Tonight, I went to a Yoga class at the local JCC. Lasting for one (quick) hour, the class encouraged mindful consideration of body position, energy, relationship to the surrounding environment, and more. The mood was peaceful, and highly conducive for contemplative and meditative types of experiences. Lighting was set just so, and the instructor calmly talked us through in a way that helped aid our efforts. Feeling rejuvenated, energized, and more mindful, I left just in time to go to the daily mincha/maariv prayer service at my Synagogue.
It was there that I was struck by the difference in atmosphere, and just how far we have to go to improve the nature of our services. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan certainly popularized the still unfamiliar notion that authentic Jewish prayer is a meditative experience. Now, many in our synagogues are aware of the idea. The Talmud in Berachot recounts how the early sages used to prepare for an hour, pray for an hour, and then spend an hour poised in post-prayer contemplation.
Now, I'm not saying we have to spend three hours praying, but is the Synagogue environment conducive to a true prayer experience in its current iteration? Even on a weekday afternoon prayer, when the text is not overly burdensome or lengthy, it is very difficult to be in the right frame of mind. For one, few synagogues pay serious attention to whether the lighting is conducive for a meditative experience. Further, the parts of the prayers that are said out loud are rushed. The yoga instructor used calm tones and relaxed pacing to help create the right atmosphere; our baalei tefillah should be instructed to do the same. Racing through ashrei and the kaddish before the silent devotion can ruin or constitute a serious setback to the prayer experience. Lastly, sound and quiet whispering begins in almost all synagogues about 30 seconds to a minute into the silent devotion. Even if everyone is silent, the clang of charity falling into the pushka (while well intentioned) is completely disruptive to the mood. Charity is important, but should be given before or after the the silent devotion, not during!
This isn't meant as an indictment of our synagogue or any other synagogue, but a call to action. We should be seeking to create a peaceful prayer environment, in order to better help the mood. Is it any wonder that calls for increased synagogue attendance are falling on deaf ears. Let's make some serious changes, and when shul becomes a place conducive to spirituality and an authentic Jewish prayer experience, we'll have myriads of lost souls knocking at the doors . . .