The synagogue in the past
Not too long ago, there was a viral internet meme about ‘how often men think about the Roman Empire.’ TikTok, Instagram and Facebook lit up with people asking the males in their lives how often they contemplated the legacy of Romulus and Remus. Suffice to say, I asked my own husband, who responded with ‘huh?’ and then ‘uh, never.’ Apparently, at the base of this pop culture moment was an analysis of a certain mythological masculinity that gave the Roman Empire appeal.
But you know who else think of the Roman Empire a lot? Rabbis. Every time, a Jew learns a rabbinic text, from the Mishnah onwards, or late Second Temple literature, we engage with the legacy and influence of ancient Rome.
Do not worry: this is not a sermon about the Roman Empire. It is, however, a sermon about the institution that Judaism built against the cultural and historical backdrop of Antiquity. I will be talking about the rise of a remarkable Jewish innovation: the synagogue. These next three weeks, we will explore the past, present and future of this important and enduring Jewish project.
Synagogues were a vibrant and well-represented part of the Roman Empire (Roman synagogues had inscriptions dedicated to the Emperors!). However, synagogues actually stretch further back. It is reasonable to assume that the first ‘proto-synagogues’ were founded during the Babylonian Exile, shortly after the destruction of the first Temple in 586 CE. Exiled from their land and bereft of their temple, our displaced ancestors would become the world’s first Yehudim – Jews; not just tied a theology of place but innovating a greater, more transcendent covenant. The Book of Daniel already records how Daniel would pray three times a day in front of his open window, hearkening his heart to a ruined Jerusalem yet uttering his prayers to a God Whose presence is felt in Babylon as much as Judea. We can easily imagine the exiles congregating in homes, establishing the first informal centers of learning and prayer. Out of the exilic community in Babylon, the community of Amoraim – rabbinic Talmud scholars – would form, coalescing around great Babylonian centers of learning like Sura and Pumbedita.
Likewise, in the Land of Israel and the Mediterranean sea basin, the idea of a synagogue took root. It was Ezra and Nechemiah who rebuilt the Temple, but by this time, a parallel institution of synagogue life was already forming. We have much historical evidence for the vibrancy, creativity and cultural context of ancient synagogues. We have letters of the ancient Jews of Elephantine to the myriads of God-fearers worshipping alongside Jews in Rome to donor lists (yes! Already then!) of patrons (born Jew and proselyte alike) to the synagogues in the Levant to the beautiful Zodiac-inspired mosaic of a 4th century Galilean house of worship. According to credible historical estimates, 10% of the Roman Empire was Jewish. Ancient synagogues radiated a ‘sacred magnetism’ that drew outsiders in, either through cultural sharing and polemics or through instances of active proselytism. The integrated, globalized world of Late Antiquity was not so different from our own.
In this week’s parashah, we will not read about synagogues, but we will read about Matan Torah, Revelation, and how that Revelation will lead to the construction of something that in some ways foreshadows the synagogue: the portable Tabernacle. While in our people’s collective historical imagination, the fixed Temple in Jerusalem is often seen as the direct successor of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), I would actually argue that the synagogue is the true inheritor of a portable, mobile and adaptable form of sacred gathering. Parashat Yitro offers us a lot of insight into ‘synagogue management’; lightening the load, delegating, empowering the holy community to be a ‘Kingdom of Priests and a holy nation.’ There is something both ancient and radical about the synagogue; a place of direct democracy, civic engagement and ongoing learning. The synagogue, both ancient and new, has a quality that gives it endurance.
It can be comforting to know that the needs of our ancestors are not so different from our own. They, too, lived in a complex world brimming with choice and competition. They, too, were trying to figure out ways to build mutual support, orient their lives to sacred values and create lasting community. They, too, pondered questions of integration and assimilation and turned to Torah to buffer them against the upheavals of their time.
And, as we sit among the bright windows and clean lines of our very modern synagogue – a decade old now – we can take comfort and pride that we also sit amongst something very ancient; not bound by walls or architecture, but undergirded by an idea. I think few cultures can lay claim that a foundational institution surviving and thriving today going back 2500 years.
It is the privilege and prerogative of being Jewish that we get to take part in something so ancient and yet so cutting edge. Out here in Iowa, in our galuta b’galuta, the heart of our Diaspora, we have every right to take pride in our synagogue; within these walls and beyond them, and cast a vision of all the beautiful and magnificent things yet to come.