What’s in a Name?
A recent comment on this blog suggested that unscrupulous infiltrators were subversively seeking to transform pristine Reform temples into (gasp) synagogues!
I have blogged before about the ways words change meaning, or acquire niche meanings, or develop connotations not necessarily understood beyond a certain group. However, anyone who tries to co-opt the meaning of a word on behalf of a personal agenda risks being misunderstood or losing credibility.
In choosing to call their synagogues temples, the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century Reformers were trying to make a point. Nervous about accusations of dual loyalty, they wanted to emphasize their lack of aspiration to rebuild a temple in Jerusalem. Did their Christian neighbors get the message? Probably not, but their strategy resonated with their fellow Jews, and today over 500 of the 900-plus congregations in the Union for Reform Judaism use Temple in their names.
There is of course nothing inherent in the word temple to restrict its meaning to a place of Reform Jewish worship where the language of prayer is mostly English. If anything, it might suggest a place where the language of prayer is Latin; in fact, the oldest Roman meaning of the word is a place marked out for the observation of auguries. Nor should we assume that a Classical Reform congregation will be called a temple. Even the Mother Church of Reform Judaism in America, Kahal Kodesh Beth Elohim in Charleston, doesn’t have temple in its name, nor does the fount from which sprung the new Union Prayer Book, Chicago Sinai Congregation.
Nor does Reform Judaism have a copyright on the word temple. We share it with Hindus, Mormons, and Masons, as well as with a substantial number of Conservative congregations, and even by six congregations that are members of the Orthodox Union. (Quel chutzpah!)
On the other hand, we do not share the word synagogue, except with other Jewish streams. This term, from the Greek, originally meant only a place of assembly, but today’s dictionaries apply it specifically to Jewish houses of worship. Synagogue seems to be more generally accepted as a lower-case generic than as part of congregations’ names…
Isaac Mayer Wise called his organization Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and 312 Union members use the word congregation in their names, as compared to 510 temples and only 26 synagogues. Congregation of course has no inherently Jewish connotation, nor does it imply, as do temple and synagogue, a physical structure.
Congregation ranks second to temple in usage in names of Reform congregations, but in the Conservative movement, it seems to rank first. Since the search engine on the website of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism doesn’t work like that of the URJ, I couldn’t readily get movement-wide figures, but I spot-checked 175 congregations in three states. Congregation was used in the names of 55 Conservative synagogues, 49 used Center, while 39 called themselves temples (!), and only 18 used synagogue. The use of center or community center is concentrated in the state of New York and is not prevalent in Illinois or Ohio, the other two states I tallied. (The totals in this analysis do not add up to 175, because some congregations don’t use any of the four terms, nor did I follow the links to see if those that used a J.C. abbreviation wee Jewish Centers or Jewish Congregations.)
Whether an institution today calls itself a temple, synagogue, congregation, or center does not mean that they have always used the same term, nor that they will continue to do so, nor does it provide any clue as to how much ritual or Hebrew it will use in its worship services. Thus the suggestion recently put forward on this blog that adding ritual or Hebrew to the minhag (custom) of the congregation changes it from a temple to a synagogue lies somewhere between fatuous and absurd.
But overwhelmingly in the Reform movement we choose to give our religious institutions Hebrew names. Whether or not God wants to listen to us pray in Hebrew, we must think He wants to look for us in that language. In California, for example, 94 of the 98 Union congregations either incorporate Hebrew words or the name of a distinguished rabbi or Scriptural figure in their names. The other four identify themselves by location (e.g., Wilshire Boulevard Temple). However, it’s an amusing coincidence that the four with geographic English names include one temple, one synagogue, one congregation, and one community.
In a future post, I will discuss the variety of “first names” we find in the congregations of our movement, and the values they represent. But for now, since I am writing this on erev Shabbat, I’ll close, so I can go home and get ready to go to shul.