Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Pace of Tefillah: In Defense of the Daily Minyan - the People Who Show Up Every Day

Rabbi Barry Kornblau recently shared this Facebook post, which garnered a great deal of attention about the breakneck speed of the morning minyan. The post contained a chart of different speeds at which we speak, and the length of time it would (or should) take to recite the entire Tefillah. Here's the chart:

Rabbi Kornblau wrote:
This Shabbat, my sermon noted that my upbringing in Reform Temple Beth El of Great Neck properly taught me, among other things, one basic halachah: the requirement to recite all one's prayers and blessings with feeling and understanding. One cannot do this while reciting the siddur at the speed of an auctioneer (daily amidah of 3 minutes, for example) as is routine for many Orthodox Jews; instead, one must speak slowly and enunciate deliberately - as is fitting for addressing the Master of All.
The post prompted a lively discussion, much of which centered on complaining about the speed of the daily minyan in most shuls. Over the years, I too have joined this chorus of complainers, wondering how people say "all the words" so quickly. My conclusion was usually that they don't.

I would like to offer some push back.

The chart makes no distinction between the various segments of Tefillah. Using a simple word count, the chart calculates that Amidah, at 824 words, should take about a third as long as Pesukei D'zimra, which clock in at 2,064 words, and Kriat Shema, at 248 words, should take a full minute at "slow auctioneer" pace. Nowhere does the chart note that Pesukei D'zimra is halachically considered customary at best, the Amidah is D'rabanan (according to many poskim), while Kriat Shema (at least the first paragraph) is a D'oraita - a Torah commandment. It seems reasonable to me that the halachic significance of a specific section should have some impact on the speed at which it is recited.

Moreover, as my friend David Brofsky notes in a comment to the post,
Aside from conversation taking into account the other person, most of davening is not a conversation, but rather, reflective statements. In other words, WE are the audience of pesukei dezimra, shema, ashrei, etc. Whether or not that means we should say these passages quickly, or very slow (as a meditation) is an interesting question, but they are not similar to a conversation (maybe closer to the audio book..) 
Psukei D'zimrah (as well as most of birchot Kriat Shema and much of the concluding portions of Tefillah) focus on Divine praise. On the other hand, Amidah is supposed to represent a conversation with God, while Kriat Shema focuses on our acceptance of the heavenly yoke as well as other elements of our faith. While it's certainly preferable to praise God with feeling and intent, it is obligatory to recite Shema with focus and concentration, and Amidah must be recited with focus - and with the personalization that transforms prayer texts into true worship. (Also, the chart completely ignores Korbanot, which seem to be ignored in modern shuls, but some of which have greater halachic significance than much of Pesukei D'zimrah. See Peninei Halachah here for more information.)

Personally, I have no problem with speed-reading (or "auctioneering" through Pesukei D'zimrah) if that means that a person spends more time on the more important parts of davening. I would love to see a siddur in which the importance of the prayer is reflected in font size and number of pages, giving the user the sense of importance of each section.
Moreover, Rabbi Kornblau's initial point - his comparison to his Reform upbringing, is flawed for a simple reason. Reform Judaism has cut out much of davening, leaving just enough prayer to allow people to focus and concentrate.

Just look at the amount of words that one must recite in the daily prayer, not including the additional Tachanun on Mondays and Thursdays. A commenter on the post noted that there's a "kavanah" minyan one Sunday a month in Teaneck which takes seventy minutes. On a Sunday (actually the best day to take a long time to daven).

As Rabbi Brofsky noted, we're not talking about having a conversation at all. We're reciting texts, that don't change. Imagine trying to do that in English, day after day. Just recite the US Constitution (4,543 words) day after day, without fail, for your entire life. How long could you do it? How long would it take before people were flying through it, skimming or speed-reading or auctioneering? (Answer: Not long.)

I have spoken to many people about this issue, many of whom have said privately (and quoted rabbis and scholars) that they almost never recite all of Pesukei D'zimrah. Or that they haven't recited Kedushah with the community in years. The "unspoken" secret is that it's a mouthful - a lot to say - and perhaps we should be a bit more forgiving of people who either don't say it all, or say it faster than you or I think they should. Today, I don't feel that it's realistic to expect most people to spend 70-90 minutes in meditative prayer each morning.

In a recent episode of This American Life, host Ira Glass opened the episode describing his visit to shul to recite Kaddish for his mother.
And it was the anniversary of my mom's death. And we're Jews, so you're supposed to go say Kaddish, this old prayer that's one of the central prayers in Judaism at the anniversary of somebody's death. And so my dad, and my stepmom, and I were at one of the daily services that observant Jews go to every day in Baltimore where I grew up.
And I always liked going to synagogue as a kid. We went a lot. And so it was nice going back. I know all the Hebrew prayers by heart. And [LAUGHS] I don't know if this is good or bad, but not having sat in a synagogue in over a decade, it really hit me how every day is a rerun.
Do you know what I mean? They never do a new episode. Every day, the same words, same songs in the same order, stretching back hundreds of years. They read a new part of the Bible, part of the Torah some days. So there's that, but all the rest basically exactly the same every day.
We don't give the standard "daveners" who come each and every day enough credit. Prayer is clearly important, and of course focus and concentration are critical. But there's also great value in showing up; in being part of the minyan, day in and day out. In saying the word and being part of the prayer process.

I sometimes get the feeling that people often criticize the daily minyan from the outside: "I don't go because it's too fast." Or, "They don't say all the words anyway. How much can it really mean?" It means a lot - even if they do say it very, very fast. Because the people who get up and make it to minyan each day - which is a Herculean effort in my mind - are doing something that the vast majority of observant Jews are not: they're showing up.

They're showing up so that everyone else who wants to has a place to say kaddish. They're showing their sense of allegiance to the community in a meaningful and tangible way. They're actively engaged in an act of prayer and devotion to God - even if they don't really understand many (if not most) of the words.

And when those times come in life when they really do need that prayer and connection - and those times come for all of us, they already know where to go and what to do, because for their entire lives they've been showing up.