(Hat tip: JewishIdeas)
I love davening. I absolutely love it. Every since I got a decent Hebrew education in my teens and found I could understand most of the prayers I have very much gotten into praying with purpose and meaning. Yes there are days when I'm rushed, tired or distracted by a headache but in general whenever I can I do my best to immerse myself in tefillah at the set times. Whether davening alone or by myself I don't feel the time dragging when I'm speaking with God.
But there is something to be said about settings. At home I have a specific room in which I daven. I have everything arranged and set up so there is instant familiarity and comfort. In shul I have my makom kavua as well which helps.
But there is more to a setting than a specific seat and this is where shul leaves me disappointed.
Many, many years ago the non-Orthodox synagogue I worked in (did their Junior Congregation) had a congregational meeting and the topic of how to make services more interesting came up. More dynamic speakers, muscial instruments to accompany the singing, more activities to engage congregants, all sorts of ideas got thrown out from the floor until one guy on the board, not the most traditional in Jewish practice but still an intelligent guy with his head screwed on straight shouted out "Wait! I come to shul to pray to God. I'm not looking for a show or entertainment, I'm looking to commune and daven!"
The other board members just rolled their eyes. Prayer. What a quaint concept.
Unfortunately this lack of interest in the dignity and importance of proper prayer is getting increasingly lost in parts of the Orthodox world as well. I think, for instance, of the Carlebach-type service my shul runs on Friday nights. For me the service is a nightmare, a 90 minute affair that should only take 45 minutes tops in a real shul. Song after song during Kabbalas Shabbos, two or three breaks where kids go up and dance around the bimah, and then a quick zip through Maariv so we can get to more singing for Kiddush. I haven't attended Friday night services since I realized this format wasn't an occasional "treat" but rather the standard format.
Now I can understand why the Rav of the shul does this. He's very much into outreach. He runs an expensive shul and day school, he needs the money, ergo he needs members and how better to increase membership than to appeal to the non-religious? After all, we frummers are stuck going to the shul whether we like it or not; it's the only one in town. This means catering to the non-religious and how better to do so than to make shul fun?
It works too. The little side chapel we use other than on Shabbos mornings is packed by folks who drive up conveniently right after Minchah has ended and who jump in their cars to go home after the last Aleinu. In between there's the singing and dancing. But when we hit Maariv everything changes. Our Rav hasn't figured out how to turn saying the Shema into a loud, interactive experience (yet) so at that point people either daven (the few religious folks) or close the siddurim and stare blankly into space until V'Shamru, the next tune.
And I wonder: when did shul stop being shul? I mean a place where there is a sense of dignity and propriety, a place where people stand in some sort of awe before our Creator and who recite the worlds from the prayer book as if they're interacting not with the shaliach tzibur and his happy tune but with God Himself?
Shouldn't there be a sense of majesty? If not unending chazanus then at least tunes that carry some weight? Shouldn't people be there to make a connection with the Divine instead of having the rabbinical equivalent of Krusty the Klown calling out "Hey kids! Now for our next special song and dance..."?
The article that triggered my interest in making this post makes a similar point. His most powerful paragraph for me was:
A hazzan is not merely a precenter of the liturgy. He is a teacher of prayer. He interprets the mahzor or the siddur and renders it relevant and meaningful to his congregation. The prayer modes are the hermeneutics he employs. If all a hazzan does is sing some popular tunes for the entertainment of the congregation, or if all he does is sing big pieces to impress the congregation with his vocal abilities and musicianship, he is an abject failure, much like the rabbi who fills his sermons with jokes and teaches little about Jewish life and values. Leading prayer is not about timing the service so it ends before the cholent burns, nor is it about entertainment. It's not even about artistry for its own sake. It is about teaching the congregation what the prayers are, and what they mean. To do that a hazzan must wrestle with the text of the siddur. He has to ponder the depths of his soul and make the liturgy meaningful and relevant to himself. He must lead and teach both by exposition and by example (thus the halakhic requirement that a communal cantor must be known for his personal piety). If the cantor is unclear as to what prayer means to him, his message to the congregants will likewise be unclear. Once a cantor understands what the liturgy means to him, he must then go about presenting it, teaching that meaning to his students within the confines of accepted exposition of the text (with the liturgical hermeneutics, the nusah). Sometimes that meaning will be challenging to the congregation. It may make them tremble or weep. Sometimes it may be whimsical or entertaining. But the message notwithstanding, the cantor MUST always be interpreting the text of the siddur and teaching the interpretation to his students (i.e. the congregation). That is what the unconquerable Cantor Moshe Koussevitzky meant when he stated "I daven with the peirush,", I pray according to the meaning of the words.
We need to do something to reclaim the sanctity of shul, the kedushah of prayer. Running in and runsing through the davening is unacceptable. Why is it so hard to handle the middle ground, a decent service with the appropriate tunes that demands that the congregants focus on the real reason to be in shul?