dimanche, mai 08, 2005

A question of minyan-rising or not

A question of minyan-rising or not

One man asked me one morning (not so recently) when we were unable to make a minyan for shacharis, why did I think others chose not to get up early in the morning to come to shul to daven. The flippant answer was, because they have so much to do and cannot wake up that early for whatever reason. Exercising my dan l’chaf zechut muscles, I thought, perhaps someone has to work multiple jobs to support an ailing family member –say, a mother in a nursing home--, plus his multiple children and wife. Perhaps, I continued, another widowed man might be struggling to single-parent his child –or also devastating, his wife may be seriously ill and in need of nursing care in addition to his care of the child. Another man may have such financial burdens totally unrelated to family cares that he has to work longer hours or perhaps he struggles with debt or, chas v’shalom, perhaps that man struggles with a mental illness and simply cannot get out of bed each day. There are so many reasons I could go on imagining reasons for quite a while. I let the query drop out of mind until recently when I was reading the monograph by Rabbi Shalom Carmy entitled “Forgive Us, Father-in-Law, For We Know Not What to think, Letter To A Philosophical Dropout From Orthodoxy.” The ideas below are inspired by what Rabbi Carmy wrote, though not the actual gist of his essay.

Is one’s attendance at minyan directly linked to the strength of one’s belief in Gd and Torah? That belief sets the point in the spectrum of religious observance with which one identifies. Perhaps one's position in that topographical map delineates how one behaves with respect to minyan? One man in my general acquaintance asserted his opinion that once a man commits to the sacrifice that an orthodox lifestyle requires, it would follow naturally that this man should then participate in those communal ritual observances and that he should be thorough in his observance of halacha. His claim, I believe, was that once one has chosen this way of life to be half-hearted or non-committal would be inconsistent with the act of choosing. I then considered this more deeply. Are our minyan-members who are communing with their pillows and mattresses at the appointed time for shacharis primarily those among us who did not choose their religious level of observance? In other words, are they those who are frum out of habit, because they were raised thus, or for tradition’s sake? Now, I ask you this in a rhetorical manner and certainly with no intention at all to set anyone to assessing the religious education or background of those absentee members of our congregations. I really do not wish for more dissension among our holy congregation and the idea of setting one person against another among klal Yisrael disturbs me greatly.

Indulge me then in this gedankenschrift or thought experiment without imposing its content on your fellow Jew please. There is an idea that we teach sometimes that a human who chooses to be orthodox might and should behave lishma -for the sake of Heaven- as I teach it, or in more descriptive terms to borrow Rabbi Carmy’s phraseology “in which a person forgets himself in devotion to Gd, without consideration for selfish consequences” has driven scores of my former students to frustration in their lack of understanding. “Why?” their beleaguered faces would clearly ask, though none of them really ever offered that question themselves to me directly. I have found in my experience that most of the Jews who seem to understand this are ba’alei tshuva who have made great personal sacrifices to become religious and/or who have seen what a secular life is like and come back from that saying they want something deeper and more spiritual.

One man I know who is a regular at minyan has suggested bribing people with breakfast –be it hot apple cider, donuts, or cereal—he seems fairly sure that this might drag some people out of their beds to shul. I for one am not so sure that this would help. Of course, another minyan man, from the shul upon hearing this offered to make scrambled eggs one morning a week to ensure the minyan. Somehow this idea didn’t take and we never managed to bribe people to minyan. I wanted to think more about this, especially since at one point in my career as a graduate student I had quite a number of months of very late nights in my laboratory and could sympathize with those who remained abed. I found that it was utterly devastating and painful to even contemplate lifting my eyelids at 6-something in the morning by the second week of this horrendous schedule where I worked until about 3 or 4am. I was and have been quite sympathetic to the plight of these lax minyan men. After all, Chazal teach us that to wake a man is to steal sleep/energy from him. Those months I absolutely felt a keen sense of understanding for the crime of stealing sleep. (Mind you, that word isn’t “sheep” but sleep.)

One very revered friend of mine, who now resides in Jerusalem, taught me in college that as a committed Jew, he fashioned everything in his life around, his religious practice. Raised orthodox, he certainly was not a model of the possible (and not so probable) B.T. zealot phenomenon. In fact, he was so staunch in his belief that he actually altered his major from one field to another so that he could be at davening at the appropriate times and made sure never to have a class that conflicted with minyan. His dedication, however, is rare to be seen.

