Enemies of the Synagogue?: Seeing Beyond the Symptom

BY: Ori Kanefsky.

In this article, I would like to address two phenomena that take place in our synagogues: “Kiddush Clubs” and “talking during davening.” I present these two phenomena not to evaluate them in and of themselves, but rather to examine some of the critical responses to each of them. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the conclusions of these reactions, I believe, they should be viewed as representative of a larger mode of critical response and of a wider trend, a trend that I find saddening and unfortunate.

The first phenomenon is that of “Kiddush Clubs.” As summarized on Wikipedia, “Kiddush Club” is “a slang term applied wherever an informal group of people leave a synagogue’s sanctuary during Jewish services on Shabbat (Saturday) morning to congregate, make kiddush (frequently over liquor) and socialize.”[i] One can imagine that the rise of these groups has troubled many synagogue attendees and, especially, the leaders of those synagogues. After all, this practice seems to deliver a message of disinterest in the services and disregard for the sanctity of the synagogue.

In fact, this is the message that Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb and the Orthodox Union perceived to be broadcasted by Kiddush Club participants. In December of 2004, R. Weinreb, then the Executive Vice President of the OU, published a letter entitled “Why Kiddush Clubs Must Go.”[ii] In this letter, he writes that “[t]he recent decision by the Board of Directors of the Orthodox Union to issue a statement calling for the elimination of so-called Kiddush Clubs from OU synagogues enabled the organization to take a giant step forward in addressing two problematic areas of contemporary Orthodox Jewish life in North America.” For R. Weinreb, the existence of Kiddush Clubs poses two problems. The second of these areas is the problem of substance abuse in the Orthodox Jewish community, the argument being that Kiddush Clubs promote such abuse, especially among children who witness their parents engage in this kind of activity on a regular basis. This issue is a serious one and one with which I have no intention of contending in this article; if a straight line can be drawn from Kiddush Clubs to substance abuse, then by all means they must go. Instead, I am interested in studying the first of these “two problematic areas” that Kiddush Clubs allegedly aggravate, namely, the nature of “the synagogue environment and the oft-bemoaned dearth of spirituality there.”

R. Weinreb argues that “this phenomenon destroys kevod hatefillah (the dignity of the service)” and calls it a sign of “a callous disregard of the sanctity of the Shabbat service.” Two issues are outlined: the lack of respect that leaving services demonstrates, as well as the fact that the departure of a group of people from the sanctuary disturbs the overall dignity of the service for everyone present. Presumably, the phenomenon of participants “often return[ing] to synagogue more than mildly intoxicated” also detracts from the dignity of the service.

R. Weinreb’s argument is compelling. If one were to exit a business meeting mid-way through to grab a beer, it would undoubtedly be taken as a gesture of utter disinterest and disrespect. If in the synagogue congregants are meant to be conversing with God, how could they walk out in the middle for something like this? And so, R. Weinreb and many others conclude, Kiddush Clubs must go.

As I made clear at the outset, though, my purpose here is not to evaluate the conclusion, but rather to study the nature of the reaction. In short, I am troubled by R. Weinreb’s approach. To begin with, if one takes a closer look at the rhetoric of the letter, one notes that it seems to paint the Kiddush Club and its members as the enemy, lending it a tone of moderate anger. For example, the letter refers to the “exodus” of those who leave the synagogue and, as quoted above, laments the “callous disregard of the sanctity of the Shabbat service” (emphasis added). More pointedly, R. Weinreb employs strong language in characterizing his efforts. He writes, “We are fighting for kevod beit haknesset (the honor of our shuls). This is the first strike; there will be many more to come” (emphasis added). It is as though he imagines that those who attend Kiddush Clubs are the enemies of the synagogue.

To fight parts of your own constituency on a battlefield is to have failed as a leader. The shallowness of this kind of approach severely limits the value of the letter and the success of the campaign. There are some necessary steps missing from R. Weinreb’s message. To begin with, there is no attempt at all to uncover the motivating factors behind the Kiddush Club in the first place; no room is left for the possibility that there are real needs in the community that must be addressed, of which the Kiddush Club is just one manifestation. And there is certainly no suggestion of an alternative to the Kiddush Club that would constitute a more constructive expression of those underlying needs. Perhaps Kiddush Clubs should, in fact, be shut down, but I would have hoped for a more sensitive approach to the issue.

In fact, some other critics of the Kiddush Club have come to the very same conclusion, but at the same time have paid more attention to the root causes. R. Daniel Korobkin wrote such an article in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles shortly after the announcement of the OU campaign.[iii] On the one hand, he writes that “the whole purpose for congregating in the synagogue on Shabbat morning is to have some spiritual elevation on the holiest day of our week” and that Kiddush Clubs “detract from this spiritual elevation.” On the other hand, he recognizes that there must be some motivation for them other than a purely rebellious one: “But come now, what’s a congregation to do? Services are so long, and people are hungry because Orthodox Jews don’t eat before morning prayer [sic].” In his view, Kiddush Clubs are motivated by the challenges of hunger and a lengthy service. Therefore, he notes that if someone really must eat before services finish, there are halakhic grounds allowing him to do so, and, he suggests, maybe American synagogues should borrow the model of synagogues in Israel that have a significantly shorter service.

