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.