Thursday, August 21, 2008

Stop campaigning against talking in shul

Many shul rabbis spend significant time thinking about ways to eliminate noise in shul (see my previous post here). Wise people have written lengthy articles deconstructing the “talking in shul” phenomenon, explaining why people do it and how they might be motivated to stop.

I have heard that rabbis have taken all sorts of creative steps, including:
*Anonymous letters to congregants (I wonder if they use ransom-note style cut-out letters to avoid forensic analysis);
*Long speeches and dedicated divrei torah ("I'll keep talking until you stop talking");
*Special tefilot on behalf of people who stop talking (maybe they should be davening on behalf of the talkers?);
*Eliminating Chazarat haShatz;
*Public humiliation of talkers.

Personally, I think we would be better off looking at the positive: How to create a davening-focussed shul experience, an atmosphere which helps people get into the mood of davening.

The approach must include more than posting a דע לפני מי אתה עומד (Know before Whom you stand) motto over the Aron or an אסור לדבר בשעת התפילה (Speech during davening is prohibited) sign on the wall, whether accompanied by a cute graphic or not. “No cell phones” signs are nice, but similarly inadequate. Again: Even if people comply, our goal is not to eliminate noise - it’s to create a good davening atmosphere.

So what can we do?

1) The most obvious answer is to have an existing nucleus of people davening with proper concentration. Nothing increases kavvanah (focus) like standing in a group of people who are already focussed. But what about for those of us who don’t already have such a nucleus?

2) Another good answer is to create pre-davening programming. The mishnah notes an ancient practice of meditating for an hour before Shemoneh Esreih. Our own psukei d’zimra is meant to achieve the same goal, although that requires an understanding of what its passages mean.
The gemara makes this point when it notes that one may not begin davening after studying in-depth Torah. Torah is wonderful - but, for most of people, it will not develop a mood of davening. In fact, even studying the meaning of davening won’t necessarily help. For most people, intellectual study is more about an internal focus than a Divine focus.
Actual meditation, or perhaps a directed session in which people think about their lives and needs, and the lives and needs of those around them, and the wondrous things HaShem does for us at all times, would accomplish far more. Unfortunately, it’s too touchy-feely for most of us (me included, frankly), but that’s too bad - it could really make a difference.

3) A third answer is to make sure that people have an appropriate activity during all points of the davening - including the “down time” when the Torah is circulating, during lengthy “Mi sheBeirach” prayers on behalf of the sick, the local government, the State of Israel, POWs, et cetera, and during Chazarat haShatz (repetition of Shmoneh Esreih).
I am well aware of the halachic rulings prohibiting Torah study during this last period, and I, personally, follow that view. At the same time, if the result is that slack-jawed people’s minds wander, they don’t listen to the chazan and they don’t answer Amen anyway, they might as well be studying. Perhaps shuls could have, in the pews themselves, literature on the davening and literature that encourages people to think about their needs/blessings and their relationship with HaShem. Alternatively, Chazanim could work harder at creating tunes which will draw people into the davening.

4) For the intellectually focussed, we need classes on the meaning of the davening - not just the superficial, but in-depth analysis of Psukei d’Zimra, of the structure of berachos, etc - so that people will understand the genius invested in each tefillah.

There are many more ideas out there, I am sure, but to me, this is the bottom line: We will have a strong davening when we stop deconstructing noise and start constructing a davening atmosphere.

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  1. Thanks, Tzipporah. Not sure why it hasn't garnered more comments, though; it's certainly had many readers.

  2. one of the shuls i frequent has a very big problem with talking (i refused to lein the megillah last years because of this). i can't imagine that the people in this shul would have any interest in pew literature or intellectual (or any) classes.

    some people are serious and/or interested in judaism. for these people some of your suggestions could help and be מחזק them. but i think that for some talkers, talking is symptomtic of a general attitude toward judaism which is best characterized by inertia. for them the whole attitude has to change, not just about tefillah.

    "Chazanim could work harder at creating tunes which will draw people into the davening."

    this is often a big problem, but what about all the non-singing parts of tefila?

    "Not sure why it hasn't garnered more comments"

    because we like to talk and we don't want you to put an end to it.

