History, Ethnography and Synagogue Life

Our readings this week are split on two separate (but hopefully converging) “fronts.”

Lee I. Levine is a historian and archeologist. His book on The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years constitues a phenomenal attempt to bridge several fields, from archeology to philology to anthropology, in order to reconstruct the genesis of the establishment of the synagogue as a foundational institution in Jewish life. In the Introduction (p. 2), we read about how the synagogue, since its inception in the early centuries of the common era, was a revolutionary institution when compared to the Jerusalem Temple, in at least four ways:

1. Location. The synagogue was universal in nature. Not confined to any one site, as was the ‘‘official’’ sacrificial ritual of the post-Josianic era, the synagogue enabled Jews to organize their communal life and worship anywhere.
2. Leadership. The functionaries of the synagogue were not restricted to a single caste or socio-religious group. In principle, anyone could head the institution. Priests may have played a central role in its religious affairs as well, owing to their knowledge and experience in liturgical matters and not necessarily because of their priestly lineage per se. Synagogue leadership was— in theory, at least— open and democratic (in certain functions and places, regarding women as well).
3. Participation. In addition to the communal dimension, the congregation was directly involved in all aspects of synagogue ritual, be it scriptural readings or prayer service. This stands in sharp contrast to the Jerusalem Temple setting, where people entering the sacred precincts remained passive and might never have even witnessed the sacrificial proceedings personally unless they themselves were offering a sacrifice. In many cases, visitors to the Temple remained in the Women’s Court without being able to view what was transpiring in the inner Israelite or Priestly Courts. Moreover, non-Jews were explicitly banned from the Temple precincts under penalty of death (warning inscriptions were set up around the sacred precincts), whereas the synagogue was open to all; in many places, particularly in the Diaspora, non-Jews attended the synagogue regularly and in significant numbers.
4. Worship. Perhaps the most distinct aspect of the synagogue was that it provided a context in which a different form of worship other than that of the Jerusalem Temple developed. Over the course of Late Antiquity, the synagogue came to embrace a wide range of religious activities, including scriptural readings, communal prayers, hymns, targum, sermons, and piyyut. Instead of the silence that characterized the Temple’s sacrificial cult, the synagogue placed a premium on public recitation— communal prayer, as well as the reading, translation, and exposition of sacred texts.

Levine’s study moves on to examine archeological evidence and literary sources about the historical development of the synagogue in ancient Palestine (emerged primarily through excavations in the State of Israel) and the Diaspora. It then focuses on the ancient synagogue as an institution, isolating the following aspects (all reflected in dedicated chapters):

  1. Architectural buildings
  2. Communal dynamics
  3. Leadership
  4. Rabbinic involvement
  5. Women
  6. Priests
  7. Liturgy

Samuel Heilman based his study on Synagogue Life on a participant-observer approach that combines “the ethnographic approach, which in its description embodies explanation, with the sociological one, which tends toward analytic generalization.” His research was based on a year-long fieldwork process, during which he assiduously frequented a “modern-Orthodox” synagogue in Queens, NY (which in the book he calls “Kehillat Kodesh,” or Holy Community, an alias designed to preserve the anonymity of the congregation and its members), describing what he experienced there according to a specific point of view.

Heilman considers synagogue life as “the interaction generated within and by the members of [a] synagogue.” (Incidentally, in the book he refers to the synagogue with a Yiddish term, shul, that is popular among Ashkenazi Jews in the United States). Synagogues offer a specific “setting” for the interaction among individuals who, in the context of daily worship, study and assembly, fulfill definite symbolic roles, acting within a space of “institutional sanctity.”

The symbolic roles are outlined by Heilman as those of a predefined “cast of characters.” The theatrical and performative connotations of this approach are obvious, and inspiring in many a way. The characters that act on the stage of synagogue life include:

  1. males and females
  2. the gabbai (a dispenser of “kibbudim,” or ritual honors)
  3. the synagogue’s lay leadership (the “President”)
  4. the chazan (cantor)
  5. the “quasi-chazan” (a figure that stands in a dynamic relationship
  6. with the cantor)
  7. chiyuv and yartsayt (those whose presence at services is mandatory)
  8. rabbinic authority
  9. strangers and guests
  10. mendicants, beggars, shnorrers and meshulachim
  11. children

Both scholars adopted an inter-disciplinary approach to study synagogues and synagogue life. History and archeology, sociology and ethnography are all at play in describing this extremely dense aspect of culture. Comparing Levine’s study with Heilman’s is also useful in identifying some elements of continuity in the development of synagogue life after its “first 1,000 years.” We are thus keeping their respective efforts, and the lists of categories we can derive from them, in mind while continuing our study.

In the exhibition, Case Study No. 2: The Inventory Project, which opened yesterday at The Magnes, there are several items that illustrate some of the dynamics of synagogue life highlighted by both Levine and Heilman. You may want to single them out on your own. (I Spy-style hints: a textile with the names of a man and a woman; a synagogue seating chart; a list of the value of ritual honors; a schedule of liturgical services; a reminder of yartsayt dates; and more…).

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