Commentary Magazine

Going to Shul

In The past months, since my father died, I have been in the synagogue twice a day to say the Kaddish. Other congregations would regard mine as observing bankers' hours, but its morning schedule nevertheless requires arising in the dark and cold, especially in the winter. For afternoon-and-evening prayer the hour varies, depending—at least in principle and in Orthodox synagogues—on the time of sunset, but going every evening is not easy, either.

Which is why not even the devout necessarily frequent the synagogue every day, contenting themselves with private prayer, particularly on weekdays. It is the man who is saying the Kaddish who must have a minyan, public worship. In most American synagogues nearly everyone you see at prayer during the week is a mourner, together with most of those who are there from the beginning on Saturday morning. Inconvenience also helps to explain the 10th-man problem, quite apart from the big explanations we like better: the difficulty of belief, the difficulty of prayer. In few synagogues where the speech is English and the faces shaven is it unnecessary to have a list of volunteers who can be telephoned in an emergency in order to round out the required number of ten.


In the middle ages it was thought that saying the Kaddish for a year was especially helpful to the dead if they had been wicked. Since no one wanted to imply that his father or mother had been wicked, today we say the Kaddish for eleven months. I do not know what proportion of Jewish men observe the full eleven months, but I suspect it is fairly high, especially when put beside our known propensity for staying away from the synagogue.

If this is so, why? Well, feelings about death, especially the death of a parent; guilt and anxiety, and the need to relieve them; ritual—all these can be interpreted along conventional Freudian lines and have been, often. For Freud, religion was a kind of public, collective neurosis. I take this idea seriously. It tells me better than anything else why the very inconvenience of saying the Kaddish morning and afternoon-evening every day for eleven months, and thereafter on anniversaries—normally at least two in a man's life—becomes a virtue, perhaps an attraction. It is expiatory, it is almost punitive, and we have been taught that guilt seeks punishment.

It is more, of course. Much has been said in dispraise of Jews who obey the rules of the Kaddish though otherwise they hardly ever pray at all. The contempt is unwarranted: the Kaddish must meet their needs better than anything else in the synagogue. And these are not only needs of the kind we have learned about from Freud, but also needs for style and tradition. Freud said that the collective neurosis of religion spares us the trouble of developing individual, personal neuroses. With the Kaddish, Judaism spares each Jew the trouble of developing for himself a style—etiquette, ritual, mode of expression, symbolic action—at a time when he wants it and when he knows he cannot devise something personal that will be as good.

If each of us were accountable for his own ritual of mourning, who would escape censure? Who would escape his own censure? The Jewish rites—the burial, the seven days at home, the Kaddish—have the advantage of being a tradition, a style. We need assume no responsibility for them, as we would for any personal or private symbolic action, nor can there be any question of their appropriateness. They are appropriate almost by definition, because of their antiquity, their near-universality, their publicness—quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus. Yet their publicness, so far from making them exterior and impersonal, makes them all the more appropriate to the particular relationship between mourner and mourned: the Kaddish I now say for my father, he said for his; and so back through a recession of the generations that exceeds what my imagination can grasp. Acting as my father acted, I become conscious that I am a link in the chain of being. Nor am I hindered from expressing particular, local, present emotion.

One of the things a Jew is supposed to say about someone who has died is the prayer that Abigail said for David (though in his lifetime and in his presence), that his soul may be bound up in the bundle of life. Saying this is of a piece with the rest of our ritual. Whatever its efficacy may be for the dead, it binds me up in the bundle of life, situates me in the procession of the generations, frees me from the prison of now and here.

Although we have been born when it is hard to believe in immortality, the Kaddish helps us to believe, a little. I know that it makes me think of my father often, more than forty times a week; and it will keep reminding me of him after I have stopped saying the Kaddish daily, when I hear someone else say it and I make the appropriate response. To think of my father, to recall him, is to hold off his mortality—and because ritual is eloquent, to hold it off still one generation further. Where has Daddy gone? To shul, to say Kaddish for Grandpa. By doing what allows my children to ask this question and receive this answer, I also allow myself to hope that my own mortality will similarly be delayed.