My only resort after this was to think to myself that the root of minyan absence then is indeed our fascination with rational thinking. We, as humans participant in modern society, would love to be able to have justification in this modern society for all of our behaviors. Some of us, as Jews, would like also to extend that to Gd. If only we had rational explanation (for our society that demands rational explanations of everything! Science and Knowledge indeed rule!) If we could but put Gd into a mental box and caging up our deity with a label and bounds that are testable or provable, we might feel better about the strange rituals and laws that govern (or are supposed to govern) our lives. No such thing really exists though.

Just as I could not prove to you the existence of a sixth dimension nor that particles in a box “know” about each other, no more so could I prove to you that Gd exists. I simply approach belief on this leap of faith or some visceral gut feeling… and such an emotional -!- approach to life seems illogical and irrational. How could we, modern mankind, stand shameless in our irrationality?!

Ah, emotion! Men dare blame women for their emotionality and irrationality, yet no lesser men of logic and rational science than Blaise Pascal, Sir Issac Newton, among many many scores of others, took that leap of faith and believed in Gd. Rabbi Carmy noted in his essay, that Pascal even wrote about a “logic of the heart,” which is rooted in intuition and emotional intelligence regarding human relationships. I adored even, Rabbi Carmy’s assertion that the claim that “the only way to truth makes sense if Gd is a rationalist who has ordained the privileged standing of reason, but is false if Gd is a personal being.” (Ask me for an essay on women and why ten men are required for a minyan for more laughs on this subject.) In a society, where many men pride themselves for their logic and rationality, perhaps a bit of that emotional self is not cultivated. The emotional self connects a man to another man –men in communion, and ultimately in community, may find themselves dedicated to –nay! introduced even to-- a world where their egos and the power of their minds alone do not reign supreme. This is a step towards developing that sense of how the communal mitzvah of minyan is a responsibility borne by each individual as a part of the whole.

Communal activities are so important to us Jews. Why else would we be bound to have seven men who ate together to recite the birkat hamazon in a certain format that allows us to invoke a Divine Name? As opposed to the requirement of six men for a similar privilege in shul? (more on this elsewhere)

Rabbi Carmy continues with the comment that “proponents of traditional religion, like me, are consciously or tacitly committed to the ultimate value of personal relations…” and here is where I would stand up and insert a thought tangential to Carmy’s assertions, but important to the idea of what is missing from our minyan complaints. Do we turn people away from our minyanim for lack of personal relationships? Is it rather our lack of creating the atmosphere for that nexus with Gd that keeps a man bound to his bedsheets in the morning?

I remember one year when I was involved with a particular exercise program in college. I would wake at an hour I considered ungodly then, 5am, to go train for this program. One spectre that dragged me out of bed then was that I knew one of my dear friends was waiting for me and the other was the thought of how much I wanted to succeed in this program and effort. Are both applicable here with our minyan men concerns?

Perhaps if we are friends with our fellows –fulfilling at our utmost ability the mitzvah of ahavat Yisrael—and correcting the cheit of sinat chinam, the sin of baseless hatred, we might turn the tide of our ever-dwindling minyan? Also perhaps though if we could maintain that, after a while, might our comrades come to desire their own success in the effort of recreating a personal connection with Gd? (Rav Yehuda Amital, shlita, has a very nice shiur on how to speak with those who have lost their faith --check the VBM website). Perhaps while one man may see his attendance at minyan as the simple fulfillment of his sacrifice to be orthodox, and another man may see it as his personal dedication to avodat Hashem, still among us may be men who require that introduction from the heart … and then again there are many many more people who have much more complex problems than what I describe and for all I know, my brain could be overheating and I could be totally blowing hot air and sewage out there... one should really not blog while tired... but by all means, please leave me comments, because I seek to grow from this discourse and not to preach.
First draft 5/8/05


Anonymous Anonyme said...

Ploni Fluffy ben Ploni Tuchus (who wishes to remain truly anonymous) wants to add:
"hmmm... your post is interesting. I'm not sure if I agree at what you're getting at, but you make some cogent points. from my own personal experience, though:I think the issue is more complex than that. you've highlighted some of the major problems - waking up early when you've had to be up to an ungodly hour, lack of motivation in the sense of comraderie at a minyan, etc. but I think it's more than that. (on a side note, I think dedication to being an observant Jew has next to nothing to do with it. ) -what if I don't feel that many minyanim *add* anything to my prayer (yes, yes, I know all of the stuff that's said about how t'filah b'tzibbur is much better, but this is just how I feel)..."

