Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 15 May 2023

I don’t know if you’ve noticed how fantastic Netflix is for improving your mastery of foreign languages: be it French with “10%”; Ivrit – “Shtisel” and “Fauda”; Japanese – “Midnight Diner”; Korean, Chinese, Turkish and so on. Dee and I are currently a bit hooked on an Italian series called “The Law according to Lydia Poet.” She’s a lawyer in late-19thC Turin struggling to establish a place in a very male-oriented legal profession. I mention it now only because some of the long-shots of Turin show an enormous building towering over the city, which has always fascinated me. It’s called the Mole Antonelliana. It was meant to be the Turin Synagogue and construction started in 1863. But they ran out of money. After many iterations, it’s now the National Museum of Cinema. If you’re ever in Turin go and see it.

The Mole Antonelliana isn’t in our siddur, but if you look inside the front and back covers, you’ll see illustrations of many synagogues. These were illustrations in our previous, 1977, siddur. They are all of European synagogues – many of which were destroyed in the Shoah.

On the inside front cover on the top row we can see: Florence built in 1882, Westminster, Wolkowicz 1545, Fasanenstrase Berlin 1912.

Wolkowicz was one of many amazing wooden synagogues throughout Poland. Some figures in front of the building give a sense of how magnificent, striking, that synagogue must have been. Virtually all destroyed during the Shoah, surviving photos show what the interiors were like – how beautifully they were decorated and fitted out. Go into Google images and enter “wooden synagogues of Poland.”

Looking at them dispels some of the misconceptions we might have about synagogue architecture: that pre-19thC synagogues were poor, flimsy structures. Often the Church dictated what a synagogue could be like: it couldn’t, for example, be higher than the church in the town; in Poland, only churches could be built of stone; hence those beautiful wooden synagogues; Jewish law also had its dictates: a synagogue has to have windows; the ark must be on the eastern wall, facing Jerusalem – except where that’s architecturally impossible. In Princelet Street in the East End, for example, there’s a little synagogue with its ark on the northern wall. Synagogues in Russia, Australia, South America had to decide where their ark would go. This ark faces east, though technically it should face south-east.

The 19thC saw many really large synagogues being built – Dohany Street in Budapest 1859; Oranienburgerstrasse, Berlin 1866; West London Synagogue 1870; Warsaw 1878; Florence 1882; Rome 1904. Like the Mole Antonelliana they tower above their locality – many in Moorish-Romanesque style very popular in the last part of the 19thC. replete with domes, cupolas and the like. Synagogue architecture generally reflects contemporary architectural styles – be that in the 21stC (go and see Sha’arei Tsedek or Finchley Reform); or any of the ancient synagogues in Israel dating from 1st to the 4thC CE.

Those 19thC synagogues weren’t just reflecting architectural styles of that time. Built less than 50 years after the legal emancipation of Jews in their countries, they were giving out a particular message to both Jews and non-Jews: “We’re here!” they’re saying, “we’ve arrived! We’re part of the modern world and our places of worship are as impressive as yours.”

The theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote a little book on the Sabbath. It begins:

Technical civilisation is man’s conquest of space. It is a triumph often achieved by sacrificing an essential ingredient of existence, namely time…. To gain control of the world of space is certainly one of our tasks. The danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time…. Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time.

He published that in 1951, a time when many big synagogues were being built as Jews moved to the suburbs. Heschel provides a sort of countervailing voice, a reaction to what has been called the ‘edifice complex.’ He argues that we find God primarily in time, not in space; not in building fine elevated buildings, but in making moments of time special, holy, sanctified. Shabbat and the festivals, he argues, are the cathedrals we build, cathedrals of time not of space. He’s not making it an either-or but saying something about where we put the focus in human endeavour.

But there’s a difficulty: the Torah is normally a very concise book: 16 verses for the story of Cain and Abel; the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, is told in a mere 19 verses; the German writer Thomas Mann wove the 13 chapters of the Joseph story into a 1500 page novel. Sometimes the Torah is so concise it makes a Readers’ Digest Condensed Book feel like “War and Peace”!

The difficulty begins with today’s sidra. Rafael read chapter 25 of Exodus. This begins what I call the DIY section of the Torah. Of the remaining 14 chapters of Exodus, 10 detail the construction of the Tabernacle in the desert, the sacrificial rite that must take place in it, what the priests should wear, what the altar and its accoutrements should be and so on. And once we’ve finished the DIY stuff, and built this miskan, we go into Leviticus which goes into enormous details about the sacrifices that should take place in it.

I would have liked to ask Abraham Joshua Heschel: “all very well your fancy language about ‘cathedrals in time’ but how do you square that with this second half of the book of Exodus?” It’s a question we might be asking here as we’re on the threshold of starting the building works. There’s invariably a tough question that hovers whenever a religious organisation embarks on a building project: something like, “how do we ensure that the refurbished building doesn’t become an end in itself? How do we make sure we don’t lose sight of the vision that lies behind the bricks and mortar of the project when so much focus is, inevitably, on those bricks and mortar?”

Unlike those 19thC edifices the message of our buildings is not really for the world out there. In our time, the focus of our buildings is much more about what message we give to our members and to those we wish to attract.

All that said, the Torah is not entirely mute in response to these questions and concerns. God tells Moses that the people should bring gifts for the construction of the Tabernacle, “gifts from every person whose heart so moves them” (Exodus 25:2) And the purpose? “v’asu li mikdash v’shachanti“ “and let them make Me a sanctuary” – we would expect the instruction to continue: “v’shachanti b’to’cho” “so that I may dwell in it.” (exodus 25:8) But no, “v’asu li mikdash v’shachanti betocham”let them make Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them” – ‘them’ the people.

And then, in the four verses of Exodus. The construction has been done, the mishkan, the sanctuary, is built. We’re about to go into Leviticus with all its nitty-gritty of sacrifices, bullocks, sheep, blood, entrails and all that stuff.

This portable sanctuary will accompany them on their journey across the desert. God indicates the divine presence by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. When the cloud or the pillar moves, the people have to dismantle the Tabernacle and move off across the desert only re-erecting the Tabernacle when the pillar of cloud or fire stops.

In other words, one can have the most beautiful synagogue in the world, but if the Shechinah is not there, if the cloud is not hovering, as it were, over the building, it is nothing more than a collection o bricks and mortar. At the end of the day, it’s ethics – not aesthetics – which give a place ultimate meaning. It’s in the quality of relationships that are played out in the building, in the way people care for each other, in the way that the synagogue strives to promote the highest values to which Judaism aspires.

The challenge is to hold on to that verse: “v’asu li mikdash v’shachanti betocham”let them make Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell” not ‘among them’ but ‘b’tocheinu’ ‘among us.’