Is Yom Kippur Prayer Getting Better?

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Dr. Haym Soloveitchik famously lamented the limited devotional nature of prayer today, particularly on Yom Kippur. Dr. Judith Bleich, however, begs to differ, providing a much more positive evaluation. I omitted her explanation of the differing perspectives, offered in the paragraph subsequent to the excerpt below, in which Dr. Bleich suggests that things are radically different in synagogue’s women’s sections. I’m not sure if she meant that seriously but it doesn’t match the impressions I have received from the women I know.

Dr. Haym Soloveitchik in Rupture and Reconstruction (link):

In 1959, I came to Israel before the High Holidays. Having grown up in Boston and never having had an opportunity to pray in a haredi yeshivah, I spent the entire High Holiday period—from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur—at a famous yeshiva in Bnei Brak. The prayer there was long, intense, and uplifting, certainly far more powerful than anything I had previously experienced. And yet, there was something missing, something that I had experienced before, something, perhaps, I had taken for granted. Upon reflection, I realized that there was introspection, self-ascent, even moments of self-transcendence, but there was no fear in the thronged student body, most of whom were Israeli born. Nor was that experience a solitary one. Over the subsequent thirty-five years, I have passed the High holidays generally in the United States or Israel, and occasionally in England, attending services in haredi and non-haredi communities alike. I have yet to find that fear present, to any significant degree, among the native born in either circle. The ten-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are now Holy Days, but they are not Yamim Noraim—Days of Awe or, more accurately Days of Dread—as they have been traditionally called.

I grew up in a Jewishly non-observant community, and prayed in a synagogue where most of the older congregants neither observed the Sabbath nor even ate kosher. They all hailed from Eastern Europe, largely from shtetlach, like Shepetovka and Shnipishok. Most of their religious observance, however, had been washed away in the sea-change, and the little left had further eroded in the “new country.” Indeed, the only time the synagogue was ever full was during the High Holidays. Even then the service was hardly edifying. Most didn’t know what they were saying, and bored, wandered in and out. Yet, at the closing service of Yom Kippur, the Ne’ilah, the synagogue filled and a hush set in upon the crowd. The tension was palpable and tears were shed.

What had been instilled in these people in their earliest childhood, and which they never quite shook off, was that every person was judged on Yom Kippur, and, as the sun was setting, the final decision was being rendered (in the words of the famous prayer) “who for life, who for death, / who for tranquility, who for unrest.” These people did not cry from religiosity but from self-interest, from an instinctive fear for their lives. Their tears were courtroom tears, with whatever degree of sincerity such tears have. What was absent among the thronged students in Bnei Brak and in their contemporary services and, lest I be thought to be exempting myself from this assessment, absent in my own religious life too—was that primal fear of Divine judgment, simple and direct.

Prof. Judith Bleich in Liturgical Innovation and Spirituality: Trends and Trendiness (link, pp. 403-405):

May I humbly offer a somewhat different conclusion based
upon a somewhat different “personal experience”… I teach in a building located on Lexington Avenue and 30th Street. When I arrive early in the morning, I walk past groups of young women heading up Lexington Avenue toward 35th Street and the Stern College campus. Invariably, one or another of those young ladies has her face so deeply buried in a small siddur that I am concerned for her physical safety as she dashes to school while concentrating on the shaharit prayer. My classmates in Stern College for Women’s pioneering class were fine women all, but I do not recall this type of davening. When I enter the Touro College Women’s Division some minutes later there are always young women in a corner of the library or in the student lounge busily completing the shaharit prayer. Again, I do not recall similar devoutness from my earliest years of teaching.

For the past thirty-five years I have spent the High Holy Days among ordinary lay people at services probably not so very different from the Boston congregation of Dr. Soloveitchik’s youth. The level of observance and knowledgeability of those congregants varies greatly. But they bring an earnestness and sincerity to prayer, keep small talk to a commendable minimum, follow the sheliah zibur to the best of their ability, and become, on those Days of Awe, welded into a community of prayer of which it is an honor to be a part. Moreover, during this period, I have been privileged to travel quite extensively throughout the United States, Canada, Israel and to many cities in Europe, and to have attended worship services in a variety of different venues in hareidi and non-hareidi communities.

