Today there are 12 synagogues for the 13,000 Jews living in the city of Rome, but about 450 years ago there were only five synagogues for a much smaller Jewish population.
Still, the Pope who ruled the city of Rome in those days thought there were to many synagogues in Rome. In the year 1,555 the Pope ordered all the Jews in the city to live in just one area. He also decreed that the Jews should have only one synagogue for the whole community. (In those days, and for over 100 years after, the Catholics and the Protestants were making war against one another.)
Those Jews who did not already live in the Jewish area had to sell their homes and move into the newly formed Ghetto (a place where a group of people are forced to live). Although many Jews did not want to sell their homes, they had to do it, so they did it. But they did resist the decree to have only one synagogue. The members of each synagogue decided to hold services in the home of the member with the largest room. But when the police learned of their plan, the Pope ordered that all the Roman Jews should only pray in one building with only one entrance.
What should the Jewish people do?
Some said the Jews should obey the Pope’s order just as they had obeyed the order that all Jews must live in the Ghetto. But most Jews disagreed. Two of the synagogues in Rome were Sephardi (Jews from Spain and North Africa), and two were Ashkenazi (Jews from Germany and the North of Italy. The fifth congregation followed the tradition that Roman Jews had followed for more than 17 centuries (the Roman Jewish community had existed for 200 years before the first Christians even came to Rome).
We say the same prayers they all agreed, but we sing the prayers with
We all say some of the same prayers they all agreed, but some have added extra poems and prayers that others do not say.
Some have longer services and some have shorter services they all
Some pray with more joy and some pray with more intensity.
Some would rather pray at home than go to a different synagogue they all agreed.
So what should they do?
The rabbis discussed the problem. One of them said, We all know that the difference between a human king and God, who is the King of Kings, is that when a human ruler stamps his image on a coin (like a Lincoln penny) every coin has the same image on it. But when God creates humans in God’s image we all look different. God wants diversity, not uniformity. God wants pluralism, not universalism. We can all live together in harmony, but we cannot all think, feel or behave the same way.”
All the Roman Rabbis agreed.
So they decided to buy a big three story building, with only one doorway. On the first floor there were two synagogues. On the second floor there were two synagogues. On the third floor was the fifth synagogue. Everyone agreed to refer to the one building as “the” synagogue, and to call the five synagogues; schools, “scolas” in Italian or “Shules” in Yiddish. This solution worked for over 300 years, until the Pope lost his power over Rome and the Italian government took over.
If five different Orthodox Jewish groups could share one synagogue building in a time of religious warfare, all the different Jewish groups today should be able to live together in a time of much greater freedom.
If many different kinds of Jews can learn to live together in harmony, then the different sects of every religion can learn to live together in harmony.
And then if all religions can live in harmony with their own heretics, maybe they can live in harmony with each other.
After 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City Calif. Allen Maller retired in 2006. He is the editor of a series of High Holy Days prayer books; the author of a book on Jewish mysticism, “God, Sex and Kabbalah”; and the husband since 1966 of Judy Coopersmith. Visit his website at http://www.rabbimaller.com for more information.