The seeming repetition of the construction of the Mishkan provides us with an opportunity to reflect upon its architecture and what we can learn from it. There were essentially two elements to the Tabernacle. There were its bones – the technical structure and layout of the building and the various religious items contained within it. Additionally, there was the overall decor of the space including the design elements of the items, walls and draperies. I draw this distinction because the eventual Temple in Jerusalem would generally maintain the same structural layout and the same particular religious items, while the design elements would look quite different. What are we to make of this distinction between substance and style?
Over the past several years I’ve had the pleasure to visit Spanish & Portuguese synagogues in Western Europe, North America and the Caribbean. Seeing one after another I was taken by the similarities and differences between them. The overall majority of them maintain certain elements, such as inward facing seats, a women’s balcony, the tebah set towards the middle/rear, and no parohet upon the hehal. This layout of all of these synagogues is based upon the plan of the Esnoga in Amsterdam which is based upon Jacob Judah Leon’s seventeenth century model of the Bet Hamikdash.
And yet, the decor of the spaces differ completely from one another. Bevis Marks in London follows the City Church style, Touro in Newport is colonial American, the island communities of the Caribbean look completely Caribbean with their white washed walls and sand floors, Beth Elohim in Charleston is in the Federalist style, and of course the decor of New York’s Shearith Israel is quintessential nineteenth century New York with its red carpeting, faux marble columns, Tiffany stain glass windows, etc. Each community designed their synagogues in line with contemporary aesthetics.
As we’ve seen in the Mishkan and Bet Hamikdash there is a precedent for distinguishing between style and substance. Substance maintains earlier tradition. Style however, can and perhaps should change to reflect the tastes of the time, making our ‘mikdashe me’at,’ small temples, remain beautiful and relevant in contemporary times.
This then, surely was the mentality (hashkafah) of the Portuguese Jews. They wished to preserve the Torah and minhagim, while doing so in context of the places within which they lived. They did so not only with their synagogues, but more importantly with how they lived their lives. Amazingly, they pursued this path without a sense of tension, but with the perspective that it was the most natural thing for a Jew to do. In that way they continue to act as a model for us in how we may persevere in our commitment to Jewish tradition, but as part of the wider world around us.