Joel Cohen

The virtue of the virtual minyan

During a momentary pause in synagogue services you utter, for no particular reason, something controversial or provocative about your idiosyncratic beliefs about a particular liturgical practice ­or maybe even your belief system generally. The man closest to where you sit rolls his eyes and says that “with such a view you surely won’t enter Olem Habah” (the “World to Come”). As if he’s holding the keychain in the mode of St. Peter, or can decipher God’s inner thinking as to precisely who is received in that august venue.  By virtue of this anecdotal –  maybe “last straw” – incident for you, you feel the need to find another “house” in which to pray – a venue less judgmental of you or more in line with your own world view.  The underlying reasons may be as numerous or varied as the individuals involved, but the need to “break away,” in this manner is hardly unique in any group setting, least of all one focused on personal beliefs and spirituality.

Or, the more mundane. Possibly you find the man who leads the congregational prayer unworthy of the assignment, his personal foibles, bravado or interpersonal skills too offending. Perhaps, alternatively, the spiritual leader of the congregation strays too often by overbearingly articulating his personalized views of Tikkun Olom (“Repair of the World”). Perhaps from his pulpit, he seems to “electioneer” for a political candidate then running for office. Or he supports a foreign or domestic policy of the current administration that squares with his own world view of Tikkun, but not yours. Maybe, for you or for other congregants, a woman’s attractiveness is too visible in the house of prayer that you attend; or perhaps, contrarily, the women’s section is too tightly cloistered. Maybe the services are extend too long, or maybe they are too speedy and rotely offered. Or perhaps the noise level is too off-putting. You, therefore, wish to move on, perhaps to find a more satisfactory house of worship­ less distracting, or maybe even less detracting.

Or, maybe, at day’s end, perhaps the entire format and regime of “communal prayer” is simply inconsistent with your desire­ to commune directly with God. Why isn’t praying alone­ for example, at an isolated park bench away from the hustle and bustle, or on a deserted beach where nothing but God’s Creation can distract or deter from the “I Thou” relationship for which we might long ­ the proper venue? Why do our Sages and the traditions they have enforced compel us to pray in unison? And why must we assemble a minimum, arbitrary number of men (only men) lest, our prayers be in jeopardy of being rejected by God as lacking efficacy?

From where does this all stem? Why must we pray in any form of assembly? Did God ever really tell us how to pray? And even if He did,­ but especially if He didn’t, might there not be today a better way?

The Bible does not instruct us on how to pray. Rather, the duty to pray – and pray communally – is dictated by Rabbinic teaching and is defended by ambiguous phrases in the Bible:  “You shall serve the Lord your God” and “Serve Him with all your heart” the “Service” interpreted by the Sages to mean prayer. Maimonides teaches five traditional requisites of that “service”:  Cleansing the hands; covering the body; assuring the cleanliness of the venue selected; the removal of distraction; and the concentration of the mind. And as to the “concentration of the mind,” the Sage teaches us, “the mind must be freed from all extraneous thoughts and the one who prays should realize that he standing before the Divine Presence.”

How curious. Nowhere does Maimonides tell us that in prayer we must seek spiritual union with God. Rather, we must simply know that we stand in His Presence. Yes, Maimonides tells us that ten Israelites must build an edifice called a “synagogue,” and that on the Sabbath and the second and fifth days of the week, the Torah must be read. Nonetheless, nothing about spirituality – nothing about Divine Inspiration, and even more puzzling, nothing telling us how such prayer should be conducted, except to say we must “concentrate” ­in a holy place, free of distraction.

Without question, the minyan, particularly on the Sabbath, has saved the Jewish people. It has both created and enforced the discipline of attendance in a way that individual prayer, thrice daily, in solitude would not (“Okay, what if I sleep late today, or skip it today, or shorten my prayers today. God knows, I’m in for the long haul.”) The disciplining nature of organized prayer is critical to one’s commitment to pray with regularity, or to a regime wishing to evangelize a people or have it hold firm to such commitment. (Clearly, the eleven month regimen for kaddish is a brilliant construct created by the rabbis, who seized upon the vulnerability of one just recently orphaned to accomplish his “return” to the house of worship, that would ideally continue in futuro when the mourning period is completed.)

Still, one who imparts rules to enforce discipline doesn’t always state the rationale motivating the rule. Rather, we are told that we must pray in a minyan – because solitary prayer won’t adequately demonstrate that we offer “communal” prayer – prayer for the community, not just the individual’s or his family’s needs:  that communal prayer when offered on behalf of all the Jewish people, is greater than the sum of its parts. How can it be that if ten men pray to God singly, even if they pray with consummate concentration for the entire community and with the spirituality that only aloneness (with God) can truly impart, are those prayers less effective than the same prayers uttered (albeit with more distractions) under one roof?

And because our prayers are often rote when offered in unison it seems, at least to the uninitiated, that there is no place for individualized prayers tailored to one personalized life needs within the context of communal prayer.

