Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel

85 Harrison Street, New Haven, CT 06515-1724 | P: 203.389.2108 |

Our banner is based on BEKI’s stained glass, designed in 2008 by Cynthia Beth Rubin. For information on this and other of Cynthia’s work, go to: <a href="" target="_blank"></a>. Artisan Fabrication by JC Glass of Branford, CT

Beauty and Art in the Sanctuary

17 Nisan 5760

For today’s services, a number of congregants have added touches of beauty to the synagogue and the services. In my Devar Torah, I would like examine the place of beauty and art in the Sanctuary.

The sanctuary is a place where we pray together, where we venerate the wisdom of the Torah, where we tell stories that celebrate our shared past. It is also a place where our spirits and our community can be invigorated, nourished, and rested. It is a safe place, made safe by the community’s recognition of its sacredness.

The sanctity of the sanctuary derives not from its location, structure or furnishings. Sanctuary services can take place in a store front, a dining room, a concentration camp, or in a submarine. Any space with any architecture or decorations can serve as a sanctuary – just as bare rations can sustain us when we are hungry. But once our basic needs are satisfied, humans often want satisfaction of a higher level. Beyond providing a spare utilitarian structure, are there ways we can arrange the physical space of the sanctuary that will permit us to more easily to open our hearts to holiness? Can we create a setting that will remind us of the wonders of the world, that will help instill in us a sense of awe? Can we make the space that is more welcoming to God.

We all know from our efforts to decorate our homes, that our emotional state is affected by colors, fabrics, sculptures, paintings, singing, and light. These same factors in a sanctuary can affect our religious state of mind. There are design choices that we can make that will help us achieve a greater sense of peacefulness, awe, community, mystery, and religiosity.

There are a number of factors that could conflict with our wish to achieve beauty and art in the synagogue and sanctuary. One is the expansive interpretation of the second commandment. The literal words of the commandment are, Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image nor any manner of likeness that is in the heaven above or that is in the earth beneath. My reading of this is that thou shalt not replace the worship of God with the worship of idols or representation of things that live in the heaven or under the earth. This does not prohibit artistic endeavors or even forbid the representation of humans. It merely forbids idolatry. The fact that the Tent of Testimony and the Temple of Solomon are described in the Bible as containing carved cherubim strongly argues that the commandment is accepting of representations even of heavenly beings.

Furthermore numerous passages of the Bible describe Temple art containing palm trees, lions, and other clearly representational objects. Throughout the ages, Jewish art has decorated synagogues and crypts, has been found in haggadot, early Bibles, and in wall paintings.

A second factor inhibiting the introduction of beauty and art into the synagogue is the historical antipathy of the many Jewish religious teachers towards any pursuit that competed with or distracted from the sober minded study of the Torah. This position has had a continuously discouraging effect on the development of Jewish art.

A third factor inhibiting the creating of art by Jews is their historical exclusion by the non-Jewish rulers from the world of Western art until this century.

A fourth factor is the fear that by creating art, especially art that beautifies the sanctuary, we will be imitating Christian churches and thereby losing our uniqueness. This argument has also been used to restrict the harmonies of songs that are sung or the use of choral music during services.

Because our time is short, we will not have time to debate the validity of these points of view. Perhaps we will be able to do this some other time.

For today, I would like to recognize that there are also strong forces within Judaism that embrace art, embrace a wider view of religion that encourages the inclusion of beauty in the synagogue and sanctuary. I would like to acknowledge, too, that at times it is difficult to decide where to draw the line when art conflicts with the religion. For example, only a few days ago, the NY Times ran a story on the colorful, even gaudy yarmulkes being worn by young yeshiva bochers in New York and the mini-storm of controversy they have caused.

A great deal of thought is being given to the redesign of the synagogue. I’d like to spend a few minutes trying to define the emotional and physical qualities that I think that BEKI congregants might seek in a beautiful sanctuary. The sanctuary’s design should first and foremost be respectful of the BEKI aesthetic. I perceive this aesthetic to be one that encourages the traditional and communal, that rejects symbols of wealth or hierarchy, is respectful informality, is perhaps at times slightly anarchic.

Abraham Heschel wrote that a recognition of the sublime, feelings of awe, wonder, and mystery are central to people’s relationship with God. I think that BEKI’s sanctuary should have a design in which such feelings are nourished. I think we might want a sanctuary design that evokes an awareness of the spiritual even the supernatural, of forces and concepts beyond our comprehension. We would like to feel uplifted.

I think we would like to be reminded of things that are God created, not man created. In the sanctuary we might like to be surrounded by the natural rather than the artificial.

The sanctuary space should be clearly different from the familiar day to day. A BEKI sanctuary should be warm, orderly, and quiet. It should be respectful of tradition, have qualities of timelessness.

The physical symbols and decorations that might provide us with these feelings have changed since the sanctuary was designed forty years ago. Styles and values, even technology and the materials from which art, and synagogues, are made, have changed. The spare lines of the unadorned lecterns were once seen as a clear signs of modernity and religious feeling. The flags on the bima once made a powerful and clear statement to anyone who might have questions about Jews’ allegiance. But we and the world have changed over the years and what was once vital and contemporary, like polyester suits and or bell bottomed pants, can be experienced by some as somewhat dated.

With the blessing of the Ritual Committee and Rabbi, Lynn Brotman and I, with Clarence’s help, have made a few changes in the decoration and lighting of the sanctuary for today’s services. With a desire to seek beauty in the services, members of the Singers’ Circle have prepared a few songs and new harmonies for the services and the Qiddush.

And finally in our exploration of art in the synagogue, we are fortunate also to have some beautiful pictures of Moroccan synagogues displayed in the lobby. They were created by one of our prospective members, Cynthia Rubin, whose work is now being exhibited at the Paba Gallery on Chapel Street [in New Haven].

For those of you interested in seeing how other synagogues through the ages have expressed their desire for beauty in their sanctuaries and in the creation of Jewish art, there is a display of about a dozen books about synagogues and Jewish art on the table in the lobby that you may wish to look at.

Marc D. Schwartz, MD, President
HealthCalls America Inc.


Upcoming Events