It’s the event you’ve awaited all week and you’ve just arrived. As you enter, a friend is smiling from across the room as he is incapable of containing himself. As you make your way through the crowd, he approaches. “Did you watch the game?” he asks excitedly, thus setting the stage for a long and intricate discussion. Before you can respond, another fellow rests his hand on your back. “Hey, how’s the family?” he bursts. You look around the room, mindful of the children running about while youths and adults alike are in the midst of casual conversation.
But something is different. Everyone is dressed in their finest and a book rests in the hands of each fellow present. Even stranger, every so often a man up front interrupts the conversations and, tarnishing the mood, reads aloud from his book. Though his interruptions are frequent, the crowd tolerates it quite well. This has been going on for some time as no one has attempted to halt the uncivil man. Ordinarily, a crowd this patient would be worthy of extraordinary praise, but one detail will deprive them of any such: they are in synagogue, and the “inconsiderate” fellow at the front is the chazzan (cantor).
Far be it from comical, we have turned our miniature “temples” – those centers which symbolize all that is holy and divine – into communal lounges, bland and lacking spirit. Casual conversation, business talk, one-liners, antics, low-grade jokes, slander, gossip and all sorts of disregard for the sanctity of a structure that was intended as a spiritual refuge in a mundane world. During the weekday, one can hear an array of ringtones as the atmosphere of the synagogue becomes no more revered than that of the local bar. It is not just a disregard for the divine, but a complete lack of respect for our fellow man as the conversations and distractions disturb both the rabbi (or lecturer) and fellow congregants alike.
But let us be honest. It is of little use to chastise, for any request for quiet and decorum is likely to be mocked. Therefore, this is a direct plea toward those who seek to turn our synagogues into social parlors: stop coming! You’d be a superior Jew if you’d simply stop attending services, for it is far better to stay home and not pray than to attend synagogue and desecrate it in such manners (Vilna Gaon). While Jews of all backgrounds and levels should, ordinarily, feel welcome in any synagogue, this assumes they display basic respect within its walls.
So next Shabbat morning, if attending shul entails your debasing it with conversation throughout, read the paper in bed instead. If you’re ashamed to remain home, try observing (from without) services at the local church or Reform synagogue, where you can see firsthand how actual respect for a sanctuary is manifested. If you’ve already arrived at synagogue and the urge to disrupt arises, it is not too late to pick yourself up and leave. You’re absence will be both acknowledged and appreciated.
But because I have little hope in reforming those stiff-necked among us, I turn to those congregants who do care; those who respect both the sanctity of the synagogue and the dignity of their fellowmen along with their right to pray with clarity: If your services are being abused by individuals who dishonor them and they are unwilling to leave, then you leave, for in reality, all the prayers of such a congregation are rejected, including those of the most devout (Ya’arot D’vash).
Therefore, if there are other congregants who are equally perturbed (and there are bound to be), find them and speak with them about forming a serious minyan in a separate room. Those who don’t wish to join will remain in the main sanctuary, but if they turn out to be the minority, then justly they should be moved to a different room, preferably one without an ark. A notice should be posted in the synagogue’s bulletin that a new minyan has been formed dedicated to quiet, meaningful and respectful services and in whose merit members hope to have their prayers answered. It will be much easier to control decorum in a minyan where all the members thereof stand together on this issue. This is the ultimate solution and can eventually lead to similar services across the globe, yet in the meantime, a few tips:
· Try to avoid tightly packed synagogues. Ideally, a larger venue with a smaller crowd will guarantee large gaps between attendees which will make engaging one another difficult. Yeshiva minyans are more or less free of disturbances, especially when the head rabbi and/or staff is in attendance. Early bird minyanim are also a good choice as the congregants are often too tired to gab.
· If someone approaches you to talk, smile and nod toward the text. If you fear offending others, pretend to be in the midst of the amidah or pull out a card in memory of a loved one describing your pledge to keep silent during prayer in their merit.
· If there is only one prime individual who disturbs, make him chazzan as often as possible. As long as he is preoccupied, he will be unable to disturb others.
· If there are a number of speakers, try to move to another location within the room, far from those who speak, in an attempt to hint at quiet in a non-confrontational manner. With enough people withdrawing and those disturbing being left with no one within proximity of them, hopefully they will grasp the hint.
Jewish sources and leaders have constantly stressed the severity of this matter. The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Law) refers to speech during prayers as an “unbearable” crime, the only time such harsh wording is used in the entire work. It is said to parallel the worst of sins (Chatam Sofer), prevent the redemption (Yesh Nochalin) and condemn synagogues to deterioration (Mishna B’rura). Individuals who disturb are asked to avoid coming to services entirely (Chida) and even be outright banned (Piskei T’shuvos) as they have no share in G-d (Zohar). But foremost, such behavior defeats the entire purpose of one’s prayers, which will inevitably go unanswered.
To be fair, it is important that synagogues not drag on services. The average attention span of individuals today no longer meets that of goldfish and that must be noted. Synagogues with unnecessarily long, drawn-out services can no longer expect congregants to keep still and silent for extended periods. When no other option exists, services should be streamlined and made shorter rather than faster. (Maimonides should serve as a guiding light, as he abolished chazarat hashatz from his synagogue’s services after seeing that it led to indifference and conversation on part of the congregants.)
You can make this a reality. Those lobbying for more members should direct their efforts at returning G-d to the synagogue first. Then, and only then, can we expect to give others a good reason to join. So start the discussion with your rabbi and fellow congregants and let’s begin to make prayer meaningful once again.