Another writer, publishing his work on one of the blogs of The Jewish Week, takes a similar approach. In an article entitled “Cheers and Fears: The Debate Over Kiddush Clubs,” James Besser agrees with the position of the OU and concludes that “it’s hard to argue with critics of kiddush clubs.”[iv] At the same time, he recognizes “their attractive nature” and searches for an explanation of the phenomenon. He suggests that “any sociologist would see that their popularity is a result of the stress regularly endured by Orthodox men who, even with the increasing frequency of dual income homes, still bear primary responsibility for the costs associated with the religious life of large families.” He continues, “Most Orthodox Jews would not feel comfortable going to bars after hours to blow off steam. And so for many, the kiddush club becomes the place ‘where everyone knows your name.’” Besser offers another interesting analysis: Kiddush Clubs serve as a much-needed place for individuals to relax with friends.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the particular analyses of R. Korobkin and Besser, I applaud their shared approach, one that recognizes the Kiddush Club as a symptom rather than a root cause and one that seeks to uncover the underlying issues. I particularly appreciate R. Korobkin’s article in that it not only seeks to discover the root cause, but actually proposes possible solutions that would confront the real issues here.

Allow me to turn now to the second phenomenon: talking during davening. In 1997, Dr. Irving Levitz wrote an article entitled “Talking During Tefillah: Understanding The Phenomenon.”[v] Levitz’s first premise is that talking during prayer is halakhically problematic and prohibited. As he puts it, “Halachic literature is unequivocal in its universal condemnation of socializing during prayer.” He also notes that many sources not only prohibit socializing during prayer, but also are “exceptionally harsh and uncommonly critical” and suggest “grievous consequences.” For example, he cites the Zohar on Parashat Terumah 131a, which “compares the synagogue talker to a kofer be-ikar (infidel).”[vi]

Once again, I have no intention of challenging Levitz’s assumption, nor the halakhic position on this issue. I simply would like to call attention to the way that Levitz addresses and analyzes the phenomenon and, in particular, to the conclusion that he reaches. Like R. Korobkin and Besser do when addressing Kiddush Clubs, Levitz searches for the underlying causes of this issue. He turns to several different areas of study for possible explanations. First, he looks for historical precedent as one potential cause. He notes that when the Talmud in Sukkah 51b describes the synagogue in Alexandria, it includes the detail that people would sit in groups according to their professions. He further points out that seating in many synagogues was also often organized by country of origin. He concludes that “these early synagogues were apparently formed not only for the purpose of prayer, but also to meet communal social needs as well.”[vii] He also cites the work of Jacob Minkin, who describes the Hasidic shtibl as an “informal physical arrangement, usually smaller, more spartan, spatially cramped, and furnished with tables and benches in place of formal pews, [which] tended to both encourage and enable easy social interaction.” In the shtibl, “intense prayer became interwoven with casual conversation, creating a combination of sacred fervor and social warmth.”[viii]

In addition to noting historical precedent, Levitz outlines a number of psychological motivating factors. First, he notes that talking during prayer may be particularly attractive to those who “harbor doubts about the efficacy of traditional prayer, or who are unable to connect with either its meaning or motifs.”[ix] Then, he notes that another powerful motivation is the “social drive:” “In a time-pressured world, where opportunities for socializing with friends tend to be limited, the social component of synagogue life serves as a bulwark against alienation and isolation by providing communal affiliation, emotional support, and a social presence.”[x]

From here, he proceeds to describe two driving forces that he considers to be unconscious ones. The first is “a manifestation of unconscious anger. Coming to a sacred setting in order to socialize is for them [those people who talk during davening] an unconscious act of defiance connected to past hurtful experiences associated with religious life.”[xi] The second possible unconscious motivation, he suggests, is “a need to avoid the intense emotional investment required for authentic prayer.”[xii]

Some of these factors may be more relevant than others, depending on the individual. Each of them, though, deserves to be studied in depth and in its own right. Here, however, I am most concerned with the general fact that Levitz values the search for such factors in the first place and recognizes this to be the only way of treating a phenomenon like this one seriously.

Although this investigation of underlying causes represents a sophisticated approach and seems promising, Levitz’s conclusion is disappointing. After carefully analyzing each of these potential motivations, rather than turning to them as the foundations for possible answers to the problem, Levitz seems to cast them aside in favor of a very simple solution, which relies on the psychological principle of cognitive dissonance. Levitz argues that if congregants were to simply learn that Halakhah prohibits socializing during prayer, they would suffer from cognitive dissonance and abstain from speaking. His conclusion, therefore, is that rabbis should simply “teach the relevant halachot pertaining to synagogue deportment, raise community consciousness, and create the psychic discomfort necessary for change.”[xiii]

What happened to addressing all of those underlying issues? Does this conclusion in any way acknowledge the various motivational factors that Levitz identifies? In my estimation, it does not. It seems that Levitz’s interest in those factors was merely to understand the origins of the phenomenon, but not to incorporate them into a solution.

