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.

Are Things really getting better?

As the year 2018 is drawing to a close I want to look back to determine whether it was a good year. The question that immediately comes to mind is whether the term good applies to a global quality of human life or whether, in considering this matter, we must be more modest and limit the adjective’s meaning to a quality of goodness in a more limited sense, i.e., to select smaller groups of humanity on our planet.

Best selling author, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard, Steven Pinker’s 556 page book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, (Viking, 2018), addresses itself to the above question.

Before I share with you my opinion on both the question and Pinker’s book, I want to refer you to an excellent critique of the book by Joshua Rothman in his extensive article entitled “The Big Question: Is the world getting better or worse?” in the

July 23, 2018 issue of The New Yorker, (pp.26-32).

Steve Pinker is an erudite writer. Those 556 pages are chock full of valuable information, The text is well documented by means of statistics and graphs and shows that our world, contrary to many modern pundits’ lurid headlines and even prophecies, is not falling apart. In what the write up in the dust jacket describes as an “elegant assessment of the human condition in the third millennium,” Pinker shows that “life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge and happiness are on the rise, not just in the West but worldwide.”

The question I would like to raise in response to Pinker’s finding is: for whom?

Clearly, this blog is not the place to do so in detail. Let me simply respond to Pinker’s findings not in terms of a critique of his methodology which to me seems impeccable but in a more basic manner, namely that of his research’s meaning for us ordinary human beings, relatively few of whom will read the book and if so, find solid reassurance for our planet’s and our own future.

Indisputably, the question “is our world getting better or worse” is interesting from a purely academic viewpoint. Fully aware that I will be criticized for my viewpoint, I cannot help but wonder whether the 700,000 Rohingeas, totally impoverished and displaced from their destroyed homes in Myanmar, care about the world’s statistically proven betterment when their existential situation has spiraled into misery.

Does the hungering population of North Korea rejoice because of the alleged global betterment of life on the planet? Would the North Korean prisoners in that country’s Gulags feel elated knowing that on the basis of Pinker’s graphs, life, health. prosperity, safety, etc. are globally on the rise?

And then there is the Yemen catastrophe, visually presented on TV almost every evening. Little bodies with protruding ribs, arms and legs of bone covered with skin. Large eyes devoid of expression. Living tiny little dying bodies held in the arms of their helpless and hopeless moms. Tens of thousands of these little children no longer alive, killed by starvation or bombs, produced in our country, and unleashed on them by Saudi Arabia killers, our “allies.” Can the world’s reported increasing wellness mean anything at all to these poor and suffering human beings?

Thinking back to the years of my imprisonment under the Nazi regime, I wonder whether this kind of optimistic information about the improvement of life conditions on our planet as shown by Pinker’s graphs, would have encouraged me or made me downright happy.

The presence of abject poverty, hunger and suffering continues to be present not just in so-called Third World countries but even in this our own country. The gap between a tiny minority of wealthy people and even the middle class, let alone those on the bottom of the wealth pyramid, is growing from year to year. It seems that exploitation of those with a weak or no voice in society is steadily growing. Is this good reason for optimism?

While wars have been decimating whole populations even during my own life time, not so long ago there existed no threats of mass extinctions by the now ever present nuclear threat. That this threat is for real has been adequately demonstrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WW II. Need I suggest that it is worrisome that today’s arsenals of nuclear devices, much more powerful in their destructive force, are held by an ever growing number of nations.

I fairly recently had a brief conversation with an intelligent and well educated person in our congregation. When our talk turned to our planet’s ecology and vulnerability from our irresponsible use of natural resources, her response was a flippant, “thanks to our human genius, we have always innovated or found new scientific approaches to avert catastrophe. Regardless of what the future will bring, we will be able to cope with it.” My response to her words was, mazal tov, in Yiddish, “Good Luck!”

