspora have the shape of a Roman basilica, i.e., a rectangular shape. The roof of the building was supported by stone pillars whose cross section was either round or heart-shaped. The row of these pillars divided the interior laterally into three parts: a central relatively large empty area and two side areas along whose two walls there was seating on one or two rows of stone benches. Most early Galilean synagogues featured a monumental facade with three entrance doors.

Some scholars suggest that the tendency to emulate within the synagogue features of the destroyed Jerusalem Temple caused some rabbinic sources to protest. Hence the talmudic ruling,

“One shall not make a house after the pattern of the temple, nor a porch after the temple porch, nor a courtyard like that of the temple, nor a table like the temple table, nor a menorah like that of the temple,” (Tb Menahoth 28b).

The Torah scrolls, the indispensable religious as well as physical center of any synagogue, were housed in the tevah (ark) or Torah shrine. It seems that the term aron hakodesh (holy shrine) was introduced at a later time and that there was controversy regarding this innovation. Many scholars believe that until the 4th century the Torah scrolls were housed in an adjoining room and brought into the main synagogue hall at the time of worship only and then temporarily placed into a niche of the wall. Interesting in this connection might be a part of a frieze at the excavated beautiful synagogue at Capernaum (k’far nahum) on the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. It is a four wheeled small wagon holding Torah scrolls. I wonder whether such a wagon may have been used to wheel-in the Torah scrolls from a synagogue annex to the main hall where the worshipers had assembled to hear the Torah reading. It is reasonable to assume, as the synagogue system of worship developed, that a wooden cupboard holding Torah scrolls was eventually permanently installed in the main hall where Torah was read in formal worship.

Next to the Torah shrine there was the bima , an elevated podium from where translation into Aramaic (targum), interpretations, and blessings were given (Neh. 4:3-5).

The Early synagogues in Palestine as well as in the Diaspora had ornamentation. Second and third century sources suggest that menorahs were favorite gifts given to synagogues. Names of donors were often chiseled into stone pillars or expressed in mosaics in floors. The menorah which is the earliest specifically Jewish symbol was also incorporated in the walls of synagogues and burial sites.

While geometric, flora and fauna ornamental representations predominated in ancient synagogue floor mosaics, surprisingly, also human representations are found there. The motifs are often pagan as, for instance, zodiacs. To my amazement, in the mosaic floor of the Beth Alpha synagogue, in its bottom register representing the akedah (the binding of Isaac), the artist incorporated not only the humans involved in the biblical story, but also a hand reaching down from above, next to which we read the word “Avraham,” representing either the hand of an angel or the hand of God stopping Abraham from killing his son Yitzchak (see below). How to explain this seeming transgression of the second of the Ten Commandments which explicitly forbids such representations?

This is this essay’s cliff hanger.

The Ancient Synagogue: Mini-Essay # 2

In the last essay on the subject I indicated that the exact time and place of origin of the synagogue can no longer be determined. The rabbinic sources do not offer us any clues on the subject. ,

Nothing prevents us, however, from making educated guesses. The suggestion that the term “synagogue,” designating both a Jewish assembly and a specific locus of that assembly in terms of a building, first originated in the Babylonian exile, i.e., after 586 BCE, in response to the need of those deprived of the Jerusalem Temple where they used to pray and teach, makes most sense. After the exiled Jews’ liberation and return home from Babylon in 538 BCE and the restoration of the Jerusalem Temple in 515 BCE, these Jewish folks retained the by now established institution of the synagogue. The residents of Jerusalem and visitors to the city were once again able to attend the reading of Torah in the Temple while those outside of Jerusalem attended Torah readings in their respective local synagogues. This arrangement was further consolidated in the Persian period, especially with the work of Ezra in the 5th c. BCE. But there are, as can be expected, variations of this explanation.

Most excavated synagogues in Israel, the Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights, date from the Roman and Byzantine periods from the 3rd to the 7th c. CE. Synagogues dated to before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE are at Gamla, Masada and Herodium.

What we know about the early synagogue, its congregational functions which, in turn, determined its physical layout, comes to us from Hellenistic Jewish writings (Philo and Josephus), early rabbinical writings, archaeological and epigraphical material and the New Testament.

