Talking In Shul

Fancy a chat?

A wit once observed that asking Jews not to talk in Shul is like expecting diners not to eat in a restaurant – that’s the reason they came. The problem of talking in Shul has tormented rabbis for centuries. A number suffered their frustration in silence, some railed at their parishioners and yet others acquiesced and ‘went native’. Unsurprisingly, Jewish literature is replete with condemnation of this phenomenon. Examples of this include those who describe talking in Shul as hasagat g’vul – encroaching on another’s personal ‘prayer-space’ and the cutting observation of Rabbi Moshe Sofer (early 19th century) noting that only those synagogues used for prayer, rather than for conversation, will be rebuilt in Israel in Messianic times. The Code of Jewish Law even refers to the sin of someone who speaks during the chazzan’s prayer as ‘too great to bear.’

Yet despite universal denunciation, talking besets most Shuls. It has even attracted the interest of sociologists, and at least one rather humourless analysis of it has appeared in recent years. Apart from the Jewish angle, the informality and noise in some Shuls bewilders many gentile visitors, who are quite unable to reconcile their expectations of a prayer service with the chaotic reality.

All this, of course, highlights a clash of paradigms that is evident in numerous Anglo-Jewish Shuls. While prayer is the stated purpose of synagogue attendance, for many regulars, it is essentially an opportunity for social engagement. That’s not to say that they don’t read the prayers – it’s just not the focus of their visit. Actually, many hardly pray at all, yet choose to meet their friends and catch up on the latest gossip in the context of a Shul service. To some degree, sanction for this is drawn from the description of a Shul as a beit k’nesset – a house of meeting, although it seems far-fetched to suggest that the Sages intended the social activity to take place while the services are actually in progress.

Besides, I would consider it dishonest not to note that talking in Shul is often generated by boredom. Services can be lengthy, hard to understand and occasionally, tedious beyond endurance. Mind-numbing sermons and lacklustre chazzanut are still in fashion in some Shuls. Many congregants and not a few rabbis are unwilling to admit this, but I think it undeniable. And while the rabbi may choose to catch up on his learning or visit the children’s service, the obvious antidote for some congregants is to chat until it’s all over. Indeed, I fully acknowledge that in this all too common situation, remaining silent demands considerable self-control.

Appreciating prayer requires sensitivity to the structure of the ancient texts and an understanding of the sophisticated Man-God dynamic - advanced Jewish skills that are not widespread in our communities. In reality, most Anglo-Jews lack proficiency in even rudimentary Hebrew and as such, the nuances and beauty of the prayers are lost. That’s not to suggest that a chazzan will never succeed in rousing the congregants, but for many, this is essentially a musical, rather than a devotional experience. Chazzanut is also a matter of personal taste, a curious barometer of spiritual meaning.

One of the regrettable outcomes of this is that the inspirational content of the prayer-services is de-emphasised. Since for many attendees, spirituality is scarcely on the menu, the overall atmosphere and meaning of the service is low on the list of priorities. This has created a fascinating but rather worrying paradox. Those who view the Shul primarily as a meeting place are served well by the existing model, but those who want to pray are not. That’s not to say that those who come to pray don’t talk in Shul – they very often are among the worst culprits – but their focus and expectation is different. This divergence is frequently generational – to be sure, younger people also wish to meet to chat and socialise, but they do so elsewhere, not in Shul, a place that they identify with prayer. Perhaps the Kiddush or another communal event will meet this need, but not the services themselves.

The current social and religious milieu is such that Shul services that are essentially social clubs do not succeed in attracting those newly interested in Judaism. While many older people have been conditioned to identify Judaism with Shul attendance, younger enthusiasts may become involved with Jewish learning, Shabbat observance or learning Hebrew long before they consider entering a Shul. By that stage, they feel a need to pray and come largely for that purpose. Bizarrely, our Shuls often turn them off. In fact, many a conflict has arisen in Shul between a regular who is talking through the Torah reading and a neophyte who would actually like to listen! In fact, newcomers are commonly lost to both the right and the left, where they find that the content and purpose of their visit is taken seriously.

I believe that the map of the United Synagogue-style communities will be drawn as a function of the extent to which we take these needs seriously. Talking in Shul is a symptom of an entrenched, but resolvable clash of expectation. With good will, sensitivity and the vision that I believe can now just be perceived within our communities, we can develop the flexibility to create a vibrant and eclectic future.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished with permission.

