The Difference Between Temple and Synagogue By Rabbi Judy Chessin

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I am often asked the “difference” between the terms temple (as in Temple Beth Or) and synagogue. In many cases they are synonymous but there can bean ideological distinction. 

The religious institution described in the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible), the Temple, involved a hereditary priesthood and the sacrificial cult. It was called a Beit HaMikdash, (the house of holiness) but we call it THE Temple in English. When that ancient Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., Jews began to gather in places they called Batei Knesset or Houses of Assembly. The Greek word for assembly is “synagogue” from whence we get the title.

But there were huge differences between the Biblically mandated Temple in Jerusalem and the rabbinic synagogues which cropped up throughout Babylonia and the Diaspora. Whereas the Temple had been the center of the sacrificial cult, synagogues replaced the ancient Temple’s rites with prayer, psalms, Torah readings, and study. Even though the synagogue became the notable Jewish institution for religious practice, its prayer book still maintained fervent prayers for the restoration of the Temple and priesthood in Jerusalem. 

When the Reform movement was founded in the 19th century, our founders reclaimed the word ‘temple’ for our houses of worship. It was a statement that the Reform ideal was no longer a restoration of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Instead, our Reform synagogues are the pinnacle of Jewish hopes and ideals. Therefore we use the title Temple because this is the locale of all of our Jewish yearnings. 

So today, Reform congregations may be called either synagogue or Temple, whereas Conservative and Orthodox Jews prefer the terms synagogue or shul (German/ Yiddish for school) for their institutions. 

Whatever we call them, our congregations strive to be centers of Jewish identity, solidarity, community, and learning. A synagogue by any other name may still be as sweet as long as it fosters wisdom, spirituality, inclusiveness, fellowship, Tikkun Olam (repair of the world) and peace.

This January we will mark the 34th anniversary of our first Shabbat together. We pray that no matter what we call Temple Beth Or, it remains a spiritual home of light and warmth for you and your family now…. and for generations.