This semester, Dr. Joseph Angel, associate professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva College, is teaching The Architecture of Election: Temple Architecture in Judaism and Western Thought, which focuses on the meaning behind the architectural realities of the temple in Jewish and Western thought.
YU News sat down with Dr. Angel to discuss the course, which is being offered at Yeshiva College in collaboration with the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought.
In your syllabus, you write that this course is less focused on the temple’s “architectural realities” and more interested in exploring “varying representations of the temple by different authors, thinkers, and artists” from several time periods. Why was it important to make that distinction?
With the vast amount of attention in scholarship devoted to the archaeology of the temple and the literary descriptions of its architectural features, it would be very easy to spend an entire semester simply considering the archaeological debates and disputed interpretations of the physical blueprints laid out in the written sources.
I wanted to clarify that this course will not simply be about the location and appearance of pillars, barriers and decorative features but rather the profound meanings attributed to them both within Jewish tradition and in Western thought. Oftentimes, a certain portrayal of the temple tells us much more about the one who produced the image—his or her life, times and most cherished values—than it does about the temple itself. These are some of the guiding concerns of the course.
Your class will feature many guest speakers. What can students expect to hear from them?
I am excited to welcome to our classroom an outstanding group of visiting scholars from an array of reputable institutions, including YU, Bar-Ilan University, New York University, Vassar College and Yale. These speakers will address a broad variety of topics related to the temple and its architecture from different disciplinary perspectives.
Among them, Dr. Eyal Regev of Bar-Ilan will discuss his most recent book, which focuses on how early Christian authors negotiated with the temple, the institutional and symbolic center of Judaism, as they worked to construct their own faith and their place in relation to Judaism.
The director of the Straus Center, Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, will address the representation of the temple in the work of the French Baroque painter Nicolas Poussin in a lecture entitled “Mikdash vs. Pantheon: The Incredible Tale of Poussin’s The Destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem.”
What can students expect to gain from the class?
First, the students can expect to obtain a grounding in what the classical Jewish sources, from the Bible through rabbinic literature, have to say about sacred spaces and architecture. In addition, they will see many examples of how the shape and meaning of the temple have been transformed and reinterpreted in Western literature and art, oftentimes as a basis for asserting a privileged position before God. Ultimately, in analyzing portrayals from vastly different time periods and places, we are seeking to understand how the image of the temple, the supreme symbol of divine presence on earth, was deployed as a reflection of deep-seated religious, political and social values throughout the ages.
My hope is that the course will lead students both to a better understanding of the important role of sacred architecture in the development of their own faith and to an appreciation of the significant role that this ancient institution has played in the history of Western civilization.
What texts and images will students be reading and discussing? Is there any image/artist/writer in particular that stands out to you as essential to understanding the temple?
We will cover a great range of texts and images beginning with the biblical descriptions of the Mishkan [Tabernacle], the temple of Solomon and the eschatological temple presented at the end of the book of Ezekiel, and continuing to the elaborate blueprints related to the Second Temple portrayed in sources ranging from Mishnah Middot, the Temple Scroll from Qumran, and Josephus, to depictions of the celestial temple in the Aggadah.
We will view depictions of the temple gates resembling contemporary Gothic churches in medieval German illuminated manuscripts, paintings such as Raphael’s Marriage of the Virgin and the description of King Solomon’s Temple in the work of Isaac Newton, for whom the floor plan of the temple held the secrets of the workings of the universe.
In my opinion, the most important of all is the Torah’s description of the Mishkan, which lays out the complex interrelationship of the concepts of sanctity, divine presence, law and covenant that will be foundational in later Jewish tradition and its many transformations in the West.
Why did you decide to teach this course? Why is it interesting and meaningful to you?
I have always been interested in the religious symbolism of Judaism, and there is no question that the temple is at the heart of it all. My first book was concerned with aspects of the institution of priesthood in the Second Temple period, so in many ways the focus on the temple and its architecture represents a renewal of an old research interest devoted to the spiritual world of ancient Judaism.
Perhaps more importantly, this course offers me the opportunity to explore beyond my normal, more comfortable areas of research and give serious thought to the “life” of this central religious institution in a very broad way. This is a challenge that demands an expansion of intellectual perspective (and plenty of new reading), but it also yields many fresh insights and intellectual and spiritual excitement.