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 periodâ€”from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippurâ€”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 Noraimâ€”Days of Awe or, more accurately Days of Dreadâ€”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) â€œwho for life, who for death, / who for tranquility, who for unrest.â€ 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 tooâ€”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 â€œpersonal experienceâ€… 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 Womenâ€™s pioneering class were fine women all, but I do not recall this type of davening. When I enter the Touro College Womenâ€™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. Soloveitchikâ€™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.