Scholarship generally agrees that the institution of the ancient synagogue was shaped by larger social, material, cultural and religious contexts. The impact of the surrounding culture on the Jews in the Greco-Roman and Byzantine worlds was significant. We can be certain that no area of Jewish life was immune to these influences which were of an infinite variety.
The Jewish people never possessed an independent architectural tradition. The exhibits of miniature replicas of synagogue buildings from various periods in Tel Aviv’s museum of the Diaspora shows that each was constructed and decorated in the style of the predominant culture of that time. The exhibit shows that it was almost impossible to distinguish a synagogue from a non-Jewish edifice by looking at its exterior only. This is further corroborated by a rabbinic tradition where it was debated whether one was guilty of an intentional or unintentional sin by bowing before a pagan temple, thinking it was a synagogue (Tb Shabbat 72b).
It is very likely that the Jews of the Diaspora worshiped in the vernacular. In a well known document published by Roman emperor Justinian dated from 553 CE it is stated that Jews read the Torah in Greek. Furthermore, “those who read in Greek shall use the Septuagint tradition which is more accurate than all the others.” The Yerushalmi (Talmud of the Land of Israel) preserves a story about two rabbis entering a synagogue in Caesarea in the 4th century where they heard the worshipers reciting the shema in Greek. One of the rabbis wanted to stop the service right then and there but the other suggested that it was better for these Jews to pray in Greek than not at all (Y Sotah 7, 1, 21b). It is generally thought that in the Galilee and in Babylonia, on the other hand, prayer and some sermons were delivered in Hebrew. The targum, i.e., the translation of the liturgy into Aramaic, the lingua franca of the land at that time, is well known to have been used to help the Jews understand Torah texts. A few Aramaic prayers in the liturgy have been preserved to this day as, for instance, the Kaddish.
The sanctity the Palestinian synagogue acquired must be seen as a sort of transfer of this attribute from the destroyed Jerusalem Temple. It also developed naturally as a counter-balance to the ubiquitous presence of pagan places of worship that were considered sacred. Undoubtedly it was also the presence of the Torah scrolls housed within the synagogue building that contributed to the synagogue being seen as a holy place. Possible also is that the growing Christian interest in Palestinian holy places may have influenced Jewish attitudes of holiness attributed toward their own place of worship, the synagogue.
The variety of artistic and architectural forms that have been alluded to in previous essays points undoubtedly to the influence of Hellenization. There is evidence that suggests that this influence was not uniform. Large cities along the coast of Roman Palestine with their cosmopolitan culture show this effect to have been stronger there than in rural areas. But even within urban areas there was diversity, with certain synagogues being more and others less receptive to non-Jewish influences.
What were the uniquely Jewish characteristics of the ancient synagogue? The orientation of the synagogue was one of these, as was pointed out elsewhere. Pagan temples and Christian churches almost always faced eastward, toward the rising of the sun. Synagogues outside of Israel were oriented toward Israel and those within Israel toward Jerusalem. Prayer was directed toward Jerusalem. While the stone benches in synagogues were generally on either two or three sides of the building, the fourth wall faced Jerusalem and it is this wall that contained either a semi-circular niche or the aron ha-kodesh, housing the Torah scroll(s).
The artistic representations consisted generally of Jewish symbols, ethrog, lulav, shofar and incense shovel, the latter being a reminder of the incense sacrifices burnt on the incense altar in the Jerusalem Temple. Very popular was also the seven-branched menorah, appearing in various forms and shapes, sculpted into walls and appearing in mosaic floors. A departure from these specific cultic objects was the Jewish adoption and adaptation of the zodiac. While Christians generally did not depict religious scenes or symbols, the cross being definitively banned from such use, a number of synagogues such as Beth Alpha, Hammat Tiberias and Sepphoris did not shrink from depicting religious artifacts such as Torah shrines and biblical scenes containing persons in their mosaic floors.
It is worth mentioning also that while in the Byzantine church there was a strict division between groups such as clergy, laymen, laywomen, catechumens, etc., such divisions were unknown in the ancient synagogue.
