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History: The Symbol That Split the Synagogue
by Jenna Weissman Joselit

Congregation Anshi ChesedIt would be rare today to visit a synagogue and not see a display of the two rounded Tablets of the Law. You might even say that the Ten Commandments have come to be the public face of the Jews, a visual shorthand for Judaism.

But this is a relatively new phenomenon. Among earlier generations of American Jews the un­abashed display of the Decalogue was a bone of contention, as members of New York’s Congregation Anshi Chesed would discover.

In May 1850, at a dignified ceremony attended by New York City Mayor Caleb S. Woodhull and twenty-four flower-bearing boys and girls, the members of Congregation Anshi Chesed, a traditional synagogue soon to cast its lot with Reform Judaism, proudly dedicated a spanking new building. Located on Norfolk Street between Stanton and Houston in what was then New York’s kleine Deutschland (Little Germany), the edifice, the handiwork of the esteemed Berlin architect Alexander Saeltzer, boasted “ornamented turrets” on its exterior; a “mammoth” three-tiered chandelier in its interior; enough wooden pews to accommodate 1,200 worshipers; and a prominently situated circular stained-glass window that contained the Ten Commandments. “These stained-glass windows have a very pleasing effect. The Commandments, instead of being on two tablets, are each on a separate pane of glass, around the window, surmounting the Ark,” commented the New York Daily Tribune, whose account of the dedication ceremony took up six columns of densely packed newsprint. The local Jewish press also showered hosannas, singling out the stained-glass window for praise.

But no sooner did the adulatory rhetoric of the outside world subside than shafts of discord began within. While “pleasing” to some, the Ten Commandments window also generated anxiety in others—and, given the nature of shul politics, a frisson of ill will to boot. “The use of glass and of a circular arrangement struck many as a startling innovation,” explains Hyman Grinstein in The Rise of the Jewish Community of New York. “Some people took exception to it and questioned its legality.”

Eager to set things right, the synagogue’s lay leaders decided to resolve the “weighty problem” by forming a committee. According to rather sketchy meeting minutes, the “Committee on Aseres Hadebros” (the Ten Commandments) sought the advice of “competent persons,” that is, rabbinic authority, to determine whether the commandments should “remain as they are painted in a circle on stained glass” or, they wrote, “if it is against the din [Jewish law] and ought to be fixed in the usual way on two tablets.” But what exactly did they mean by the “usual way”? Were they harking back to the commandments in Exodus and Deuteronomy? Or did they have another paradigm in mind—the handiwork of their Christian neighbors?

And was that the only issue in dispute? It’s quite possible that in the eyes of some congregants, the very notion of stained glass was itself suspect, at once insufficiently synagogal and overly “churchly,” as some contemporaries would have it. Stained glass of this type might naturally evoke associations with ecclesiastical architecture, provoking discomfort among those inclined to keep the boundaries between Judaism and Christianity intact. Or perhaps some viewed stained glass as too insubstantial a material for the depiction of God’s commandments, especially when compared with renderings in stone and wood.

Then again, stained glass might not have been the underlying issue at all. In the aftermath of the Emancipation, stained-glass windows were incorporated into many newly built grand European synagogues in a self-conscious act of cultural appropriation and affirmation. Perhaps it was the way the Decalogue was pictured that disturbed some congregants: pane by pane, commandment by commandment, encased in a circle like the spokes of a wheel—a striking departure from the typical symmetrical image of rounded, twin tablets. Or, the window’s prominence: situated front and center, the fenestrated Ten Commandments appeared to eclipse even the Ark itself.

Eventually, the congregation received an answer to its inquiry: “There [is] nothing in the laws [rabbinic law] which prescribes any particular form; consequently that it is not against the din to have them fixed as they are at present.” The response did acknowledge that Anshi Chesed’s Ten Commandments were, “as a general thing, fixed differently.” And there the matter rested.

But not for long. Uneasiness about the window lingered. About a year later, some members agitated again for its removal. In short order the synagogue’s leaders reinstated the “Committee on the Aseres Hadebros”—but now directed its members to “get tablets made and to have the [Ten Commandments] inscribed therein as it is more appropriate to have them fixed.” To satisfy those congregants who liked the circular commandments, the original window would stay put; and to satisfy everyone else, a traditional twin-topped Ten Commandments constructed in Italian marble would be placed atop the Ark.

And so the window remained, untouched, well into the 1970s, when vandals made off with it, leaving a series of gaping holes where once the commandments reigned supreme.

It’s tempting to read this tale of congregational dissension as yet another in a very long line of Jewish historical moments in which the forces of conservatism, be they aesthetic or procedural, did battle against the forces of change. But the historical reality is far more complex. Though proponents of the round-topped, twin tablets version advocated “fixing” the commandments in the “usual way,” nothing was “fixed” or “usual” about them from a ­Jewish perspective.

On the contrary. The twin-topped configuration was a “medieval Christian invention that gradually spread through western Christendom,” explains the renowned art histo­rian Ruth Mellinkoff. The older Christian conventions, some stretching as far back as Byzantine times, had pictured the Ten Commandments as a scroll, a book, or a set of square-topped tablets. By the 19th century, the twin-topped version had entered America’s visual universe: altarpieces and stained-glass windows, illustrated prayer books, Sunday school primers, clocks, watch fobs, and bookmarks, as well as domestic broadsides and posters festooned with flowers and laurel leaves. Transcending its Christian associations, picturing the commandments thus became an American practice.

Historically, the Jews had a very different relationship to the Ten Commandments. While the Decalogue could not be ignored, given the covenantal relationship among God, Moses, and the Jewish people, other elements in Jewish liturgical and visual culture—the Sh’ma, say, or the menorah—were far more widely publicized. And even when depictions of the Decalogue did appear, in stone, wood, and fabric, adorning an Aron Kodesh (Ark) or a Torah mantle, they did not stand on their own as autono­mous images; instead, they were bound, quite literally, to a ritual object. Their function was not so much decorative as heraldic.

The Ten Commandments window at Congregation Anshi Chesed stood all that on its head: It was big, bold, round, fashioned out of glass, and purely or­na­mental.

Most not­ably, it was also one of the few religious symbols Jews and Christians held in common.

In the modern era, social and cultural exchanges between Christians and Jews had become more frequent. And so, when the prospect of finding common ground was increasingly touted as a social good, how better to usher in a new order of comity than by harnessing the symbolic power of the Ten Commandments?

When seen from this angle, Anshi Chesed’s disquiet over the Ten Commandments was, at bottom, an exercise in the presentation of a modern Judaism—a modern Jewish polity whose intended audience was as much the greater public as its own members. At stake was the relationship of the Jews to the modern world. Would they retain their distinctiveness, as of old, or seek out common bonds? Making their way between two iterations of the Ten Commandments, one whose more traditional form highlighted its consonance with America, and another whose unusual configuration signaled its departure from it, the congregants of the Norfolk Street synagogue faced a Hobson’s choice: between courting distinctiveness or embracing a shared idiom.

In the end, Congregation Anshi Chesed sought to accommodate both visions. But not without a struggle which underscored the tensions inherent in becoming a modern American Jew through the translucence of glass, the weightiness of stone, and the sheer evoc­a­tive power of the commandments. 

Jenna Weissman Joselit is a professor at Princeton University and author of
The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture.



Union for Reform Judaism.