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.

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Larry Kaufman

About Larry Kaufman

Laurence (Larry) Kaufman is a member of Beth Emet, the Free Synagogue, in Evanston IL, where he coaches b'nai mitzvah candidates on their divrei Torah. A long-time Reform Movement activist, he has served on the North American Board of URJ, the North American Council of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the Board of ARZA, and is a past president of Temple Sholom of Chicago. Although semi-retired, he still consults with an Israeli technology company on its U.S. public relations and marketing communications.

10 Responses to “What’s in a Name?”

  1. William Berkson

    Not an issue to get too excited about, but here’s my two cents:
    “Temple” is originally a Latin word applying to a sacred precinct that also had a building. It was applied to the ancient Beit HaMikdash (Holy House or House of the Sanctuary) in Jerusalem.
    In both cases, the idea is that the place itself is sacred because the gods or God dwells in it.
    In rabbinic Judaism you have the ‘beit kenesset’, the house of gathering or meeting. This name goes together with the idea that whenever people meet and discuss Torah, the Presence (Shechina) of God is with the people.
    Thus the holiness is in the congregation, rather than the building or the land. That’s why I prefer names that are ‘congregation,’ referring to the people alone, or synagogue, a Greek translation of beit knesset, which refers to the building the congregation meets in.
    In both cases it is the people that make for the sacredness. So that’s what I prefer, but as I say it’s not worth getting too excited about one way or the other.

  2. avatar
    David A.M. Wilensky Reply November 19, 2008 at 11:19 pm

    Larry, you’ve stumbled once again into a pet favorite topic of mine.
    Reasons I prefer synagogue:
    It’s greek meaning is, as you say, “place of meeting.” Beit Kneset, the Hebrew term for synagogue means, conveniently, “House of Meeting!” So I prefer it on the one hand for it’s direct Hebrew translatability.
    I also prefer it for a more complicated reason. Rabbis replace priests, yet we do not call them priests. Liturgy and the three daily services replaced sacrifice, yet we call it prayer, not sacrifice. So why should we call the thing that replaced the Temple, a temple? It isn’t one. It’s something else. Hence, synagogue.

  3. avatar
    Rabbi Jason Rosenberg Reply November 20, 2008 at 10:33 pm

    It’s nitpicking a bit (and it’s related to David’s comment), but worries about Dual Loyalties were not the only (and maybe not the main) reason for taking on the word “Temple.” It was also a reflection of the core belief that we were not waiting for the Messiah to come and redeem us, and we didn’t view our current state as a temporary, ersatz Judaism. We were (and are!) practicing the real thing, and we didn’t need to restore the Temple so we could get back to “real” Judaism.
    In other words, calling our synagogues “Temples” wasn’t a defensive act, but rather a statement of confidence in our own Jewish practice!

  4. avatar

    Rabbi Rosenberg is right. Temple was a proud assertion that we were not in exile, we were finally at home as citizens of a free, democratic society and we are here to stay. A number of temples chose the name Emanu El (God is With Us) as a statement of confidence that our version of Judaism was more in keeping with what the Lord wants than the traditional.
    The word congregation refers generically to the organized group of people (of any denomination- Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, etc). Temple and synagogue and shul refers to a building where we go to pray, to study, to perform charitable work and to socialize. All Reform congregations refer to going to temple, belonging to a temple, or having services at the temple or to the temple Brotherhood (MRJ) or Sisterhood (WRj) , etc. While all temples are synagogues, not all synagogues can be temples. In America, temple denotes a more progressive and reformed Jewish congregation. In other languages in parts of Europe, a version of temple (like Templo in Italian or Tempel in Dutch, may also be used by Conservative and Orthodox congregations). (Even the Masons, who first join a Lodge, if they reach the level of Shriners, they are made members of a temple). For those of us who are proud to be progressive, Reform Jews, the term has a very positive connotation as well as a more precise denotation. As for shul, that usually referred to the little, neighborhood orthodox synagogue, often of Eastern European origin. I think that term is a holdover from the Yiddish name. Temples are generally much grander in style and size as well as always being more modern in outlook with family seating, co-ed education, instrumental music, choirs, etc.

  5. Larry Kaufman

    Stupid, even considering the source:
    “While all temples are synagogues, not all synagogues can be temples. In America, temple denotes a more progressive and reformed Jewish congregation.”
    As referenced in the original post, all temples are NOT synagogues, since the term is used by Mormons, Methodists, Masons, etc. Any synagogue can be a temple, just by calling itself one. The original post cited documented instances of Conservative and Orthodox temples.
    True, some of them may be progressive, although I doubt that many of them, nor of the 500+ URJ congregations that call themselves temples, are “reformed.”
    What Rabbi Rosenberg called a nit-pick is in fact a cogent amplification of the idea that the Judaism practiced in American temples involved no aspirations for a return to the rites or locale of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem.
    What the term missed was the parallel aspiration. that this house shall be a house of prayer for all nations. That ecumenical hope further adds futility to the idiotic effort to restrict the meaning of the word temple.