  3. Lion-
    Yes, I'd agree that not everyone is open to the idea of coming to shul to daven. But I'd like to focus on those who are open to it, because I believe - certainly in my shul - that this is a group large enough to affect the whole.

  4. How about handing out brief explanations of the tefilah, perhaps interspersed with inspirational stories, right before beginning tefilla. You could work your way through different parts of the siddur over the course of the year. Then eople who need to keep themselves busy during the "down-times" could look over the sheets. Even if they are studying Torah when it's not entirely appropriate, at least they're keeping with the theme and deepening their knowledge, kavana, and appreciation during the moments when they are focused on tefila.

    In fact, you could make it a community project, with different members of the minyan contributing their own learnings and stories. This could foster a sense of community involvement, and it would give the quieter types (namely, those who aren't comfortable talking in front of a crowd) a chance to share their ideas with the community.

  5. BTW - By "minyan" of course I was implying that both women and men could contribute written pieces... also giving women more opportunities to 'be heard" in congregations whose policy does not include having women standing up and teaching in front of everyone.

  6. ALN-
    Thanks for commenting; I agree on both points. Having printed material available, and material from shul members - men and women - may well help.

  7. I just came to this blog from RWAC and am looking at the interesting-looking archives.

    Given that a) the intent of p'sukei d'zimrah is to get people ready for the main event and b) I dare say that for most people, it doesn't, mightn't a courageous congregation consider temporarily altering PD"Z to try to recapture its original goal?

    I recall reading in Praying with Fire that there is latitude available to (under rabbinical consultation) try temporarily skipping some parts of davening in order to have time to concentrate on other parts. What if a congregation, for example, spent the entire PD"Z time one day on a slow, multi-lingual recitation of Ashrei, perhaps even with interpretation?

    If nothing else, it would certainly get people's attention.

  8. Hello Moe,

    Thanks for visiting!

    I definitely agree that individuals should do this - but the idea of a community doing this bothers me. It feels like a real lowering of the bar. I feel like the community should set the expectations, and individuals should shoot for those goals.

  9. in a post tonight i responded to a comment someone left me about shul being boring. and i turn to you.

    honestly (don't you love it when someone prefaces a question to a rabbi with "honestly"), do you think the "average" person is capable of davening the *entire* tefillah day in and day out with kavanah?

    even if yes, honestly again, how many of us can really do this in the time alloted daily to davening? personally, i don't imagine that i could ever daven an entire tefillah with comprehension and kavanah in the time allotted. but not that i want the time for tefillah extended either, as this would probably be counter-productive (for me at least). (and this is also not a plea for abridgement.) so what were the חכמים and פייטנים thinking as they kept on enlarging the siddur?

    שנה טובה

  10. Lion-
    I agree that this is a problem, and I don't have a good answer. This is what leads some to advise people to focus on just one perek of tehillim, just one berachah in shmoneh esreih (besides Avos), etc... but that doesn't really answer the question.

  11. One shul that has largely succeeded in doing what you describe here is the DAT Minyan in Denver, under Rabbi Daniel Alter. Being in a new shul, with a specific demographic, he had a lot of tools at hand that most rabbis don't, but he may have advice that would be relevant to other situations as well.

  12. Thanks Michael, but which do you mean - one (or more) of the items I mentioned, or creating a more positive davening atmosphere in general?

  13. I think the only specific item of what you mentioned that he implemented is #3, making sure that there's an activity at any time. He eliminated mishebeirachs to expedite leining. After they take out the Torah while the baal kriah finds the place etc. they sing v'yaazor, they sing Eitz Chaim Hi after hagbah. They always get baalei tefillah who sing a lot and keep the tzibbur involved.

    Aside from that, the rabbi announces publicly on a regular basis (especially when there are guests), that "We really try to make davening here be a meaningful service. I understand that not everyone can sit through the whole davening, so we encourage you to get up, walk outside, and talk."

    When I say that he had tools other rabbis don't have, I don't mean the ability to do what you describe in the beginning of the post. What I mean is, he had the ability to shape the development of the shul in a directed way. In his drashos he uses words like "spiritual growth", in a sense that (at least in my experience) rabbis don't generally use.

    I should also add that much of this is probably also due to the other rabbi, Rabbi Joshua Hess. I'm not involved enough with the shul (living away from home, after all) to know what comes from who.