From Lakewood to Bobov, from Yeshivat Rabbenu Yitzchak Elchanan to Mir, including the beit midrash on the Bar Ilan campus, I have observed serious and devout davening and a distinct sense of awe in every yeshivah beit midrash. For the most part, with the notable exception of synagogues in Moscow and Berlin, I have found worship services in synagogues as well to be both edifying and moving. To be sure, the loud crying and sighing I associate with European, Yiddish-speaking worshipers of my childhood is no longer common. But that manner of expression involved an edge of theatricality and/or hysteria that was part of the European mode whereas our own age has adopted a cooler demeanor. What has impressed me most of all is the fact that during this period the quality of davening at the synagogues I have attended has improved noticeably and consistently. Yes, there are still congregations in which there is more conversation during tefillah than there should be. Yet, if anything, I have found that, over the years, there has been a decided change for the better in halakhic observance in many of these synagogues. The sense of immediacy and intimacy in prayer is quite palpable and those who come to pray do so with concentration and genuine devotion.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

42 comments

  1. I always thought that Dr Bleich’s observations were on the mark, especially when one sees young women saying Tehilim with great fervor at Chasunas.

    FWIW, those of us who walked home from Forest Hills to KGH around downed power lines and trees pulled from their roots will at least have the comments of the Rambam at the beginning of Hilcos Taanis in mind.

  2. “at a famous yeshiva in Bnei Brak”

    I first read RDS article in a slightly different version as part of the U of Chicago Fundamentalism series. In that article he names the Yeshiva-in Tradition he doesn’t.

    Unlike Steve-I agree more with RDS than DJOB.
    Of interest both are now in there 70s-I don’t know DJOBs age butI believe she was a member of Sterns first graduating class.

    “demeanor. What has impressed me most of all is the fact that during this period the quality of davening at the synagogues I have attended has improved noticeably and consistently. Yes, there are still congregations in which there is more conversation during tefillah than there should be. Yet, if anything, I have found that, over the years, there has been a decided change for the better in halakhic observance in many of these synagogues”

    There may be better halachik observancein synagogues but sadly that is due to the lack of the vast majority of Jews having anything at all to do with Yahadus-they have either checked out or been oushed out.

  3. There is no disagreement at all! Bleich concedes that davening today isn’t as emotional as in Europe — “cooler demeanor” — and that we have made up for our lack of emotion with increased halachic observance. Or in other words, what Soloveitchik described as “Having lost the touch of His presence, they seek now solace in the pressure of His yoke.”

  4. I refer to shulchan oruch 285:5 there is an argument of what the davening on yom kippur and neila is like. The difference being of when dreaming about it. I, having always davenned in a frum environment must agree with the first person. I have already written that I dont believe in women saying tehillim but consider that, today many go to mikva ‘today’ although not unmarried ones, maybe their extra ‘tahara’ spurs them on to greater heights.

  5. I am not sure they really disagree. In the first place one is talking about women, and one about men. There is no question that the average Orthodox woman of today is much more learned and better able to follow the davening than the immigrants who would have populated the shuls of Dr. Bleich’s youth. Second, Rabbi Dr. Soloveitchik is referring not to the intensity and seriousness of the prayer, but to the sense that one’s continued existence is at stake.

    Skeptic: There is a difference between the extent to which an emotion is felt and the extent to which it is demonstrated.

  6. Mike S.

    I don’t agree. The manifestation of emotions is, in almost all cases, a measure of their intensity. Otherwise, when not manifest, it is merely an intellectual acknowledgement of what one should be feeling, not what one is actually feeling.

