Commentary Magazine

Creating a Modern Synagogue Style: Tradition from Function

As Rachel Wischnitzer-Bernstein has adequately shown, there is no living tradition of construction and style in the architecture of synagogues. The floundering attempts to invent a tradition by rationalistic analogies and ad hoc history result, as in most modern public building (the synagogues are neither better nor worse), in a painful superficiality, ludicrous a year after completion. On the contrary, it is just those synagogues, like that in Newport, Rhode Island, which were the plainest handling of a contemporary way of building, that turn out to age gracefully and to take on a certain venerability. Yet there is a tradition in the synagogue: the tradition of the service, of the sacred objects and furniture, and—to a degree—of the iconography—its symbols and decorations—and there is. also a tradition of the congregational functions of the building.

In all these there is variation from rite to rite, national group to national group, and generation to generation: what the Sephardim do and what the Ashkenazim do, what the Orthodox do and what the Conservatives do, what the Talmud-learners do and what the American social workers do. But this kind of historical and experimental variation within unexpressed limits is just what is meant by a tradition.



The point of view of these notes is that a tradition of synagogue-building can be drawn from the tradition that exists, i.e., the service and the congregation; it cannot be imported where it does not exist, and should not exist, in the construction and style. The authors are functionalists. Now the meaning of functionalism is that the principle of design is the living plan, the arrangement of the actions of the users; the architect must look for his design to the service and the congregation, employing whatever means most simply and directly serve their functions. If he attentively and actively looks to the concrete functions, rather than passively accepting the generalities of a “building committee,” he cannot fail to make a traditional synagogue. To say it paradoxically, what is needed is more attention to the letter and less to the spirit.

1. To show what is meant by functionalism in synagogue design, let us take some examples from the service. First, the fundamental act of the service, the reading of the Law. This comprises, orthodoxly, taking the Scrolls from the Ark, carrying them in procession to the reading desk, calling up the men of the congregation for the reading, raising high the Scrolls for all to see, dressing them again, and returning them in procession to the Ark. This complicated choreography contains a wealth of material for functional design.

For instance, in the Spanish synagogue Sheeray Tefila in New York, the Ark and the desk are counterposed across an open plain, the benches of the congregation rising sideways steeply from the plain. This arrangement brings out with much beauty the processional of the Torah between Ark and desk, the reader does not have his back to the audience, the parts of the congregation can see each other and those called on are in evidence as they come forward. (There are also certain disadvantages in the arrangement.) The point is that an inventive solution of the manifold parts of this action cannot help being profoundly expressive architecture. And what if the architect keeps in mind also such a special ceremony as the dance of Simhat Torah?

We have space here for just one more example of the relation of service and plan; let us choose the outdoor booth for Succoth. Obviously this calls for a garden plot, which during warm weather can serve also for collations, and-perhaps most important-as a milling-round space for such of the congregation as go outside during long services. The landscaping of such a garden is a difficult problem of design; the solution of the difficulty will prove to be expressive and traditional.

2. Now concerning decoration: It is a principle of functionalism that the chief care and expense should be given to that which gets the most frequent and attentive use.1 What is to be embellished is not the columns that hold up the roof but the things that are intimately handled and scrutinized. (By the same principle, the construction as a whole, its proportion and color, must be clear and expressive, for they exert an omnipresent pre-conscious effect.)

In the synagogue this calls for a much closer integration between architecture, sculpture, and painting than we have seen. Decoratively, the role of the architect is to provide a setting for the sculpture and furniture of the Ark, the desk and light, the Scrolls, just as all these in turn are just the adjuncts of the service and the sense of congregation. What we look for is a team of artists in which the functionalist architect plays to the vision of a Lipchitz and a Chagall. In every synagogue the Ark is a focus of attention; why should not the sculpture of it be given to a master? (On this point it would certainly be useful to have a clarification of the “graven image” injunction. The non-naturalistic icons of the great modern artists might be, oddly, just the most traditional decoration conceivable.)

