Israeli professor describes autonomy in antiquity, locally controlled synagogues

Israeli professor describes autonomy in antiquity, locally controlled synagogues

On a cool Sunday evening in November, nearly 75 people gathered at a historic synagogue in Shadyside to learn about ancient synagogues in Israel. The event, which was a collaboration among Classrooms Without Borders and five area synagogues, featured Lee Levine, an expert on ancient Judaism and professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Throughout Levine’s hourlong lecture in Freehof Hall at Rodef Shalom, he discussed how and why the synagogue became a central institution in late antiquity.

Early on in his remarks, Levine stated the historic uncertainty surrounding synagogues.

“We have no idea when, where or why it started,” he said. “It’s strange for an institution to percolate and know nothing about its origins.”

What historians have gathered stems from archeological and literary findings. Levine claimed that while archeologists uncovered a synagogue in Judea dating from the first century, scholars argue that synagogues may have existed centuries earlier.

Levine recalled the writings of Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian who noted the rights and privileges that Romans gave to synagogues, and suggested that, nonetheless, synagogues may have existed prior.

“The synagogue was a beit knesset (house of gathering) in the first century; it wasn’t a beit tefillah (house of prayer),” Levine said. “There was no art, no religious symbols, it was just a place for gathering.”

Because of its communal function, earlier generations may have employed their own synagogues.

Levine maintained that only after 70 C.E., and the first Jewish revolt against Rome, the role of synagogue changed.

“Before 70 C.E., you heard Torah reading and haftorah, a sermon and targum (translation) in a synagogue,” he said. “After 70 C.E., regular prayer was introduced.”

As centuries followed, other developments ensued. Torahs, which originally were not kept in synagogues but brought in specially for reading, became stored in synagogues. Additionally, synagogues became physically oriented toward Jerusalem.

While these changes occurred, Levine cautioned listeners against believing in uniformity or systematic developments among synagogues.

“There were different tastes and different people involved,” he said.

During the same time frame, synagogues could have starkly different features. Levine related two synagogues of the same era boasting divergent structures: While one synagogue had an ornate mosaic floor, the next synagogue possessed an ordinary stone floor.

“Jews had no independent architectural design; they copied local practices,” he said.

That is why synagogues in China appear similar to other Chinese structures and synagogues in North Africa resemble nearby mosques, he said.

Levine stressed that local control pervaded antiquity: “Each community decided for itself. The power of what to do in the synagogue had to do with local autonomy.”  

Levine described one synagogue that featured a religiously rabbinic community, yet it was just one of 25 synagogues in its area.

Other synagogues featured zodiac symbols or prayer in non-Hebraic languages.

“All we know is that each community decided for itself,” he said.

Perhaps the greatest surprise to attendees was Levine’s discussion of women and synagogues in antiquity.

“Women came to ancient synagogues regularly,” he said.

Yet, where did they sit, together with men or in the balcony? Levine rhetorically questioned.

“We’re almost certain there was no division because the synagogue was a place not just for prayer but for gathering,” he said

Throughout antiquity, women served key roles in synagogues. Women were recorded as donors and synagogue leaders (positions we would now consider president or head of shul, according to Levine).   

During the question-and-answer session, the topic of women and ancient synagogues was pursued. One attendee asked when men and women were first divided in the synagogue. Levine cited archeological evidence and answered that through the end of the seventh century there was no separation. However, a 400-year dearth of information follows that period, and by the 11th century, writings including Maimonides and genizah fragments record women sitting separately in synagogues.

What happened during that 400-year period to force the separation of men and women in the synagogue? Levine inquired. “Was it internal, external or a combination of the two? Something happened in that 300- to 400-year period.”

But like so much of history, Levine said, that answer remains unknown.

Levine’s talk was co-sponsored by Rodef Shalom Congregation, Congregation Beth Shalom, Congregation Dor Hadash, Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation, New Light Congregation and Classrooms Without Borders.

 Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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