Tuesday, April 30, 2013

How Fancy is your Shul?

I am personally always struck by how unassuming a Jewish place of prayers often is.  I travel often and yet my normal adventures to synagogues rarely leave an impression influenced by the physical structure, but rather the quality and spirit of the quorum.  Recently I was a brand new shul and was humbled by the colors, natural light and decor of the sanctuary. Another famous example is the Belz Great Synagogue in Jerusalem - a must see for its beauty, splendor, and controversy.

Interestingly I came across a fascinating passage in Hillel Halkin's Yehuda HaLevi, a 2010 Nextbook publication exploring the biography and poetry of a midieval classic. In the middle of Halevi's journey in Spain he encounters a church that has been transformed into a mosque and back - Halkin writes:
Two conflicting theologies i stone, one overlying the other without erasing it. All over Andalusia are churches that once were mosques, the airy lightness of whose minarets now support the weight of Christian Bells.   
And Judaism? A room in Cordoba, a doorway in Seville. Yes, a doorway: the sole known Jewish feature left in that city is the former entrance to a synagogue that is now part of the church of Santa Maria la Blanca.  
Standing in the Mezquita Cathedral, a Jew feels envy.  How much they did for the glory of God, and how little we! 
Of course, we never had the opportunity.  Grand mosques were not built in Christian Spain, nor grand churches in Muslim Spain, nor grand synagogues in either. And yet even when Jews have erected such structures where they could, as in nineteenth and twentieth century Europe and America, their hearts have not been in them. It is striking thing in Judaism, a religion that codified everything expected of its practitioners in exhaustive detail, that it has almost no rules regarding a synagogue's appearance  Whereas mosques and churches have their architectural traditions, there are none for what the outside of a Jewish house of worship should look liked.  This remains true even in Israel, where, unless there is a menorah or Star of David on its roof, a synagogue cannot be distinguished from any other public building and need not be a building at all, since a plain room, large or small, will do as well.  
And so another thought, ironic and dissident, came to me in the Mezquita Cathedral. For whom, it asked, did you intend all this pomp, you who built and decorated this place? Did you think God was so easily impressed? "Behold, the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain Thee," Solomon said in dedicating his Temple.  "How much less this house that I have builded!" True, he went ahead and built it anyway, but this was a folly Jews committed only twice. Christians and Muslims have never stopped repeating it.  
Halkin makes his point dramatically and ends with a beautiful poem by Halevi tied into this message about the sanctity of space (I will keep this as teaser for reading the book).  I also hear in his writing Heschel's hallmark point about the Sabbath as an "island in time" and the predominance of Jewish time over space - an important theme for conceptualizing tefilla in a modern mindset. One digestible take-away from this passage is that the history of a place of prayer reminds us that the eternal nature of prayer must be focused on the strength of the daveners and not the physical structure alone. What's your take-away?

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