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!

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