[Avodah] Are we trying to grow?

Akiva Miller akivagmiller at gmail.com
Sun Apr 11 04:06:40 PDT 2021

This is a continuation of a conversation that began recently on Areivim, in
a thread titled "For many synagogues, live-streamed services are here to
stay after the pandemic". That thread began (as you might guess from its
title) with an external article about the changes that are happening in
many synagogues due to covid, which led to some comments about things that
we may or may not like in our shuls. I am moving it from Areivim to Avodah
because the focus is not so much on what it Covid is doing to our shuls,
but more on what we feel the function of a shul should be.

R' Yitzchok Levine described his shul:

> A neighbor of mine ... recently ask me about the Shabbos morning
> Hashkama minyan that I started at the YI of Ave J. After I told
> him that it started at 7:15, and there was virtually no talking,
> he went a couple of weeks ago.  He reported to me that this is
> what davening should be, and that he thoroughly enjoyed davening
> there. He then added, "And there is no rabbi."
> There are no speeches and there is almost never a kiddush. There
> is some singing, but not very much. ... It is what I call a
> no-frills davening.

I responded:

> Perhaps I'm misunderstanding, but you seem to consider "no rabbi"
> and "no speeches" as positive traits. If this is accurate, I'm
> curious to hear your reasoning why.

RYL answered:

> I have no problem with there being a rabbi at a minyan,  provided
> he does not speak.  Ask anyone two hours after shul what the rabbi
> spoke about, and most will not even recall his topic.  Thus, I, in
> general, consider speeches Tircha D'Tzibura. Most rabbonim (on the
> right for sure) have never been trained in public speaking and speak
> yeshivish rather than English. If they pick a topic heavily focused
> on Torah subjects, then the women are left out. Does Shabbos morning
> davening really need this? I think not.

Similar (perhaps identical) complaints are often raised by schoolchildren.
And yet we continue to send our children to school, despite their protests,
because they need the input in order to grow, whether they can appreciate
it right now or not.

Yes, rabbis (and teachers) have wide ranges of speaking ability, and of
communication effectiveness. And they have varying styles and favorite
topics, just as the audience is more or less interested in different
things. If someone wants to choose a different shul where he can get more
out of it, that's great. But to deliberately choose a place where they can
escape this hashpa'ah entirely? I fear that too many people are simply
trying to avoid the hard work of trying to grow.

Count me among those who often can't remember the rabbi's topic two hours
later. More often, I'm already at a loss two minutes later. And even more
often, I am daydreaming even while he is still speaking. But that is MY
problem, not his. I need to fight to try to pay attention and grab whatever
bits I can. It's not easy, but isn't that part of what this world is for?

If certain people are "left out" when the topic is "heavily focused on
Torah subjects", how will they ever grow? For many people, especially those
who for whatever reason do not attend minyan during the week, the rabbi's
Shabbos morning speech will be their main (or only) exposure to any Torah
thoughts at all.

I suspect that the response will be something like: "No! I AM trying to
grow! I have a regular learning seder, and I go to lots of shiurim!" I
truly applaud that - adding to one's knowledge of Torah is a very good
thing. But a rav has a very important ability that a maggid shiur lacks: If
he sees areas where the community needs to be stronger, he has the
authority to speak about it publicly. If a maggid shiur tries that, a
common response may be, "Interesting, but off-topic." Even when a
recognized gadol does it, the reaction is often, "Not relevant to *my*
community!" But when it is the rabbi of a shul, speaking to the same people
he sees week after week, citing incidents that this group of people are
familiar with, the message is harder to avoid. Of course, there will be
those who say, "We gotta hire a different rabbi," but at least there is a
*chance* that some of the people will take his message to heart. Hence the
subject line I've chosen for this thread: "Are we trying to grow?"

I wrote:

> Many years ago, I attended a shul that had a rather observant
> and learned membership, but no rabbi. The davening was a very
> good davening, but I was dissatisfied. When a question would
> arise, people would either decide for themselves, or gravitate
> towards their more learned friends. It did not seem like a good
> system to me, "like sheep without a shepherd." In my opinion, a
> kehila (even a very learned one) needs a specific leader at the
> helm who will guide them in the direction they need to go. I
> ended up leaving that shul for another, whose members tended to
> be less observant, but had a well-known and respected rav.

RYL asked:

> In the minyan that I ran at the YI of Ave J I do not recall us ever
> having a question about the davening that required a rabbinical
> answer. Davening is routine every week. There is little chance of
> a problem arising. If needed, the Ezras Torah luach guides one
> when it comes to what to so during the davening.
> What sorts of questions arose?  I am curious about this.

Here are a few such questions that came to me, just off the top of my head:

How early can we daven maariv?
How early can we count sefira?
Is the mechitza high enough? solid enough?
Which hechsherim are okay for a shul-sponsored kiddush?
If a problem is found in the Sefer Torah, is it pasul?
If the baal koreh makes a mistake, does he have to repeat it?
Which kibudim (if any) can be given to a non-shomer Shabbos who comes for a
bar mitzvah?

Your mention of the Ezras Torah luach strikes me as odd, considering how
very very often it cites differing minhagim. I've personally seen cases
where it adds to the confusion and machlokes instead of resolving it. My
recollection is that Rav Henkin originally designed it for the rabbis, and
specifically NOT for the congregants, in order to help those rabbis in
their  leadership choices.

But more importantly than *any* of that: If a not-so-nice incident occurs
in the community, who will give them mussar about it?

RYL again:

> Guiding a Kehilla in the direction they should go has little
> to do with giving a speech on Shabbos morning.  Guidance
> should be given though shiurim and example. When it comes to
> guidance in kashrus issues, my experience has been that the
> overwhelming majority of rabbonim have little detailed knowledge
> about specifics.  One is better off calling the OU.

In theory, I would agree that "Guidance should be given through shiurim and
example." But in practice, it seems clear to me that more people show up on
Shabbos morning to davening, than to all the shiurim though the week put
together. Wouldn't you agree that "shiurim and example" are unlikely to
affect those who come only on Shabbos morning, and that they are the ones,
perhaps, who are in most need of this uplifting?

Yes, the OU will have very detailed knowledge about the various food
products. But what then? How do we pasken? Should I be machmir, or perhaps
it is more appropriate for me to be meikil? What does the OU know about me
and my community? How can the OU decide whether or not my shul should allow
food that's non-cholov yisroel, or non-yashan, or non-glatt? And they're
certainly not going to decide which *other* hechsherim should be allowed.

To sum up:

RYL wrote: <<< Davening is routine every week. >>>

That's not the answer. That's the PROBLEM!

I'm not suggesting that most rabbis can successfully fix that problem. Or
even that a minority have been successful. But if one's preference is to
have no rabbi at all, he is surrendering.

Akiva Miller
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