A kaddish-sayer and shul-watcher can learn something even if his experience, like mine, has been limited to not many more than a dozen synagogues, Orthodox and Conservative, mostly in or near New York.

With our past and present confusingly simultaneous, many of us are not in the category we should be in. Of the elderly and immigrant, for instance, it is to be expected that they will use a Polish-Russian Ashkenazi pronunciation of Hebrew; of the middle-aged, the standard Ashkenazi that was taught in our Hebrew schools a generation ago; and of the young, the more or less Israeli, more or less Sephardi pronunciation that is now taught in most schools—for instance, yitbarákh, “may (he/it) be blessed”: standard Ashkenazi, yisborákh; Polish-Russian, yisbórekh, yisbúrekh. With eyes closed, you can usually know the man by his Hebrew. Usually—but I have opened my eyes after hearing yisbúrekh to see a youngish man who could be in advertising or public relations. And as with pronunciation, so with the atmosphere and the ways of a synagogue. In any synagogue you are apt to find people who by all the rules belong more properly in a different one.

Jews who are americanized (or anglicized, or gallicized; before Hitler, germanized) want restraint in their synagogues, in the officiants as well as the laity. The virtuoso cantor, I had thought, came into his own at a certain time in history, when Jews from the traditionalist villages were moving to the big cities of Europe and America, and he disappeared when their children learned that his kind of singing was out of place in a church. I have not heard really gaudy hazzanut anywhere recently, but I have heard other survivals from the bad old days where there was no reason to expect them: a kind of falsetto throating; stretching or repeating some words and swallowing others; singing as if the text consisted of vowels alone, without consonants.

If bar-mitzvahs are a horror, as everyone says, they are normally not so in the synagogue itself.

That may come later, somewhere else. But even so, the accumulation of bar-mitzvahs, two or more a week, week after week, can be too much of a good thing. By now I can do without the high voices, and the slow chanting, and the charge to the boys, and the congratulations to the parents, and the benediction, and the presentation of kiddush beakers and prayer books, and the boys' pledges and thanks. If I am querulous, put the blame on lingering shock. Not long ago I heard a bar-mitzvah boy double as cantor when the Torah scroll was being returned to the ark. At that point the cantor summons the congregation with a verse from the 148th Psalm: “Let them praise the name of the LORD, for His name alone is exalted.” Instead of yehalelu et shem, however, the boy sang yehallelu . . . . “Let them profane the name . . .” I (The identical phrase is in Leviticus, negatively of course: “. . . that they profane not My holy name,” we-lo' yehallelu et shem qodshi. “Profanation of the Name,” hillul ha-shem, is the rabbinical term for blasphemy specifically or conduct unbecoming a Jew generally.)

Sometimes I wonder about the bar-mitzvah guests. The occasional woman in a sleeveless, near-décolleté dress—where does she get her notions of seemliness? The uncle for whom the Hebrew blessings are practically nonsense syllables but who accepts being called up when the Torah is read—why does he do it? Since his abject stammering is surely as painful for him as for the rest of us, he might at least rehearse the syllables a day or two earlier.

In my wanderings I have discovered an argument, new to me, against the Orthodox segregation of the sexes. It is still true that when women sit by themselves they talk, and in shul they have to be shushed—one of the few things our grandmothers have in common with their college-graduate granddaughters. When in a Conservative synagogue and dispersed among the men, the same women seem to talk less than when in Orthodox isolation. After one deafening Sabbath morning near, the divider between the men and women, I could appreciate the answer of the great Rabbi Israel Salanter—I think it was he—when he was asked what should be done with some bricks left over from repair work on a synagogue: “Use them to wall up the entrance to the women's gallery.” In a way, that is what Conservative and Reform Judaism have done.