Then there is the phenomenon of global warming which hits indiscriminately. Its ever growing devastating powers have been experienced the last few years in this and other countries. Because of its geographic ubiquity and variety in terms of climate change,earthquakes, tsunamis, droughts, fire, floods and depletion of the planet’s vital natural resources, it is multinational willingness to cooperate that is crucially needed to deal with its destructive effects on human life now and in the future. Sadly, this kind of international willingness to cooperate is absent.

Is civilization in terminal decline? Needless to say, I hope not!

But unless we make an end to the reckless destruction of our liberal democratic institutions in this country and join in global cooperation, we will arrive at a point of no return.

So what do I think of Pinker’s book? In my opinion, it is academically sound but otherwise meaningless. The quality of goodness of life, if to be meaningful, can only be seen subjectively by one person or a relatively small group at a time. Rejoicing over the increasing betterment of the world cannot and will not make a difference in an individual’s life. Besides, how many people are ready to buy such a book, let alone read 556 pages of statistics, graphs and their explanations and profit from it? Sorry, professor Pinker!

While as a Jew I highly support education and critical thinking and so also enlightenment, I prefer the generic term to be written with a lower case “e.” Written with a capital “E” it refers to the historical period of the Enlightenment which, generally seen, brought liberation to the Jewish people but paradoxically also spelled out the beginning of a racially-based antisemitism that eventually led to the Holocaust.

To me it is unsettling to see that today there are strong forces in these United States as also in a large number of other countries that have jettisoned reason, science, humanism and so also progress. Will these movements to the political “right” prevail and lead humanity to destruction or will a mass awakening and true enlightenment overcome ignorance, darkness and ill-will and usher in a better world for all?

The answer to this crucial question depends to some extent on you and me.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

An Alt-Neu Synagogue in Asheville

A few days ago, Gail and I had the pleasure of worshiping at our renovated Beth Israel synagogue building in the style of a 1st cent. Palestinian synagogue. The transformation is stunning and, in my opinion, well done. Its new architectural layout, though new but really old, symbolizes “community” much better than the previous one.

The words “new” and “old” hold a special meaning for me as they send me back to my native country and its special Jewish heritage.

As you know, I am a native of what was Czechoslovakia before WW II and is now the Czech Republic. Its capital Prague, or in Czech Praha, is often considered the most beautiful city of Europe. No exaggeration here!

We, Czech Jews, or better, the few of us who survived the Holocaust, have the honor of boasting to have in Prague Europe’s oldest active synagogue, known as the Altneuschul or in Czech Staronova synagoga. The building was completed in 1270 which means that it has been standing there for many centuries before America was discovered.

The synagogue was originally called the New or Great Synagogue, but later, when other synagogues were built in Prague in the16th century, it became known as the Old-New Synagogue or in German or Yiddish Alt-NeuSchul.

But there is another explanation for the name that is more intriguing. This other explanation derives the name Alt-Neu from the Hebrew al tnai which means “on condition that….” Notice the similarity of pronunciation: Alt-Neu and al tnai,

Where then do the Hebrew words come from and what is their meaning? According to legend, angels brought stones from the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem to help with the building of the Prague synagogue “on condition” or, in Hebrew al tnay, that they be returned when mashiach-Messiah comes and these stones will be needed for the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple.

Which of the two interpretations of the synagogue’s name seems correct in your opinion?

The Prague Alt-NeuSchul is also renown for housing under its roof the body of the lifeless Golem, the robot constructed by the synagogue’s famous rabbi called the MaHaRal which is an acronym for Moreynu HaRav Loew, meaning “Our Teacher Rabbi Loew. “ The legend has it that Rabbi Loew made the Golem, a huge powerful robot, to protect the Jewish population of Prague during pogroms.

As my mind wanders back to the Alt-NeuSchul in Prague, I am especially attracted by the Hebrew inscription on one of its stucco walls. There, in Hebrew, we read, shiviti adonay lenegdi tamid, which means, “I will hold Adonay before me always” or, “I place God before me always” ( Psalm 16:8).

