From the Rabbi's Study
Prologue: The definition of the concept of Kavod HaTorah, the honor and reverence that should be accorded to the Torah, seems to elude us. The Aron Hakodesh was covered with gold, both internally and externally: the Menorah was comprised of one solid gold slab; the Shulchan, Mizbach Haketores and Kerashim were all covered with gold. The Bais Hamikdash was a most impressive edifice, both from the architectural and aesthetic perspectives. There was certainly no shortage of gold in its outer trappings. Imagine the beauty and radiance of this monument to holiness! What is the lesson that we should derive from this unparalleled display of elegance and luxury?
We are to derive from here that the House of G-d "also" has to be exalted. Why is it that beauty, opulence and exceptional architecture are terms equated with secular structures, while religious institutions may often be housed in the most simple and austere repositories? If, indeed, we build an edifice that is a bit on the extravagant side, it becomes something to denigrate and even mock. Why should not our cultural/religious habitats be just as beautiful as theirs? Indeed, why should they not be even more impressive? This does not mean, of course, that we should waste money that is needed for other important necessities on structural and architectural extravagance. Why should those who live in mansions, however, settle for a Shul in a storefront? Why should the Aron Hakodesh be a carpenter's nightmare, while the same Baalei Batim have no compunction about spending thousands of dollars on a dining room set?
Yeshivas Slabodka in Eretz Yisrael was going through a difficult financial period. It was weighed down with debt, and the banks were losing patience. The Rosh Hayeshiva, Horav Mordechai Shulman, zl, was relegated to visiting individuals personally on behalf of the Yeshiva. One day, after returning from an unusually trying fund-raising trip, he came into the office and heard the administrator complaining bitterly about the Yeshiva's financial straits. "Imagine, we are undergoing such extreme pressures just to survive, while a certain Chassidic dynasty is building a massive synagogue for millions of dollars, using imported Italian marble on their walls," he said.
When the Rosh Hayeshiva heard this, he turned to the administrator and said, "You have no idea what is the meaning of Kavod HaTorah." He was intimating that to build an impressive edifice for a Makom Torah does not suggest a misappropriation of funds. If people are doing it for the correct purpose and with the right attitude, it manifests Kavod HaTorah (courtesy of Rav A.L. Scheinbaum, Peninim Al Hatorah).
Following the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, Yechezkel HaNovi recalled the words of God who promised that he would be a "Mikdash Me'at" for the people. Targum Yonasan notes that the promise was to create Shuls secondary to the Beis Hamikdash. The Talmud (Megilla 28b) notes that this is the source of Kedushas Beis HaKnesses which is second only to the holiness of the Beis HaMikdash. Indeed elsewhere, the Talmud notes the critical role that the Shul plays in the life of Am Yisroel (Pesachim 87a).
The Ramban (end of Parshas Bo) notes that the Shul plays a role in helping the people unite in prayer whereby they collectively recognize and admit that they are God's handiwork. Henceforth, the Talmud notes the critical nature of the masses in Shul building (See Megilla 27b). Indeed, the Ohr Zarua (II:382) notes that the Parnassei HaIr (the "board") can place a tax ("dues") on the people of a particular Kehilla to cover the shul expenses. The Chasam Sofer (Shut Chasam Sofer VI:32) adds that in regard to the building of the Shul and its basic maintenance all must contribute equally.
Are women responsible for the building of a shul? The Rambam (Hil. Beis haBechira 1:3) includes women in the responsibility. Indeed the Kesef Mishneh notes that at the time the Mishkan was originally built, the torah explicitly notes that the women donated, and were involved, independently of the men. At the same time, the shut Zayit Ra'anan (vol. II, Orach Chaim, 3) argues that since the building of a Shul is only secondary to the main Mitzva of building a Beis HaMikdash, the comparison of the Kesef Mishneh is suspect. However, Rashi (Kohelet 5:9) holds that there is a Mitzvah to build a Shul independent of that to build a Beis HaMikdash and therefore women should be responsible as well. Notwithstanding, women cannot be held OBLIGATED to build a Shul but can certainly donate to the cause (See Yoreh Deah 248:4 and Noda B'Yehudah II, Y.D. 128 for further clarification).
Can a Non-Jew build a Shul? The Shut Maaseh Avraham (77) raises the issue. He quotes the Maharik (161) who tries to compare Shul building to Mishkan building as best as possible. Ergo, building it through non-Jewish means seems unacceptable. Indeed, the Zohar (II: Beshalach 59) discourages the practice so that the Mitzva does not become Bazui to the members of the Shul. The Beis Yosef notes that he never found anyone who was particular about this point.But, the Chida (Birkei Yosef 150) expressly forbids it.
The Avnei Nezer (Orach Chaim, 35) takes a different approach to the question. He notes that the Mitzva is not to build a shul (L'Vnot) but rather to see to it that one is built (Yibaneh). Accordingly, it is not necessary to know who builds the Shul for as long as it is commissioned by the Jews, it is as if it were completed by the Jewish community. Still, Rabbeinu Bachya (Kad HaKemach) notes that it is a tremendous merit to build even a single nail into a Shul. Therefore, one should try to achieve that merit to the best of his ability.