dimanche, mai 08, 2005 11:12:00 PM  
Blogger Meowmix Chatul said...

okay, more thoughts, because truthfully,I'm jsut trying to hone this idea and explore other avenues of ideas and consideration... I'd rather rewrite this and develop it into soemthing more deep and meaningful this was really jus a orugh draft hoenstly and I'm curious to know what other people will say, so I can learn more about the thought and develop a better view point on the topic.

there is certainly this idea that some people feel they daven better alone.. better connection, better kavanah, beter tefilah then ultimately... I agree soemtimes, but I also don't quite know how to counter that statement, since the obvious halachic requirement is to daven with a minyan... I'll have to think more about it. when I have a better idea, I'll try to post it and see what you think then.

dimanche, mai 08, 2005 11:17:00 PM  
Blogger Ender said...

One thought I'd like to bring out that you alluded to: you mentioned that some people suggest that attendance at minyan is a yardstick (generally) for determining someone's dedication to leading an observant/religious life (as Ploni Fluffy was mentioning). I feel that this assertion (which you did *not* make, I grant) is somewhere between a misunderstanding and flat-out wrong.

It's all too easy for us to measure commitment to an orthodox lifestyle by the public acts and choices of someone. I think there are much subtler cues than that, though. I have known people who attend minyan every day who only seem to have borderline belief in Gd, not to mention really caring about what they do. So many people are religious out of habit, or because it's easier (yes, choosing to be orthodox for a FFB *can* be easier than doing the opposite), or out of respect for their parents/community/loved ones/whatever. They may be some of the best minyan attendees - not from fundamental commitment to a religious lifestyle but rather for any number of reasons ('It's what I have always done, the food is good, it's expected of me', whatever).

Commitment to leading an observant lifestyle has to do with so many things: actually believing in the why of what you are doing, raising one's children not just by rote repetition and brainwashing but fundamentally sharing your emunah with them, building a life where being religious is not merely a default but rather an active choice, each and every day. *That* is dedication. It often results in regular minyan attendees, but it can also have other outcomes. Minyan attendance is *preferred* by halacha, but prayer alone (for most things) still fulfil's one obligation for prayer. Sometimes, people are driven specifically *by* their emunah and dedication to observance to intentionally *choose* not to attend a minyan, because they feel that (for whatever reason) will be detrimental. Sometimes they wish to attend, but because of other pressures they instead feel secure enough to daven alone and make up in some other way.

Whatever the reason is, I feel there is very little correllation on that front. One cannot use something as simple as minyan attendance to measure observance dedication (as opposed to something like Shabbos observance, which is much more clear-cut, usually)...


dimanche, mai 08, 2005 11:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonyme said...

its interesting. might i ask what inspired it? its something i have trouble with myself. i personally believe and i think i've told you this before that its strictly communal. minyan is how we get to know everyone is ok.

lundi, mai 09, 2005 12:12:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonyme said...

if thats how its accomplished then yes
who do you report to?

i dont think its a specific person. its just that idea .. like ok .. the group is back together... we've made it through the day like that pretty much.

the minyan and the prayer are two separate entities.

lundi, mai 09, 2005 12:35:00 AM  
Anonymous MonkPrince said...

I'd like to say that minyanim and prayer go hand in hand but I can't. They are two separate things that serve separate purposes. Prayer serves to connect us to a higher being, if nothing else than through meditation. I find it hard to believe that the way we pray the same words every single day has an affect on a greater being over and above the wants and needs we communicate in our heads on a daily basis. To me it's almost meditation. The same words and actions day after day help soothe us and help our minds stretch as it is. I try and daven at least once a day and sometimes I can't, but the effect it proves is incontrovertible (at least with regards to myself). Interestingly, I saw an article a few weeks ago on the topic of accupressure and tefillin. I can't remember where though...darn.
Minyan is something else entirely. We show up to the same place every day at the same times to be viewed by the same people. Minyan is sort of a checkin. After a long day or after we wake up, there is a place we go where we are literally counted and we are ensured that everyone has made it throught another day/night. This is how we make sure everyone is safe. I guess in a way a sort of community watch.
Incidentally, I agree with Ender. Religious observance has much less to do with public ritual than private beliefs. To say that it is important is to give credence to a chest-thumping macho rhetoric where what you do is more important than why you do it. At the same time, beliefs should reflect themselves in your actions. Heh, go figure...

lundi, mai 09, 2005 12:45:00 AM  
Anonymous Avi said...

