Dear Dr. Yael,
I read your column on people who shush other people in shul and wanted to share my ideas with you and your readers.
By Ronald Neal Goldman
One of the hidden skeletons of irreverence emblematic of Orthodox synagogues, is those people who, rather than observe the solemn laws of appropriate synagogue posture and assiduously attend to the reading of the Torah, elect instead to chatter, talk, gab, jabber, gossip, converse, and prattle. By doing so, they subvert and undermine the sacrosanct concept of prayer. The systemic talking has become so prevalent that a shul’s politics are hardly about who voted for whom, membership dues, or ritual divisiveness anymore, but the lackadaisical condemnation of conversation during prayer and, by extension, whether a person has the right to request the reticence of another congregant.
The dynamic of talking in shul during prayer or the reading of the Torah, when all is said and done is, with regard to many congregants, a conscious willingness to pervert the fundamental spiritual decorum. Dialogue of the latest news, fiduciary opportunities, political climate and, of course, the number-one source of conversation, gossip, in itself a no-no, apparently takes precedence over the deference of Know Before Whom You Stand (B’rachot 28b). There are those who attend services on Shabbos, week after week, to ascertain the medley of answers to the age-old query: “What’s New?” Social civility, then, along with spiritual apathy, has forever compromised the essence that is the sacred liturgy of prayer.
For this writer, the increase of conversation during services was not, in the past, so much a violation of halachic decorum, but an annoying impediment to clearly hearing the Baal Tifilah and Baal Koreh enunciate each and every word. I also knew that talking during davening was punishable by tzaraat and as sinful as avodah zorah (Drush Chassam Sofer, volume 2). The “frum” or religious, though, was unconcerned of, or indifferent to, the catastrophic consequences brought about by idle conversation. I have since learned, however, that idle talk during shul is more perilous indeed; it is a serious breach of halachic adherence – simply stated, one who talks during Chazaras HaShatz is dismissive of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 124:7).
There are dire repercussions for ignoring the Talmudic prohibition of talking in shul. In a riveting speech by Rav Yitzchok Sorotzkin on Kedushas Beis Hakanesses, the Rav told of a 17-year-old girl who was diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer. Inconsolably unnerved with this news, the father of the girl sought spiritual help and was told that if his prayers were to be meaningful, all talking must cease during services, not merely his, but, just as important, everyone else’s. The tale of this girl who happily triumphed is but one of the many accounts not only of the indomitable power of prayer, but the nature of how it is to be communicated; there is a reason that prayer, the supplication of thanks, forgiveness, and the petition of blessings, are frequently referred to as silent devotion.
Even in the more stringently conducted services where ritual etiquette is esteemed, there is often the idle chatter between the Aliyas, before the repetition of the Amidah, or, sadly, during the rabbi’s sermon – all of which is inexcusable. Where I pray, or, more accurately, vainly attempt to do so, conversation compromises the concept of kavanah and takes precedence over prayer, so much so that on the way to services one day, my friend quipped, “Do you want to go daven or go to shul where, when it comes to adhering to the code of silence, these Fine People Just Cant.”
While I have shushed my fellow congregants for years now, angry responses have resulted in my being excoriated, which had, in effect, defeated the whole purpose of my fantastical end game: that the decorum during the silent recitation of the Amidah be reflective of the character of the services.
The approach to a quieter synagogue is simply and inarguably support from others who are uncomfortable with noisy prayer and seek change. There are others who share my desire to experience uncompromising fidelity to halacha and, by extension, spiritual serenity. When I shush someone, however, there is little demonstrable support from other congregants and even friends who painfully say nothing to echo my plea for quiet, thereby sending the wrong message that disruption of services is okay. Etched in my psyche forever is that time when I asked some congregants to quiet down so that I would be able to hear the Torah reading. One person shouted, “If you want it so quiet, then go to church.” If more people would speak up (pun unintended) and immediately voice approval and condone the shusher, so that, in essence, threr would be a unified group of shushers, I profoundly believe that over time the ethos of Orthodox behavior would be transmitted loud and clear: zero tolerance for those who attend services for the wrong reasons. If the current dynamic of behavioral debasement of Tefilah in synagogues remain status quo and the behaviorally challenged triumph, then we need to place a cautionary warning on the synagogue’s bulletin board: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” (Dante’s Inferno).
Ronald Neal Goldman is a professor of English at Touro College and University System.
Dear Professor Goldman,
Thank you for this beautiful column. You have made some very important points that I am sure my readers will appreciate.