The Ancient Synagogue and the History of Judaism
LAWRENCE H. SCHIFFMAN
New York University
If there is any institution that is closely associated with the development of postbiblical Judaism throughout the ages it is the synagogue. The term "synagogue," derived from the Greek, meaning an "assembly," has come to designate the Jewish house of worship, the "temple in miniature," as the Talmudic Sages called it. The Hebrew term beit ha-knesset designates a "building for assembly."
Indeed, the synagogue has been much more than a house of worship. It served the Jewish people as a place of learning, a community center, and often as the seat of the organs of Jewish self-government. This institution came into being in late antiquity--in the age between the arrival in the Near East of Alexander the Great and the destruction of the Temple (Plate ii) in 70 C.E. Many scholars theorize that the synagogue had its origins in the Babylonian Exile when the Jews first had to adapt to the lack of a Temple and to animal sacrifice. Yet there is no evidence, literary or archaeological, for this theory. On the other hand, the history of postbiblical prayer shows that the "service of the heart" was always part of Jewish practice.
It was the synagogue that made possible the adaptation of Judaism to the new reality created by the destruction of the Second Temple in the unsuccessful Great Revolt against Rome in 66 to 73 C.E. The revolt created for the Jewish people a new religious world--one in which the Temple no longer stood, the priests no longer offered the sacrifices, and the Levites had ceased to chant the Psalms. In Temple times, the Jerusalem Temple was understood to be a place in which the Divine Presence could always be approached. In other words, it was the locus of God's abiding in Israel, in fulfillment of the biblical statement "I will dwell among them" ( Exod. 25:8). The sudden disappearance of this avenue of com-