I would have liked to report here that the status of women in the ancient synagogue was equal to that of men. This, I regret, was not the case. Woman’s place was seen primarily as domestic and was often discussed in rather disparaging and uncomplimentary terms. Josephus writes: “The woman, says the Law, is in all things inferior to the man. Let her accordingly be submissive, not for humiliation, but that she may be directed; for the authority has been given by God to the man (Against Apion 2, 201). Paul in I Cor. 14:34 expresses similar sentiments about women. History, on the other hand, reports notable exceptions regarding some Jewish women’s societal status: the Hasmonean Queen Salome, Queen Helena of Adiabene and Beruria, wife of rabbi Meir. These are examples of Jewish women who became powerful in the politics of their time and were known for their intellectual and religious achievement in society. These and lesser known women’s remarkable achievements, however, were not the rule either in Jewish society nor in the surrounding Greco-Roman circles.
It can be said with certainty that women attended worship in synagogue. Both Paul of Tarsus and also Philo write about the presence of women in worship. Some rabbinic sources, as well, speak of the presence of women in synagogue. Among the Christian Church Fathers it is the rabid antisemite John Chrysostom (4th cent.) who claims that the synagogue is a place of abomination because men and women gather there together (Adv. Jud. 3,1-2, 7,4).
For a long time it was assumed that women sat in a separate section in synagogue. Based on archaeological findings, however, the claim now can be made that women in the early synagogue did not sit separately from men. No archaeological or documentary traces have been found suggesting a separate synagogue area designated exclusively for the seating of women.
Did women play a role in the ancient synagogue’s ritual? Did they lead in prayer, preach sermons and read from Torah? Only one text in the Tosephta (Megillah 3:11-12) addresses this question. Unfortunately, this text is ambiguous. The statement reads: “Everyone is included in the counting of seven [people to be called up to read from the Torah on Shabbat], even a woman, even a child.” This is followed by, “One does not bring a woman to read to the public.” The ambiguity and seeming contradiction of these sentences following each other lead us to a dead end.
Much more could be said on the subject of women in synagogue as for instance on their altruistic roles and their various support functions within the institution. Chiselled inscriptions on synagogue pillars and texts in mosaic floors witness to women’s contributions to the richness of synagogue life. To my disappointment I did not find that women played any kind of liturgical role in the synagogue. Their role in synagogue was supportive but liturgically peripheral. This by no means suggests, however, that their role in synagogal life was negligible.
Summarizing this very quick excursion into the reality of the ancient synagogue a few final reflections are in order. What strikes me most is that the synagogue was all inclusive. Communal needs were met within its framework and the synagogue reflected the community’s wishes in its physical appearance, its functions and leadership.
Jewish elements existed alongside elements taken from the surrounding world. Rather than damaging what was uniquely Jewish, the resulting amalgam strengthened Judaism. The inclusivity also made it possible for Judaism and Jewish life to survive the many crises it was forced to undergo. The strong communal and religious dimensions shaped Jewish concern for society at large and, in my opinion, provided Judaism with the ability to be in some ways society’s ongoing conscience.
Having personally experienced Christian church-dominated life for twenty-two years, it pleases me enormously that Judaism, via the ongoing presence as community, guided and led by synagogue, is not hierarchy dominated, let alone governed. Every willing Jew has the opportunity to actively participate in Torah and Haftarah readings, in sermons, prayers as well as in Jewish community-led activities that participate in or interface with non-Jewish activities. And it is, of course, in such activities that both the importance and joy of the “synagogue-as-people” lies.
For Gail and me the term synagogue evokes feelings of home and family. This is how it has been for most Jews for millenia. May it remain so in the future! Something to be thankful for.
Note: The preceding mini-essays were written with the help of prof. Lee I. Levine’s magisterial book The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years. I am also greatly indebted to prof. Herbert Gordon May (z”l) who not only encouraged my research of the ancient synagogue in graduate school but had me join him on a lengthy research trip through much of the Middle East in the late 1960s
Aside from being a CBI treasure, Dr. Walter Ziffer is a Holocaust survivor and retired professor of Biblical Studies and Theology. A tireless advocate for Jewish-Christian dialogue and human rights across the globe, he shares his amazing life experiences with middle school, high school and university students, as well as churches and synagogues. Dr. Ziffer is the author of The Teaching of Disdain, available as an e-book through Amazon; The Birth of Christianity from the Matrix of Judaism and Confronting the Silence: A Holocaust Survivor’s Search for God, all available at Amazon or through your local bookstore. His blogs, re-posted here, can be found at on his website, walterziffer.com