One of the skeletons in the Modern Orthodox closet is the irreverence of those who chatter, talk, gab, jabber, gossip, converse and prattle rather than observe the solemn laws of appropriate synagogue posture and assiduously attend to the reading of the Torah. By doing so, they subvert and undermine the sacrosanct concept of prayer. The systemic talking has become so prevalent that a shul’s politics are hardly about who voted for whom, membership dues or ritual disagreements. Instead, the conversation is about the lackadaisical condemnation of conversation during prayer and, by extension, whether a person has the right to request the reticence of another congregant.
The dynamic of talking in shul during prayer or the reading of the Torah, when all is said and done is, by many congregants, a conscious willingness to pervert the fundamentals of spiritual decorum. Dialogue of the latest news; financial opportunities; politics and, of course, the number one source of conversation, gossip, takes precedence over deference to “Know Before Whom You Stand” [B’rachot 28b]. There are those who attend services on Shabbos to chat. Social civility becomes tantamount to spiritual apathy and compromises the sacred essence of prayer.
For this writer, conversation during services has not been so much a violation of halachic decorum as an annoyance, an impediment to clearly hearing the Cantor and reader of the Torah enunciating each and every word. Gravely serious, talking during davening in and of itself is the equivalent of Avodah Zorah: genuflecting to idols [Drush Chassam Sofer, volume 2]. The talkers, those who consider themselves “frum” or “religious,” are seemingly unconcerned or indifferent to the disturbance of the services and incivility toward their fellow congregants. There is a reason that one of the most elementary and intrinsic components of prayer, the supplication of thanks, forgiveness and the petition of blessings, is referred to as silent devotion.
Even in the more stringently conducted services where ritual etiquette is esteemed, there is often the idle chatter between the aliyas (honors), when the Cantor walks around the synagogue’s perimeters affording congregants the opportunity to pay homage to the Torah, or sadly, during the Rabbi’s sermon, still inexcusable. Where I pray, or more accurately, vainly attempt to do so, conversation routinely compromises the concept of kavanah (praying with intention) and takes precedence over prayer. It’s painfully unlike a shul several blocks from my own, a shtibal (small synagogue or Jewish house of worship), where the inviolable and unobtrusive devotion to prayer is of the highest priority. While I have shushed my fellow congregants for years now, angry responses have resulted in my being excoriated, which makes the whole exercise self-defeating.
The approach to a quieter synagogue requires support from others who are uncomfortable with noisy prayer and seek change. There are others at my temple who share my want of uncompromising fidelity to the precepts of prayer and, by extension, spiritual serenity. When I shush someone, however, there is little demonstrable support from other congregants and even friends who painfully say nothing to echo my plea for quiet, thereby sending the message that disruption of the service is acceptable. Once I asked some congregants to quiet down and one person shouted, “If you want it so quiet, then go to church.” I will never forget that. If more people support the shusher, zero tolerance for those who attend services for the wrong reasons would become the rule. If the current dynamic of behavioral debasement of prayer in synagogues remains the status quo, then we need to place a cautionary warning on the synagogue’s bulletin board: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Ronald Neal Goldman is a professor of English at Touro College and University System.