Commentary Magazine


Creating a Modern Synagogue Style: Expressive of America

With many Jewish communities planning new synagogues or embarking upon building projects deferred by the war, the problem of Jewish religious architecture has become one of wide practical concern. Its discussion, in addition, illuminates the general problem of creating Jewish cultural forms indigenous to the American scene.

Three of the contributions to this informal symposium on the problem of synagogue architecture in this time and place were stimulated by Rachel Wischnitzer-Bernstein’s provocative article on that subject in our March issue. Dr. Landsberger’s essay was prepared originally for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

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The synagogue, as is well known, was not the earliest abode of Jewish worship. It was preceded by the Tent of Meeting in the wilderness and later by the Temple. In the description of the dedication of Solomon’s Temple, the Bible put these words into the mouth of the King: “I have surely built Thee a house of habitation, a place for Thee to dwell in for ever.” These words precisely define the significance of the Temple in Jerusalem. It was the place where God dwelt and revealed himself in the darkness of the Holy of Holies, a chamber into which only the High Priest entered. The great altar upon which the animal sacrifices were offered in the presence of the faithful did not stand in the Temple but in front of it.

We do not know when and where the synagogue first arose. We know only that at its inception the Temple and its cult still flourished. From this we may deduce that the first purpose of the synagogue was to furnish a place of worship for those Jews who lived too far away from Jerusalem to visit the Temple, as, for instance, the Jews of Babylonia. The synagogue was not a “house of habitation” for God, nor were animal sacrifices offered there. These sacrifices pertained only to the Temple in Jerusalem. The synagogue was a community gathering place in which the word of God was read and expounded and in which the congregation offered prayers to God.

When the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. and the sacrificial offering finally came to an end, the synagogue became the only center of Jewish worship and as such it has remained to this day.

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We do not know what the earliest synagogues looked like. The oldest of those that have survived, and of which in fact only a few fragments remain, date from the early centuries of the Common Era. At that period the Jews, as well as other peoples, were under the spell of Grecian beauty. The synagogue fragments remaining to us clearly show the architectural influence of the Greeks and of their pupils, the Romans. The secular basilicas of their neighbors, designed and erected as bazaars, stock exchange buildings, and courthouses, served as models for the synagogue. Large halls were built to” accommodate great throngs and additional space was provided by the use of balconies resting upon beautifully carved columns.

A few minor modifications converted this type of structure into a house of worship. A forecourt was added in which ritual ablutions were performed; it was surrounded by a colonnade. The synagogue was given a prescribed orientation, namely, facing Jerusalem, the Holy City. Balconies were utilized to separate women from men during services; and, finally, a raised platform from which the Torah was read was erected in the interior of the building and a beautiful Ark placed there in which to preserve the Scrolls of the Law.

It was the synagogue which first suggested to all the world the concept of a congregational house of worship, a concept which was adopted by Judaism’s daughter religions, Christianity and Mohammedanism.

As the two younger religious groups, Christian and Mohammedan, continually increased in the size and number of their communities, and as the Jews, deprived of their homeland, were scattered among these groups, synagogues were built according to the various architectural patterns of the non-Jewish world, resembling the Christian and Mohammedan places of worship as they had once resembled the Greek basilicas. The large synagogue of Toledo in Spain, with its rows of columns and horseshoe arches, shows Moorish influence; the synagogue of Worms in Germany is built in the Romanesque style of the Christian environment. When the Romanesque gave place to Gothic architecture, the synagogue did likewise: for example, the famous synagogue of Prague with its Gothic columns and pointed arches. In the period of the Renaissance synagogues were built in that style, and so it went on into the baroque and finally the neo-classical period, when men were again captivated by the beauty of the Greek column. The Polish synagogues, made of wood, are an imitation of the wooden churches of eastern Europe, and the synagogue in Kai-feng-fu in China closely resembles the pagodas of that land. To sum up: though original in religious conception, the synagogue never developed a style of its own.

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The continual change of architectural form in the synagogue in accordance with the prevailing custom of the country and the age came to an end in the beginning of the 19th century, just about the time when the Jews were permitted to leave their ghettos. Furthermore, during the period of the Emancipation they had both the room and the means to build their synagogues where and how they pleased. It is true that as regards the beauty of their synagogues the Jews did not make full use of this freedom of opportunity. But their failure was not a matter of Jewish taste alone; it was related to 19th-century aesthetics as a whole. For at that period there was a complete cessation of the development of new architectural styles and a constant imitation of older forms. In some places churches were built in the early Christian style, in others in the Romanesque or Gothic styles, and the architects vied with each other in the scientific accuracy with which they copied the various forms.

Here again Jews were influenced by the world about them. They also harked back to the styles of earlier times and built synagogues with Romanesque arches and domes or with Gothic columns and pointed arches; or they copied the old mosques in memory of the golden age in Spain under Moorish rule.

Even today we suffer from this same tendency to imitation of the past. I have often been asked in the planning of new synagogues whether these should follow the Byzantine or the Colonial or various other styles. And I usually answer, “Do not adhere to the old forms, but follow the style of our own day.” We have meanwhile come to recognize that all of the churches and synagogues built since the beginning of the 19th century suffer from the same defect. They lack individuality. In the Middle Ages the Moorish or the Gothic style was an expression of the age, with the spirit of which the Jews were also impregnated. But with the passing of time we too have changed and cannot return artificially to the past. Let us have the courage to be ourselves.

This urge to create something individual began toward the end of the 19th century. If found its first expression in buildings designed to serve the major tendencies of the modern age: in office buildings, factories, and railway stations and similar structures. But gradually this style came to be employed also for churches and synagogues. In this respect Germany took the lead. Shortly before the advent of Hitlerism, Felix Ascher and Robert Friedmann built a synagogue in Hamburg and Fritz Nathan a chapel in the cemetery at Frankfort-on-the-Main, both excellent examples of modern architecture. The United States, a leader in modern industrial building, was slow to accept this style for buildings intended for religious purposes. Yet there are in this country men of great talent, both native-born and recent immigrants, who are well equipped to design a modern synagogue.

This new modern style commends itself particularly to us as Jews. It avoids over-ornamentation in order not to obscure the functional purpose of the building, but rather to give it greater emphasis. It parallels our striving toward clarity and truth in our religious thinking. Moreover, contemporary architecture is fully capable of giving to the structure that dignity which its religious purpose demands. The synagogue in Hamburg, of which there is an illustration in my History of Jewish Art, has an open forecourt flanked by two low buildings, with the façade of the synagogue between them. This facade has an entrance hall with three wide, broad portals. The high wall rising above the porch is quite plain except for a round window ornamented by a stone grill in the shape of a seven-branched candlestick. All of this gives the building an appearance of quiet exaltation, a quality not achieved in the structures of the preceding decades.

We hope to see the future synagogues of the United States built in the modern spirit and by the best architects available. Such buildings would strongly attract the Jewish worshiper and at the same time be worthy ornaments to the cities in which they stand.

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