From both Mishna and Tosephta we learn that there was a synagogue within the precincts of the Temple itself. It was located in “the hall of hewn stones.” Its purpose was seemingly “for the reading of Torah” and it was adjoined by a “house of study.” Both Jewish and New Testament sources attest the existence of several synagogues outside the Jerusalem Temple.

One of the most intriguing Greek inscriptions found in excavations on the hill Ophel SW of Jerusalem reads as follows:

“Theodotos, son of Vettenos, priest and archisynagogos [synagogue leader], son of a archisynagogos and grandson of a archisynagogos, built the synagogue for the reading of the Torah and study of the commandments and the guest house and the rooms and supplies of water as an inn for those in need when coming from abroad, which his fathers and the elders and Simonides founded.”

Many synagogues dating to the talmudic era and onwards had annexes to the main structure, suggesting that they also functioned as a type of hostel or community center.

This said, I want to point to the similarity of function between those ancient ones and our synagogue.

The long ago established twin meaning of the term synagogue as assembly of Jews and the physical locus of assembly has been maintained to this day. The activity of the twice weekly formal reading of Torah and that of Shabbat and festival readings continues to be observed. The study of Torah and other Jewish texts has been an ongoing activity ever since the founding of the synagogue. And there is, of course, our synagogue building, newly refurbished.

Given the deterioration of our country’s political life these two last years and our president’s ongoing hate-mongering against refugees from Central and Latin America fleeing to save their lives, many synagogues and churches have declared themselves “places of refuge,” sheltering these women, men and children against forced deportation by our Immigration and Customs Enforcement organism, better known by its acronym I.C.E. I am proud of the many churches and synagogues in our country, having annexes similar to those described (above) in the ancient Theodotos inscription, that follow the Hebrew Bible’s admonition on the establishment of Cities of Refuge (Hebr.: ‘arey miklat) or Sanctuary Cities where safety from unjustified pursuit is offered to innocents even today.

I am pleased that Congregation Beth Israel, our synagogue, supports the Sanctuary Movement.

Next time: ancient synagogue buildings, layout and interiors.

The Ancient Synagogue: A Mini-Introduction (in 3 or perhaps 4 short essays)

This is the first of a few brief essays that deal with some of the characteristics of the ancient synagogue. The idea of introducing our congregation to this subject must be attributed to our synagogue’s recent interior redesign. As we see the radical changes of this remapping of our shul space, questions come to mind such as what is the origin of the synagogue, does the term apply to the concept of congregation or to a building or to both, what was its original function, were all synagogue buildings built the same way, were there differences in the architectural conceptions of the synagogue between those in the Land of Israel and those in the diaspora, etc. etc.

While responding to all such questions would require the writing of a book, something that has, of course, been done, I want to deal in these essays with major aspects of synagogue existence and function. The origin of the term synagogue is especially interesting in view of the fact that the word is Greek while the institution is Jewish.

What does the Greek term “synagogue” literally mean? The syn is a prefix, meaning “together” and the rest of the word derives from the Greek ago meaning “to lead.” Combined, the word means “to lead together” or “to assemble.”

In the Septuagint, the oldest Greek version of the Hebrew Bible made for Greek speaking Jews in Egypt in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE, the Greek synagoge is most frequently used for the Hebrew edah (congregation) and sometimes for the Hebrew kahal (assembly).

With the 1st c. CE the term synagogue appears in Jewish sources such as Philo and Josephus as “place of assembly, house of worship and instruction,” and so also in the Greek New Testament.

About the same time the place of worship in Tannaitic literature (the writings of the tannaim, the sages of the mishna) is beit hakneset, “house of assembly.” Where these rabbis use the shorter form kneset alone, they refer to the congregation and not to the place of assembly of the congregation.

Can the beginning of the synagogue both as congregation and location of the assembly be determined? Unfortunately not. Rabbinic sources offer no help in the matter. There are passages in the Targum and in Midrash that suggest that the existence of the synagogue goes back to the inception of the Jewish people. But when was that? Was that with Adam and Eve (hardly!), the semi-nomadic Habiru tribe in Canaan, Abraham or Moses? To that question there is no absolute answer, other than the historical fact that we Jews have been around for a long time.

Next time: surprise about the synagogue’s multi-function and decor.