Friday, February 5, 2010

Individualism vs. Community Unity

Imagine that that you just moved to a new community - a one-shul town. Everything's great; the people are wonderful, the job is good, you like the shul and the community. But there's one problem: they daven shacharit too late. As much as you'd like to sugar-coat things, sunrise is really early and the daily and Shabbat tefillah begin late, and by the time the shul reaches Tefillah, the time for davening according to halachah has long passed. You spoke to the rabbi, but as much as he sympathizes with you, there's not much he can do. He has tried in the past to get people to come earlier, to no avail. (Not that surprising.)
So you're left with a choice: you can either daven at home, on time, by yourself, or you can daven with a minyan, but daven late, literally missing the appointed time for tefillah each and every day. What do you do: Daven alone, but on time, or with the community, but late?
It seems pretty clear to me that most halachically sensitive people would choose to daven on time, without a minyan. Then, if they wanted to participate in kedushah, hear the Torah reading, or answer a kaddish they could attend shul afterward. After all, no harm done - what's the difference if someone wants to pray on his own at home?
Truth be told, this is not a new question. It's actually a very old one, not about Shacharit, but about Ma'ariv. Throughout literally centuries, Jews faced a conundrum regarding the evening service. Most shuls gathered a minyan for minchah, before sunset, but were unable or unwilling to regather later for Ma'ariv. So they davenend Ma'ariv after sunset, which is technically fine to fulfill the Shemoneh Esreh obligation, but still too early to recite the Shema at night. What to do? On the one hand, people wanted to recite the Shema with the surrounding blessings at night. But they also wished to connect the blessing of גאל ישראל to the Shemoneh Esreh - an important value in davening.
Today, most people who daven Ma'ariv at a shul that davens "early" solve this problem by repeating the Shema after nightfall - when they remember. But that solution means that one is reciting the Shema later without its blessings - not perfect.
We find this well-known early-Ma'ariv problem extensively documented in the halachic literature. The Beit Yosef (Orech Haim 235) discusses several options, as does Rema in his commentary. While rabbinic authorities down through the ages decried to problem of davening Ma'ariv too early, Rema notes that, "Maharik and many spiritually meticulous people would not pray with the community, but [would wait until] nightfall." Yet, Rema concludes his comments by quoting his teacher, Rabbi Yisrael Isserlin who wrote that,
This custom spread through the weakness, hunger, desires and thirsts to eat and drink while still light outside - and for this reason they moved forward the time so that they could eat immediately afterward. Yet, even a Talmid Chacham (Torah scholar) should not separate himself from the community if he cannot admonish them not to pray so early, unless he has accustomed himself to other "separations" of piety - then he can pray at night.
How many of us would sacrifice our own spiritual goals for the sake of communal unity? In davening alone we think that we cause no harm - but we do cause harm - the separation of the individual from the larger community, and the subtle communal splintering that results.
In today's super-individualistic climate of self-fulfillment, could we imagine a pious person davening after the proper time each day simply to remain integrated in the community? I doubt it.
I noted that our imaginary davener had two options: davening late with the shul, or davening on time at home. I neglected to mention a third option that I think would be the most likely outcome in today's Jewish community.
He'd probably start his own shul.