I was happy to read in “Synagogue project highlights the importance of prayer” (May 1) that people in our community benefited from reading “Praying with Fire” and were able to implement its lessons to elevate and improve their tefillot (prayers). I have waited until now to write because my remarks are relevant to the annual recitation of the Selichot prayers.
For more than 30 years, I have witnessed tefillah in the Orthodox shuls of Teaneck with a feeling of dismay. (Since I have never attended services at Conservative or Reform synagogues, I don’t know whether the problem I describe below also exists in those houses of worship.) Over the years, I have sat next to many men who, while davening, have actually just mumbled sounds instead of reciting the words of the prayers. Most of the others simply recite the first verse of each paragraph and then skim the rest of the paragraph before reciting the last verse.
Are these people to be criticized? No, they are to be pitied. They, and many hundreds of people in our community, are victims of a system that refuses to open its eyes and see the blatantly obvious – our prayers are heartless and unconnected and devoid of spirituality.
The reason is quite simple: There is not enough time allotted to recite the tefillot. A weekday Shacharit – which in the Artscroll all-Hebrew siddur covers 66 pages – runs 30 minutes (on days without layning). Do the math: 2.2 pages per minute. A weekday Ma’ariv, which covers 13 pages, typically takes nine minutes: 1.4 pages per minute. And the same skimming marks the Shabbat prayers, although perhaps at a bit of a slower pace.
There is nothing contained within the pages of “Praying with Fire” or any other book that will improve the situation as long as the number of minutes isn’t increased or the number of pages isn’t decreased.
The epitome of this sad situation will be played out in every Orthodox shul in our community early each weekday morning between next Monday and the day before Yom Kippur, during the recitation of the Selichot prayers. The prayers were designed to provide additional avenues to beseech God for compassion and forgiveness during the High Holy Days. But many hundreds of dedicated and earnest men, waking before dawn, will be forced to rush through many dozens of pages within 30 to 40 minutes, and will thereby be deprived of the ability to engage these vital tefillot with any real form of devotion or connection.
If one is not forced to rush through the words, engaging in tefillah can become an enriching experience similar to scuba-diving – immersing oneself in the beautiful words of the siddur and probing the depth of its themes. But in our community, tefillah is practiced more like water-skiing – zipping and skimming over the surface and not getting immersed at all.
What will it take to make our tefillot truly meaningful and fulfilling? The first step is for your readers to ask themselves if engaging in tefillah has provided them with the spiritual fulfillment they had hoped it would. If not, I believe they have every right to approach their rabbis to respectfully express their dissatisfaction and request that changes be implemented within the parameters of halacha (Jewish law).
If enough people do so, and if the rabbis of our community take a good look at all the mumbling and skimming being done by their congregants, they might finally admit to each other (Ã la the Tom Hanks line in Apollo 13), “Teaneck, we have a problem.” And, of course, the same problem exists in all places where people are deprived of the time necessary to recite the words of our beautiful tefillot with sincerity, passion, and connection.