10 Jan 2018

What’s With All This Talking in Shul?


How do we Combat Talking in Shul?

(Details about individuals and events have been changed to protect the privacy of others)

At the risk of drumming up some enmity, I want to talk about…talking…in shul. In a recent post about an Agitated Woman at the Kotel, I related my encounter with a woman who told G-d, “I feel like I’m talking to the wall!” but who was actually talking to Him. Yes, truly praying.

Prayer, or davening, is difficult. The term avodah she’belev, “service of the heart”, is spot on. We are working on ourselves and our connection with G-d. I personally have found tefillah to be a challenging mitzvah. I get that others might feel uninspired because I often do. We all have our moments –whether at the Kotel or in shul – when it seems we’re “talking to the wall”. Now, coming out of the inspiration of Tishrei, is an appropriate time to reflect on the quality of our davening and how we can help ourselves to make prayer more meaningful and alive.

A few illustrative stories

My intention is not to offend. That said, if previous reactions to a request for quiet in shul is anything to go by, I anticipate strong emotions in response to the (apparently audacious) assertion that there’s too much chatter in our shuls.

Years ago I sat in shul in the row ahead of two women. At least one of them was a woman of renown – an educator. I didn’t know the woman who sat beside her and turned out to be her sister. Granted both were from out of town yet theirs was typical of local conduct. Throughout shacharis they chatted. A few times I motioned to them to please be quiet, particularly at krias hatorah. Eventually I turned and asked the woman I knew that in her capacity as an educator she ‘walk the talk’ and be quiet. That seemed to work.

When davening ended, fellow congregants mutedly thanked me. (Inside they were seething. Yet they hadn’t voiced their opinion. That however is a topic for another time.) I had moved to the front of the shul and was saying tehillim. To my surprise, the macher’s sister tapped me on the shoulder. I turned and smiled at her. Honestly I thought she was approaching me to offer an apology. For my part, I was fully ready to thank her for quieting down. Oish, was I naïve. Could not have been more wrong. She hadn’t come to apologize at all but rather to tell me how “disgusting” and “low” it was of me to “harass” her and her sister and to have demonstrated disrespect to the latter who was (after all) a renowned educator. Then, as an afterthought for good measure, she added, “And you’re practically naked! How dare you ask someone to be quiet dressed that way!?”

You can’t make this stuff up. I was, to say the least, surprised. Not only did she demonstrate zero ownership of the imposition their conversation had had on others around them but she reprimanded me to boot. (I found her derision acerbically ironic. Just that morning, on the way out the house, the thought had occurred to me that I was grateful for my outfit – which to me was both beautiful and tznius! Maybe I was wrong.) Her retort made no sense to me at all. Had her main point just been that one lack on my part (assuming there was one with my dress) denied me the privilege to pray in a quiet and focused environment?! Her logic defies me. If so, a lack in one arena would disqualify us from attempting to improve in another. Her comment embodied the very opposite of “A little light dispels a lot of darkness”, “Ma’alin bekodesh”, “If you know Alef, teach it” or any of the other life-affirming, celebratory approaches of the Rebbe we live by.

I wasn’t about to have a philosophical discussion with her and so collected myself and apologized for any ill feeling. Without a word she spun on her heels and, had there been dust on the ground, walked off in a way that would have kicked up quite a cloud.

Another time. Another shul. Shavuos to be exact. Despite the Holiday, there was a continuous stream of talking during davening, even during kriah. This particular shul has various strong female members. One had repeatedly asked the women sitting in an adjacent space to be quiet. Her requests didn’t change a thing. Finally, as we approached chamishi – the Ten Commandments – I went over to the chatterniks and asked that if they wanted to talk that they please go outside. And if they wanted to take part in Krias Hatorah to please be quiet.

I could not have possibly imagined the backlash. After shul, one Mama took up the battle cry outside the building.

“You tinkh’ yew’ra big spEEkuh?!” she boomed. “You’re a nuttingh! A nuttingh!!” Thus the tirade began. She went on like that for a while such that people came to their windows and onto the street to check out what the commotion was about.

The last time I (gingerly) asked someone to be quiet during davening she told me I didn’t belong in that shul.

I’m not the only one troubled by the state of affairs. A friend of mine told me she once asked someone to be quiet during Kriah on Rosh Hashana. Not wanting to embarrass the person she said, “You know you’re not allowed to daven during keriah.” Their reply? “Don’t worry, we’re not davening.” Her request for silence also morphed into a megilla and later, a relative of the gal told her, “People don’t like to be told what to do!” Well, apparently not. Not even when they are violating Halacha in a way that impinges upon others in a public space. How big have we gotten?