  7. mycroft: “I first read RDS article in a slightly different version as part of the U of Chicago Fundamentalism series. In that article he names the Yeshiva-in Tradition he doesn’t.”

    Ponevezh.

    Prof. Soloveitchik also attended the Brisker Rov’s levaya, which took place fifty-one years ago…

  8. I think that this issue revolves around where one davens for the Yamim Noraim. I think that yeshivos, shuls with a yeshivishe orientation and shtieblach are far more conducive to an atmosphere where one can feel the walls rock duing Tefilah, especially on the Yamim Noraim, Yamim Tovim and Shabbos, than the average mega shul.

  9. >I think that yeshivos, shuls with a yeshivishe orientation and shtieblach are far more conducive to an atmosphere where one can feel the walls rock duing Tefilah, especially on the Yamim Noraim, Yamim Tovim and Shabbos, than the average mega shul.

    *coughCharedicough*

    Not that there’s anything wrong with it.

    The average mega shul is also a kehila kedosha. Besides, where are you going to find avaryanim in a yeshiva or a shtibel, and tefillah btzibbur requires them.

  10. “…there was no fear in the thronged student body…I have yet to find that fear present, to any significant degree…” R. Soloveitchik

    With minor exceptions, ours is a generation that has been coddled in a Diaspora of wealth and well-being. We internalize the notion of an “am segula” far differently — and indeed, perversely — than did the previous generations living in the Diaspora of the European pale of settlement. Just think how a modern American Jew internalizes “am segula” — while driving his/her Lexus from the driveway of a half-million (plus) dollar home on the way to a luxury Pesach cruise — so much differently than a Jew living in the poverty of a Russian shtetl, when infant mortality rates were high, and the survivors lived in constant fear of the Czar’s/Communist’s secret police.

    The truth is, in our post WWII world, we have had so much less to be afraid of. We don’t SURVIVE golus living tenuously and in fear. No, we GLORY in it! (Often to repulsive excess, and despite the constant complaints about Yeshiva tuition). We don’t desperately long to return to Zion in order to escape the “ordeal” of golus, because there is no “ordeal” (relatively speaking). And so our supposed longing for “Next year in Yerushalayim,” proclaimed as the culmination of all our desires at the end of Neilah, (but damningly not demonstrated, l’mysa, by any massive sign-up with Nefesh b’Nefesh) is, for many (most even?), just so much of a sham. So, if the culmination of our teflios is a sham, what can be said for the rest of davening?

    Where there is no genuine “fear” there is no genuine tefilah. That’s the curse of our generation. (We all know how many shuls have become mens’ clubs…during davening, Rachmana Litzlan!) It would come as no surprise then, if the Ribbon Shel Olam starts putting the fear into this generation of Disapora Jews (and the signs of this happening are everywhere) in order to encourage the return of serious kavanah during davening as a result of the implantation of genuine fear of continued life in golus.

  11. Subjective assessment of the sense of fear at a service followed by another subjective assessment of the level of devoutness.

    Are we describing the crowd at a sporting event? The audience at a bullfight?

    This reaches a new low level of superficial writing about the davening of hundreds of pages of complex and beautiful prayers. And unfortunately it is an accurate reflection of the current state of the vacuity of synagogue life. Arbitrary descriptions of the appearance of emotions and devotions …

  12. Sorry this is off-topic, but what is the earliest time one can break the fast, and are there halachic requirements one must fulfill before doing so (say, if these requirements have not yet been fulfilled by the congregation, even though it is past the time where breaking fast is allowed, must one then wait for completion of these requirements in order to break fast)? Thank you so much if anyone can help.

  13. Guest-even in shuls and shtieblach, there are Arvayanim. Having davened RH in the main Beis Medrash in RIETS and davening most of the time in a small shul which has a wide range of Baale Batim from present and future Kollelniks in many yeshivos from RIETS to Lakewood, BTs and serious Baale Batim which says a Tefilah LShlom HaMedinah, a Mi Sheberach for Tzhal and for Pidyon Shevuyim of captured soldiers and HaNosen Teshuah as well, I can’t see myself davening in a mega shul where it is quieter for Tefilah LShlom HaMedinah than Krias HaTorah or Chazaras HaShatz.

