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Comparing Houses of Worship

One of my sons is taking a class on the connections between architecture and prayer – how, for example, Christians designed churches around relics and rituals, while Muslims basically can use any large room – the focal point is a single wall that directs prayer toward Mecca.

The class has virtually nothing on Jewish holy architecture. There are a range of reasons for this, but one of them is that Jews tend to avoid building enormous houses of worship. This is possibly connected to our inherent distrust of unified authority, and possibly because we tend to be an itinerant people and so it would be a foolish bet to think that we will still be welcome in a given place in 50 or 500 years. The builders of Notre Dame or the other great cathedrals of Europe had no doubt that they were building for their posterity.

But I think there are deeper, and frankly, more interesting explanations than just culture or flight. I think the differences between Jewish and non-Jewish places of worship come down to what we think G-d actually desires.

Think of it this way: a devout Christian may want to build a grand cathedral to reflect the glory of God and the investment that people make into that building forms its own kind of worshipful service. The greater and more beautiful the building, the more a Christian can show investment and deep respect for the Creator.

Muslims desire a unified world, with all prayer focused on Mecca and all of mankind united in obedience. Mosques can be absolutely enormous to achieve that end. And when built in non-Muslim nations, these mosques are also deeply symbolic of surging Islamic power – both in the Middle Ages and today. Which makes sense because throughout history, Muslims were rarely actually the majority – so they had some posturing to do.

(Mosque in Damascus, built when Islam was Making a Statement. Notice how the building dominates the skyline.)

(It is a fact that the Islamic calls to prayer at all hours in Israel are extraordinarily loud, waking sleeping citizens in Jewish towns miles away, while in Saudi Arabia there are strict limitations on the volume of the muezzin. One Israeli Jew, in a fit of pique, once blasted an Arab neighborhood just to illustrate what it felt like. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fUSdHB1R-W4)

With only one exception, Judaism is not found in buildings. Jewish orthodox synagogues tend to be rather small, and while they can be elaborate or fancy, the vast majority were not built for eternity. They were not particularly grand. Here is the famous – but quite small – Alt-Neu in Prague:

It was never imposing.

The great Jewish Temple of the ancient world started out very small, because it was portable and designed to be carried on shoulders. The tabernacle in the wilderness was smaller than a modern tennis court:

And the famed gold Menorah, using the Torah’s description, could not be much more than 5’ high, resembling, appropriately, the burning bush. The tabernacle was also built entirely by a volunteer work force using donated materials.

The Torah tells us that the tabernacle was to come to a place in Israel where it would become permanently installed. But it does not tell us that it necessarily was supposed to grow.

When Solomon built the First Temple, he did not rely on volunteer labor and contributions; he deployed slaves. The resulting structure was larger than the tabernacle, and certainly more grand. But it was a piker compared to what came next.

The Second Temple, built after the Babylonian Exile, started small, but grew over centuries (585 years!) into an enormous, multilevel structure with a 35 acre / 144,000 square meter footprint, a showpiece for Herod’s ambitions.

This building was erected using heavy taxes and slave labor. And it had the perverse impact of making the Jews of the period think that there was a reason to become nationalistic, to seek an independent political existence and perhaps even boast an army that could turn back Rome.

In other words, the Jewish temple, having grown far beyond its design parameters, helped inspire the people into a bloody and horrific war that they could not win. A 2000 year exile resulted from this profoundly contaminated worldview.

The temple was always supposed to be small, not only because the tabernacle was small, but because every important element in the temple was within the tabernacle itself, with nothing up-sized from the components that were carried in the desert. And the reason for this is that buildings, in Judaism, are a source of confusion. The first building mentioned in the Torah was the Tower of Babel, a story of man’s arrogance and ambition; it did not end well.

Our forefathers were shepherds, and were thus regularly on the move. They predominantly lived in tents, not permanent houses. Dwellings in the Torah tend to be favored not because of their size or their grandeur, but because of their contents: the home is where the family shelters during Passover; the tents in the wilderness are not about physical structures but are instead all about the marriages contained within their walls.

There is no even a reference in the Torah to a permanent building for a temple – just a permanent place. Referred to numerous times in Deut. 12, the command concerns “a place that G-d will choose.” There is no mention of a building at all!

There are simple reasons for all of this: the G-d of the Jews is found in the “still, small voice,” inside our souls. The tabernacle is there not as the physical embodiment of G-d, but instead as an enabler, a way for each of us to connect, so that G-d can live “in” the Jewish people. The tabernacle was not an imperium: containing not even a single step, everything was on the level of the common man.

Building substantial temples was not only missing the key point: worse than this, it was counterproductive and born of confusion. Jews are not here to dominate any cityscape, or to score political or military victories. We are not great because we build big or beautiful buildings. Our temple should not be grand or imposing or impressive. Instead, it should be formed of the small tabernacle, established on that small hill in Jerusalem.

Our power is not measured in terms of physical clout; Jews are tasked to influence the world, not dominate it. Our places of worship serve no political or imperial ends. We are great only as and when we connect with our Creator, in a personal and intimate way.

When we forget who we are supposed to be, bad things happen.

P.S. There are a whole bunch of old beautiful synagogues in Europe that go by the name “Alt-Neu”, which is usually translated from Yiddish as “Old-New”. (I have led services in the Altneu in Prague, and sang a concert in the one in Krakow.) “Old-New” is a comical mistranslation from secular scholars. There is, by contrast, a Jewish talmudic phrase “Al-Tenai” which means “on condition.” Essentially, the builders of these buildings were keenly aware that the ultimate Jewish home was not in Krakow or Prague, but rather in Jerusalem. So the buildings were built as solid structures, but clearly named “On condition” so as to declare: “For as long as we cannot return to Jerusalem, this is our synagogue.”

Comments are welcome!