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.

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!