At risk of being polemical, we must mention two current abominations: the memorial stained glass and the eternal electric light. The first is a functional impossibility: the service is throughout a reading of prayers and every one has a book, the light simply must be bright and white. Further, with the Jews as with the Protestants, the visible congregation is of the essence: the mysterious illusive brilliance of real stained glass is glorious, but it is not ours. As to the second point, what is the symbolism of an eternal light that requires no care, that does not threaten to flicker?

3. Concerning the congregation, we must consider both the combination of congregational functions and the architecture of the congregation in the service. The congregational functions are traditionally: the prayer service, the study of the adults, the study of the children, festive occasions, the social activities of the sisterhood, the adolescents, etc. These create problems of planning for a number of rooms and for the possible flexible transformation or combination of rooms. There is the suggestion of Ben Bloch, outlined by Mrs. Wischnitzer-Bern-stein: “The prayer hall a single unit with the social hall-provided with a collapsible wall and reversible seats—the two rooms joined (for the large crowd) on High Holidays.” This is a typical solution that must be studied on its merits in each case. We must not forget the maxim that “an all—purpose object is rarely good for anything.”

The sense of the congregation as taking part in the service is the fundamental religious function of the synagogue. If there is anything true in religion that is specifically Jewish, it is this integrating of the individual actors and their community; there is no representative and there is no non-human sacrificial act. The phalanx of prayer shawls, and the rising from the ranks of those called on and their returning to the ranks; ultimately this is the whole of it. Architecturally, this must be in evidence: the rabbi, the cantor and his choir, are adjuncts. And what profound, what terrible difficulties are implied in this word congregation! For instance, what of the woman’s place in the Orthodox rite? Obviously we are here beyond the realm of discussions of buildings, yet who cannot see that apart from these things there is no plan for a building?

Put the same difficulty—and worse!—meets us if we consider the heart of architecture, the city plan. For the first topic of architecture is not the building but the town square. It is a topic touched on by Mrs. Wischnitzer-Bernstein when she writes: “In the Middle Ages it had been the practice to enter synagogues at the side—inconspicuously—and there was no doorway in the western façade. The synagogue had to refrain from bringing itself strikingly to notice.” It is a question of choice of site and the functional relation to other buildings. Now in America we have no town squares at all: no place that people do not pass through but where they stay because it is the concourse of work, love, and culture.

The problem is not what building dares call notice to itself, but what building has a claim to do so? If, as we believe, every building with a real work, love, and culture function has such a right, we cannot plan without studying the integration of these functional buildings. As architects, can we cowardly avoid raising this question in the reader’s mind?



But to end on a more pleasant note. Speaking of tradition, Mrs. Wischnitzer-Bernstein mentions the two Temples, but she fails to speak of the chief architectural passage in the Bible, the great chapters, Exodus 25-27, describing the construction of the Tabernacle. If the reader will consult this remarkable set of specifications he will grasp what we intend in these notes better than we can express it.

The passage begins with the materials that are to be gathered from the congregation: “Of every man whose heart maketh him willing ye shall take My offering”—the metals, the tent linen, the oil for the light, the wood for the furniture. It proceeds first to the main architectural feature, the Ark. This is specified as a movable furniture sculpturally embellished with cherubim, whose posture is described in detail. Next are specified the other sacred objects and furniture: the Table and the Candlestick of seven branches. Next, the tent to contain these things, all in bright linen “blue, purple, and scarlet” embroidered. The objects are then disposed in the Tabernacle, the Ark behind the veil, the Table and Candlestick before it, and the Altar. Lastly, the Court of the Tabernacle, for the meeting of the congregation.

“Thou shalt command the children of Israel to bring pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually. In the tent of meeting, outside the veil before the Covenant, Aaron and his sons shall set it in order, to burn from evening to morning.” The religion has changed—in principle for the better; the totemic sacrifice and the priestly caste are both gone. They have been replaced by a tradition of learning and a congregation. But the method of functional analysis of the structure can be confidently recommended to architects; and there is no dearth of “traditional” iconographic ideas.




1 See the authors’ “Notes on Neo-Functionalism” in Communitas (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1947), Ch. viii.


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