For some time I’ve had a few concerns regarding both Jewish and Samaritan synagogues. In this post I will briefly outline them. I’m not necessarily drawing any conclusions at this point, nor am I condemning these practices. I am simply writing about the things which concern me personally. Perhaps they will encourage the reader to contemplate these things as well.
A synagogue is essentially a house of meeting (Beit Knesset) or prayer (Beit Tefila). I see nothing concerning about this in itself. Rather there are components and/or practices within Jewish and Samaritan synagogues that I find I must question.
Let’s begin with Jewish synagogues. If we accept (as do I) that Judaism itself is somewhat of a departure from the original truth recorded in the Torah, beginning with Eli’s rebellion against the high priest at Mount Gerizim (the chosen place); If we accept that the post-Torah Judaean writings contain rampant disobedience against the covenant; We should find it no surprise that elements of this disobedience might have crept into the synagogue structure (the building) and practice as well.
Questionable structural features
A Jewish synagogue features a raised platform called the bamah, Hebrew for high place. This is the same terminology used of the Canaanite worship sites that Israel was commanded to destroy.
you must drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images, all their molten images, and demolish their high places.Numbers 33:52
We find throughout the Judaean post-Torah writings that the Caananite high places were notdestroyed, but used by the Judaeans to worship YHWH.
Now the people were offering sacrifices at the high places, because in those days a temple had not yet been built to honor YHWH. Solomon demonstrated his loyalty to YHWH by following the practices of his father David, except that he offered sacrifices and burned incense on the high places. The king went to Gibeon to offer sacrifices, for it had the most prominent of the high places. Solomon would offer up a thousand burnt sacrifices on the altar there.1 Kings 3:2-4
Of course YHWH expressly forbade this practice, but the Judaeans embraced it and continued this Canaanite tradition, against the clear dictates of their covenant with YHWH.
This concept of high places seems to have been preserved to this day as part of the Jewish synagogue structure. While sacrifice is obviously not conducted thereupon, the terminology itself is highly questionable, in my opinion.
A synagogue’s bamah will frequently feature an ark (Hebrew aron) containing one or more Torah scrolls. This ark harkens back to the ark of the covenant, containing the original tablets written by the hand of YHWH and given to Moses. In a sense, where there was but one ark of the covenant kept in the tabernacle at the one and only chosen place (until Eli produced a counterfeit for his duplicate tabernacle at Shiloh), Jewish tradition has conflated the concept of multiple high places and multiple arks. Again, questionable in my opinion.
Finally, within Judaism one finds the idea of “Every table an altar”. This is the idea that the Jewish family dinner table itself is an altar. For evidence of this see this, this and this (also feel free to search the internet for more evidence as well, but be aware that a search for “every table an altar” will contains several pages of results related to a Christian song of that name. Page forward and you’ll eventually find results pertaining to this Jewish concept.)
In summary, it seems to me that Judaism subtly encourages Canaanite ideology and practice, perpetuating the errors it has been unwilling to correct now for 3,000 years. Whereas the Torah speaks of a single chosen place where worship and offerings could be performed, and the story contained in Joshua 22 clearly shows the early Israelites in the land refused to allow any altar save the altar to YHWH their God that had been built for the ceremony conducted on Mounts Gerizim and Ebal (Deuteronomy 27, Joshua 8), by the times of the Judges there were altars springing up everywhere. The Canaanite style of worship is so ingrained in the Judaean psyche that its echoes can still be found in Jewish life today.
While Samaritan synagogues (of which I’m only aware of three, one on Mount Gerizim and two in Holon) are free of these Canaanite vestiges, they feature practices that raise questions in my mind.
Samaritan men (women do not regularly attend shul) are required to wear head coverings (as are many Jews as well) in the synagogue, and they must remove their shoes.
This is because the synagogue is considered holy ground–but is it?
Moses was instructed to remove his sandals in the presence of YHWH (Exodus 3:5), and head coverings (or possibly head bands) were a part of the priestly garments (Exodus 28:40, 39:28).
Do either of these apply to the synagogue or to all Israelite men? YHWH is not manifestly present amongst Israel today, so the removal of shoes seems suspect. Only priests had required head gear, so requiring it of non-priests seems suspect. Can a synagogue be declared holy ground in the absence of YHWH? I’m not so sure.
As tradition these practices might pass muster, but I dare say no Samaritan would be permitted to enter the synagogue with shoes or without head covering. Why?
One can go even further and ask questions about the proscribed prayers recited within the synagogue. Prayer is imagined to be the substitute for sacrifice (Hosea 14:2), now that the tabernacle is gone (or for Jews the temple in Jerusalem).
What makes this so? What Torah-based reasoning can be used to justify this? Is prayer ever commanded in the Torah?