It may seem odd to outsiders that in the middle of the last century, seating arrangements in synagogues were the most prominent marker of the division between American Orthodox Judaism and the other American Jewish religious movements. Orthodoxy maintained separate seating for men and women and the requirement of a male quorum for the performance of the public elements in the prayer service. The preponderance of rabbinic authorities affirmed these traditional elements. But mixed seating and egalitarian practice were regarded by many to be the wave of the future. Orthodoxy seemed to have signed its death certificate. Quite a few rabbis with Orthodox ordination were convinced that conforming to the spirit of the times was the only way to safeguard their careers.
Beneath the conflict about ritual propriety lurked a deeper question of religious orientation. At the time, many Orthodox leaders thought that the clamor for mixed pews reflected a spectators’ conception of communal prayer: The rabbi and cantor performed as MCs at the “services” at which the postwar upwardly mobile American laity played the part of the appreciative or critical audience. By this way of thinking, the Orthodox congregation, by contrast, was presumed to consist of individuals who knew how to pray on their own, who grasped the structure and the basic content of the prayers for Sabbath, festivals, and weekdays, even if they were not experts on the texts and regulations. This triumphant sense of superiority was bolstered by one’s overall impression of lay commitment, observance, and lack of literacy when the uninitiated attended Orthodox synagogues.
The dichotomy was clear in the minds of many. On one side was the intimate, daily yearning of creature for the Creator; on the other side an occasional social affair. It is hard to imagine Newman and Kierkegaard, on the one hand, or Henry Ward Beecher and Norman Vincent Peale, on the other, taking a position on technical rabbinic debates about male and female roles in worship, but it is not hard to imagine which approach to prayer would appeal to them—and why pondering that point fortified Orthodoxy’s confidence in its rightness.
I rehash this ancient piece of Orthodox triumphalism not because it is entirely wrong but because, like many partial truths, it manifests certain blind spots. When social isolation became the norm in March, the Orthodox synagogues that I know locked their doors almost immediately. Everyone knew the fundamental regulations; nobody had any doubts about the importance of health. Overnight, people who made their way to shul three times a day transferred their time of prayer to their homes, reciting the same liturgy, with the necessary adjustments, while requiring hardly any rabbinic guidance.
This smooth shift into the home, necessitated by the public health crisis, confirmed the creed that prayer, for all its public features, is fundamentally an affair between man and God. True, there were pockets in the Orthodox world that were slow to fall in line with the guidelines. But this was due to “worldly” factors: distrust of secular authority, deference to the rabbinic gerontocracy’s deliberate mechanisms of decision-making, and above all, a profound distaste for social distancing. The fact that we continued to express our commitment to God, to praise and petition and thank him in private, confirmed the complimentary thoughts that Orthodox Jews have long entertained about themselves.
All the same, the temporary transition to exclusively solitary prayer changed and challenged us. I can speak only for myself and look forward to learning from the experience of others.
Praying alone, when one is accustomed to praying in company, forces us to take responsibility for the act of prayer. Under ordinary circumstances, the time and pace of public prayer are not determined by the individual. I show up at a designated hour, agreeable to the others, not whenever the spirit moves me. Whether I am inclined to prolong my prayer or to be brief, I must, to some degree, adapt myself to my neighbors. By contrast, when I am on my own, a broad range of time is available for the various prayers, all the more so because I need not set aside part of the day for my commute. I can think or study in preparation for prayer; I can take my time; I can even take a break at certain points. This does not make my prayer better, sincerer, or more profound, though it may help me appreciate that prayer is not only an obligation but a privilege. Suspending the routine, communal schedule of prayer makes me more aware of what I am doing and induces me to consider more carefully what I hope to accomplish in prayer, and why. In that sense, the accident or misfortune of being forced to pray in solitude may serve as a corrective. It encourages us to add a deeper intention to the regularity and discipline that we regard as a virtue of Jewish prayer life.
Something else has happened to my prayer life while sheltering in place. Ordinarily, our petitions to God concentrate on our own needs and goals and on those of our families, friends, associates, and communities. We know that prayer, for all of us and not just for the mystics or idealists, embraces the universal destiny of the human race and the particular situation of every human being. We know and identify with passages in our liturgy that emphasize these themes. There are moments when we regret that we are preoccupied with narrow concerns that lead us to neglect to pray as vigorously as we should for humanity.
We often resolve to compensate for this self-regard by directing all the passion we can summon into more inclusive petitions, as if sufficient exertion of willpower can transform this aspect of our prayer. But concerted effort alone doesn’t work. In the end, our personal concerns and those manifest in our daily living and striving are more important to us, and more concrete to us, than universal prayer. This is largely as it should be. Prayer, like life itself, is about love and commitments that are particular; it is not nourished by abstract and often nominal ideas. Nevertheless, we are right to feel and to believe that it would be better for us if we cared more about humanity as a whole, and if our spiritual lives expressed that care.
These corona days, when I sit alone wrapped in tallit and tefillin, it is not necessary for me to turn my thoughts to universal humanity or to contemplate verses of universal import. The moment itself speaks constantly of the fate I share with billions of people all over the earth. Others have likely had similar experiences.
In saying this, I don’t want to imply that the coronavirus has engendered a radical new sense of broader ethical commitments in me, or in society as a whole. Most of the people who have continued to work at the market or the bank, as transit workers or as security guards, are driven by economic necessity rather than holy self-sacrifice or ethical idealism. Doctors and nurses I know are on the front lines of the pandemic. They understand the risks and obey a professional ethic as powerful as any universal ethical imperative. Writing in May, I have no reason to assume that our common resolve will outlive the disease and that we will therefore join hands in a spirit of global or national community to combat together the other public challenges before us, nor do I expect to know better in August. Yet, despite the temporary cessation of my public performance of prayer, which I miss, I am grateful for the moments of insight that accompany my solitary hours each morning, afternoon, and night.
Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva University and is editor emeritus of Tradition.