If one were to keep these various motivations in mind, one might be able to offer a whole range of answers that actually address the underlying issues. If, for example, talking during davening stems from an inability to connect to traditional prayer, rabbis and congregants together should run programs and workshops on prayer that would help build peoples’ connection to this ritual. These workshops might isolate and focus on specific parts of the liturgy and resurrect their significance for and relevance to the modern worshipper. They might also discuss and explore approaches to prayer in a more abstract manner and highlight the power and the beauty of tefillah. Indeed, for each of the potential motivations for talking during services that Levitz had proposed, a solution that actually targets the problem could be similarly proposed.

The responses to these two issues, especially the approaches of R. Weinreb and Dr. Levitz, represent a larger mode of reaction in the Orthodox community and a troubling trend. These two authors have taken part in a pattern in which our community leaders simply criticize and denounce, rather than sympathize and understand, in which they aim to undermine, rather than constructively repair. I imagine that many of us who have attended a yeshivah day school are very familiar with this pattern. I doubt that many of us would have any trouble at all conjuring up examples of times when rabbis would stand before their students and rattle off criticism after criticism of the latter’s behavior without making any attempt to understand any of the underlying issues. How long will it take for our leaders to learn the necessity of sensitive and sophisticated approaches to communal issues and to recognize the ineffectiveness of shoving rebuke down the community’s throat?

To return to the two issues at hand, I think that they share an underlying motivation, one that has been alluded to in different forms in the responses cited above but has not been given the attention that it deserves. Both Kiddush Clubs and the phenomenon of talking during davening point to a communal need for social interaction and, more specifically, for the synagogue in particular to serve as the home and place for that social interaction. In other words, if individuals who participate in these activities were merely interested in socializing, they could choose a more comfortable and convenient venue, like a living room or a park. The decision to socialize in the synagogue of all places, in the central location of any Jewish religious community, reflects a certain desire to place that socializing in a religious context. In America, especially, it is often the synagogue that binds a Jewish community together, and if people turn to it, specifically, as a social center, then that demonstrates an attitude whereby people place religion at the center of their lives.

At the same time, such a reflection need not also be the conclusion to the question of what to do about these issues. There seems to be a strong case to be made that Kiddush Clubs and talking during prayers are poor manifestations of this social need. But they are just that: poor manifestations, or symptoms. And if these issues are to be addressed in a thoughtful manner, then the distinction between symptoms and underlying causes must be  carefully observed. If a Kiddush Club disrupts, and undermines the sanctity of, the synagogue service, then some other social/de-stressing opportunity must be created to fill the vacuum left behind by its removal. Similarly, if people are talking during prayer, then one of the things that they are indicating is that they have a need to form a social community in a religious context. This need must not be sidelined by simply creating cognitive dissonance to force people to refrain from speaking during prayer, but must be met with constructive criticism and viable alternatives. These alternatives might include social events in the synagogue at more appropriate times, or maybe even some form of modified Kiddush Club, which would ensure that all participants would be of legal drinking age and would drink responsibly and that no children would be within observing range.

But the specifics are not my concern here: the choice and implementation of alternatives obviously must be developed by, and cater to, specific communities, with the particular needs of each community in mind. Rather than needlessly criticizing and attacking one another, leaders and congregations must work together to communicate respective needs and expectations, and to arrive at shared respect, understanding, and resolution.

Ori Kanefsky is a senior at YC majoring in English Literature and is a Staff Writer for Kol Hamevaser.

[i] “Kiddush Club,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kiddush_club.

[ii] Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, “Why Kiddush Clubs Must Go,” available at: http://www.ou.org/other/5765/kiddushclubsrw65.htm.

[iii] Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin, “Herring and Haftarah,” The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, February 10, 2005, available at: http://www.jewishjournal.com/articles/item/herring_and_haftarah_20050211/.

[iv] James Besser, “Cheers And Fears: The Debate Over Kiddush Clubs,” The Jewish Week Blogs, July 8, 2009, available at: http://www.thejewishweek.com/blogs/cheers_and_fears_debate_over_kiddush_clubs.

[v] Irving Levitz, “Talking During Tefillah: Understanding The Phenomenon,” Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society 33 (Spring 1997): 95-119.

[vi] Ibid., p. 96.

[vii] Ibid., pp. 100-101.

[viii] Ibid., p. 101.

[ix] Ibid., p. 109.

[x] Ibid., p. 110.

[xi] Ibid., p. 111.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid., p. 118.