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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For the most part, the ads offer positive reinforcement for those who keep quiet in the pews. Not talking in synagogue, the ads promise, will bring “parnassah, shidduchim, refuos & yeshuos!” — that is, wealth, marriage, health and miracles. The advertiser asked readers to email them at StopTalking@gmail.com with stories of how their lives changed for the better after they stopped talking in synagogue.

An e-mail sent to that address went unanswered.

(An August 22 notice in the Flatbush Jewish Journal alerted readers that a version of the anti-talking ad in the previous issue accidentally included the name of God rendered in Hebrew and therefore could not be thrown in the garbage.)

The talking issue isn’t a problem in most Reform congregations.

“I never notice, if it is happening,” said Rabbi Anthony Fratello, spiritual leader of Temple Shaarei Shalom in Boynton Beach, Fla., a Reform synagogue.

That’s in part because silence in the pews is written into Reform Judaism’s DNA. The very character of the Reform service is, in part, a reaction to the problem of talking in Orthodox synagogues.

“They wanted to promote decorum,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish studies at Brandeis University and an expert on the history of American synagogues, of the early Reform congregations in the United States. “In America, houses of worship are open and people visit one another, and non-Jews often were appalled [by Orthodox synagogues], especially if they were Protestant [and] used to a very decorous, quiet, performance-oriented worship.”

In response, Reform Jews shortened the service, believing it would be easier to maintain discipline for an hour than for five hours. Organs were purchased for Reform synagogues specifically to discourage chatter.

“Many of these folks were in the process of moving into the middle class; they were moving up economically, and they themselves wanted to be respected by their neighbors,” Sarna said.

These sorts of serious, organ-heavy services can still be found in some Reform congregations. Others are looking to split the difference between the stodgy Cleveland-style silence and the Orthodox unruliness.

Weisenberg, who is attached both to the Conservative movement and the related independent minyan movement, recognizes the value of talking in synagogue. He also sees the value of silence. “If we walk in and treat [the synagogue] like a kind of space that could be holy, could be divine, it has a chance of becoming such,” he said.

“What I’m looking for in any fight against talking — I’m not looking for decorum, I’m looking for a subtle focus,” Weisenberg said.

For the anonymous advertiser behind the Flatbush Jewish Journal ads, that subtle focus may be drowned out by all the chatter.

“The sin is too large to bear,” the ad warns the readers.

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at joshnathankazis@forward.com or on Twitter, @joshnathankazis


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