Every Temple is a Synagogue; So Why Isn’t Every Synagogue a Temple?

Sermon delivered on June 6, 2008, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block


My grandmother was a world-class traveler, and she always returned from her trips with wonderful stories. One time, she regaled us all with the tale of the tour-bus guide in Asia, and his response to a question about whether the country they were visiting had a Jewish community. “Oh yes,” he responded. “We have a syn-a-go-goo.”

The truth be told, my grandmother, a life-long classical Reform Jew, might not have understood what the tour guide meant if he had pronounced “synagogue” correctly. To her, a Jewish house of worship was a Temple.

Many folks, raised in smaller to mid-sized cities, even San Antonio, grew up not referring to various congregations by their names, but as “the Temple and the synagogue;” and perhaps also, as in our case, “the shul.” The “shul” usually denotes an Orthodox synagogue, referred to as “shul,” because its members would use that Yiddish term. “The Synagogue” was the Conservative congregation; “The Temple,” Reform. In some cities, such as Atlanta, the Reform worship place really was called, almost officially, as “The Temple,” and still is. Now, with a proliferation of newer congregations, here as in most metropolitan areas, we tend to use each synagogue’s name, but the memory lingers.

This Shabbat, we read from the Torah about an entirely different kind of Temple. Specifically, Claire read tonight, and Kate will read tomorrow, about the duties of clans of Levites. The Children of Israel are in the desert. Their house of worship is the Tabernacle, which they carry with them from place to place. However, to a large extent, the duties described extend to the great Temple itself, in Jerusalem, from the time of Solomon to its destruction.

In some ways, the Jerusalem Temple was not unique. Commonly, throughout the Ancient Near-East, civilizations would build Temples for their gods. The Temple would be the primary, often exclusive, worship place of a certain deity or deities. The Temple was generally viewed as the abode of the god or gods worshiped there. The people would go to the Temple to serve their god and to worship. In many places and times – including much of the history of ancient Israel – offering sacrifices or observing certain rituals was restricted to the Temple. Many of our prophets regarded a sacrifice, using the very same rituals and the very same words, offered to the one and only God, as idolatry, if it was not offered in the one and only Temple.

“Synagogue” is basically a Greek translation of the Hebrew term, Beit K’nesset. A Beit K’nesset is a gathering-house, very different from a House of God. While scholars differ about how long synagogues have been in existence, they seem to date from the first exile, namely from the period after destruction of the first Temple, in 586 B.C.E.

The Children of Israel were deprived of their ability to worship God at the Temple. No sacrifices were offered. The synagogue would be the place where the people would gather. It might have been more like an ancient Jewish Community Center than a modern day Temple. Certainly, Torah was studied there. However, worship as we know it did not exist.

Only after the destruction of the Second Temple did Jews apparently begin to pray in any way resembling our own practice. In fact, worship at the synagogue saved Judaism from extinction.

While the Temple yet stood, our ancestors knew no form of worship other than the sacrificial rite. How could God be served, with the Temple no more than a pile of rubble?

The Rabbis answered: Instead of offerings by fire, the Children of Israel would render the offerings of their lips. T’filah bimkom Avodah, they taught, “Prayer in place of sacrifices.” The synagogue became more than a gathering-place, and even more than a study hall. The synagogue became Beit T’filah, the house of prayer.

But make no mistake. Our mothers and fathers of the ancient and medieval periods, like their rabbis, never referred to their synagogue as a Temple. To do so would have been, in their mind, blasphemy.

At every worship service, they prayed to God, hammahazir shehinato l’tzion, the One who will return the divine Presence to Zion. While we may utter the same words today, our ancestors literally expected that the sacrificial worship would recommence. As time went on, that hope became increasingly messianic. In other words, Jews believed that God would send a King Messiah, a descendant of David, to return Israelite rule to the Land of Israel, and that the priests and Levites would once again assume their duties. Animals and sheaves of grain would again be brought to the Temple itself. The words that Claire read tonight and that Kate will read tomorrow would again be not only relevant but applicable to current practice.

Throughout Jewish history, particularly in its darkest days, that messianic hope sustained our people’s faith. Believing that God would redeem them, would restore the full glory of Israel, helped keep our people faithful, in their synagogues and in their homes, even when converting to the dominant faith would have been far more convenient.

The modern world, though, has taken its toll on that particular messianic vision. In the 19th Century, some Jews began to believe that a very different kind of messianic day had arrived. Modernity itself was seen as our salvation. Many Jews were so taken with the notion that they could actually be citizens of France and Germany and England and the United States, that they came to believe that God’s redemption had arrived, however unexpected the form. Our people had been warned, though, against such notions. Torah teaches us to place our hopes in God, not in other human beings. The Holocaust put the lie to the notion that modernity was salvation.

Still other Jews came to believe that redemption would be found in a secular Jewish State. Zionism was born. Orthodox Judaism largely rejected Zionism, however, until after the Holocaust. Redemption, they believed, would only come when God would establish divine sovereignty, complete with sacrificial worship at the Temple. Human sovereignty, they taught, was hubris, even blasphemy; for Zionism suggested that the Jewish people could and should save ourselves, no longer expecting and awaiting an act of God.

Reform Judaism had a different view, not so much of Zionism, but of the salvation of the Jewish people. Our Reform founders did not believe that modernity had brought a perfect world. Reform Rabbis, from the earliest days, insisted that salvation could only be achieved, even in modest measure, through human agency. As God’s partners, we would have to build a more perfect world, performing mitzvot, religious obligations to feed the hungry, free the captive, and heal the sick.

The Reform notion of redemption has never included a vision of recommencing sacrificial worship. That would be true, even if two mosques were not standing on the Temple Mount today. While we may accept that God commanded our ancestors to offer bullocks and sheaves, we do not imagine that God would have desired that form of worship in the 21st Century.

We serve God, as our Rabbis taught, with the offerings of our lips.

We serve God, as our Reform founders charged us, by working to establish a just society.

We serve God in our homes, through our family values.

We serve God at our work places, through ethics and integrity.

We serve God here, at our synagogue, by coming to this gathering-house and building a community, devoted to serving God and humankind.

We serve God here, at our Temple, which we affirm as every bit the House of God that the ancient Temple was. Here, as everywhere, God dwells among us. Here, God is served with worship and acts of lovingkindness.

May that ever be God’s will, here at our synagogue, God’s holy Temple.

Amen.