I have a research project for a specialist in the social psychology of small groups: examine a daily minyan. It is an ideal opportunity for a participant-observer, especially if you have to move about from time to time and so get to see how others are.

Take the minyan in the congregation I belong to. When you consider that its members are unhappy about having to be there in the first place and that its composition changes, veterans departing as newcomers enter, its morale is remarkable. On the whole they are not conspicuously pious Jews, but most make it a point of honor to disregard bad weather and hazardous driving to get there on time. Clearly they believe that the minyan must go on, that it would be wrong to let the side down.

So strong is this sentiment that it makes some who have finished their eleven months keep coming, if not every day then one or two mornings during the week. That is when it counts, because Saturdays and Sundays are no problem. Getting up early when they want to sleep a little longer, and could, their own daily Kaddish-saying now behind them, they show a devotion and self-sacrifice more to be respected than the writing of a check or the signing of a petition. These men do the inconvenient thing so that the other men, who need the minyan, will have it. And though they may be too bashful about this motive even to admit it to themselves, I suspect they do it, too, because of what they think a shul should be: a place from which the praises intoned by Israel ascend, as is said of the Shema', “evening and morning, twice every day always, lovingly”—or thrice, if you take the afternoon prayers (which lack the Shema') and the evening prayers to be separate in fact as well as principle.

I have the impression my minyan is something of an exception in its morale. At any rate, I find it more attractive than others I have seen. It has little of the prevalent mumbling combined with sprinting that is another survival from the bad old days. In my minyan we sing. Not only that, but also I can actually finish one prayer before the next is begun. We are out at the same hour every day, because it is the starting time that varies, not the leaving time: we start early on Mondays and Thursdays, when the Torah is read, and earlier still on a New Month. With the time for leaving calculated and fixed, we do not race the clock. For the kind of people we are, the singing and the deliberate pace ratify our being engaged in what we recognize as suitable prayer. It may even make us a little more prayerful than we would be otherwise.

Not many of us have or attain kawwanah—inwardness, concentration, the merging of the pray-er with his prayer. They say it used to be common. Whether or not that is so, I can hardly recite a verse of six or seven words without my mind wandering. (I can hardly listen to three bars of music at a concert without my mind wandering.) Beside kawwanah, decorum and singing and pace and every other occidental propriety are trash. Unfortunately, though, their absence does not guarantee its presence; and if we are going to have to do without kawwanah, we may as well have niceness. Let a man be free enough from haste to be at least aware of the plain meaning of the words he is saying or singing. When he leaves, hurrying to his car, let him not have a bad taste in his mouth.


I still catch myself daydreaming about the things I would do if I were rich. Lately, one of those things has been to have my own shul, with the legislative, executive, and judicial powers all mine. I would make some radical reforms, of a generally reactionary character.

As among the Sephardim, I would have the reader read every word aloud, from beginning to end, except for meditations intended to be silent or those minatory admonitions that are traditionally muted, like Deuteronomy 11:17 after the Shema'. As Maimonides decreed for the Jews of Egypt, I would have the Standing Prayer said only once, aloud. Every biblical text that is more than one or two verses long would be chanted, like the Torah and the Prophetical lessons and the Megillot. (The prayer book includes many psalms, but I have yet to hear one chanted that way.) I would have the musical emphasis that is given to a prayer, or even a phrase, correspond to the doctrinal or liturgical emphasis it ought to have. I do not pray for the restoration of the sacrificial cultus, nor does the prayer book I use (on the Sabbath) include a prayer for it; and the Conservative theologians who edited that siddur even refrained from translating the biblical prescription for animal sacrifice incorporated in the Standing Prayer for Musaf. Yet the congregation is encouraged to sing that very passage, in an almost fondling sort of way: “And on the Sabbath day, two he-lambs. . . .”

The Sabbath service is on the long side: in my congregation three hours—not unusual—and in another I know of, four. The other is the Orthodox synagogue of Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution. It may be that the four-hour Sabbath worship is one of the reasons why the Sons and Daughters stay away from their synagogue so religiously.

