Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Shul Crisis: A Need to Renovate Jewish Prayer Services

The synagogue.  It's the Jewish house of worship.  This sanctuary of holiness is meant to be a place in which Jews are supposed to go and realize G-d's wonders.  Instead, it's a place where Jews frequently and begrudgingly go to fulfill some seemingly antiquated traditions in order to make their parents or grandparents happy.  Let's face it.  Most Jews would rather be somewhere else than go to synagogue.  If a Jew decides to even go to synagogue at all, it will be during the High Holy Days Services.  What has caused such disdain for the Jewish house of worship?  

Dennis Prager outlines this phenomenon in his article Siddur Baseball.  He attributes the main reason to being to the length of the services.  Most Christian services I know of don't exceed an hour, and the same goes for the Muslims.  In the Reform movement, Shabbat Services are usually an hour.  Conservative Shabbat services usually go two plus hours, and I have never been to an Orthodox service that was ever shorter than three hours.  This is not merely an issue that can be done away with the society that likes everything to be instantaneous and in thirty-second sound bytes.  A three-hour block of time is too long for most people, Americanized or not.  The situation is exacerbated when Orthodox Jews try to do speed-davening within that time period.  How can any individual who wants to pray with kavanah get anything out of a service that is going 200 mph?  It's spiritually hostile for a soul yearning for G-dliness.

Prager brings up another good point.  The speed stymies religious inspiration, but so does a lack of music.  Even in spite of the prohibition of music on the Sabbath and chagim, something I have talked about in length before, I, along with many others, find musical instruments to be something that elevates a spritual practice.  That is why it is no accident that Psalm 150 emphasizes the fact that musical instruments enhance their religious experience.  Although you will have the "religious establishment" be the naysayers on this, I think that synagogues should give it a go.

An even important place to make change would be to shorten the services.  Nothing exemplifies this better than the Amidah.  As Prager puts it, why are there two Amidah services during Shabbat morning?  Every time I get to the second Amidah in the Mussaf service, the only thing running through my mind is, "Are we really going to do this again?  Didn't we just do this about an hour ago?"  Although the idea to condense services is not original, it might nevertheless be warranted.  Redundancies and repetition wear on people.  So does praying so fast that you cannot even digest that which has just been put before you.  Instead of tefilah being invigorating and stimulating, these trends make an age-long tradition insipid and antiquated.  In order for the synagogue to be a place of spiritual vitality, this Jewish institution needs to change its approach on services lest tefilah ends up merely as an ancient practice found in religious textbooks.


  1. Regarding Psalm 150: While it may true music was integral, there are some serious reasons to why it's not allowed. That's not to say it can't be used Sunday - Friday. But then no one seems to have time for 30 minutes a day either. Speed davening is an issue in the Orthodox circles that get Shabbat done in 1.5 to 1.75hours, which is where I go. Quite honestly, it bothers me little, because I have taught myself what to skip and what to focus. And, the intensity and focus I get from going faster than going slower with all the bored talkers around me is well worth it. There's certainly room to remove a lot of pre-barchu stuff, although you would find a lot of pushback. I would also remove the need for a repetition rather than remove the musaf altogether. The repetition has lost its way. With the prayerbook that is both in Hebrew and the common langugage, one can do it themselves quite easily. And, if you're hungering to do it in Hebrew, 1) most communities have classes on learning to read and 2) a good interlinear-translation (maybe not the best translation but step in the right direction) will get you to understanding what it is you're reading. There still should be an onus on the individual to make some time to meet half way. I still find it a bit preposterous to believe that boredom or lack of education is a reason to do a complete overhaul. Let's face it. The Reform Movement has gone down that road from overhauling a service to adding guitars and organs. What have they seriously acccomplished in the way of more active membership. It's one of the most inclusive movements. They have women rabbis, gay men rabbis, lesbian rabbis, non-Jewish spouses, etc. There are some temples that have moved Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to the weekend when it falls during the week to accomodate work schedules - a play on Pesach Sheni so to speak. The experiment to lower the bar has been done. When are Jews in general going to step their game up in terms of spirituality, education, etc.? And, by no means am I expecting anyone to become Orthodox. I'm talking about stepping up your game in the movement that you subscribe to.

    1. Yitz, I'd have to agree with a good majority of what you said here. Speed davening is certainly more justifiable during the weekday than it is during Shabbat. Since services go way too fast, much like yourself, I have had to select a few passages and really focus on those because if I try to grasp every blessing and prayer, I'll just have an information overload and not get anything out of it (except frustration). You make a valid point about the accessibility of information to learn the Hebrew well enough to at least get through and have an understanding of the prayers. There should be no reason why any part of the service (except for the d'var Torah and the announcements) need to be in English. In the non-Orthodox movements (particularly the Reform movement), there is little to no expectation to know the Hebrew, which is why they have to put in English. But it backfires because so much is lost in translation and it becomes even less meaningful. I think the boredom factor or the desire to get out of services quick has to do with attention span. Speed davening takes it in one direction, and getting to the point of singing everything and/or reading in both the English and Hebrew are two poor options at approaching services. It's very hard to find a middle ground of where it's neither too long nor too rushed of a service. A more balance approach wouldn't involve a complete overhaul, but it would definitely merit a re-evaluation of how synagogues of any denomination or affiliation approach services.