This text is often written on meditative representations on tapestries, decorative plaques or on an illustrated page in the siddur or prayer book. It is this text that has inspired me to make the many dozens of mezuzot (plural of mezuzah) that now adorn the entrances to many a Jewish home here and elsewhere and even some of the door frames of our newly renovated Beth Israel synagogue in Asheville.

So why mention all this here and now? Because our synagogue, just like the one in Prague, has now become an Old-New synagogue, an AltNeuSchul and, as some of you know from many a dvar Torah or sermon I have given, and from my memoir published on my 90th birthday and beautifully celebrated in this place of worship, I am a secular Jew, but a Jew! When I contemplate this beautiful text that carries in its heart the name of Hashem, I think not of God as a person but rather as a metaphor for all the Jewish values we Jews admire, honor and try to act out in our lives.

The Altneuschul in Prague has been an active place of worship for almost one thousand years. As a place of worship it has inspired tens of thousands of worshipers and tourists. I am sure that the world has greatly benefited from its existence. It is my hope that our Asheville AltNeuSchul will do the same for our community and the many visitors who worship with us over time.

It is my hope that the Prague synagogue’s inscription shiviti adonay lenegdi tamid will guide our Jewish peoples’ lives and bring a bit of tikkun olam or “repair of the world” to our local society and beyond.

Tree of Life and Place of Death

One of the most inspirational moments for me in the Sabbath morning worship service occurs when we return the Torah scroll that has been read from to the ark, a special cupboard where the scrolls are kept. What I am referring to more specifically is the beautiful liturgical song, sung before the Torah ark is closed which reads in Hebrew:

etz chayyim hi la-machizikim bah v’tomkhekha m’ushar.

D’rakheha darkhei no’am v’kol n’tivoteha shalom.

Hashivenu Adonai elekha v’nashuvah, chadesh yameinu k’kedem.

Translation below:

“It is a tree of life for those who grasp it and all who uphold it are blessed. Its ways are pleasantness, and all its paths are peace. Help us turn to you, and we shall return. Renew our lives as in days of old.”

The “it” in the song refers to the contents of the Torah which contains the Pentateuch, i.e., the first five books of the Bible, Genesis to Deuteronomy, wisdom to live by.

It is likely that on October 27, 2018 the bullets that murdered the group of eleven innocent Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh did their deadly work either before or after the above song was joyously sung by the victims. In an instant joy was turned into tragedy. Happy family and societal relationships turned into irreversible loss and mourning. Obscenity!

In the reporting of this horrible crime by the media it was mentioned that police investigators found in Robert Bowers’ on-line postings rabidly antisemitic statements. He purportedly voiced the wish that all Jews be killed.

That antisemitism has been around for 20 centuries is nothing new, of course. But from being an antisemite to murdering innocent human beings is a major step and I cannot help but wonder what the trigger to take that step may have been.

Discussions followed this terrible act as to what extent Trump’s rude and aggressive rhetoric contributed to Bowers’ decision to kill Jews. Some of these voices insisted that Trump’s behavior had absolutely nothing to do with it while others pointed to the seemingly increased number of antisemitic incidents in America and overseas since Trump’s election to the presidency in 2016 and his bullyish rhetoric ever since then.

No one in the media discussions, as far as I know, found any connection between several of Bowers’ Internet-posted hateful references to HIAS, the American Jewish organization whose name is the acronym for “Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society” and Trump’s hateful anti-immigrant abusive language.

 


 

For me the word “Immigrant” in the name HIAS immediately rang a bell. Had not Trump, especially during several weeks preceding the midterm elections, daily vituperated against the terrible dangers of the so-called caravan of south American refugees from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala who were marching toward our southern border with Mexico with the intention of “invading” us? This is not all. Again and again Trump emphasized the dangerous make up of this caravan containing murderers, thieves and rapists, i.e., the very lowest societal elements of these Latin-American countries. By sending thousands of soldiers in battle gear to our southern border in order to “defend” the country, he has tried to instill fear in us from these unwanted would be immigrants – clearly a Trump-stunt to turn the mid-term election in favor of the Republican Party and himself, the great white savior. I feel relieved that he did not succeed.

