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.