Q. How come so many large synagogues, especially those built in the 19th and 20th centuries, are cathedral-like? Isn’t it inappropriate for a shul to copy church architecture?
A. Having been the rabbi of one such synagogue I tend to share your question. A “cathedral” synagogue is large, grand and prominently sited in the city streetscape. Its exterior is magnificent, its interior evokes awe, its services are stately, its rabbis and cantors are impressive, its choral music is of high quality, its congregants feel they have “arrived”.
Presumably the grandeur of such edifices bestowed status on the Jewish community and enabled their house of worship to be counted amongst the leading public buildings of the city. It was good for public relations but not necessarily for Judaism. Often the congregation seemed to worship the synagogue more than they worshipped God.
True, it is not a modern problem, and even in Biblical days there were those who were mesmerised by the thought, Hechal HaShem! Hechal HaShem! – “What a fine sanctuary we have!” (Jer. 7:4). So taken were Jews and gentiles alike with the concept of a cathedral synagogue that the people of London in the 17th century, as reflected in an engraving of the time, feared that the emergent Jewish community had plans to buy St. Paul’s Cathedral and turn it into a synagogue (see Alfred Rubens, “A Jewish Iconography”, 1987)!