Let’s begin by reviewing some fundamentals of Jewish prayer. The mandatory prayers are offered three times daily. This commandment may be fulfilled in private. However, significant elements of the standard prayers have a public character. These are primarily the recitations of outcry or praise (including the Kaddish doxology, familiar to many because it is often recited by mourners), which are regarded as intrinsically communal forms of prayer. There is also a cycle of lections from the Torah attached to the prayer service, and those readings are likewise communal in character. These forms of prayer and worship require a quorum (minyan) of ten men. In order to fulfill these requirements, which meet the obligation of daily prayer, most Orthodox men will make an effort to pray with a minyan. Apart from the fact that some of the elements of worship are communal by ritual law, our physical presence within the community of prayer enhances our communion with God and reinforces our awareness that in the standard Jewish liturgy of praise, petition, and thanksgiving, the first person is always the first person plural. It is safe to say that for many of us, to do without the minyan, especially during the lengthy morning prayers, diminishes the experience of prayer.
The preference for public prayer is not, however, without its downsides. Despite the collective formulas in our liturgy, we perform the service of prayer as individuals, not as members of a choir. The ʿamida is the core prayer required by Jewish law. It is to be recited standing before God and inaudible to others, precisely because its articulation of our needs and its expression of our praise and gratitude convey private, intimate communications to God: As Scripture states of the paradigmatic case of Hannah, who entreated God for children, “only her lips moved, her voice was not heard.” All the more so, as the Talmud emphasizes, the individual’s confession of sin and inadequacy should not be overheard. One feels that intimacy and aloneness with God is diluted by the intrusion of others.
Even in the best of circumstances, the public elements of prayer may frustrate our predilections. When we want to take our time, the prayer leader may set too fast a pace. Or he may try our patience by dragging things out, not least when his appreciation of his own vocal cords engenders self-indulgence. Sometimes, too, the individual finds himself in the company of fellow congregants who are not focused on what they are supposed to be doing, who seem to be attending a spectacle or catching up on conversation rather than participating in the worship service. Likewise, some communities nurture an atmosphere of ceremonialism, to the point where the committed congregant feels alienated. All of this can, and often does, discourage concentration. Therefore, it is not surprising when individuals tell themselves they would be better off praying in solitude. They may voice their complaints to others and occasionally even direct inquiries on the subject to rabbinic authorities, asking how to sustain concentration and whether private prayer is not a better option.
As a young man I was not immune to such feelings. Over the years, I have become reconciled to the normative status of public prayer. I do not, as a rule, deem my fellow worshipers a distraction, and not only because my habitual partners in prayer are students and neighbors with whom I have sat and stood and sung and studied for decades. I have become more keenly aware that when reciting the required prayers alone, one may still be subject to temptations of distractedness, haste, and woolgathering. Not only others but we ourselves can subvert our intentions to pray with concentration and purpose.
Reflecting on the challenges of communal prayer about ten years ago, I wrote:
Religious individuals, including the greatest, may on occasion feel an overwhelming need to be alone with God. Nonetheless, the mature individual of good will should be able to tune out potential intrusions and take advantage of the benefits [of the congregational setting].
An unsatisfied reader reacted against my summary judgment. Despite his best intentions, the behavior of his fellow congregants interfered with his ability to concentrate on his prayers. I had said that mature people should be able to overcome such perturbations, thus implying that people like him were not mature. Since he did not consider himself an immature person, what right had I to chide him and those like him?
I could not dismiss this perfect stranger with the truth—that my remarks were not about him but about my own development. So what exactly did I mean by maturity? I asked him to think about areas of New York City, within walking distance of my home, rife with disorder, crime, hopelessness, and cynicism; neighborhoods where drug abuse was common, especially among the young, and sporadic gunfire was not unknown. Visit the local public library, I suggested, and you will see young people attending to their studies, often supervised and abetted by another not much older than themselves. The pavement outside resounds with distractions and discouragement, yet their eyes are fixed on the achievements that will make their future. Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court was in the news at the time, and I alluded to her social background and the medical problems the future judge was forced to cope with in childhood. By contrast, I recalled occasions early in my teaching career when any commotion was enough to rouse a certain kind of student from his academic torpor, drawing his gaze to the window as if by a powerful magnetic force. (If this rarely happens today, it’s probably because neither the sound of faraway sirens nor the allure of nearby altercations competes successfully with surfing the Internet.) Why, I asked, do we regard the studious ghetto teenager as mature and the materially more fortunate collegian immature? The difference, it would seem to me, is how easily one allows transient distractions to disrupt the activities we care about.
My remarks about overcoming distraction during prayer should not be interpreted as discounting our surroundings. Concentration, and even the quality of reverence that is such an essential ingredient of prayer, is affected by external factors. We must associate the act of praying with a mood of solemnity and accord respect to the place in which we pray. Communal singing (even a measure of cantorial display) and the appropriate spatial setting have their proper function. Preachers often deplore routinized, perfunctory prayer, but it is equally true that the life of prayer suffers most when it lacks the regularity imposed by obligation. We do not always pray with proper passion, but it is in our power at least to foster and sustain the atmosphere that facilitates heartfelt prayer. That, too, is part of maturity.
Prayer is a specifically God-oriented activity, and Jewish prayer is not only a privilege but a duty performed at particular appointed times. Hence many of us tend to assign it to a religious domain that is sequestered from the profane parts of our lives. Yet I would submit that what is true of prayer and the maturity inseparable from it has implications for many of our daily “secular” commitments. The attentiveness and concentration we learn through the discipline of prayer both form and mirror the attitudes essential to the rest of our lives. Work, study, creativity, fidelity, and compassion in our personal relations are all impoverished when we fail to develop the maturity and focus of prayer. All that we do and experience is immeasurably enriched when the life of prayer sustains our daily world.
Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva College and is editor of Tradition, the theological journal of the Rabbinical Council of America.