Posted on | October 15, 2007 | By Guest Contributor | 51 Comments
By Carl Aschkenasi
Dear Beyond BT–
Recently you posted a beautiful story which sought to provide mussar on judging favorably, specifically, judging favorably those who daven too fast. The subject was an elderly man who davened for the amud too fast. However, the author reveals that this speedy shaliach tzibur was a WWII veteran who was among the soldiers who successfully stormed the beach at Normandy, and in gratitude to Hashem’s protection came to every minyan for 60 years. At first glance, this anecdote beautifully underscores the importance of considering the “other side of the story.” But its emotional impact blinds the reader from recognizing the story’s subtext, that of the declining quality of prayer in the Orthodox world, and perhaps more concerning, our tendency to excuse it. The counterpoint of this yid’s commendable commitment to a minyan against his uninspired davening apparently leads to the conclusion that 60 years of shul attendance somehow excuses pedestrian prayer.
But it does not. On a second reading, or when the reader’s initial emotion subsides, the fallacy of this conclusion becomes obvious. This story is not one in which the protagonist is observed doing something odd, questionable, or suspect which in retrospect was righteous, rather it describes a wonderfully committed Jew whose feet apparently outstrip his lips in piety. It could be that more weight in judgment ought to be given to the merit of his feet, but that is not for us to say. If we make the reasonable assumption–informed by our own failings–that his fast davening reflects a paucity of kavanah, then we find this story favorably comparing 60 years of minyan attendance to 60 years of potentially transgressing halachas of proper davening, applying to both the individual and the shaliach tzibur!
But where this story fails in instructing on judging favorably, it excels in pointing out how lax we have become in our davening hygiene. The problem of speed-davening is rampant in the Orthodox world today, and not just in the “baal-ha-batish” or Modern Orthodox sectors as is commonly thought. More insidious than the cell phone issue, the perpetual war on shul-talkers, and the erosion of punctuality, the problem of rapid davening strips our prayers of meaning. Like none of these other impediments, the relentless rush of the congregation barreling through the seder ha’tefilah erodes the unity of the tzibur and precludes earnest concentration. Occasionally, it even necessitates compromises or interruptions in one’s personal recitations in order to fulfill the halachic requirements on the individual posed by tefillah b’tzibur. These requirements could be circumvented by davening alone, where at least you can tear through shacharis at your own speed, however then the very institute of the tzibur suffers. Could it be that our efforts to make tefilah b’tzibur less intrusive on our crowded schedules has cornered that institute out of any meaningful existence? If this trend is taken to its extreme, and we’re not far from it, minyanim will become so fast that any serious individual will eventually succumb to the frustration and daven at home, leaving the intransigent shaliach tzibbur alone at the bima at 6:00AM with nobody to frustrate but himself.
But the problem gets worse. We not only have a problem of overly rapid tefilah, but we also have a problem in chronically tolerating it. With our failure to acknowledge this issue and pull in the reins, a self-perpetuating hypocrisy has emerged which is far more damaging than imperfect kavanah. While we would never oppose the requirement to recite every word of the seder ha’tefilah, most would acknowledge (at least privately) that at today’s speeds it is almost impossible to do so. At first, particularly as baalei teshuva, we might conjecture that poor Hebrew skills or inexperience with the nusach are slowing us down. But over time, as we become fluent ourselves, we realize that the problem does not reside in the tongue. How can we let this endure? How long can we tolerate sitting next to each other in shul, each man an isolated island, the kehillah scattered like flotsam along the various pages of the siddur, some on Baruch She’amar, others on Yishtabach, but yet all unified by the unspoken recognition that the prevailing din of mumbling is really just plausible deniability masquerading as avodas Hashem?
The endurance of this problem is in my view linked to the burgeoning emphasis on chitzonius, outward appearances, occurring throughout the Orthodox world. We place inordinate value on the appearance of being learned (or at least of learning), ritually facile, pious, modest, or otherwise strict in observance. Small sartorial details, hairstyles, certain habits of speech, even subtleties of behavior and expression have become emblems of commitment to Torah and mitzvos–not merely incidentals to the process of spiritual growth, but ends in themselves. They are insignia, not adornments; they are affect, not effect. Moreover, they serve to define and express allegiance to one or more of the increasingly narrow religiopolitical divisions developing among our people. Because of their significance, these trappings are studiously cultivated to our detriment by both children and their parents in a way that was not important a generation ago, and certainly not to the “Greatest Generation” that stormed Normandy beach.
By tolerating impossibly fast davening, we are complicit in the emphasis of appearance over substance, not to mention in chillulei Hashem (desecrating G-d’s name), brachos le’vatlos (blessings said without purpose), and other halachic issues. We perpetuate the implication that shuckling is equivalent to worship, that the scan-and-mumble is equal to the intentional recitation. We teach our children that pedestrian observance is acceptable, and from there it is no great leap to conclude that payos make a chassid and that aping the trappings of frumkeit is itself an avodah. A practiced fluency with our treasured liturgy is a beautiful thing, but not when it is exemplified by prattling like a cattle auctioneer. If we compromise on the sanctity of our holy prayers, representing 3000 years of compiled longing and devotion—the craft of our Forefathers!*— then we succeed only in desecrating the memory of all the Jews who ever gave their lives just so they could daven at all. Who could better understand that than a veteran who triumphed at Normandy?
*Rashi on Shemos, 14:10.