Sunday, May 3, 2009

Twittering in Synagogue?

[Note: Haveil Havalim is here at My Shrapnel!]

I know rabbis who complain about chatter in shul and comment that Christians know how to conduct themselves in church. They say, “Imagine if someone who was not Jewish would come to shul – wouldn’t you be embarrassed?” A popular theory explains the allegedly contrasting experiences, arguing that Jews feel a greater sense of at-homeness in shul because they are (theoretically) present for twice-daily davening, where churchgoers are only present on a weekly basis.

I’ve always felt the claim of “Churchgoers are more decorous” was weak, along the lines of asking, “Why can’t you be more like the neighbors’ kids?” when we all know the neighbors’ kids behave ten times worse than we do. Now, Time Magazine offers proof, reporting on preachers who not only tolerate, but actually promote, Twittering during services and speeches. (CNN coverage here.)

The argument in favor of tweeting promotes this as a way of building community during worship, as well as a way of showing that the church is in sync with the modern world.

I hear these arguments, but it's not for me. Obviously, it wouldn't be acceptable on Shabbat, but even during the week I wouldn't go for it, not during davening and not during the speech.

We do promote minyan and communal worship in shul, but still, our worship is supposed to be private, personal.

During Psukei d’Zimra, we all say the same things, but we say them individually. [Note: This is not universally true, and wasn’t always the way it was done, but it is the way Ashkenazim have done it for centuries.] This is also one reason for our emphasis on having a silent Amidah.

One congregant of mine labelled it “parallel play,” a la the style of very young children who will play in the same room, with the same toys, but act as though they are alone in the world. I think she was right – that’s what we do. We want everyone to do it together, but we still do it personally. So having people communicate with each, even positively and even focussed on prayer, seems to me to defeat the purpose of our silence.

I wrote more on Silent Prayer here, but to quote one passage:
Silence is also an expression of spiritual depth… Consider Aharon’s silence at the death of Nadav and Avihu, and the praise heaped upon him for his articulate inexpression. Consider Chanah’s silent plea for a child… a servant of Gd, nobly stoic in her suffering. And, finally but most significantly, consider the contrast between Eliyahu’s thundering rage and the Divine קול דממה דקה with which Gd rebukes him, a sound so thin as to be nearly inaudible, and yet deep enough to contain the majesty of the Creator of All. This is a silence of presence, of pent-up power, of tzimtzum, of a Being who surely can thunder like Eliyahu but who chooses the containment of Chanah. To me, the silence of Shemoneh Esreih is an attempt to capture this noble state of expressive restraint.

No way.

Some time back I had a Shabbat guest in shul who conversed with his seatmate whenever I rose to speak. It was incredibly distracting for me, to the point that I actually went over to him privately and asked him to stop.

I hated to do it – both in terms of embarrassing him, and in terms of looking like I was concerned for my own honor. But it wasn’t about my own honor; it was about the fact that when I am addressing a room, even a big room with 150 people in it, I get distracted if I someone in my sightline is conversing, and once I am distracted I can’t speak intelligently. I get completely thrown off.

I imagine Twittering would have the same effect on my concentration.

So no Twittering during services, thanks. Let the churches have fun with it instead.

Your mileage may vary, of course. I attended a meeting at a Conservative temple last week, and saw a sign banning texting during services. Maybe they’ll read that article and post a new sign promoting it…


  1. Interesting, but I'm not a fan of parallel "playing"/praying for pesukei dezimrah. I always enjoy the Sephardic zemirot for the precise reason that the Sephardim say everything out loud and give everyone a chance to participate. I would love to be able to re-institute an "out-loud" pesukei dezimrah in Ashkenazi shuls, for three reasons: 1] such a pesukei dezimrah increases kavvanah, 2] it creates that precise sense of communal worship that parllel praying lacks, and this sense of comunity also reinforces kavvanah, and 3] it is educationally useful.

    Re: reason #1: I've been to so many shuls that do a "15-minute" pesukei dezimrah, in which saying everything silently simply allows people to speed through it. This practice goes flatly against shulhan arukh, which explicitly requires that pesukei dezimrah be said slowly [with attention to the proper pronunciation of each word] (See Orach Chayim 51:8 and Mishnah Berurah ad. loc.). I am yeshivah educated and am familiar with Hebrew, but I cannot pronounce the words properly at that speed, and I suspect that other educated people cannot do so either. Moreover, what is the point of saying pesukei dezimrah by rote, without being able to focus properly? It is as if certain places have forgotten the message of Yesha'yah. My own experience sugests that saying the pesukim out loud may help emeliorate this problem. I once tried an experiment when I was away from a community on a summer program and had to daven alone on Shabbos: I said all of pesukei dezimrah slowly and out loud with a good amount of kavvanah. This took about 30 minutes - a nice amount of time that if applied to a tzibbur would allow people to pray with kavvanah without burdening the kehillah. If a tzibbur is still concerned about tirchah, then in my view it is better to take out extra mi-shebeirakh's in between aliyahs, for instance, in favor of a slightly longer pesukei dezimrah. We need to prioritize prayers that are more integral to the davening and prayers that are clearly reshus.
    More on 2] Saying the pesukei dezimrah out loud increases the sense of community, which enhances kavvanah. Each individual is no longer whispering (in those afore-mentioned shuls, "mumbling")his prayers but is actively engaged. Singing parts of the pesukei dezimrah also helps. The Sephardim sing the fifth helelukah and az yashir, a very beautiful way of highlighting enhancing those prayer's moods.
    3] Saying prayers out loud allows people unfamiliar with the davening to follow. I know some people who attend non-orthodox shuls because they cannot follow the orthodox service. What a missed kiruv opportunity! Pesukei Dezimrah becomes an opportunity to teach people who are eager to learn the davening and is a wonderful way to familiarize children with this oft-neglected part of tefillah betzibbur.

    Of course, one specific style is not for everyone, and those shuls that say a slow pesukei dezimrah in the "parallel pray model" and are hapy with that are not the target of this post. But I am sure there are other Ashkenazim like myself who would prefer an "out loud" pesukei dezimrah, and those shuls who currently rush through the zemirot may in fact benefit from this suggestion.

  2. I can't imagine that someone twittering away can actually capture the depth of any speech. They would be focused more on tweeting the words and less on the meaning...

    besides, wouldn't that me kind of a no no on shabbat anyway??

  3. I'm with Joseph on the sharing psukei dzimra out loud, especially for reason #2 (I've commented similarly in the past).

    As for Twitter, etc -- in some places (like our own small community, and the one I came from in the Old Country) they're so happy to have a minyan that they probably would tolerate some Tweeting on the side.

    Of course, in a small community, if you dare to Tweet during minyan, everyone will notice. No anonymity there.

    PS. You've been invitedto receive a blog award, if you choose.

  4. Does someone who twitters during davening count as part of the minyan? :)

  5. Joseph-
    I'm with you, for all of the reasons you cite and one more: I have seen Sephardic minyanim where they rotate the out-loud leadership, and they have children do it as well. I think it's great for the kids.

    Definitely a no-no. I think I wrote that in the post, but I'm too groggy to check right now; just returned from a lightning-fast trip to Toronto to check out homes.

    Thanks! Maybe I'll get to look at that award tomorrow.

    As long as they can say/tweet Amen within their 140 characters...

  6. i don't know what twetter is all about, but can you twitter to hashem?