Monday, September 28, 2009

Mumbling the Words: A Note about Prayer

When I went to my friend's Christian wedding last year, one of the differences between their wedding service and Orthodox wedding services that I liked was the fact that I could understand everything that was going on because it was in English.

It's this way with almost all Christian services in contemporary times - they're conducted in the language that the majority of congregants speak. There's a great advantage to that - when congregants understand what they're saying, it opens the door for a greater reverance and meaning on their part. They feel like they're actually praying.

Contrary to what you might think, I'm not about to go onto a rant about how Judaism should follow suit. Oddly enough, I kind of like the fact that prayers are in Hebrew. When I've been to (non-Orthodox) Jewish services where parts of the prayers were said in English, it felt inauthentic and cheesy to me.

That said, when I was in (my parents') shul for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur davening, I couldn't help but get the feeling that 95% of the people in the room didn't understand what they were saying and were, in effect, just mumbling some words that they felt obligated to say. It didn't feel like there was a whole lot of feeling behind the prayer in the room.

Sure, every few minutes the congregation would burst out into song, but even that seemed more about the beauty of the tune than the words they were saying. After davening, in fact, an Israeli friend pointed out that the chazzan had picked a really upbeat, happy tune for a particularly ominous and depressing passage. Often, it feels like people are just as (or more?) enthused to sing the "nay nay nay"s after the words of the prayer are finished as they are the actual prayer.

I'm not sure I really see the point in this type of prayer. I suppose there's a certain amount of desire to be a good Jew involved in just being there (especially on Yom Kippur), but when the prayers themselves have little meaning for those who are praying, what exactly is being accomplished?

I don't know that I really have an answer to this. Maybe if prayers were shortened -- only the most powerful prayers chosen instead of 120+ pages of what seems like all the piyyutim written in the last 2,000 years? Maybe there needs to be more activity involved in the prayers -- people seem to get a lot more out of the "ashamnu, bagadnu," the Rosh Hashanah Aleinu where everyone bows down on the floor, or even Birkat Kohanim. Maybe day schools just need to put more effort into understanding Hebrew and the prayers themselves?

I'm not sure. All I know is that these prayers -- supposed to be the crux and most meaningful part of the holidays -- seem to have lost their resonance with the people saying them.

Case in point: I see way too many people in these minyanim who, like myself, flip to the end of the machzor to see how many pages are left (over and over again).