I remind myself of the story of the Chassid who told the Tzemach Tzedek that wherever he was in shul, people were stepping on him. The Rebbe’s response was, “If you didn’t spread yourself out all over the shul, others wouldn’t step on you.” I love the story and use it as an ongoing reminder to myself in my avodah. Honestly though, I don’t think asking for quiet qualifies as “spreading oneself out all over the shul.” To the contrary, isn’t it the voice of the speaker which spreads out all over? Even if it’s not the commitment to tefilla that prompts quiet, wouldn’t our notorious devotion to ahavas Yisroel suffice?

What’s the reason behind our kibitzing?

There are other reasons but it seems to me that there are primarily two reasons behind our kibitzing:

1: We think of prayer as a mitzva of action or speech divorced of an inner, heart-centered and personal dynamic

Firstly, we don’t seem to know how to daven. Of course I don’t mean how to go through the motions. For the most part we know when to sit or stand, how to bow and the like. I’m talking about our not buying in to the inner dynamics of prayer. We don’t honestly feel we’re conversing with G-d. We feel we’re talking to the wall. I once read that someone asked Reb Reuven Dunin if he had davened. He answered, “If you mean did I turn the pages, then yes.” I should only turn the pages as he did but truth be told, we’re at best turning the pages. We’re not conversing with G-d from our kishkes. For many we don’t even understand the words we’re saying (something I’ll address in another article.) And when “The Wall” feels too impervious, we quit and chat to the person near us – who at least responds! And talks our language!

2: We are attached to externalities and “matter over form” – to the point that we’re too “sophisticated” to “wage war” on the body and Yetzer Hora

Secondly, prayer involves hishpashtus hagashmiyus – literally “divesting oneself of one’s corporeality” or “loosening our attachment to our bodies and materiality”. That’s super difficult at the best of times. How much more so is that the case today! We encounter constant messages that our body is of primary importance. Consciously and obliquely we’re encouraged to have matter dominate form and the body dominate the soul. How can the modern person hope to pray at all like a mensch, like a yid, let alone a chassid when our consciousness is inundated with thoughts that are antithetical to the path of prayer?

There is one other point I’d like to mention tangentially. The laws of a sanctuary (exclusively designated for prayer) are different from those of a Beis Midrash. For example, in the former there are restrictions on eating or embracing but in the latter not. In Crown Heights we don’t really have “sanctuaries” that are uniquely set aside for davening, a separate room for classes, and a hall where food is served. Our shuls serve as multi-purpose spaces. They’re alive and dynamic in a very special way.

About a year ago, I had occasion to speak at a Young Israel shul in Boston. The sanctuary was so beautiful I was inspired to stay on for a little while when congregants filed out for the brocha. The lighting, the colors, the windows all blended into a rarified whole that inspired worship. The beauty and peace – and the cleanness – supported the kedusha of the space. It elevated my davening.

Sitting in the Boston sanctuary, it struck me that maybe the fact that our shuls are in some respect comfortable living spaces (and in some rare cases even “home” to individuals who don’t have one to call their own) creates a familiarity which allows for more talking in shul. I’m not sure. Might this have something to do with the disregard with which we shrug off of the words of Shulchan Aruch?

Those words are weighty and clear. “The sanctity of the synagogue and the House of Study is very great and we are urged to fear the One Who dwells in them, blessed is His name. This is learned from the verse (Leviticus 19:30), ‘You should have deep respect for My sanctuary.’…As such, it is forbidden to participate in gossip or to make any calculations except those pertaining to religious matter there ….” And that’s not even addressing speaking during prayer! In regards to Krias haTorah we are told, “During the reading of the Torah, it is forbidden to indulge in conversation, even regarding matters of the Law, and even between the calling-up of persons.” (I couldn’t not find an online Chabad resource for the laws of davening in shul. This link is clear and useful.)

The situation invites us to improve. Isn’t it remarkably significant that the Alter Rebbe concludes the entire Tanya with a heartfelt request for prayer with intention? He writes, “‘You shall reprove your comrade’— even one hundred times. Therefore I cannot contain myself and refrain from crying out again, in a voice betraying weakness. I plead with you, out of deep compassion have mercy on your souls. Take care, be painstaking to an extreme concerning Torah and the service of the heart which is worship with kavana, proper intention. All should begin in unison, as one, word by word, not one here and another elsewhere, one mute and the other idly chatting— may G?d protect us. (Tanya, Kuntres Acharon, Essay 9)

When we talk in shul we display basic disrespect for G-d and for one another. Even if it’s just out of Ahavas Yisrael, let’s work on talking less in shul as well as cultivating the ability to accept respectful, thoughtful feedback even when it isn’t supportive of what we’re doing? Let’s stop talking to each other during zman tefila and start talking to G-d. And let’s not only talk to G-d but listen to and for Him too. It’s certain to enrich our conversations and relationships with others too.

I hope my reflection on our collective shortfall is received as an invitation to grow. If I fall short, at the very least this should give you something to talk about in shul.

In How to Pray, I put forward some suggestions for making prayer meaningful.