I had never before visited a synagogue, and as I pulled up to the temple in my car, there was no need for me to refer to my GPS to see if I had the correct address. The architecture of the building was distinctive in its context, above all defined by two turrets, that were ornately decorated. Whereas the style of the building itself was not audacious, it clearly separated itself from its immediate surroundings because of its form, showing itself to be a house of worship and a sacred site for the Jewish community. In so far as religions represent the sacred, in contrast to the profane world, it follows that the house of the sacred, in whatever domination, should somehow distinguish itself from its surroundings. The building’s architecture, in other words, created a setting which was inviting to worship, to the extent that its aesthetic followed a different set of rules and principles than the architecture of everyday life.
As I thought about this key difference, I understood that, on the one hand, some may argue that the architecture of a religious site should be as similar as possible to common architecture. The argument behind this logic would be that the religious community should try and show its relevance to the contemporary society and adopt its norms, even in architecture, so as to try and become inviting to the community. From this line of argumentation, we clearly get phenomena such as the “mega church.” As I pulled up to the building, the architecture of the synagogue conveyed to me that this line of reasoning was entirely wrong. The sacred site is sacred precisely because it is, quite literally, an entirely different approach to reality than the profane and the everyday. The sacred site should, in its architecture, reflect this difference. If this makes some people feel uncomfortable, and they long for familiarity, they are perhaps unadventurous people, who cannot look at the world from a different perspective. A sacred site, such as a synagogue, should demonstrate its very diversity from the rest of society, because of its very specific function within society.
Since I had never attended a synagogue before, as I entered the building I immediately contacted an usher. I explained to him that I was visiting the synagogue on a school assignment, thinking that honesty was clearly the best policy, and that, because of my unfamiliarity with the Jewish faith, if he could perhaps give me a type of program or pamphlet that would enable me to follow the ceremony. He smiled pleasantly and immediately gave me a piece of paper describing the service, so that I would be able to follow the entire process and report about it. The service I was attending was on the Jewish Sabbath, and therefore, was a Torah service. As the pamphlet explained, and as I also saw before my eyes, the Torah itself as a holy book plays a central role in the ritual of the Torah service.
The service begins with a displaying of the Torah by the head rabbi. The book itself is treated with the utmost respect. This book symbolizes the revelation of God to the Jewish people and thus bears a deep sacred significance. The book, in this sense, is the focus of the service, precisely because it is the focus of the religion itself. In other words, the book, since it is the word of God, is itself a sacred object, because these are the direct words of God to the Jewish people. The book is treated in reverence because of its deeply sacred character, placed on a reading desk.
The entire focus serves around the reading of the text. Clearly, if one does not understand Hebrew, the message is impeded. Nevertheless, the ceremony itself, in its sacred character, the movement of the participants, such as the rabbi, reflect the deeply spiritual nature of the ceremony. In other words, even if one cannot understand the text that is being read, one can understand, because of the solemness and seriousness with which it is read, that the message is profoundly sacred in character.
After the readings had been performed, not only by the rabbi, but by select members, the Torah is returned to its place, the entire ritual symbolizing, or reenacting the reception of the word of God by the people of Israel. In the ceremony, my overall feeling was that this initial revelation to the people of Israel was in fact being re-enacted with the attention towards the sacred object of the Torah, which was the centre of the entire ritual.
My decision to visit a synagogue was informed by a recent podcast I had listened to about the deep connections between the three monotheistic religions, that of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Although my point of view on this subject matter is, of course, amateur, I nevertheless felt that perhaps I could capture on a certain intuitive level the distinctiveness of monotheistic traditions as well as of its originating point, Judaism. Clearly, my impression was the sense in which the sacred book informs the entire service. In one sense, it is not the individuals that are of importance in the service, but rather the book. The book itself represents a direct contact and a direct communication between God and the human. Thus, if the words of the book are from God, it is clear that they must be treated with the utmost reverence. I respected this quality of veneration enormously. I would also like to thank the kind usher who gave me the pamphlet and answered my questions.