A parenthesis: Undoubtedly, many of our fellow Americans are misled about the immigration fear. A very quick calculation shows how ridiculous this incitement of fear really is. The US population stands at this time somewhere around 340 million people. The alleged caravan consisting of people who are fleeing for their lives – some 7,000 people, mostly women and children – amount to 0.002 % of our population. And so an inundation of the US by these refugees is laughably unlikely.

According to the FBI, an estimated 17,250 murders took place in the US in 2016, committed by our own people – Americans. Statistics show that the US saw a 118% increase in its immigrant population (documented and undocumented) from 1980 through 2016 according to the Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice. Yet during this same period, the rate of violent crime – homicides, rapes, robberies and assaults – fell by 36% to about 386 incidents per 100,000 residents. This shows that the violent crime during this period actually declined while the immigration rate rose.

I have strayed from the heartbreaking murder in Pittsburgh and I apologize.

What I suggest is that it is indeed very probable that Trump’s politically oriented abusive anti-immigrant hate is racism which surfaces every time he leaves the teleprompter and speaks from his heart, and that these repeated explosions of loathing did have a significant influence on Bowers’ decision to massacre the Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Bowers’ mentions of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, points in that direction.

Words have consequences!

Politics in places of worship?

Recently I was invited to give a sermon at the Friday evening service in one of our synagogues. Because of the coincidence that this year the dates of Nazi Germany’s Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) falls together with the US commemoration of Veterans Day, it is I, a Holocaust survivor, who was honored by the invitation to share my thoughts on these two important anniversaries.

Before I go any further, let me briefly recall to you the content of these two special anniversaries.

Kristallnacht or the Night of Broken Glass was a pogrom on Nov. 9-10, 1938 against the Jews throughout Nazi Germany. The Nazis, more particularly the Nazi paramilitary organization SA, also called the Storm Troopers or Brown Shirts, torched over 1,000 synagogues, vandalized and looted Jewish homes, schools and 7,500 Jewish businesses, killed 71 Jews and arrested some 30,000 Jewish men who were sent to concentration camps. The name Kristallnacht or in English, Night of Broken Glass, refers to the litter of broken glass left in the streets after these pogroms.

The pretext for the violence was the assassination of Ernst vom Rath, a German diplomat, by Herschel Grynszpan, a Polish Jewish student. Grynszpan engaged in the murder as a retribution for the Nazi deportation of Polish Jewish residents in Germany to a no-man’s land at the border of Germany and Poland where the Jews were unceremoniously dumped. Grynszpan’s parents were among the group and so, understandably, he was very upset and worried.

German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, having consulted with Hitler on how the assassination could be antisemitically exploited, urged a group of SA during a large SA rally to engage in violent reprisals against the German Jewish population. The pogroms were to appear as spontaneous antisemitic demonstrations by the German population.

This violence was the overture to subsequent governmental bureaucratic anti-Jewish steps leading to the Wannsee Conference in 1942 and the decision taken there to end the so-called Judenfrage or “Jewish Question” by means of “the Final Solution,” i.e., the Holocaust or the systematic murder of the Jews of Germany and its occupied countries.

Veterans Day, to be commemorated and celebrated on the 11th of November, is an official United States public holiday, observed annually, that honors military veterans, that is persons who served in the United States Armed Forces, living and dead.

This said, I personally feel deeply indebted especially to those American veterans who fought in World War II. While I was liberated by Soviet Russian forces, who along with Great Britain, were our allies in that war, I am deeply grateful to all the allied forces who defeated the Nazis and liberated us, concentration camp prisoners, whose days were numbered. We survivors too, would have been murdered had it not been for these brave Allied soldiers who gave their all to defeat the Nazi enemy.

