As we continue to move closer to the time when communal prayer will be sanctioned in a limited manner, I want to further reflect on the value and challenges of communal prayer. First and foremost, many of our faith traditions put an emphasis on the special nature of public and communal prayer. In Jewish literature, there are a variety of statements that emphasize the greater value of being in a prayer quorum. For a quick summary of some of the sources, see the following piece from Chabad (click on the numbers for the sources):
A person should make an effort to pray in a synagogue with a minyan.1 G‑d never rejects the prayers of a congregation, even if sinners are amongst the crowd.2 Even if a person’s kavanah (concentration, intention) is imperfect, if he prays with a congregation, his prayers will be heard.3 Nowadays, as we all do not have perfect concentration when we pray,4 it is all the more important that we pray with a minyan.5 It is said that in the merit of praying with a minyan, one will make a living more easily and be blessed with the fruits of his labor.6 In fact, even if praying with a minyan causes one financial loss, G‑d will repay him by granting him extra success.7
Praying in a synagogue (with a minyan) is a segulah for long lifeAn elderly woman once came to Rabbi Yosi ben Chalafta and said, “I’m very old. My life has become unpleasant. I can’t taste food or drink, and I would like to pass away.” Rabbi Yossi said to her, “What mitzvah do you do every day?” She replied, “I go early every day to the synagogue even if it means leaving an enjoyable activity.” Rabbi Yosi instructed her to stop attending synagogue for three days. She did this and subsequently passed away.8 Thus, we see that praying in a synagogue (with a minyan) is a segulah (spiritually propitious act) for long life.
The verse9 alludes to this: “Fortunate is the man who listens to Me to watch by My doors day by day, to watch the doorposts of My entrances. For he who has found Me has found life, and he has obtained favor from G‑d.” The phrase “doorposts of my entrance” refers to the entrance to a synagogue. When ten men pray together, constituting a minyan, the Divine Presence rests on them, as the Mishnah states,10 “When ten are sitting… the Divine Presence rests amongst them.” For this reason, the prayer of a minyan is considered more effective than private prayer, because no interceding angels are needed to raise the prayer to G‑d. Rather, the prayers are accepted immediately.11https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1176648/jewish/Minyan-The-Prayer-Quorum.htm
In Jewish practice, there are certain prayers that are designated prayers to only be recited in a communal gathering, a minyan. As such, given the importance placed on these prayers, communal prayer is also ideal. However, there are circumstances that override the obligatory nature of communal prayer, including the communal responsibility of saving life. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the principle of a saving life was the driving force for most synagogues to “close” before the government mandated the closures.
In further reflecting on this topic, the following piece, When our shuls re-open, whom are they re-opening for? was written today by Rabbi Yaakov Jaffe. His opening question is a powerful thought that requires both communal and individual reflection:
As I ponder the question of the re-opening of our shuls, I wonder whether we are re-opening because this is something God has asked us to do, or something we are doing for ourselves. Is it a mitzva to re-open a shul? Or a voluntary act many Jews are now choosing to sign up for, without God having asked.
How do we know it’s the right time? Can we know what the right time is? Rabbi Jaffe proceeds to explain two principles driving the earlier decision to close synagogues, one, saving a life, which we already mentioned above and the prohibition of self-endangerment, placing oneself in harm’s way. For both of these principles, as we ponder reopening, there is a recognition of levels of risk in reopening:
Under Significant Risk – It would be prohibited to re-open; mitzva obligations are suspended until risk subsides.
Under No Risk – Mitzva obligations are in full force, and we must follow regular religious demands and shuls must re-open.
But today we face: Moderate or Small Risk – Small enough that we leave our homes, but large enough that we still feel its weight on our shoulders.
And therein lies the challenge. What is the level of risk a community is willing to accept and subsequently, what is my individual level of risk that I am willing to accept? Furthermore, what about if you are someone working in direct or even indirect contact within an environment of higher risk? What level of risk would be acceptable then? And whose responsibility is it to select who can and cannot go to synagogue, the community, the individual, both? Another question, which the article proposes is how do we normally measure risk in our lives. Do we always avoid risk? Do we consciously recognize the inherent risks in our daily functions?
Rabbi Jaffe offers the following perspective in answering the risk question:
Thus, returning to synagogue does not reflect a total absence of risk. It means that risk levels have reached the point where counter-pressures can be taken under consideration to permit the behavior on account of the valid gains which outweigh the risks. Anyone who feels more comfortable to err on the side of absolute zero risk may choose to do so, and Our Creator does not demand we take on risk for His Sake. But God permits us low risk, when the alternatives would be living lives missing something crucial and essential.
When we return to synagogue it will not be because God has asked us to, but because we have asked Him to. For many, communal prayer provides spiritual connection, more inspired prayer, and emotional relief. For the observant, it serves as a critical self-definitional component of the daily routine, establishing that our communities and social interactions are defined through shared faith and common goals. It is also a vital educational lodestar for teens and young adults in our communities, teaching them the critical value of religion when compared to other aspects of life, and is a critical therapeutic element for mourners of loved ones or those struggling with the anxieties of the pandemic. Though to be sure this is not our primary reason to return to shul, communal prayer also provides the human connection of being in the same room as friends, as community. Many feel empty, going months without communal prayer, as if there is something so important missing from their lives. A decision to return to shul is informed by all of these important values, and their ability to counterbalance risk, as much as it is informed by the obligation of communal prayer.
It is in the above that I feel the focus of my wanting to reflect more on communal prayer is driven. In our current situation, we have been forced to reflect on how we engage in the communal religious practices of our faiths. What has it meant to us? In addition to the theological values we espouse about being together, why do we find a need to be together? Sure, we could avoid the question and say that it is a selfish question to spend time figuring out what we get out of it instead of just asking what we bring to it. Yet, in today’s more autonomous, democratic, free choice environment, both sides of the coin have a place in this discussion.
I personally struggle with the answer to these questions. I miss the camaraderie of being with others, the routine that it was creating for me. Over the years, I have on again, off again made effort to attend at least once a day, including a concerted effort over the past 7 months before the pandemic. I miss those elements. Yet, I also find myself saying that the risks of being together are complicated and am not sure if the risks are worth taking at this time.
In answering his question, Rabbi Jaffe offers one final reflection:
God has not asked us yet to return to synagogue. But we have asked Him to do so. And if we return for the right reasons – for spiritually grounded reasons, and in the right ways – with safe practices and with health security, we must hope that we will find God waiting for us there in synagogue when we have returned.
Regardless of what we all choose to do individually and communally, it is my hope that the choices are not just haphazard. Let us hope that we have seen the worst of what this virus has to offer and that with continued vigilance we can mitigate the rampage we have had to endure.