Rabbis Declare War on Chit-Chat in Synagogue

Are Orthodox Congregations More Prone to Crosstalk?

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By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published September 03, 2013, issue of September 06, 2013.
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Chat during synagogue services and God might kill you, the Talmud warns.

That’s if you’re lucky. If you’re not, God might kill everyone you know: One legend attributes a 17th-century Cossack slaughter of tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews to excessive talking in synagogue.

“Woe to people who carry on conversations during prayer, for we have seen many synagogues destroyed because of this sin,” one late 19th-century rabbinic commentator warned.

Despite these threats, Orthodox rabbis say they can’t control the crosstalk during their services. Reform rabbis, meanwhile, whose congregants generally don’t worry about divinely inspired massacres, say that they’re rarely interrupted by even a whisper.

This year, in the months before the High Holy Days, an anonymous activist has bought up pages and pages of ads in a Brooklyn Orthodox newspaper, urging Orthodox Jews to shut up in the pews. Yet non-Orthodox religious leaders say that the quiet they enjoy in their sanctuaries isn’t all that matters.

“Some people come to shul hoping to create a divine experience,” said Joey Weisenberg, music director at the Kane Street Synagogue, a Conservative congregation in Brooklyn. “Other people come to see their friends and hang out. Both of those things are important.”

Excessive talking is a fixation among some Orthodox rabbis. Jewish law explicitly bans talking during certain parts of the service, and some synagogues even read a special prayer for those who refrain from talking. Yet talking during the service is a persistent problem throughout the Orthodox world. (Rabbi Josh Yuter, who leads the Stanton Street Shul, a small Orthodox congregation on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, recalled visiting a synagogue where congregants talked through the prayer for those who refrain from talking.)

“It’s serious,” said Rabbi Asher Lopatin, newly appointed president of the left-leaning Modern Orthodox rabbinical school Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and former spiritual leader of a Chicago congregation. “I do think there are some synagogues where the rabbi just gives up.”


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