These are the facts which speak for themselves. Anyone interested to go deeper into these two anniversaries and their meaning can easily do so by going to an encyclopedia. In such a reference book the two “items” will be mentioned separately and in more detail. But there will be no discussion to be found there with regard to how the two relate to each other. That is left for me to do in the evening sermon I was invited to give.

Why, to begin with, should a relationship between Kristallnacht and Veterans Day be explored eight decades after their occurrence? Academic interest in history? Sure. Why not? Should we not continually enlarge our knowledge and understanding of the past? In this particular case, given the particularity of our situation in present-day America,, a reflection about the clash of the two worldviews that Kristallnacht, on the one hand, and Veterans Day, on the other hand, represent, is particularly relevant. The two political orientations as they existed in those years, stood in crass opposition to each other: Germany with its ideology of Nazism and the USA with its rooted tradition in democracy.

This is not the place for me to elaborate on the two opposing worldviews. What I want to deal with here is the question whether it is appropriate to discuss the politics inherent in this clash in a synagogue. In short, should a visiting speaker on erev shabbat in a place of worship, in a sermon, deal with politics? The question I am raising here is particularly relevant in these days because of the tensions existing between the two major political parties in our land and the probability that in my audience there will be both Republicans and Democrats, some of whom may feel insulted by the comparisons I plan to make between then and now.

I was pastor of a church in D.C. during the Watergate scandal, geographically located four or five blocks from the White House, Mr. Nixon’s residence. During many a sermon I saw people get up and walk out in protest of what I said. Should I risk the same kind of a scenario as a guest speaker in a synagogue?

How can a Jewish Holocaust survivor remain silent after Charlottesville? And how can I claim the name “Jew” for myself having personally experienced the excruciating pain of being forcibly separated from my parents as an innocent fifteen year old boy and have nothing to say about the equally innocent migrant children separated from their parents at our southern border? Yes, these are polarizing times we live, yet distinctions must be made between good and bad, decent and indecent, righteous and dishonest. Whether we like it or not, to be a “good person” was then, in Hitler times, and continues to be today, connected to one’s political orientation.

As an immigrant to America, fleeing Communism, I came to this country because I knew it was a great country. I love this country and I am eternally grateful for what this country has given me. But when I hear Mr. Trump and his followers shout “Make America Great Again” and know that what is meant is really “Make White America Great Again,” I shudder at the transparency of this mantra that points to racism, fascism and the resulting perversion of democracy.

I remember well the person sitting in our synagogue good many years ago who, whenever the rabbi made the slightest allusion to politics, shouted “No politics from the pulpit!”

How wrong he was! The Bible and particularly the great biblical prophets never hesitated reminding their kings of having neglected righteous behavior, going so far as to jeopardize their very lives.

There is no escaping “the political.” To refuse speaking out against lies, especially in the context of a place of worship, is cowardice.

To refuse to take a political stance is to take a political stance.

I have been inspired by a book, lent to me by a Christian friend. The book’s author is Audre Lorde, a black poet, feminist writer, political activist and New York State’s Poet Laureate from 1991 to 1993. I quote from her book Sister Outsider, (p. 43), “But primarily for us all, it is necessary to teach by living and speaking those truths which we believe and know beyond understanding. Because in this way alone we can survive , by taking part in a process of life that is creative and continuing, that is growth.

And it is never without fear – of visibility, of the harsh light of scrutiny and perhaps judgment, of pain, of death. But we have lived through all of those already, in silence, except death. And I remind myself all the time now that if I were to have been born mute, or had maintained an oath of silence my whole life long for safety, I would still have suffered, and I would still die. It is very good for establishing perspective.”

And so I repeat: to refuse to take a political stance publicly is to take a political stance.

Ergo: I will not remain silent as to where I stand politically and will ask the folks before me to join me.