By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Last week we offered you the lengthy comments of an anonymous questioner who was deeply hurt and upset at observing jovial, idle chatter by community leaders during the prayer service at this year’s Holocaust memorial event in Dallas. The person pointed out the desecration of the solemnity of the event and of the memories of the martyred, and the slight to the honor of the survivors present. Finally, the questioner brought up the issue of similar idle chatter which is commonplace in that person’s place of worship, asking what can appropriately be said or done to stop them. The questioner comes to synagogue to pray, not to socialize, and wondered why those who come to socialize do so at a service and the cost of the others. (Just for the record, this was a real, submitted question, not a self-serving one from the writer of this column!)
We asked that you, the readers, respond with your comments and ideas, and I thank all who indeed replied with some very interesting insights. Some proposed solutions; others expressed further angst over the same problem in their places of worship.
The bad news is that this has been a chronic problem for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Jokes abound on how one can find out the most up-to-date news on just about anything in the back rows of the shul. This is an incessant battle fought by pulpit rabbis from time immemorial, at times winning a battle but usually losing the war. Attacking the talking head-on is usually a lesson in futility, because the talking is not actually the problem, rather a symptom of a deeper problem. It is much like a physician who merely treats the symptoms of an illness while ignoring the underlying cause. He might reduce the patient’s suffering temporarily, but the symptoms are bound to return until the sickness is treated at its root.
What is the root cause of the talking?
Not to oversimplify a complicated issue, the most obvious answer is an unfortunate disconnect between the people and the service. Imagine a group of rural farmers being forced to fill the back rows of a university lecture hall where the professor was delivering a tedious lecture on the mathematical complexities of string theory. How long would it take until the farmers would quietly, then not so quietly, begin discussing cows?
Sadly, most of our flock has not been raised on a diet of deep understanding and appreciation of the prayer service. Especially when most of the service is in Hebrew, and the congregation is, to say the least, not tremendously fluent in our “mother tongue,” what is to be expected? To simply recommend that those not fluent and understanding stay at home is also not an option — this is their connection, however flimsy, to Judaism and the Jewish people.
What many congregations have done, successfully, is to embark on an educational journey for the congregants stressing an in-depth, meaningful study of the prayer service. The stress needs to be on the prayer service being a real, tangible and heartfelt connection to G-d. The lack of that connection is the deeper root cause which is responsible for our becoming so distant from the prayer service to begin with.
Many years ago, while a yeshiva student in Israel, an incident happened which woke me up to realize what levels one can achieve in prayer, both in its understanding and its connection to the Al-mighty. That incident inspired me to get together a group of younger students to deliver a weekly lecture in the siddur, or prayer book. The lecture forced me to delve deeply into the siddur, its sources and commentaries, for a period of 10 years. The result was transformational for my own, personal prayer services. I feel that every Jew has the potential to be transformed in the same way, and that would alter the scene of our synagogues in ways beyond our imaginations!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.