  6. William Berkson

    Please, Hineni, no name-calling (lashon hara).
    I share the view that we don’t want to rebuild the ancient Temple and re-institute the ancient sacrifices.
    What I don’t get terminologically is why if you don’t want to rebuild the ancient Temple, you call the modern ones Temples. There are no sacrifices, and we don’t think we have to come to a location where God specially dwells to petition God. And our congregations are direct descendants of the synagogues of first century Judaism, not of the Temple that stood then.
    That’s why, though I don’t think it’s of much consequence, I prefer synagogue or congregation to ‘Temple’.

  7. avatar

    William: says “we don’t think we have to come to a location where God specially dwells to petition God.”
    If I recall correctly, the Lord commanded the ancient Israelites to build a house of worship “so that he could dwell among them” rather than so that he could dwell in the temple. The ancient Temple was a religious center where people went infrequently for religious purposes. We have lived for two almost two thousand years without a single Temple in Jerusalem and I think there are few of us who either expect or want to see it rebuilt. Anybody out there anxious to restore the sacrificial cult? The modern temples we belong to are the Jewish religious centers where we congregate to pray, study, etc. They have taken the place of the Ancient Temple in our religious lives. Reform Judaism wanted to return to the Biblical heart of Judaism and strip away the outdated, erroneous and inappropriate practices. In that respect, I think they saw themselves as getting back on the true path, so far as they could, and therefore returning to the ancient ethical ideals. Most of all, I think they wanted to disassociate thermselves with the old synagogues of which they were so critical.

  8. William Berkson

    MB, I don’t think your reading is quite on target.
    First, the people did not go ‘infrequently’ to the Temple. They went regularly, as commanded, during the three pilgrimage festivals (chaggim), namely Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot. There are reports in the Second Temple period of massive numbers of people regularly coming to Jerusalem and the Temple for the festivals.
    Second, Exodus 25:8 refers to the Tabernacle, as the Temple wouldn’t be built for several hundred years. Fox translates this passage as “Let them make me a Holy Shrine that I may dwell amidst them.” “B’tocham”, amidst or “among” them is somewhat ambiguous. However, if you read the stories about the Arc of the Covenant–which was central in both the Tabernacle and the later Temple–in Samuel, you will see that it is treated in a magical fashion as if the spirit of God were within the Arc, and carrying it into battle would put God on our side and help us win.
    The word shachan, “dwell”, was later used by the Pharisees and Rabbis to mean the Presence of God anywhere, the Shechina. For example, as I mentioned, they say that wherever two people discuss words of Torah, the Shechina is there. But this is a Rabbinic concept, and I think a fair reading particularly of Samuel is that in Torah times our people had more of a concept of God’s power as actually being in some way located within the Arc. This was a notion closer to the pagan one, and the Sages changed it to the more universal one we recognize now.
    Recognizing the reality of such historical changes in Judaism is part of Reform. And the fact of these particular changes is why I don’t find the word “Temple” the most appropriate name for our houses of worship. But I recognize that it is widely used for any place of worship, and it’s no real issue for me.

  9. William Berkson

    MB, looking a little further, I see that in the next sentence, it refers to the Mishkan, the tabernacle, or “dwelling” (Fox) by a different word than the Sanctuary (JPS) or Holy Shrine (Fox), which is in Hebrew “mikdash”.
    So the implication is that the God’s power is in the Mikdash, the holy of holies, where the Arc is, and the ‘dwelling’ or tabernacle, the mishkan, is the place where the mishkan dwells.
    When so when it says in the first verse “that I may dwell among you,” the implication is that the place He is dwelling is the Mishkan or Dwelling–in Hebrew these have the same root. So He is dwelling among you because he is in the Dwelling.
    I’m afraid that what I’ve just written is not very clear, though the Hebrew is. Fox’s translation, which is close to the Hebrew, makes the point more clearly:
    “Let them make me a Holy Shrine that I may dwell amidst them. According to all that I grant you to see, the building pattern of the Dwelling and the building pattern of all its implements, thus you are to make it.”
    The idea that the Mikdash specifically is where God’s spirit is is also reflected in the Hebrew name for the Temple, the Beit HaMikdash, the House of the Mikdash–the house containing the holy shrine or sanctuary, with the Arc of the Covenant.

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    [...] and early twentieth century, the distinction between a temple and a synagogue was critical, and I was concerned with breaking down the distinction. Congregations were rooted in their schools, affiliation had not become problematical, and reaching [...]

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