Monday, April 23, 2012

Yoga vs. Shul: Round 1

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 . . . 


  1. I went to the Kotel on Hoshanna Rabbah at Sunrise a few years ago, There is a certain point in the morning when it is considered "daytime" enough to Daven (pray). The Kotel is very crowded on that day, since it is the last day of Chol Hamoed (middle days)of the holiday of Sukkot. It was packed and we all started davening at the same time. When we got to Shemonah Esrai (the silent Amidah) everyone was... SILENT. At least 3000 people there and you could hear the birds tweet! It was the most amazing religious experience I have ever had. I have tried to recreate each time I daven and it is sadly, almost impossible. I don't blame the lighting or noise in most of the synagogues I go to. It is in me and all of us to "get there" but it takes an amazing amount of determination and concentration. Try it next time you pray!

  2. Barry- I love the way you compared prayer to meditative Yoga. The gemara in Brachot 28b says one of the reasons we have 18 (19) brachot is because of the spine has 18 (19) vertebra. The gemara describes different practices to bend all the vertebra when we bow. Our bodies are supposed to be engaged, just as our minds are when we pray, and a more appropriate environment would certainly help. כָּל עַצְמוֹתַי, תֹּאמַרְנָה- ה, מִי כָמוֹךָ: (Psalms 35:10)

    I was passing an airport all-denominations place of worship, and i was interested to notice the sign at the door said that everyone should remove their shoes before entering. My first thought was that the halakha developed differently in different countries, and some Jews find it disrespectful to pray without shoes, as they would never appear before royalty without shoes, while others think it is more appropriate not to wear shoes. Then I realized the whole thing is from the Bible- שַׁל-נְעָלֶיךָ, מֵעַל רַגְלֶיךָ--כִּי הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עוֹמֵד עָלָיו, אַדְמַת-קֹדֶשׁ הוּא (Exodus 3:5).

    Prayer, from both the perspective of halacha and also the verse here and the custom that seems to have emerged from it not to wear shoes, is largely about fear of God. The sense of awe one should have before a king, the terror Moses felt in God's presence-- that's what we need to feel in shul. I think that a Yoga studio doesn't really get there, quite. I'm not sure what the answer is, though. The architecture in some old shuls promoted that sense of awe, i think, but fear isn't really such a modern idea. Not such a popular sentiment these days. We'd rather think about our breathing than the fact that we're standing in God's presence...

    One thing is for sure, though. The current vibe at a weekday mincha is lame. It's not a way to pray.

  3. I think it’s important, to a large extent, to be mindful that when one davens, a window is open to the Heavens and in davening we are not reciting, mechanically, words in Ivrit because we couldn’t find something more fruitful to do on that particular day. Indeed, when davening we are speaking to HaShem and H- is Kadosh and I think it’s important to think and meditate on the words that are being uttered and to WHOM they are uttered. Not too long ago and in some places around the world today, people of our faith live under constant fear and they are not allowed to erect a building in which to call a “temple” or, a “synagogue” in order to daven on Shabbat or, Yom Tov. Services are held, sometimes clandestinely, at home so not to announce their faith to the public at large as there may be negative consequences with doing so. Here at home where we do have the privilege of being able to announce our Jewish faith to whomever and whenever and more importantly, where we’re able to actually have a place in which to daven where we don’t have to live in constant fear for our safety, sometimes we take it for granted and we don’t realize how truly blessed we are. So I agree wholeheartedly that we should reflect on the privileges we have today and we should find ways to enhance our davening experience namely ,by meditating and reflecting on what exactly is taking place when one davens and what it means to daven.

  4. I think there are two very noteworthy places in the Torah that emphasizes the significance of davening- וַיִּצְעַק הָעָם, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל מֹשֶׁה אֶל-יְהוָה, וַתִּשְׁקַע הָאֵשׁ.(Bamidbar 11:2). וַיֹּאמַר: הַרְאֵנִי נָא, אֶת-כְּבֹדֶךָ.(Shemos 33:18). While very distinct from each other, I believe, both instances remind us of the significance of davening. I think in the first instance, Moshe Rabbeinu's prayer kept a very difficult situation from further deteriorating. On the second instance, some would argue that it was more beseeching than actually davening, however, I would make the argument that indeed it does qualify as davening as Moshe Rabbeinu beseeches HaShem to witness H-s Presence.

  5. Nice. Suprisingly the daily minyon at non-orthodox shuls often have more of the atmosphere you are seeking, perhaps because the davening is more controled and the bal tfilah is more "professional". I frequently daven mincha at temple emanuel during the week and think the atmosphere there has some of what you are seeking.