As we start the month of Elul and prepare ourselves for the coming Days of Awe, the pit of my stomach tightens as I realize that the time of the year is approaching when I’m going to have to spend a lot more time than usual in synagogues.
I ought to explain how I came to feel this way. I don’t really find most synagogues particularly good places to pray in. I do enjoy praying, meditating, contemplating, whichever variation, very much. I go off into my own imagination and have conversations with that Great Spirit Beyond. Sometimes it is very therapeutic. It is just like having a friend or an analyst in space to work things out with and say things I couldn’t to anyone else. It’s also an escape into another world. I float off into a warm cocoon of Divine energy that in a way recharges my spiritual batteries. Sometimes I do this alone. On the other hand, I also enjoy being part of a group of others who are either singing or silently communing in an atmosphere of togetherness. So I really do love both the experience of private prayer and of community prayer.
But there is something about a synagogue that puts me off. I can handle shtieblach—small intense little prayer groups that usually meet in houses or small crowded places. I can cope with the shoving and the noise and the general buzz of familiarity and the ability to wander in and out as I feel like, for a breath of fresh air or just to stretch. I go to a shtieble to have a very specific range of experiences that are often as much social as spiritual. But synagogue services and formality fill me with dread.
I love study, Torah of any kind. So in principle I should like sermons and drashot, more academically based talks. I Iove the opera. So I ought to delight in Chazzanut. So why is it that I can’t take sermons or cantors in synagogues?
I grew up in Carmel College, a Jewish residential school in the Oxfordshire countryside, where students took the services. Most of the kids were not religious and found services boring, a chore, or down right torture. Yet the services were short, with lots of singing, and took place in familiar, everyday sorts of spaces that were not awe-inspiring or impersonal. So it was all relatively tolerable compared to the experiences I had when I came up to town and was dragged along to a big London synagogue. Regardless of denomination or degree of religiosity, they were all as bad as each other.
There were rows of pews in which dark-suited, glowering men sat huddled together or singly, staring across to other soulful, detached characters on the opposition benches. In the front of the central bima there were usually a couple of very self-important men in top hats and tallis scarves giving regular instructions to busy little beadles in long black gowns who scurried around the synagogue dealing with this and that—handing out honors, dispensing books and religious articles and chasing little boys out of the sanctum sanctorum to run around and make a noise outside.
Sometimes the top hats would start shushing or commanding and then they would give up and return to nattering amongst themselves, and the beadle would wander in and out, whispering to friends and buddies or telling jokes and laughing. The rabbi would be sitting in splendid isolation up by the ark, looking solemn and pompous. I couldn’t understand why he had to be dressed in a funny hat and a long pleated black cape that made him look like a minister of the church or even perhaps an assistant to the Angel of Death. Gazing imperiously around at his flock, he would occasionally nod at someone, but most of the time he was lost in a book.
Then he would get down from on high and slowly follow the procession of the Torah at funereal pace around the bima. Very serious. Very formal. Very remote. Nodding at this one or that—and you could tell who he thought was important or not. When he got up onto his special little lectern he would start speaking in a language that was unfamiliar, in tones that sounded sepulchral and medieval. And what I did understand was boring or quite irrelevant to the way I looked at the world. Very often I noticed that people talked or dozed off or even sneaked out and huddled around outside until the rabbi had finished.
The Chazzan often scared me. The powerful, bellowing voice sounded strained and strange. The pointless repetitions dragged out the service when I just wanted to go out and play. I knew I had to wait until it finished, but it just wouldn’t stop.
Worst of all was the reading from the scrolls, Kriat HaTorah. There would be a little bit of reading, which I could follow and could practice my own reading alongside. But then it stopped and a whole flurry of strange activity went on. The people up on the bima started nattering and laughing, and meanwhile the rabbi or someone else would start rattling off at great speed, stopping to ask someone something and then off again. A whole long list of names was read out and then someone mentioned money and everyone called out, “Shkoyach!” Meanwhile, in the congregation everyone else was chatting and sending semaphore signs up to the ladies’ gallery, women were mouthing instructions down to the men, and hordes of kids started running in and running out and it was bedlam.
If there was some special occasion, then there were rows and rows of extremely posh-dressed men below and women upstairs who paid not the least bit of attention to what was going on but seemed to be having a very jolly time. I felt out of place, bored and uninvolved. I just wanted it to be over as soon as possible but it went on and on and on and on. I felt like the country mouse and couldn’t wait to get back to the countryside.
If I was lucky enough to be taken to a shtiebel, then it was a different matter altogether. There was one in Bishops Avenue I used to love going to, even though the lovable rabbinical presence was fine at telling jokes but absolutely awful giving talks! He seemed to spend most of his time amongst the “natives”, giving out sweets and discussing important issues with the inner circle of congregants. Half the people there seemed to be having a jolly time too. But they were wandering around with whisky glasses, munching honey cake. Yes, they were talking too, but they seemed to go outside to chat. Inside they listened carefully to what was going on and just loved to shout out corrections and show how involved they were. When they prayed, there was silence. If someone finished in record-breaking time, he would ease himself out from between the others and go refill his glass. There was no Chazzan. All sorts of different members, some better and some worse, took turns at the front to say and sing. Everyone joined in and all went pretty quickly and painlessly.
Over the years I have come across people who simply adore formality and sermons and Chazzanut and funny hats and realize that humans come in a variety of shapes and have very different tastes. I have also met a lot of people whose memory of synagogue is as negative as mine was. I’ve been a rabbi all my working life and I still don’t like most synagogues. (Of course I’m excluding Yakar from these reservations which meets in a school and tries to avoid most of my strictures.)
Yet when I was sent off to Yeshiva in Israel as a young man, I discovered an amazing range of different sorts of shuls and shtiebles and styles and forms and pronunciations and customs. Judaism offers such a wide variety of experiences, suited different types of people. So, if you don’t like where you are or what you’ve seen, try somewhere else! As the Talmud says, “If someone says, ‘I have tried but I haven’t found,’ don’t believe him!”