Yes, there is space in Judaism for private meditation – the personal plea, the place to present one’s idiosyncratic “issues” to God. But Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks makes clear its limitations:

“But when we pray publicly, we do so as members of a people who have served, spoken to, and wrestled with God for longer and in more varied circumstances than any other in history. We use the words of the greatest of those who came before us to make our prayers articulate and to join them to the prayers of others throughout the world and throughout the centuries.” (The Koren Siddur, 2009, Introduction, xviii).

So try to determine if people actually exercise the option of private meditations, typically recognized [prescribed] at one or another place in the silent Amidah. Can it be that God simply wants us to utter someone else’s words from a thousand years ago, but not those composed in our personal reveries in the dark nights of our souls? The man on the street seems to believe that we must simply utter the talismanic incantations of others who came before us – those composed many centuries or even millennia ago by King David and other brilliant poets on his par who are fluent in the language of flattery ­but not our private supplications, simply because they are not written down somewhere, and time honored.

And one suspects that the reason is clear. The religion — meaning, “the rabbis” or as Jesus called them, the Pharisees — lack confidence that we are equipped to tell God what we need to tell Him in a proper and decorous way, and the minyan experience of a train that must run on time doesn’t allow for deviation. It doesn’t abide the eccentricities of individualized harmonies with God. One will occasionally encounter a man praying alone after the minyan is over and the last kaddish said, when the attendees have turned to the workaday world or to wherever else they must hasten. But, still, he will be reciting prayers from a text, not from his inner core.

So, is there a way for prayer to remain “communal,” but not offered in a group setting? Surely, there is ­for it is inconceivable that God can’t accept the reality that individual members of a community pray intently for their community even if individually from geographically diverse locales. Meaning, do I need nine other men present in order for God to receive my prayers as offered for all the God-fearers of Englewood, or Silver Spring, or Skokie or Bar-Ilan, or even the world-at-large?

Assume God sees it as did Maimonides that we need the fervent group to be present together. Maimonides, though, wrote when people needed to be physically together in order to pray together. But that is no longer true. One can easily pray with nine other men, hear their voices, and say amen from half way across the globe. And assume, for these purposes, that each of them live in a geographically diverse place making it impossible to travel daily to a synagogue. Would not a skype minyan “work”? Can’t ten or more men be plugged into the same prayer experience, constituents of a minyan even if not located in the same place? Can anyone seriously argue with that proposition?

In reality, the skype remedy is only a compromise, still designed to accomplish a type of communal prayer group. We accept God’s wisdom, but refuse to accept the reality that communal prayer is a sociological construct of the rabbis who authored it. Those authors of the liturgy wanted – and continue to want – that we pray together (something akin to “the family that prays together stays together”). For it secures a sense of community that is surely a good thing.

But let’s understand that that is precisely what group prayer is about. It is nothing less, and nothing more (although the concept is surely something that has preserved the Jewish people for over 2000 years). But theoretically one can as a half-way concept “suit up” for prayers while located at his own premises, with nine (maybe, countless friends or colleagues), in their respective premises of whatever sort or nature, for example, at 7:15 am sharp. Each will pray for his individual needs and the needs his community or communities. And God – one can be as confident in this as in anything – will understand precisely the purpose and needs of his prayers. Maybe each will “attend” such services on the honor system although, in this, many will lack honor. Some will select only few prayers. Some will look aimlessly out the window, and never open their prayer books. Some will deliberately face the “wrong” direction, believing that prayers are efficacious – received by God and acted positively upon –­ irrespective of the direction faced or bowed to when uttered.

And some will cheat. They will selfishly ask forgiveness only for themselves or their loved ones, or seek God’s grace ­ e.g., good health, or wisdom, or wealth – again, only for themselves or for their loved ones. They will ignore the needs and aspirations of all of the rest of the community in “prayer intercourse” with the Divine. As if such “selfishness” only occurs when people pray alone in their private dwellings, seemingly unconcerned with the needs of the greater society or community of which we are a part.

Maybe the virtue of the virtual minyan lies somewhere else. Maybe the virtual minyan is an honest, communal effort to pray to God in a way that truly evidences one’s concern for those who surround us, while allowing us to pray singly to God, with full abandon. To dig to the depth of our core – and exercise our individualized, unchoreographed thoughts and prayers in consummate obeisance to the Divine. Do we do that better in a group, or do we do it better alone?

*                       *                     *

Of course, the above is likely silly, perhaps even ridiculous. Given that which has propelled and saved us over two millennia, why should we give even a moment’s thought to abandoning the time-honored, established protocols of prayer? Especially if the proposed abandonment favors something far less disciplined and likely to result in the ship of prayer coming aloose from its time-tested moorings designed to ensure that the “ship” doesn’t drift aimlessly out to sea.

No, we should not, other than as a Socratic exercise, pursue the virtue of a virtual minyan. And, then, only if we use that exercise to improve upon the deficiencies of communal prayer – whose mesmerizing roteness oftentimes relegates us to a foregone yesteryear, rather than a far more “meaningful” tomorrow.  Indeed, haven’t the powers that be substituted the far more meaningful “meaningful” fast, for yesterday’s obligatory “easy” fast?

Times change, and perhaps the manner in which we interact with God should too!

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Petrillo, Klein & Boxer in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Petrillo, Klein & Boxer firm or its lawyers.
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