  14. Judaism without PC

    Steve Brizel: I think that this issue revolves around where one davens for the Yamim Noraim. I think that yeshivos, shuls with a yeshivishe orientation and shtieblach are far more conducive to an atmosphere where one can feel the walls rock duing Tefilah, especially on the Yamim Noraim, Yamim Tovim and Shabbos, than the average mega shul.

    Steve, I think you err by grouping shtieblach with Yeshivas and Yeshiveshe minyanim.

    I think a strong case can be made that shtiebels should rather be grouped with large synagogues, as they are both congregations of baalei batim, whereas Yeshivas and Yeshivishe minyanim are congregations arranged around the experience and orientation of being a Yeshiva talmid/alumnus.

  15. I don’t know that the lack of crying during the tefilot on Yom Kippur bespeaks a reduced awareness of the Eternal Judge and Father than was the case a few generations earlier. It does bespeak much improved circumstances wherein fear is normally absent.

    The shul of my childhood was a European style shtiebel where the tefilot were heartfelt and crying wasn’t absent. Nor were the members, who were almost all of European origin, religiously unobservant or unlearned. The men there studied either gemara or mishnayot during weekday nights. There was ignorance, however, or at least a rather unique ancient custom among some of the women during the tefilot of the shalosh regalim. Whenever Hallel was started, inevitably there could be heard crying in the women’s section. Today’s Orthodox women are more learned, and their tefilot are, if anything, superior in real emotion to those of men. As an illustration, Rav Yehuda Oelbaum once made an appeal for Bais Yaakov at the Young Agudah minyan in Boro Park. He said, “I don’t have to explain the value of Bais Yaakov to this group. Let me just leave you with this thought. Who amongst us hasn’t first learned what tefila is really meant to be by observing our wives davening?”.

    Let’s hope that our tefilot on Yom Kippur do evince some emotion and are accepted. Gemar chatimah tovah.

  16. “Besides, where are you going to find avaryanim in a yeshiva or a shtibel, and tefillah btzibbur requires them.”

    Seek and ye shall find.

  17. The folks discussing shtiebels, yeshivas and yeshivishe minyanim should also note that independent minyanim and colleges with large Orthodox populations also tend, as Steve put it, to be “conducive to an atmosphere where one can feel the walls rock duing Tefilah, especially on the Yamim Noraim, Yamim Tovim, and Shabbos.”

  18. Jlan-Gmar Tov! Woukd you attribute a study in Israel as one of the reasons why the independent minyanim and colleges with large O populatons as also having the atmosphere that I described?

  19. Steve- Shavuah Tov, to whatever extent we have a “week” coming up.

    I think study in Israel has a lot to do with it. There’s something of a critical mass phenomenon there, where there are enough who studied in Israel to transform the service as a whole, even for people who didn’t take that path. That seems to translate into the formation of independent minyanim of all stripes (whether truly independent or simply an alternative minyan in a shul), but I’m not sure of the mechanism by which this happens.

  20. Rabbi Chaim Navon wrote an article in Makor Rishon suggesting that yeshiva minyans (and shuls which imitate them) are missing the point of RH and YK davening, by focusing too much on joy and not enough on fear. He calls for shuls to bring back the old-style chazzanut.

  21. how can zombies have either fear or joy? the faces of 90% of the folks i sat with in a major community, major shul, glazed over ten minutes into kol nidre and never resumed normal expressions even as they left the shul motzei yom tov. no, it is not getting better, no way, no how. it is at a new low. but then again perhaps it was always like this and we just had nowhere for people to vent before….

