I’ve been thinking about communal prayer since my last post, when I wrote about how much it means to me. Judaism, of course, is a huge proponent of communal prayer, hence the requirement for a minyan (quorum of 10) for certain important prayers to be recited.
Don’t get me wrong — individual prayer has its place. We’re each enjoined to pray before we eat, not as a group (although that’s OK too) but individually. We say the Shema at night, and lots of people say the morning blessings at home on their own rather than at a daily minyan service. In fact, most of the standard morning blessings are meant as individual prayers. We’re each expected to say 100 blessings every day. Which is another topic entirely (you can check out my post called “100 Blessings a Day” from last November).
But communal prayer is king. Louis Jacobs wrote: “The [ancient] rabbis, stressing the importance of communal prayer, say, no doubt with a degree of hyperbole, that when prayers are offered in a congregation God will never reject them.”
Jacobs pointed out that Menahem Meiri [a 13th century rabbi from Provence] stressed the psychological advantage of group prayer: “Whenever a man is able to offer his prayers in the synagogue he should do so, since it is there that proper concentration of the heart can be achieved. The rabbis laid down a great rule: Communal prayer has especial value and whenever ten pray in the synagogue the Shekhinah [the divine indwelling] is present.”
As a modern American Jew, I’d of course change it to “a person” rather than “a man,” but you get his drift. This is why most prayers in the standard liturgy are in the plural: “Help us;” “Pardon us;” “Bless us;” “We give thanks to You.”
I think this is why many of us are uncomfortable with synagogue services that function more as performances by the cantor than participatory prayer. I like going to concerts as much as the next person, and have no problem sitting quietly while someone else is singing opera (although when Jewel was at the Van Wezel last year I sang every song with her, along with the rest of the audience).
But when the person the bimah (the front of the sanctuary) is singing prayers that I’m supposed to be praying too, I want to participate, not sit and listen. Reciting responsive readings in English or only being “permitted” to sing a few congregational pieces is simply not enough. It’s impossible to achieve a spiritual high that way, and I usually walk out feeling incomplete, as if something is lacking.
This weekend, I get to lead services at a little synagogue in Ocala that I love to visit every couple of months. And I’ll tell you this — there will be tons of participatory singing.