synagogue (sĭnˈəgŏg) [key] [Gr., = assembly], in Judaism, a place of assembly for worship, education, and communal affairs. The origins of the institution are unclear. One tradition dates it to the Babylonian exile of the 6th cent. B.C. The returnees may have brought back with them the basic structure that was to be developed by the 1st cent. A.D. into a well-defined institution around which Jewish religious, intellectual, and communal life was to be centered from this earliest period into the present. Other scholars believe the synagogue arose after the Hasmonean revolt (167–164 B.C.) as a Pharisaic alternative to the Temple cult. The destruction of the Temple (A.D. 70) and the Diaspora over the following centuries increased the synagogue's importance. Services in the synagogue were conducted in a simpler manner than in the Temple. There was no officially appointed priest, the services being conducted by a chazan (reader). The role the synagogue played in preserving Judaism intact through the centuries cannot be overestimated, nor can its influence as an intellectual and cultural force. In the modern period, the reform movement restricted its scope to almost purely religious purposes, although among the Orthodox Jews its purview did not diminish. In more recent times the synagogue has again taken on its former functions as a social and communal center. The architectural appearance of the synagogue has usually not differed from that of local non-Jewish forms. The interior includes an ark in which the Torah scrolls are held and a platform from which they are read. In modern times, a pulpit from which to preach has also become common, and in many synagogues the three are combined on one platform. In the United States, the national synagogue associations, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, the United Synagogue of America (Conservative), and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Reform) are organized in the Synagogue Council of America.
See U. Kaploun, ed., The Synagogue (1973); A. Eisenberg, The Synagogue through the Ages (1974); C. H. Krinsky, Synagogues of Europe (1987).