  22. JID-You could not pay me to sit through the “performance” of a Chazan. OTOH, Tefilos conducted by Baalei Tefilah who are Talmidei Chachamim with a great command of Nusach HaTefilah are a great
    part of an atmosphere in any shul where the walls are rocking. The only Chazaanim that I can tolerate are those like C S Goffin. a Carlebach like Kabalas Shabbos is a great change of pace from a normal Kabbalas Shabbos, but even such a great change can sometimes, but not always, turn stale in the sense of familiarity breeding contempt.

  23. Observant communities and their members feel they are living observant lives and therefore feel disconnected from the Yom Kippur fear that is associated with sin and punishment.
    While cancer and terror attacks may cause a trembling recognition of the tenuousness of life, the connection to Yom Kippur is broken because people do not relate (strongly) to the sin element.

  24. “Jewish Ideas Daily on September 19, 2010 at 6:04 am
    Rabbi Chaim Navon wrote an article in Makor Rishon suggesting that yeshiva minyans (and shuls which imitate them) are missing the point of RH and YK davening, by focusing too much on joy and not enough on fear. He calls for shuls to bring back the old-style chazzanut”

    I tend to agree-I daven at a pseudo chareidi lite schul. A couple of years ago the Rabbi started the custom that instead of silently returning the Torahs to the aron after KolNidrei-that the schul-probably about 10% take part start dancing like hakafot at the beginning of Yom Kippur-vehivdilanu min hatoim. I personally have never seen such an easy way to ruin the mood of Yom Kippur. At times it seems with the modern tunes-the davening seems like a rock concert.
    I have davened in large schuls, small shitbelach, Yeshiva minyanim and those in between. The mood of the holiday IMHO depends greatly on both the Rabbi and shaliach zibbur. It is not the Rabbis zidkus but rather the ability to explain Yom Kippur and the davening-especially Musaph.

  25. “Ponevezh.”
    I knew that-but saw no reason to name it-RCS did not name it in Tradition-I mentioned it to show that RCSdid self censor when it came to a publication in Orthodox circles vs the scholarly article.

    “Prof. Soloveitchik also attended the Brisker Rov’s levaya, which took place fifty-one years ago…”
    What is news of a 22 year old attending the funeral of your fathers uncle?

  26. “Observant communities and their members feel they are living observant lives and therefore feel disconnected from the Yom Kippur fear that is associated with sin and punishment.
    While cancer and terror attacks may cause a trembling recognition of the tenuousness of life, the connection to Yom Kippur is broken because people do not relate (strongly) to the sin element”

    Every man sins-to the extent that observation is true we have a gigantic hashkafic problem-and that we may have more minyanim and shiurim is scant solace “im ein yirat elokim bamakom hazeh”

  27. Myrcroft-we also have more drashos, etc on what we need to improve in and where our Yiras Shamayim is lacking. Some of us work on the issues presented, for others, the message is ignored. It is important to remember Lo Nitnah HaTorah LMalaachei HaShares.

  28. Zalman wrote:

    “Observant communities and their members feel they are living observant lives and therefore feel disconnected from the Yom Kippur fear that is associated with sin and punishment.
    While cancer and terror attacks may cause a trembling recognition of the tenuousness of life, the connection to Yom Kippur is broken because people do not relate (strongly) to the sin element.”

    I don’t where you daven, but I received a letter in shul yesterday that implored all of us during in Neilah to daven for people dealing with a wide range of challenges in their lives such as the threats posed by Hamas/Iran and terrorism in Israel, serious illness, death of a loved one, unemployment, singles looking for their bashert and couples having problems conceiving. I can’t believe that such a letter would not have an impact and inspire someone to have someone else’s tzaros in their Tefilos.

  29. I commented previously that I agreed with Dr Bleich’s assessment of Tefilah today. I am sure that I am not alone in stating that while I may not cry during Yizkor, I can close my eyes, think and have flashbacks and memories of departed family members and friends who are in the Olam HaEmes. That strikes me as as emotionally wrenching than a public display of emotion .

