I would like to begin my reflections with a question: what is a synagogue? During the past nine months our synagogue building has been closed – and it will be some time before we inhabit it again. But we have continued being a synagogue. So, again: what is a synagogue?

Here we are on Shabbat morning at Ralli Hall, Brighton and Hove’s Jewish Community Centre, in the Magrill Room named in memory of a dearly loved past chair of our synagogue, Stephen Magrill, who used to spend a lot of time in this building involved in cross-communal activities. We are here every Shabbat morning – and every Shabbat morning in term time, our young people gather in the upstairs classrooms to learn and to explore what it means to be Jewish.

Yesterday evening, the synagogue took up residence somewhere else – in the home of two of our members – which is what has been happening every Friday evening since we stopped inhabiting 6 Lansdowne Road: each Erev Shabbat, in another home.

And during the week, the synagogue is located at 61 Lansdowne Place – just a few hundred yards from the synagogue building – which is just as well, because the similarity of the two addresses can cause confusion! If you visit, you will find a pleasant bay-windowed space on the second floor, which functions, week in and week out, not only as an office, but also as an adult study classroom and a meeting room.

So, again: what is a synagogue? Let me remind you of some of the Hebrew names, which are very revealing.

The word synagogue itself, as the Oxford dictionary tells us, has its origins in late Latin from the Greek, sunagoge, meaning, a ‘bringing together, which is a translation of the Hebrew, k’hillah, ‘assembly’. So, a synagogue is an assembly; a gathering; a bringing together. As it happens, the word, k’hillah, is only used twice in the TaNaKh, the Hebrew Bible – in the Book of Nehemiah, chapter 5, verse 7 – and in the Torah, where it appears in what is presented as Moses’ last address to the assembly gathered on the east side of the Jordan. Here we read at Deuteronomy chapter 33, verse 4: ‘Moses commanded us Torah; an inheritance of the assembly of Jacob’ – Torah tzivvah-lanu Moshe, morashah k’hillat Ya’akov.

More frequently, the Torah uses a verbal form and speaks of Moses ‘assembling’ the people together. For example we read at the beginning of B’midbar, the Book of Numbers, at chapter 1, verse 18, that Moses and Aaron, ‘assembled the congregation together on the first day of the second month’ – V’eit kol-ha-eidah hikhilu b’echad la-chodesh ha-sheini.

Citing this particular verse brings us to another key word: ‘congregation’ – eidah. Eidah expresses a more complex concept than k’hillah. The Hebrew root of eidah is Yud Ayin Dalet, which means, ‘to appoint’. The Torah is replete with references to the ohel mo’eid. Translated as, ‘tent of meeting’, ohel mo’eid means, literally, ‘the tent of appointment’. In other words, the ohel mo’eid is an appointed place. Meanwhile, in other contexts, the same word, mo’eid refers to an appointed time. Genesis chapter 1, verse 14, speaks of the lights in the firmament of the heavens serving ‘for signs and for seasons and for days and years’. Seasons: mo’adim. In Exodus chapter 13, where the laws associated with Pesach, Passover, are described, the text states at verse 10: ‘You shall keep this statute in its season – l’mo’adah – from year to year.’

So, mo’eid: an appointed place or an appointed time. What about the word eidah? An appointed people? It makes one think of the purveyors of luxury goods – ‘by appointment to Her Majesty, the Queen.’ So: the people Israel, by appointment to the Eternal One. The purveyors of luxury goods know what business they are in. What about us? What is our task and our purpose? The traditional way of referring to a synagogue in Hebrew is to call it a k’hillah k’doshah – ‘a sacred assembly’. The Hebrew root for ‘sacred’ – expressed by the consonants Kuf Dalet Shin – means ‘to set apart’. So, k’hillah k’doshah: an assembly that is ‘set apart’. ‘Set apart’ for what purpose? ‘Set apart’ to do what?

On the one hand, there are very straightforward answers to these questions. A synagogue is also known by three other names: beit k’nesset, beit midrash and beit t’fillah. A synagogue is a ‘house of meeting’, a ‘house of study’ and a ‘house of prayer’ – in that order. While the use of the word, house, bayit, seems to suggest the building, the emphasis in these three ways of speaking about the synagogue, is on what people do: meet, study and pray.

Needless to say, the Hebrew meanings are more nuanced. The word, k’nesset, rooted in the Hebrew letters, Kaf Nun Sameich, means ‘to enter’. On a simple level, the image of entering the synagogue building may come to mind. At a deeper level, ‘entering’ in the context of a synagogue is about participating, engaging, connecting with others, getting involved; it suggests all the different ways in which we create the life of the community.

Turning now to the word, midrash. Rooted in the Hebrew letters, Dalet Reish Shin, meaning ‘to enquire’, ‘to interpret’, ‘to investigate’, the use of the word midrash tells us that Jewish study involves asking questions, investigating possible meanings, working out interpretations. Traditionally, Jewish study is not a private individual matter. The basic unit of study is two people, a text between them, engaging together to explore what it’s about. This method is known as chavruta, from the Hebrew root, Cheit Beit Reish, meaning, ‘to join’. You may be familiar with another word based on the same root: chavurah, as in chavurah supper or lunch. A chaveir is an ‘associate’, a ‘companion’. Two people engaging together in chavruta are chaveirim or chaveirot – male or female companions on a journey towards meaning and understanding. That is what Jewish study, Jewish learning is all about.

