It is only a month to the “Days of Awe,” the Yamim Noraim. Actually, I have no idea where the term High Holidays comes from. But each year I am faced with a conundrum. Do I go to a synagogue as a rabbi to perform or as a private person to pray?
I don’t find most synagogues particularly good places to pray in. Too many distractions. I do enjoy praying, meditating, contemplating, very much. I go off into my imagination and have conversations with that Great Spirit in the Sky or my Private Analyst in Space. Sometimes it is just like having a friend to work things out with and say things I couldn’t to anyone else. Sometimes I just do it because I feel like it. 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. I love both the experience of private prayer and community prayer, but there is something about most synagogues that put me off. It’s a mixture of false piety, formality, banal sermonizing, and human limitations.
I grew up in my father’s school, Carmel College, in the Oxfordshire countryside. Most of the students were not religious and found services, an unfamiliar experience. Daily services were held in small class groups. We all came together on Shabbat. The services were short, with lots of community singing and students took the services. Even the longer services of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipur, under the charismatic presence and voice of my father, were tuneful and inspiring. Despite being an unruly child, I enjoyed the experiences. Whereas every time I had to go up to London and a big synagogue I found the services long, drawn-out, full of pomposity with a constant and disruptive buzz of conversation.
Occasionally, I visited a small friendly minyan in Hampstead Garden Suburb, which was a different matter altogether. Everyone knew each other and felt comfortable in their space. The service was taken very seriously. If you wanted to chat you would go outside. The rabbi was unobtrusive and confined his speeches to a few words after the service when it did not matter if you stayed or left. There was no Chazan, all sorts of different members took turns, some better and some worse to lead. Everyone joined in and all went quickly and painlessly.
Later, when I was sent off to Yeshiva in Israel, I discovered a whole new variety of different shuls and shtiebels. Different styles and forms and pronunciations and customs. And the fun of doing the rounds and visiting several in quick succession. But most impressive of all in terms of profound spirituality was the Yeshivah. Where hundreds of young men and their teachers concentrated fervidly on every word. No distractions, no talking, but an ebb and rise of passion to connect and make every word count. I also enjoyed praying with certain Hassidic dynasties where they too were reaching out to heaven as if their lives depended on it but in a much wilder, less restrained, and less disciplined way. I know that if I were living in Jerusalem, I would have no problem finding places that would inspire me. But in the Diaspora, it is much harder, unless you are living in a very concentrated community.
Almost everywhere else in Judaism of every denomination, I have encountered performances that are more like entertainment than spirituality and often more social than religious. Even the growth of more informal minyanim from the left to the right, which in principle I approve of, seems so experimental and often inauthentic, that I struggle to find an atmosphere I can relate to. Indeed, I believe that increasingly synagogues will become holding companies offering a range of options under one roof. I have no objection to all the varieties. It is just that none of them satisfy me. Perhaps it is my fault, but I do sympathize with those who do not enjoy the synagogue experience.
On a different level and as with all restricted societies, as soon as one looks beneath the surface one encounters personal rivalries, disagreements, conflicts, and pettiness. As they say that “there’s no business, like Shul business.” The problem with people is people. It is so difficult to love them! I know this is universal. The Christian apologist C.S. Lewis wrote a small book called “The Screwtape Letters” in which the senior devil advises a junior on how to corrupt Christians. One of his letters deals with what happens when someone begins to enjoy the atmosphere in a Church. The advice is to distract him by getting him to think about what is wrong and what annoys him about the people around him, all those pious hypocrites. And so, it is with synagogues. I do not know why synagogues of all kinds seem to bring out the worst in human nature. I can’t help it. there is almost always one person or more who is determined to spoil things for the rest.
For all my criticism, Judaism offers an amazing variety of experiences and forms. What works for me, may not work for you. But don’t let that put you off. My advice is simply, that if you don’t like where you are or what you’ve seen, try somewhere else this year! You might just find what you are looking for.