  30. “Myrcroft-we also have more drashos, etc on what we need to improve in and where our Yiras Shamayim is lacking. Some of us work on the issues presented, for others, the message is ignored. ”

    I have been listening to drashos for over half a century by different Rabbis-it is not clear to me that more drashos deal with the essence of lifi mi ata bah latet din vcheshbon, or da lifnei mi ata omed etc. If anything in my limited non scientific sample of various Rabbis over the period I find more drashos dealing with specific mitzvot-almost always BTW recently dealing with bein adam lemakom and certainly a favorite is kavod beis haknesses etc-BTW-how many of us ever daven in a beis knesses I would guess the vast majority of us daven in a Beis Midrash.

  31. “commented previously that I agreed with Dr Bleich’s assessment of Tefilah today”

    Of interest BTW that neither Dr Bleich or RDSoloveitchik grew up in NY. DJOB grew up in Toronto RDCS grew up in Boston. Both had fathers who were Rabbonim.

  32. wow thanks to this post, i finally know what the beatles were singing about:

    I admit it’s getting better (Better)
    A little better all the time (It can’t get more worse)
    Yes I admit it’s getting better (Better)
    It’s getting better since you’ve been mine
    Getting so much better all the time
    It’s getting better all the time
    Better, better, better
    It’s getting better all the time
    Better, better, better
    Getting so much better all the time

  33. Skeptic:

    1) it is very easy to demonstrate emotions that are not deeply felt. Actors do it all the time.

    2) It may be that deeply felt emotions will manifest one way or another but the form is certainly culturally dependent.

  34. Steve — The “letter in shul yesterday that implored all of us during in Neilah to daven for people dealing with a wide range of challenges” suggests that there may be other ways to connect to “yirat elokim” and YK other than “sin and punishment”. (But is that a the YK theme?) I hope that the letter does not present a a gigantic hashkafic problem for Mycroft.

  35. Myrcroft and Steve – This trend is probably due to the fact that most people just don’t connect to the old chazzanut anymore. The yeshiva davening wasn’t created in a vacuum. People are more uplifted by singing and dancing then ay-yay-yays. Maybe this is a lack in our generation but is it better for people to feel nothing during Yamin Noraim davening?

  36. JID-One can either be a participant or spectator in any aspect of one’s life. For the average person in shul, Chazannus relegates one to the role of a spectator. Singing and dancing is appropriate, but as Mycroft points out-at the right time-whem YK ends, not before Kol Nidrei.

  37. MiMedinat HaYam

    i find the old style (rosenblatt) chazzanut to be moving, encouraging tfilah, and the proper atmosphere of tfillah. (as opposed to those who think it drags out the tfillah, which we all know will end at 7pm anyway.) (but i didnt, when i was younger, and davening at a shul yosseleh rosenblatt actually davened at.)

    of course, though i know the tunes are mostly eastern european drinking songs, etc (i dont think there was any israeli love songs on RH and YK), i still prefered them. of course, the chazzan today thinks he cant hit the right notes, so he substitutes his own (i call them artscroll notes, since they mask the truth.)

  38. Zalman-thinking about oneself during Tefilah as opposed to being concerned about another’s Tzaros is hardly a recommended course of action.

  39. R’SB,
    If that’s the case, why in hilchot tzedaka are we told that our requirement is concentric circles with ourselves in the middle?
    GT

  40. R Joel-I would suggest that Tzedaka has definite halachic rules such as Aniyei Ircheca,etc,and that Chesed, is defined, however it is performed, with a focus on someone other than yourself.

  41. I imagine that the YK experience reflects what would be most meaningful for the congregants. As Dr. Grach points out, people weren’t crying because they were religious and feared God’s judgment. They were crying because they were reflecting on all the awful tragedies of their lives. I’ve found that the joyous aspect of YK that the gemara talks about can much better be found in modern Orthodox shuls, where there is less personal tragedy, and more rejoicing in the celebration of our faith.

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