The length of the synagogue service, on the Sabbath and festivals and even weekday mornings, is only a sign of the contradiction or tension in our worship. On the one hand, the Rabbis enjoin us not to make a perfunctory routine, qeva', of our prayer. On the other hand, our liturgy consists, with some expansions and additions, of prayer-texts that the same Rabbis declared to be hovah, obligatory. It is hard to keep the repeated and obligatory from becoming routine. Even in the age of faith only a small elite could have succeeded.

But to make the service short will not help us much. I have felt most untouched and unmoved in short services, Reform or near-Reform Conservative or Reconstructionist; and my neighbors have seemed to me equally untouched and unmoved. In fact, length has certain advantages. In a way a long service is like a long poem. You do not want unrelieved concentration and tightness in a long poem; they would be intolerable. Length requires longueurs. A good long poem is an alternation of high moments and moments less high, of concentration and relaxation. In our synagogues the heights may not be very high, but the long service does provide some ascent and descent. The short service tends to be of a piece, dull and tepid.

If I shortened at all, it would be at the end rather than the beginning—the Musaf, not the introductory hymns and psalms. Time would also be saved by a total ban on bar-mitzvahs (let them go somewhere else), but twenty minutes or so would continue to be reserved for the sermon. The sermon would not be consistently topical, because I can acquire on my own the approved attitudes toward whatever the approved topics may be at any given time, from the approved sources: New York Times Magazine, Saturday Review, public-service television. It is less easy to acquire Torah.

My most reactionary radicalism would be reserved for the Friday-night service: back to Orthodoxy, almost all the way. Almost—because I would substitute some other reading from rabbinical literature for Ba-meh madliqin, which, besides being boring, is offensive in the reasons it gives for women dying in childbirth. Job should forever have put an end to that kind of theodicy.


How to recruit a good congregation of respectable size is a problem I am unable to solve even in a daydream. A bare minyan is not quite right for a Sabbath, let alone Rosh Ha-shanah and Yom Kippur. “In a multitude of people is the glory of a king.” For the Rabbis that verse from Proverbs proved that Jews should worship together, the more the better. A large number of worshipping Jews assembled together can generate a kind of heat—analogous to the physical heat that people generate when they are closely assembled—that will affect each one individually. I have heard about it but I have not experienced it. On Rosh Ha-shanah and Yom Kippur a large number of Jews are assembled where I go, only most of them are not what anyone would call worshipping Jews. They are there, they bring their warm bodies, but they are a kind of inert mass and they deaden rather than quicken the worship. They are an audience—not an especially understanding one—rather than a congregation. According to Ninotchka, Stalin wanted fewer but better Russians. That is a cautionary precedent, but I would still be glad to exchange some Jewish quantity for quality.

Now, as to the prayer books I would use: something on the order of Birnbaum's excellent siddur and mahazor, but different in having an English facing page that does not give the impression it was written by a hand in a woolen mitten. (For Ps. 24: 1, “The earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof,” he has “The earth and its entire contents belong to the Lord.”) Conservative variations should be presented, besides the Orthodox text. I would not particularly mind additional readings and meditations from modern work, provided they were additions not substitutions, and provided I could continue to ignore them. Either the modern lends itself with difficulty to what a prayer book should be or editors have usually made the wrong choices—probably both. A warning: if “insight” appears anywhere in the book—except perhaps in the introduction, and preferably not there, either—I will not buy it.

A good siddur is particularly useful during those necessary and soothing low-keyed stretches in the service. You may decide, for instance, to read a psalm or a rabbinical prayer more closely than you could if you were trying to keep up with the cantor and congregation. You can read for anything you wish—plain meaning, literary effect, doctrine, allusion or suggestion, historical placing, or even praise and supplication. If there are good notes and a good translation, you have most of the help you need.

