The Synagogue in Rome with Five Shuls: a Lesson in Jewish Pluralism

    June 2011          
Search the Jewish Magazine Site: Google


Search our Archives:

» Home
» History
» Holidays
» Humor
» Places
» Thought
» Opinion & Society
» Writings
» Customs
» Misc.


A Synagogue with Five Shuls

By Allen S. Maller

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 too many synagogues. In the year 1,555 C.E., 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 afterwards, 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 forced Ghetto. 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 different melodies.

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 agreed.

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 large 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 “shuls” 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, how much more so today that all the different Jewish groups 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.


from the June 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

Please let us know if you see something unsavory on the Google Ads and we will have them removed. Email us with the offensive URL (