Book review – Architectural Ideas in Judaism & the Weekly Torah Portion
The recent earthquakes in Turkey and Syria highlighted the importance of building standards and good architectural practices. Turkish officials have turned architects into reasons for the failures, and the public outrage at architects is viewed as responsible for the over 50,000 deaths. But a disaster of this scale is certainly more than just the architects’ fault.
Architects are easy victims, but the real reason is that building standards were not maintained, corrupt officials turned a blind eye to safety standards and regulations, and much more. And architecture is at the heart of a new and fascinating book ArchitecTorah: Architectural Ideas in Judaism and the Weekly Torah Portion (Urim Publications).
When I received the book and saw it was almost 600 pages, I was sure there was not that much one could write about architecture in the Torah. While there is Noah’s ark, the Mishkan, and the building of the Holy Temple, I couldn’t think of that many additional topics. Once I got to page 50, I saw how mistaken I was. And this is one of the most original books I have read in a while, and it is equally fascinating.
Author Joshua Skarf is an architect who has a passion for the subject. The book contains over 170 short pieces that examine the Torah via architecture. Skarf starts the essays with an introduction to the architectural topic or history and then connects it to the Torah parsha.
If you asked most people to come up with architectural ideas in Torah, they’d struggle to come up with more than five. But the book clearly shows how significant architecture is to the Torah. From building technology for the Tower of Babel, halachic issues in cemetery design, public and private spaces, to sukkah balconies, and more. You’ll read each chapter and see how eminently clear it is that architecture is an integral part of the Torah.
The book also includes a significant amount of architectural history. Characters such as Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius (first-century ACE) to 20th-century on architectural historian Spiro Kostof and others are introduced to the reader.
Regarding the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, the book has a chapter on bribes and kickbacks for Parshat Mishpatrim, where he writes that the Rabbis set an extremely low bar for bribery. Almost any type of benefit that a judge accepts qualifies as a bribe.
Sadly, the construction business is rampant with forms of bribery, both overt and less obvious in nature. This begins with blatant textbook bribes in which money is offered in exchange for selecting a firm, an architect, contractor, or a supplier. Kickbacks are also widespread in which the contractor or architect in charge of selecting a supplier is given a percentage of the overall sale in exchange for choosing a specific business.
Obviously, all of that is prohibited by the Torah. And for those that are not under the auspices of Torah law, such as those in Turkey, Syria, and elsewhere, following the Torah’s guidance in these cases can literally be life saving.
Many books include drive-by topics where you don’t realize the significance. In my favorite book from last year, The Anatomy of Jewish Law, Rabbi Dr. Edward Reichman, MD, writes that one of the most contentious issues in the intersection of halacha and medicine is autopsies. And every halachic discussion of autopsies references the responsum of R’ Yechezkel HaLevi Landau (1713-1793). R’ Landau forbade the autopsy then, and his approach has been quite influential in the 250 years since he wrote it.
The inquiry that led to his forbidding an autopsy was due to an outbreak of bladder stones in London. Reichman writes that urinary bladder stones were quite prevalent in England. However, despite this fact, R’ Landau still ruled that an autopsy to benefit other potential patients with this disease would be forbidden. He opposed autopsies in what was to become one of his most famous rulings, except those related to a specific, immediate, urgent need.
One can speculate that while urinary bladder stones may have been prevalent in England, this may not have been the case in Eastern Europe, the domain of R’ Landau. Reichman then drops a bombshell that had R’ Landau been aware of the high prevalence of the disease in England; he may have permitted the autopsy. The halachic trajectory for autopsies was set by R’ Landau, but Reichman thinks he may have taken a more permissive approach had he known the facts on the ground in England. At this point, it is a halachic Monday morning quarterback, and there is no going back.
Here, Skarf writes in Parshat Ki Tisa about the muchni in the Bais Hamikdash. The parsha discusses the brass laver Cohanim washed in. But Tanach doesn’t contain the logistical details regarding the day-to-day operations of the vessel. Only later in the Mishna is information concerning the muchni, a later innovation for water-raising that was connected to a wooden gear train that was used with the laver.
There was an issue in the Bais Hamikdash where water from the laver could become unusable, which can cause halachic problems that are best avoided. And it was the muchni that provided a solution to a pressing need in the Bais Hamikdash using the advanced technology of the day.
Skarf writes his bombshell that the muchni offers proof that the Bais Hamikdash was open to adopting new solutions to existing problems. And presumably, the future Bais Hamikdash will allow for similar technology uses.
Never in the book does Skarf use a forced peshat to make a point. Everything here is well-researched and logically sourced. Architecture plays a vital role in both religious rituals and public safety. Skarf has written a fascinating and engaging work of highly original ideas. This is one of the most engrossing books I have read in a while, and I think you will enjoy it, also.