Going Up The Country

Holidays for the larger family

On a very windy day, we drove to the car park at the top of one of the most beautiful nature spots in the country. As I got out of the car, a women hanging onto her sheitel for dear life, accosted me and remarked that it was a shame I had just missed Minchah. This took place not somewhere in Israel, as you might think, but a few years ago during the summer holidays in Wales!

Each year, members of the Orthodox community organise group summer holiday camps in a number of locations around the British countryside. Usually on University campuses or similar, they are located in places that offer access to the seaside and other places of family interest. The accommodation tends to be basic, self-catering, modestly priced, spacious, and geared to the needs of larger families.

These holiday camps fulfil a number of Orthodox needs, providing, for example, minyanim, an eruv for Shabbat and kosher groceries. Other Jewish holidaymakers in the area will also rely upon the camp shop for top-up supplies. Starting and ending mid-week, this type of holiday also avoids the perennial Saturday-to-Saturday let problem that makes most cottage rentals awkward for the observant family. There may also be shiurim, study opportunities and group coach outings, but rest assured, these are optional. My own practice is to discover the destination of the coach outing and go there the following day.

At this point, the reader contemplates the mind-boggling spectre of Baruch Butlin’s, populated entirely by black-clad campers, complete with glamorous bubbe contests and Chassidic karaoke. Actually, most families keep to themselves, using the camp as a convenient base for a quite ordinary self-catering holiday.

Obviously, this type of holiday lacks certain comforts and a degree of privacy, but enables the religious family to get an inexpensive, wholesome break while avoiding some of the issues thrown up by more conventional vacations, such as food, immodest dress and Shabbat observance. It also raises another subject – the modus operandi of the large family within a society of smaller ones.

Judaism considers children to be one of the greatest blessings that God can bestow. Each child is a cherished individual, who will bring holiness, love and kiddush HaShem – sanctification of the Divine – into the world in his or her own unique way. The commandment in Genesis 1:28 to procreate, and Isaiah’s observation (45:18) that God intended the earth to be populated, not desolate, are taken very seriously in the Orthodox community. As a result, large families are common in religious circles, and, as we would expect, this creates some unique, sometimes comical challenges.

Consider, if you will, the simple issue of buying yoghurts. As they often come in six-packs, my wife and I, with our relatively modest brood of five (k’naina hora!) have to take it in turns to have one. The same goes for schnitzels, and a whole range of other packaged foods.

How about visiting other families? Many homes are just not geared to the descent of a large clan. Apart from the likely trail of devastation left in the wake of the visitors, the size of the dining room, number of chairs and quantity of cutlery needed may elude even the best host. Spending Shabbat with another family may prove to be quite impossible. On another theme, our washing machine runs daily what the instructions refer to as normal weekly usage. And of course, domestic appliances, from irons to toilets, even the ‘indestructible’ German varieties, meet their maker much sooner than the manufacturer ever envisaged.

As a child, my brother, cousins and I used to pile into the back of my aunt’s Ford Anglia (a lá Harry Potter), but since, wisely, the laws have been tightened, only three children may sit safely in the back of an ordinary car. This means that even a family with four children can’t manage with a regular vehicle and only the ubiquitous MPV, frequent casualty of width-restrictions, will suffice. We’ve all experienced the nightmare – the huge van, crammed with a seething mass of bouncing children, driven by a tiny woman barely visible over the steering wheel, careering at breakneck speed towards us down a narrow street.

Turning to the so-called ‘family ticket’ for entrance to leisure attractions, these are often woefully inadequate. ‘Family’ is usually defined as two adults and two, or at most, three, children. Witness the scene at the entrance to a theme park. The attendant, a student employed for the summer holidays, pokes his spotty face out of his booth to survey with disapproval the contents of a MPV that does not meet his textbook definition of a family. While the harassed driver attempts to convince him that three of the tribe really are younger than five, and thus qualify for free entry, the children start a riot and the queue of frustrated drivers just gets longer.

Yet every parent of a large family will agree that these minor, and sometimes hilarious, disturbances are a tiny price to pay for the wonder, happiness and love that their family brings them. They consider themselves truly blessed.

Perhaps the final word on this matter should go to the Israeli mother of a very large family, who was waiting at a bus stop with several lively children. While she was herding them on to the bus, the driver became annoyed and remarked tetchily, ‘lady, next time, leave half your children at home.’ The response of our patient heroine? ‘I did!’

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished with permission.