I have two points to mention:

(First point) The "yardstick": Some have stated that using relating minyan attendance to "measure" one's "religious commitment" or "dedication to leading an observant/religious life" is incorrect. However, I think it is sort of a bad question, as "religious commitment" is not a simple linear scale, where you can be a "2.1" or a "4.0". if only it was that simple! (luckily, it is not). it's kind of like saying, paying your taxes is a measure of how "good" a person you are. there is some measure of truth to that statement, but it is a gross simplification. being a "good" person might be divided into many facets -- honesty, generosity, patience, etc. to be more accurate. It would be better to say that paying taxes is a mesure of how "honest", or "a law-abiding citizen" you are (these are still broad categories, but you get the idea.) Similarly, "dedication to leading an observant/religious life" is an immensely broad spectrum of qualities, so we can't "measure" it on any linear scale. For the moment, though, we could divide it mainly into two components - communal aspects (being active in community matters, *one* of which is the minyan) and personal aspects (various mitzvot performed privately, etc)). I think minyan attendence is one of the ways of measuring one's identification with the community and commitment to being associated with it (the latter category). (Obviously this is not an accurate assessment if the person does not know how to pray, or feels uncomfortable in the minyan for whatever reason, but if those factors are equalized, I think there is a strong correlation). This is more emphasized in our community which is quite small, and where every student who comes is generally needed (note: I do not attend northwestern). There is a reasonably strong sense of 'contributing' to the minyan when you attend.

(Second Point) Priorities: At college, we are barraged not only with information, but with priorities and attitudes. In the yeshiva I attended in israel, we were constantly impressed upon by our rabbeim how important minyan was. (Of course, there are always people who do not attend minyan at yeshiva either -- you cannot force priorities onto someone, each person has to choose to accept them) But at college, we get lectures, classes, papers, assignments, problem sets, lab reports, more assignments, readings, more papers, more work, and then more classes. What inevitably comes along with all of these is a sense of priority and importance which we then ascribe to these studies and pursuits. This is a good thing -- we would not be in college if we didn't originally attribute a very high importance to these secular studies in the first place, but the problem (as succintly pointed out to me by one of my Rabbanim from yeshiva) is that there are often no comparable external stimulants (in many colleges) and sources of strength and growth for our commitment to our yiddishkeit -- particularly those aspects which require voluntary dedication of significant portions of time -- such as davenning (learning would also fall in to this category, but its a different discussion (or is it...?)). What we have as a result is an increase in priorities of our secular studies, but no comparable counter-increase in our religious priorities. inevitably, the former will tend to overwhelm and overtake the latter, unless we actively and consciously oppose it.

This increase of priorities is expressed in practice in how one plans and perceives one's schedule. I have, perhaps, the unusual vantage point of someone who attended minyan regularly for my freshman year of college, but over the last month or two of my sophomore year have slipped quite significantly in attendance. I could attribute it to an increased workload, but I think it is more connected to an inbalance of priorities mentioned in the previous paragraph.
when searching for time finish that essay, my mind glossed over that 45 minute section of the morning for shacharit as "non-negotiable", and automatically planned around it instead of weighing it up with other work. Now, however, the minyan was sometimes fair game to be 'rescheduled' if there was something important enough to displace it. Getting it back to the stage of being 'non-negotiable' is part of my efforts to attend minyan regularly again.

lundi, mai 09, 2005 4:17:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonyme said...

In general I'm not a fan of Carmy
but regarding your points
you're def right about the communal nature of shul and how a community can strengthen a minyan
but I think the answer is simple human nature of entropy.

lundi, mai 09, 2005 2:59:00 PM  
Blogger Meowmix Chatul said...

someone emailed me and wrote the following about this post: I quote him...

"You make some really good points and deconstruct the issue very well. I’ve learned long ago that the rational argument about commitment to minyan which I (and I guess others) have made doesn’t hold any water for most people. I realized that even for me it doesn’t hold perfectly true since believing in the system in full might result in me abandoning everything and joining a kollel somewhere. We all draw the line somewhere for ourselves – for some it is just a much lower threshold than others. Some anecdotal experience informs me that the decision to come to minyan ultimately is not a rational decision. Some of our most devoted attendees were not originally minyan guys, had some circumstance, pressure, whatever that got them to come, and then it became routine. I know a lot of baalei teshuvah who do not go to minyan – there is a joke like this that this when you know you’re not a ba’al teshuvah anymore (the joke actually goes when you start taking during shemona esrei). I’m not so sure necessarily that ahavas yisrael will do it though (i wish it would). Many experiences have I had where people know that they are number 10 and still don’t come. It drives me crazy to no end (I know, dan l’caf z’chus). Two questions – why do people always come when you tell them when someone needs to say kaddish? Why does the gemara call someone who doesn’t come to minyan a “bad neighbor” as opposed to the many other nasty names the gemara has for people."

lundi, mai 09, 2005 3:00:00 PM  
Blogger Meowmix Chatul said...