Finally: the word, t’fillah. The translation, ‘prayer’, is rather misleading. Our understanding of what prayer means has been defined by the uses of that English word in a largely Christian context. T’fillah is rooted in the Hebrew consonants, Pei Lameid Lameid, meaning ‘to intervene’, ‘to interpose’, ‘to intercede’, ‘to judge’. Jewish prayer is a process by which individuals and congregations actively engage with Eternity, and address not only the Eternal One, but also themselves. The reflexive form of the verb on which the noun, t’fillah, is based, tells us that prayer is a process by which we judge ourselves in the context of the relationship between ourselves, our congregation and the Divine.

So, when we talk about a synagogue as a beit k’nesset, a beit midrash and a beit t’fillah, we are not simply describing the activities that take place in the synagogue building. Rather, we are acknowledging the ways in which individuals, connecting with one another find meaning and create community, so that, together, they become a k’hillah k’doshah, a sacred assembly; an eidah, a congregation appointed for a purpose.

As we can see, the Hebrew concepts concerning a synagogue help us to arrive at a coherent, if complex, picture of what a synagogue is. But there is an important caveat. Since a synagogue is an assembly and not a place, it is essentially dynamic and, therefore, influx and, potentially, unstable. In this week’s parashah, Torah portion, Korach, we read about how Korach, a Levite first cousin of Moses and Aaron (and Miriam, too, of course), together with Datan, Aviram and On, from the firstborn tribe of R’uvein, together with 250 ‘renowned’ leaders of the congregation, ‘assembled against Moses and against Aaron’ – va-yikahalu al-Moshe v’al Aharon (Numbers 16:3).

So, people may ‘assemble’ and congregate in very different ways for different purposes. Prior to this rebellion, Miriam and Aaron – but, principally, Miriam – had already spoken out against their younger brother’s exclusive relationship with God – an incident which is related in the parashah, B’ha’a lot’cha, at Numbers chapter 12, which we read two weeks ago. And then last week, in parashat Sh’lach L’cha, beginning at Numbers chapter 13, ten of the twelve tribal leaders created mayhem in the camp after giving a negative report, following their reconnoitre of the land beyond the River Jordan. Finally, as we read this week, all the leaders in the congregation, forming themselves into their own counter-congregation, challenged the primacy of Moses and Aaron. According to the Torah, the rebels did not mince their words (16:3b):

You take too much upon yourselves! Because all the congregation are sacred, every one of them, and the Eternal One is among them; why therefore do you lift yourselves up above the assembly of the Eternal One?

Rav-la-chem! Ki chol-ha-eidah kullam k’doshim u’v’tocham Adonai; u’madu’a titnas’u al-k-hal Adonai

So, what were the rebel leaders saying? What was their charge against Moses and Aaron? They accused Moses and Aaron of elevating themselves above the congregation. But they also made a more subtle accusation: ‘… all the congregation are sacred, every one of them, and the Eternal One is among them’. The word ‘sacred’ in English can be singular or plural. The Hebrew is more precise: kullam k’doshim – all of them are sacred (plural). In other words: each one of them. The mediaeval biblical commentator, Abraham Ibn Ezra, who was born in Spain in 1092, and was a grammarian with a complete mastery of, both, Hebrew and Arabic, teased out the meaning. He wrote: ‘From the day God revealed Himself and gave the Torah to the people on Mount Sinai every Israelite is sacred.’

Ibn Ezra got to the heart of the matter. The people gathered at Mount Sinai entered into a covenant with the Eternal One: kullam – all of them – each one of them. And according to the Book of Deuteronomy, at the end of the wilderness journey, the message was repeated for the generation born in the desert – for those who did not stand at Mount Sinai. We read at the beginning of parashat N’tzavim, Deuteronomy, chapter 29 verses 9 to 11a:

You are standing this day all of you – kull’chem – before the Eternal One your God: your leaders, your tribes, your elders, your officers, all the men of Israel, / children, women, even the stranger within your camp, from those who chop wood, to those who draw water – / to enter into the covenant of the Eternal One your God…

Further, the passage concludes that the covenant is made, ‘both, with those were standing here with us this day … and with those are not with us here this day’ (29:14). In other words, the message extends to all the generations to come – and all the individuals in each generation – which, of course, includes us.

So, Korach, Datan, Aviram and On and the other 250 leaders of the congregation had a point: all the congregation – kullam – are ‘sacred’ – each and every individual member. And because each and every member is sacred, potentially, at least, there will be as many different ideas about and approaches to the work and life of the congregation as there are individual members, with, at times, people pulling, or, assembling, in different directions… You’ve heard the joke about two Jews three opinions – well, in the case of a congregation like BHPS, those numbers need to be multiplied: shall we say, 300 Jews, 450 opinions?!

The biblical solution to conflict which we find in today’s parashah – grizzly punishment for all those who rebel – is not available to us and anyway, it goes without saying, that it offends our ethical sensibilities. What we are left with, therefore, is the challenge of congregational life – a challenge for each and every one of us: to respect one another, embrace diversity and seek creative ways of living and working together, despite and with our differences, as a k’hillah k’doshah – a sacred assembly.

Kein y’hi ratzon – May this be our will. And let us say: Amen.


Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut

23rd June 2012 – 3rd Tammuz 5772