This Year, Throw Away Your Haggadah

A Meaningful Seder

Among the myriad laws of Pesach there is a rule that I find it very hard to persuade my congregants to accept! It is not some minutia of kitchen preparation, or even the amount of matzah they should eat at the Seder. Surprisingly enough, it is the requirement that they understand the story of the Haggadah while they read it. It seems such a simple idea – instead of struggling through the text, just about managing to get through it in the original, read the story in a contemporary English translation. Actually, the idea of reading the story of the Exodus in the vernacular is particularly interesting to a British rabbi, as it recorded in the name of the rabbis of the mediaeval rabbi of London. Now I use the word ‘contemporary’ with care, as there are many translations that are so out-of-date and archaic, that they are no use at all. One I saw recommends searching for Chametz with ‘a wax randle in the gloaming’, which, apart from the obvious spelling mistake, leaves the reader with the impression that he is about to engage in some wacky Victorian pantomime. Others are so full of ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ that they require translation themselves.

Why is so difficult to get those who are not fluent in Hebrew to read the story in a translation? Why would anyone choose to labour uncomprehendingly over the original text, syllable by syllable, instead of enjoying the drama and charm of the age-old story in a language that they can understand? Responses to this question vary. Some say, ‘we have always done it like this.’ Others feel compelled to use the Haggadah they received as a Bar Mitzvah present in the 1930s. Still others assume that it must be better to read it in Hebrew, even if they don’t understand it. At some level, I suppose they are right - for those who have a good grasp of Hebrew, it is preferable to read the Haggadah in the original; after all, Hebrew is the language of God and of the Torah and expresses nuances and concepts that cannot be fully translated into English. But these are entirely lost on the non-Hebrew reader. In fact, reading an unintelligible story loses more than nuances, it loses everything else too.

In reality, I think that there is more to this problem than Haggadot and Hebrew. It cuts to the heart of our own self-perception and attitude towards Judaism. Incredible as it may sound, for many people, part of the Seder experience seems to be the mystique of not understanding! Some people are actually troubled by the prospect of understanding and enjoying the procedure. Since their earliest recollections are of incoherent mumbling, this is how things must remain for evermore. Any endeavour to disturb this state of affairs is met with resistance. ‘It was good enough for my grandfather, so why isn’t it good enough for you?’ Surely some attempt to think through the long-term consequences of this attitude is called for. For whatever reason, previous generations were happy to accept that Judaism called for martyrdom – whether it was sitting through an unintelligible Seder, or tolerating lengthy, unrewarding Shul services. Younger people are simply unwilling and unprepared to do so. Worse still, many of us still expect youngsters to participate in this way and become frustrated with them when they refuse. It is hardly surprising that a generation that is well educated, advantaged and surrounded by exciting life alternatives, is also uninterested in a meaningless experience. Let us be honest – why would anyone participate willingly in a meaningless experience?

But the most destructive aspect of this is feeling comfortable with the unintelligible model. It permits us get away without a challenge - without allowing the real message of Pesach, and indeed of Judaism, to have any impact upon us. Happy with the meaningless, we have convinced ourselves that the experience has nothing to offer, and fulfilled our expectations by rendering it impotent; as such, it need not disturb our lives in any way at all. We have turned the Seder, without a doubt the most powerful educational tool in Judaism’s armoury, into a gun loaded with blanks. We have inoculated ourselves against the most exciting inspiration to creating a vibrant Jewish future that exists. It suits us to extract the teeth of the Seder by keeping it incomprehensible, for in that way, we will require no self-examination, no reconsideration of the way we impart Judaism to our children and certainly no modification of our Jewish lives.

This problem pervades every area of Jewish life, but at the Seder, the contrast between the reality and the ideal is most evident. Seder night this year is a perfect opportunity to begin the revolution. It is time to fully exploit the magic of the Seder - the original all-singing, all-dancing, multi-media inspiration. It is time to recognise that young Jews need meaningful Jewish experiences if they are to play any part in the Jewish future. It is time to turn the Seder back into a real event, with genuine communication between parents and children, and consign the mumble-through-the-text and dash-to-the-meal of the past to the waste bin of failed Jewish experiments. Throw away that old Haggadah.

Old Haggadot must be treated with respect. Please ask a rabbi how to dispose of them properly.

A version of this article first appeared on Jewish World Review

Shavuot And True Spirituality

A Meaningful Shavuot

Pesach has Matzah, Rosh HaShanah the Shofar and Sukkot the four species and the Sukkah, but Shavuot, which celebrates the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, seems to be lacking in specific observances. It has been suggested that while the other festivals commemorate seminal historical moments through the observance of the Torah, Shavuot is about the Torah itself, and, as such, it needs no ceremony. Instead of the externality of ritual, Shavuot invites us to focus on the significance of the origin and ideology of the Torah system itself, and to admire its momentous impact on humanity. Sadly, perhaps as a result, it is the least understood and observed of the festivals.