I would for the record like to say that it wasn't that great a deconstruction or that great of a piece of writing. there are as another buddy pointed out to me a lot of spots where I go slightly incoherent. Other things are going on though to make it so... my apologies.

lundi, mai 09, 2005 5:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonyme said...

I've had wildly varying minyan attendance over the years since I was a bar mitzvah. Some of it was due to logistics in college (e.g. when I had 8 am classes sometimes I couldn't stay for all of minyan, or another time when I had classes at 11 am and I was living 5 miles away w/o a car, it just wasn't feasible). Some was due to laziness/exhaustion (you know the old lament). Some was because my father never goes to minyan on weekdays, b/c he leaves for work practically 10 minutes after neitz hachama every day, so he physically can't... As a result, I never had the habit ingrained into me. But some of it is that... not that I don't _like_ the minyan, or the people there (which you've already mentioned)... but more that I don't feel that many minyanim _add_ anything to my prayer (yes, yes, I know all of the stuff that's said about how t'filah b'tzibbur is much better, but this is just how I feel)...so, when I feel either _I_ will inject something important into a minyan, or when I feel a particular obligation to come (more than just to make a minyan, but say... I try to be fairly scrupulously careful about showing up for shiva minyanim, or if I have specific skills/energy/something to add), then I often feel extra motivation to go. But often I get more exasperated and annoyed with many minyanim, and I have better (and more continuous) kavanah when I daven by myself. Is that bad? Maybe. BUT that's just how I feel about it and I think that this is partially _contrary_ to one of your points. Rationally, if one looks at Judaism on a strictly legal basis, then the rules are clear - there is a definite mandate to daven with a minyan, and one should make every effort to do this, but instead I choose sometimes to daven alone (more by default of not having the energy to get up and daven with the tzibbur) because I _feel_ that is more meaningful. I came regularly to shul when I first moved to the place I live now, for example, much more back before I really knew everyone and became friendly with people. It's not so much a personal connection as me feeling I can contribute concretely to the tzibbur in a way that cannot be done by individual davening. Having friends there (or a sense of community) is somewhat secondary in my mind, but I'm also just one individual and not so typical anyway.

mardi, mai 10, 2005 8:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

I think people get up for minyan or don't for the same reason they do or don't do anything else. The stuff that's important to us we do; the stuff that isn't we don't. Doubtless, people are sometimes ones, but by and large, what we do or don't do on a regular basis, is the direct result of our will.

As far as minyan in particular, if adherence to halacha were everyone's ultimate overriding value, then everyone (in ordinary circumstances) would attend minyan--even if they're not morning people, even if they barely slept the night before, even if it's not inspiring, etc.

But, l'maaseh, when you have the aforementioned factors, working against you, it's hard. So what should be done? I don't think bribing people with food is the answer. T'fillah is about connecting with HaShem. And I believe that t'fillah betzibur, when it's done right, enables people to have as much kavanah as (and often more than) they would have davening alone. But how many places have you been where it's done right....

[BTW, usually when I try to be dan l'chaf zechut in the way you describe, it doesn't work. I know I'm just making excuses for behavior I really don't agree with. What works better for me are two things: 1) Who asked me to judge? It's not my business. Seriously, when I first heard this from Rav Nebenzahl shlita, I couldn't see how it would work. I mean, it seemed natural to see someone doing something and automatically reflect on whether it was right or not. But that's not how it has to be. It's not my business. "Ein dan ela yechidi." Nobody asked me to judge. 2) "Dan lechaf zechut," per Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, means focusing on what's good in other people (and in ourselves). Not trying to be metaretz the negative -- which again in my experience rarely works -- because when we look at the negative in someone we tend to see that as dispositional; in other words, we view others (and/or ourselves) as reshaim. But when we try our best to see the good in others (and ourselves), then we are judging lechaf zechut, recognizing that a person's failings are not the etzem person, and so you help people get better by starting from what's good -- which, in my experience, does work.]

mercredi, mai 11, 2005 12:13:00 AM  

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