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Jews Don’t Do Architecture (And Other Myths)

By Leon Fenster

Medieval synagogues in Europe were necessarily modest buildings, often partly hidden. Planning applications for ostentatious synagogues were rarely received favourably.

Yet Jewish communities still wanted to fulfil the Talmudic requirement that synagogues be the tallest building on the tallest hill in town (Shabbat 11a). With typical medieval Jewish resourcefulness, the synagogue roof would be topped with a simple metal rod extending above the roofs of surrounding buildings.

This architectural quirk epitomises the Jewish historical relationship with architecture. Judaism’s evolution over centuries of exile and wandering precluded a penchant for great stone monuments or ambitious buildings (besides, ours has been a culture too cerebrally focused to have time for grand aesthetics). Instead, we find an architecture which is more dematerialised and rooted in text. In the space between the roof of the small, squat medieval synagogue and the sky, where otherwise might have been a tower or minaret, we find an architectural beauty which is minimalist almost to the point of disappearing altogether.

On Sukkot we will engage in the ultimate Jewish architectural project. We will, with rolled up sleeves and great fanfare build a small four-walled box covered in leaves. This is our moment of cathedral building. It gives spatial form to Jewish ideas just as forcefully as the Pantheon does for Roman beliefs or Lincoln Cathedral does for the Anglican world view. It is the architecture of exile.

At the simplest level, the Sukkah is commanded as a reminder of the “wilderness shelters” (Vayikra 23:42-43) in which the wandering Israelites lived after leaving Egypt. It commemorates the buildings of exile. When we recreate these dwellings in our current state of exile, we mirror those ancient years of desert wandering which are so central to our shared mythology.  Indeed, arguably the ultimate forbear of all Jewish architecture, the Mishkan (Tabernacle), emerged too from this early exile. The Mishkan, a portable proto-temple, hailed by the Talmudic Rabbis as their architectural model, was the ultimate Sukkah. Its poles and fabrics would be reassembled in each new encampment as a dwelling place for Adonai, surrounded by the smaller Sukkah dwellings for each Israelite family. This portable form of sacredness suits a people of exile and we are reminded of this when we build our leaf covered shelters.

The intrinsically Jewish spatiality of the Sukkah, however, as with the rods extending those medieval synagogues ever upwards, also operates on a more profound level. The Sukkah is a textual architecture.

The intricate exposition of the rules for building a Sukkah, filling the first two chapters of Masechet Sukkah (Babylonian Talmud) are no ordinary architectural blueprints. They do not describe how to build an object which will subsequently stand independently as a Sukkah. Rather, they ARE the Sukkah.

When we sit inside a Sukkah and look around us we see not the physical materials from which it was constructed but rather we see a web of Talmudic minutiae. We see surfaces placed at just the correct angle and distance from one another as argued over by Rabbis Simeon and Joshua Ben Levi (Sukkah 1). We see gaps between the leaves which are just wide enough to allow a glimpse of the same stars which our wandering ancestors saw in the desert. In other words, when we put down our tools, wipe the sweat off our brow and gaze in triumph at the rickety shed we have just completed, we realise that we have built a text.

The sukkah is therefore dematerialised just like the synagogue tower which became a metal rod. The physicality and mass of the materials used are incidental to the textual and legalistic relationships between them. If we could build using just the concept of ‘surface’ and ‘leaf’ rather than the things themselves then perhaps we would. In some communities, decorating the Sukkah is discouraged so as not to distract from its pure textual beauty.

The Sukkah is an architecture fit for exile far beyond just being physically portable. When I build my Sukkah in Beijing this year, it will have bamboo walls, a roof of Chinese plum tree branches, and glimpsed views up through the city’s smog filled skies. On the one hand, the bamboo and plum tree will remain incidental to the centuries old exilic textual relationships of the Sukkah. On the other hand, perhaps the exilic beauty lies precisely in the tension between the portable text and the alien Chinese context in which it has suddenly found itself and from which it is carved.

True though it may be that Rabbinic Judaism has historically had little taste for great monuments of stone or steel, the Sukkah, among other rabbinic structures, shows that there exists a rich Jewish architectural legacy. When building new synagogues and Jewish spaces, it is easy to assume that aesthetics and architecture are beyond the realm of Jewish thought. The Sukkah should remind us that at the very heart of our tradition lie the foundations for a powerful Jewish architecture rooted in text.

Leon Fenster is an architectural designer, the chair of Limmud China and a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue in Edgware.

If you are interested in attending or presenting at this year’s Limmud China (Beijing, November 27-29) please visit limmudchina.org or email leon@limmudchina.org

Posted on 22 September 2015

This blog aims to provide articles of interest on the weekly parashah and issues in Masorti Judaism, representing the full range of diverse views that exist among Masorti members. For guidance on any of the issues raised, please consult your rabbi.

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