The latest craze in running is barefoot or minimalistic running — slapping on the equivalent of a thin layer of rubber soles on a sock and then pounding out 5, 10 and even 20 or more miles. Runners who have adopted the habit say it gives them a better “feel” for running. The idea of running with less has significant appeal to serious runners in particular. They want to know what they are made of, and wearing less shoe gives them that sensation.
For many American Jews, Judaism is like those oversized and heavily padded running shoes. Our synagogues are vast structures. Our rabbis are trained in ancient text, modern psychology and wrap their weekly sermons around often highly attenuated notions of God and spirituality.
This is good enough for many Jews. But for others, this vast apparatus of faith is too much. They want the equivalent of barefoot running, and they find it in independent minyanim.
These are the small but highly active and lay-led prayer groups now popping up all over. Their liturgy tends to be deeply musical and heartfelt. Many minyanim stress text study and analysis. Rabbis may be present (as participants), but rabbinic authority is generally not. This is, of course, an echo of the Havurah movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
I run literally and figuratively in both worlds: I am an avid runner and run with many barefoot devotees (though I stick with my Asics). I also occasionally attend an independent minyan that meets in my regular synagogue’s building.
These two worlds share in common more than just the commitment of a manic minority: Both may be very good for their devotees, but they are bad for their devotions.
Before I have a lightly padded shoe thrown at my head, let me make my case: The scientific proof supporting minimalistic running is mixed and, at best, inconclusive. Some individual runners swear that wearing thin strips of rubber allows them to run healthier because it forces them to shorten their stride and strike their forefoot, rather than heel, which is indeed a better way to run healthily.
But most runners should never run in such gear. A heavier-set runner needs support; casual runners are best off sticking to good, solid and supportive shoes. What’s more, barefoot running makes the entire sport slightly more puritanical and cultish, thus making it seem more remote to those who would stand to enjoy it.
Independent minyanim may well have the same effect. They are great for those who seek a rigorous and deliberate prayer experience, but they’re not for everyone. The less Jewishly educated and those who could use a little direction from the pulpit may find the independent minyan prayer experience off-putting.
Whatever independent minyanim do to enrich the spiritual experience of their members, they weaken the collective prayer experience at synagogues by drawing away the very people who might otherwise be a shul’s most active and knowledgeable congregants.
According to a 2007 study by sociologist Steven M. Cohen, some 40% of independent minyan participants went to day schools, and more than half have spent at least four months on a single visit to Israel. These are the cream of America’s Jewish community, withdrawing into smaller and more elite circles of prayer.
Of course their prayer experience will be more meaningful: They get to engage in the kind of intense prayer, musical devotion and discussion that they find missing in the contemporary Jewish synagogue. And it’s easy to enjoy an experience when everyone around you is equally enthused and largely equipped to engage with the activity at a similarly high level.
But while the damage from barefoot running could be some puncture wounds and Achilles injuries, the risk from independent minyanim is far more significant. The brain drain (and soul drain) from synagogues across the religious denominational spectrum is enormous, and outsized. A handful of highly active lay leaders can sustain the liturgical life of a congregation of hundreds of families. Take them away, and the results are catastrophic.
So for now, I will stick with my Asics, and my big congregational experience. My soles and my soul need the cushioning.
Noam Neusner is a principal with the communications firm 30 Point Strategies. He is a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush.