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Make Some Noise in Synagogue

Prayer shouldn’t be a spectator sport. So why do so many shuls insist that congregants sit in silence?

Arnold Eisen
September 10, 2012
Photoillustration Ivy Tashlik; original photos Shutterstock
Photoillustration Ivy Tashlik; original photos Shutterstock
Photoillustration Ivy Tashlik; original photos Shutterstock
Photoillustration Ivy Tashlik; original photos Shutterstock

The CEO and managing director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic set off a storm of protest in the classical music world this spring when he suggested that concert halls could benefit from less audience decorum and more clapping, laughter, cheers, and other expressions of emotion. Don’t sit still so much at the symphony, Richard Dare urged: Performances of classical music need to be livelier, less hushed, less boring, and audiences can do their part in making that happen.

The idea horrified some musicians and orchestra officials. If people can’t “sit still and be quiet,” said Robert Spano, the music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, “I don’t think classical music is for them.” Dare has clarified his position in subsequent articles, but has not backtracked. “I don’t want bedlam to break out,” he told reporter Daniel J. Wakin for a piece about the controversy published June 8 in the New York Times. “I’m keenly interested in not dismantling the experience we have now,” he explained. But he does want to make that experience “relevant to more people.”

I’m with him all the way. If you substitute “synagogue” for “concert hall” and “prayer services” for “orchestral performances,” you realize that Dare’s proposal is relevant—point after painful point—to the experience that many Jews have in all too many North American synagogues. Since several million Jews are about to spend a great deal of time in synagogue—the High Holidays are almost upon us, to be followed immediately by Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah—I think there is good reason to ask whether something could or should be done to alter the atmosphere in a shul in the ways that Dare wants to change it at the concert hall. I vote yes for two principal reasons.

One: Jewish religious leaders desperately need to make the experience of communal prayer much more relevant to many more people. Attendance at services has been falling steadily for decades—outpacing, I’d venture, even the decline in orchestra subscriptions. On the other hand, many synagogues are quite successful. Livelier services have consistently led to higher attendance. New and better music has proven especially crucial to generating new excitement in many congregations. Participatory services are more popular than services in which the congregation sits quietly for the most part, watching the rabbi and hazzan perform the work of worship up on the bimah.

Two: Tefillah was never meant to be a spectator sport, and by nature is the very opposite of a passive activity drained of emotion. We are talking about the attempt to stand before God, after all, however one understands God. This has never been an easy thing to do—consult the writings of religious virtuosi throughout the centuries—and is certainly not a routine matter for modern Jews in the pews. Nor is it easy to stand before oneself. The verb “to pray” in Hebrew is reflexive. Prayer is about exposing and facing up to depths of self, asking difficult questions and trying to answer them, pondering the meaning of God’s teachings for one’s life. The process can be uplifting, upsetting, or both. The tefillot we utter are meant to move us. At times the movement within has a chance to find expression in movement of the body—we bow, dance, sway, or parade around the synagogue. At other times, we keep what is inside bottled up, not wanting to reveal the turmoil.

And sometimes, I fear, the prohibition against showing too much emotion in the synagogue—laughing aloud or crying out, moving our feet repeatedly, getting up and walking around—actually gets in the way of feeling the feelings that the prayers are designed to elicit and express. These include gratitude, anxiety, need, anger, longing, fulfillment, wonder, and love. The list is not exhaustive. But it suggests the terrain on which tefillah takes place—a terrain not well suited to strict decorum. There are occasions when the liturgy explicitly directs us to “sing a new song unto the Lord,” literally and figuratively. When we say the psalms of praise called Hallel on new moons and festivals, we try to make joyful noise unto the Lord. I think our services would benefit from other expressions of emotion, communal as well as personal: cries of grief or despair, expressions of awe before the wonders of creation, hand-clapping with God’s thunder. Silence is sometimes the best vehicle through which we summon courage to face up to life or to death, but not always. The point is to be fully present before ourselves, one another, and God. Noise can help.

It’s telling, I think, that before reciting the so-called “silent” Amidah, we say, “Open my mouth, O Lord, and my lips will proclaim your praise.” For Jews at prayer, “silence” means lips in motion, mouth open rather than closed. Let me be clear: Gossip and idle conversation during the Amidah are rightly frowned upon. They are a harmful distraction. It’s difficult to concentrate on the work of encounter when the people in front of you are talking about their kids or the election. The same holds true when the rabbi is preaching, when the Torah is being chanted, or when the hazzan is trying to achieve and maintain a high level of intentionality (kavanah) while getting the notes right. But as you know, if you have experienced it, silent prayer is greatly assisted by murmurings of prayer all around you, by occasional outbursts of a word or phrase that strikes another person with special force as she or he prays, or by the humming of melodies that go along with particular passages in the liturgy. Cries of children are often a welcome accompaniment to the sound of the shofar during the High Holidays. Shouts of joy or pain likewise add valued punctuation.

When Jews first entered the social, cultural, and political worlds of the modern West in the 19th century, we took pains to model our notions of what should happen in synagogue on the aesthetics of Protestant churches. Architecture, music, sermon styles, language of prayer, and—above all—decorum were transformed. Synagogues were no longer places for displays of emotion, any more than concert halls or museums. Movements of the spirit took place within the self, and were meant to remain there.

There is still a place for that aesthetic, I think. I would not want to lose the moments when the congregation follows along quietly as the Torah is chanted, or listens attentively to a sermon or teaching, or permits itself to be transported by the prayers of the hazzan. There are times to rise in unison and sit in unison, to take three steps back or forward in lockstep with those around you, to say the names of friends or family in need of healing before a silent congregation and gratefully answer questions afterward about their condition.

But, let’s not lose the proper balance between quiet and noise, receptivity and participation. The rabbi will forgive you for talking to the person beside you if the point is to check in, offer support, get the news. The hazzan will not only forgive you, but thank you for singing or humming along, filling the sanctuary with the collective murmur of “davening” during silent prayer, or adding to the sense of life and movement in the synagogue. Kol Nidre’s recital is not meant to be an operatic solo before a hushed multitude; the rhythm of Yom Kippur is marked as much by congregational chants and breast-beating (and tears) as it is by the progression from service to service, confessional to confessional. And if you are lucky enough to be part of a congregation that has come together at Kol Nidre, and has reflected and sung, sat and stood, fasted and swayed together all the way through to Ne‘ilah, you can expect that communal recital of the final Avinu Malkeinu—when darkness falls, the “gates of repentance” close, and the end of the fast approaches—will be an experience of prayer that you will long remember.

I’d trade decorous silence for more noise in synagogue any day, and especially on the High Holidays. Let’s put our hearts into our davening, and strengthen each other with our song.

Arnold Eisen is chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.