Of those devout it is not unusual for men to gather, fedoras askew, seeking inspiration in the company of strangers. Thrice daily, observant men assemble for prayers and are routinely affected by the shared experience. The siddur is not lacking in appeals for personal growth; the process of supplication can be humbling, heartening, hardy. Still, as much as we talk to and about God, observant men are uncannily reserved about themselves. In a scheme that emphasizes ritual, it is easy to hide behind behavior.
A minyan is a curious thing. Ostensibly a forum for individual worship, much liturgical prose is composed in the plural, likening independent wants with communal needs. Restore us in repentance. Save us and we will be saved. Observant men pray not only with each other but for each other, regularly. Ideally, when joined in prayer dissimilar men concede similarities, the unaffiliated align. Stubbornly, differences tend to divide. There is a certain safety in praying for — and being prayed for by — others. In divine ears we each sound disharmonious. The “one for all, all for one” ideal increases our odds of being heard while protecting us from the humiliation of disclosure.
Compulsory prayers are by design both a declaration of praise and an expression of lacking. The Hebrew term for prayer – t’filah — connotes intervention, a petition for mystic involvement in the minutia of existence. Appealing for such intervention involves appreciating celestial supremacy and confessing human deficiency. Indeed, the Hebrew term for gratitude — hoda’ah — is of the same root as that of admission. While minyans can seem boisterous, the prayers they comprise can function as means for silent confessions and resolutions.
In the context of daily prayer assemblies, self-analysis comes and goes. Communal prayer is an art form that incorporates numerous styles: unaccompanied, choral, sotto voce. Certain modes and balladry are conducive to meditation. Other movements are meant to arouse awe. A congregant may boldly declare reverence and fidelity for his creator without ever peering inward. Another worshipper’s reflective reverie may be interrupted by a call for participation, his initiative inelegantly quieted. More commonly, a supplicant may find the repetitive theater unimaginative and hurry through the rendering passionless. The Hebrew term for “word” – tayva – denotes also “ark,” a legendary site of refuge. A minyan can be a rhetorical celebration or an anonymous place to hide.
A less likely forum for men to assemble and be heard — group therapy — relies more on Hillel’s aphorism “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? Yet if I am only for myself, who am I?” than on the feel-good adage of the Musketeers. While most observant men pray, few take advantage of therapy and fewer solicit group support. What a shame. Like minyan, group therapy can offer camaraderie and the promise of encouragement. Like minyan, group therapy can inspire soul-searching, foster commitment, and help to realize a more nuanced — and less selfish — point of view. What makes therapy different (aside from it not being mandated religious conduct) is precisely what makes it effective: Group therapy is unscripted and addresses personal discontents. Unlike minyan, group therapy offers no place to hide.
Ongoing concealment is not cheap. Loneliness is a price many men pay for success, and for those chronically lonesome, minyan is a wanting antidote. Prayer does little to verify misgivings, and faith alone has been said to oblige withdrawal. Many religionists find security in ceremony but suffer excruciating isolation when rapture eludes them. Spiritual apprehensions can be more shameful than personal ones. A cocktail of both can be debilitating. The aim of group therapy is not exhibitionism but validation, not masochism but emancipation.
In the digital landscape, camouflage has become de rigueur. Relentlessly updating exaggerated statuses, many users fashion makeshift identities, disguising reality with virtuality. Having redefined the word “friend” to include illusory relations and confusing instant with intimate, society is experiencing an epidemic of loneliness. Some observant Jews adopt similar tactics to abide rigid social conventions. From what you wear and eat to where you pray and study, Orthodoxy in the modern world is exceedingly particular. It is not uncommon to assume an external profile while maintaining an apathetic (or antithetic) interior. For men, the black hat is most conspicuous and easiest to perch on a cynical head. Men who conform to standards they don’t value or espouse impressions they don’t believe are typically – understandably — lonely. Not all minyaneers are loyal Musketeers.
You don’t have to be Mark Zuckerberg or Matisyahu to experience pangs of separateness. Neither do you need warrant a psychiatric diagnosis. Ordinary men in ordinary circumstances are prone to bear symptoms of detachment, and group therapy is designed to alleviate some of them. In his tome on group psychotherapy, the psychiatrist Irvin Yalom describes the “disconfirmation of a patient’s feelings of uniqueness” as a “powerful source of relief” in the early stages of group therapy. He notes that “after hearing other members disclose concerns similar to their own, patients report feeling more in touch with the world and describe the process as a ‘welcome to the human race’ experience.”
To Yalom the sentiment aroused by validation acts as a catalyst for the more alluring — and elusive — goal of promoting change. What he refers to as “universality” enables those who “perceive their similarity to others and share their deepest concerns,” to “benefit further from the accompanying catharsis and from ultimate acceptance by other members.” For observant men to whom ritual is ubiquitous and ever-scrutinized, the opportunity to “share their deepest concerns” can be intimidating and yet, ultimately, refreshing. Beyond masks of self-preservation, beneath facades of self-neglect, some observant men subsist unaware of their ultimate motivations. Unmindful and unseen, these men are disturbingly lifeless. For those languishing in obscurity, becoming visible can mean becoming alive.
Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (1847–1905), known by the title of his opus, Sfas Emes, sees the High Holidays as so validating. Different from the everyday possibility to be heard, Alter views the High Holidays as a therapeutic occasion to be seen. In his view, men pass before God “like sheep under his staff” not merely to be appraised but to benefit from God’s enlivening gaze. Like during creation, when “God saw everything he had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31), the validating strength of this shepherd’s eyes bestows on his flock existence itself.
Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? Yet if I am only for myself, who am I?” Group therapy stirs men to assume personal responsibility by encouraging them to make known who they are. In an environment of non-judgmental openness, the agony of loneliness can be shared — and then replaced — with the instillation of hope. Seeing others and allowing oneself to be seen can be a carnival of living. Anonymity can be turned to ambition.
Hillel also said, “if not now, when?”