In reality, the Torah does describe special observances for Shavuot, but they are restricted to the Temple era. One of them affords us a remarkable insight into the deeper meaning of Shavuot, as well as a glimpse of the Torah’s attitude to the use of the material world. Two distinctly shaped loaves of bread were brought to the Temple on Shavuot in a special celebration. This may seem of academic interest, except for the fact that most unusually, the Torah prescribes that they are baked from chametz – leaven, the villain of Pesach. Shavuot falls seven weeks after Pesach; the intervening forty-nine day period is known as the omer, during which the days that are counted in anticipation of the coming festival. It is understood that physical redemption, celebrated at Pesach, is only the start of a process that led to its goal – the revelation at Mount Sinai. As such, the spiritual journey starts with Pesach and climaxes at Shavuot. It is a matter of great interest that such vigorous efforts are required to remove chametz from the Pesach environment, yet the omer period concludes by placing leaven loaves in the Temple, the locus of Jewish spirituality.

This resolution of this discrepancy reveals a great deal about the significance that Judaism attributes to physical pleasure. Pesach, during which chametz is strictly forbidden, seems to represent the limitation of physical enjoyment, whereas Shavuot signifies its ultimate sanctification in the Temple itself. As such, the omer period, which bridges the gap between the two, offers an opportunity to develop from the radical position represented by Pesach to the more mature one offered by Shavuot. The extent of the role played by physical pleasure in religious life has been the subject of extensive theological debate throughout history. Some systems of thought adopt the position that religious achievement is only possible when it is divorced from material experience. Celibacy, cessation from normal life and even quite extreme ascetic acts are not uncommon amongst religious groups, which have concluded that these offer the only route to true spirituality. Judaism addresses this issue, but reaches a quite different conclusion. Abstinence is never an ideal, but in various forms, may sometimes be used as a very temporary device for achieving a higher goal.

Perhaps the most significant example of this idea is the observance of Yom Kippur, when, since the pleasures of food and marital intimacy are proscribed, one ‘afflicts’ oneself by disengaging from the physical world. Yet the Torah requires us to abstain in this way for only one day near the start of each year; this serves as a way of reawakening our spiritual lives at the year’s outset. This is not the ideal, but a powerful kick-start to spiritual growth. The mystical thinkers hint to this notion in observing that Yom Kippur, which we are accustomed to considering the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, is somehow inferior to Purim, the day on which we rejoice and imbibe alcohol to excess. The observance of Yom Kippur may be essential, but its self-denying nature means that it can never be more than a powerful, yet short-term instrument. In contrast, Purim, when properly celebrated, enables the Jew to reach the heights of ecstasy using the most physical means at his disposal, and hence articulates a Weltanschauung much closer to the Torah’s ultimate model.

It seems that the human tendency to become immersed in material pleasure must be addressed by a temporary emphasis on its ephemeral nature and thus comparative insignificance. This is achieved by a strong, albeit brief involvement in spiritual-only pursuits.

The process that leads the Jew from Pesach to Shavuot is now clear. The requirement to abstain from chametz on Pesach is reflective of the nascent moments of Jewish nationhood that the festival commemorates. A group of ex-slaves with the potential for spiritual greatness, yet still beset by the mentality engendered by centuries of deprivation, was likely to abuse the newly accessible pleasures of the material world. Thus at the moment of their national genesis, it was necessary to forbid the consumption of chametz, which represents selfish use of the physical world. Yet the goal is not the rejection of physicality, but its integration into the Divine system. The seven weeks that elapse from Pesach to Shavuot enable a personal transformation to take place, hopefully culminating in a mature attitude to the use of the material world. All physical pleasures may be used - indeed must be used, but in a context and within a framework. These are defined by the Torah, the guidebook to the meaningful use of everything. This, the purpose of the Jewish mission, could not be given to the embryonic nation when they left Egypt, but by Shavuot, they were capable of understanding and implementing it.

This concept is represented by the two loaves of chametz that were the focus of the Divine service in the Temple on Shavuot. The two loaves are said to represent the twin passions that drive so much of human enterprise – material success and sexual satisfaction. These ambitions, so frequently eschewed by religious systems, are brought, as it were, right into the Temple on Shavuot, assuring us that the elevated use of every physical experience lies at the heart of true Jewish living.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished with permission.