For astigmatics like me, make sure the Hebrew characters are large and distinct, and more especially watch those vowel signs: I often have trouble telling a qameẓ from a segol or a patah from a ?ere. To Hebrew editors and printers everywhere I commend the example of David de Sola Pool in his edition of the Sephardi prayer book, who for short qameẓ uses the left-hand half of the sign. Unlike the Ashkenazi, the Sephardi-Israeli pronunciation distinguishes between long and short qameẓ, and a visual marking of the distinction is something to be grateful for. Without it, in hard or doubtful cases it becomes necessary to see whether the Kittel-Kahle Biblia Hebraica has a meteg, for example; and then what if the verse or word is not biblical? But even Dr. Pool is not to be completely relied on in these difficulties, because the Sephardi siddur is far from identical with the Ashkenazi. What is more, the Sephardim's tradition is unacceptable about such matters as the length of the qameẓ preceding hatef-qameẓ for instance, instead of tohorah, “purity,” they say tohorah, and Dr. Pool so points it.

My siddur would go to the Sephardim for variety, as in the Kaddish. The Kaddish is a doxology, of which the substantial and historical kernel is the congregation's response: “May His great name be blessed/praised (forever and ever).” Formally, it is not a prayer for the dead; only the graveside Kaddish mentions the dead, and then not specifically but generally, in its praise of God as the future author of resurrection. The four forms of the Kaddish said in the synagogue—two by the cantor or reader, two by mourners—are, as it were, punctuation marks in the service, setting off one part from the next. As far as “may He establish His kingdom” the Ashkenazi Kaddish is the same as the Sephardi one; but then the Sephardim (and Hasidim) add, “. . . causing His salvation to spring forth and bringing near [hastening the advent of] His Messiah.” Why not take that over into, say, the reader's Kaddish Titqabbal or the mourner's Scholars' Kaddish? It would make somewhat more explicit the messianic hope that the Kaddish has expressed from the beginning.

In the Kedushah, with the reader repeating the Standing Prayer and reader and congregation saying a doxology built around “Holy, holy, holy,” there are slight differences between the Ashkenazi and the Sephardi-Hasidic texts. Every now and then we might want to follow the Sephardi usage, and the siddur ought to have it for us. In the ‘Alenu we should take from the Sephardim the passage that the Christian censors deleted from our text.


The story is told about a Hasid—the same story in its essentials no doubt exists in other religious traditions, too—that people complained of his frequent absence from the synagogue. “I start to go,” he told them, “but when I leave the house I see God's world testifying to the majesty of Him who in His goodness renews every day, continually, the work of creation. So I recite some psalms, like ‘The heavens declare the glory of God,/and the firmament proclaims his handiwork’ and ‘How great are Thy works, O LORD!/Thy thoughts are very deep!’ And then, by the time I remember where I am and where I was going, it's too late, and I don't get to shul. But,” he said, brightening, “sometimes I don't get distracted by thinking about God, and then I go.”

Does the moral apply to us? Of course, but not entirely. We are different from that Hasid. We do not bless the Creator for His creation, because we have learned that the argument from design is a fallacy. Both for him and for us the synagogue is a distraction, but for us the distraction is unlikely to be from thinking about God.

Another story about Hasidim: In the presence of their sleeping master, two disciples were talking low about how hard it was to resist temptation, and how the yeẓer ha-ra’, the Evil Desire, kept running after them. Their master, who had not been asleep after all, opened his eyes and said: “Don't flatter yourselves. The Evil Desire isn't running after you, you haven't reached that height. You're still running after the Evil Desire.”

Even when a man has arrived at a high degree of spirituality, we are informed, he has problems. I suppose an analogy might be with the rich, who have problems that the poor are either ignorant or skeptical about, and certainly in no position to complain about. The frail spirituality of the synagogue must be a real problem—for the spiritually rich. Who will believe us, paupers and groundlings, if we pretend that it is our problem and that we have reached that height?

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