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Moshe-Mordechai van Zuiden
Psychology, Medicine, Science, Politics, Oppression, Integrity, Philosophy, Jews -- For those who like their news and truths frank and sharp

To stop others from chatting in the synagogue?

There are enough competent (and incompetent) rabbis to answer such a question mostly from the perspective of Jewish Law. So, let me add from my psychological perspective and from sitting among the congregation.

In the culture I come from, it’s unthinkable to chat in G^d’s House. Unthinkable. I often went to shuls where almost everyone thought so too.

What Are the Reasons?

There are actually several reasons not to chatter in shul and to try and stop it. It’s helpful not to confuse them.

1. It disturbs others’ concentration. That is important. It’s not enough just to honor G^d. If you don’t honor His kids, how much will He care about you honoring Him? It’s not always possible to find another seat where people don’t chat about. This needs correction.

2. You can’t hear the service. That’s important. This needs correction.

3. It dishonors G^d and His House and the good name of the congregation. That is important but can wait. Especially if discussing it calmly afterward has a better chance to help someone stop.

Yet, about that last point, Judaism is for people, not for G^d. He’s fine, thank you. So, on the one hand, it’s terrible that congregants or visitors don’t have enough reverence to shut up in shul. On the other hand, it’s good that Jews feel at home and safe in shul. It’s not a church. Cathedrals were built so monumentally to intimidate the faithful. We don’t need that.

The Rabbi saying something about it is futile because always the wrong people take it to heart. The reason is that people under 60 hardly know themselves. Those who are always quiet but talked once, three years ago, still feel guilty about it and will try to shut up even more. Those who are always talking but were quiet once, three years ago, still remember how hard that was and feel that they are with the ones who are always quiet.

It could be worthwhile, if possible, to seek/find a synagogue where the Gabba’im stop talkers. Some congregations will not tolerate any whisper.

If there is a lot of schmoozing going on, that also could show that people need to socialize. Have a Kiddush, or the like, afterward. It’s fantastic if people want to talk to and hang out with fellow Jews. But then, don’t have a sermon and make everyone silent (again) for another ten minutes!

Believe it or not, kids are people too. I always told them before shul to be quiet enough not to disturb those praying. Also, they could always come to me and whisper something in my ear. It could be that, from where I was in the service, I couldn’t talk, but that I could always hug them—but not kiss, if they fell. In shul, Ashkenazics only kiss holy things, like scrolls, books, etc.

How Could He?

However, in a super silent shul, I had the guy sitting in front of me talking through the holiest parts of the service when it’s absolutely forbidden.

Tell him? You must be kidding. He was three times my age and knew the whole of the Talmud by heart. Everyone, including the rabbis, would ask him: “Where does it say …” He would respond: “Give me a few minutes.” And then he would come with the places. This was before Google or Disks.

And this man chatted with his neighbor, also a very old Holocaust survivor.

I never said anything, but it made me very angry for many years.

However, I figured out that no one and nothing can make you angry. All anger we generate ourselves. They don’t really have our buttons to push.

This is not for incriminating ourselves and making us feel terrible. Rather, this can give us back our power to stop the anger. Even a little anger.

Sorry to admit that it took me decades to figure this one out. But I did.

We set ourselves up for anger when we say about others: “For someone like him, it should be no effort at all to improve.” The truth is: Apparently, it’s extremely hard on him. Yes, he knows so much more about Judaism; but in this case, he can’t help himself, believe it or not.

I know a guy who talked in the synagogue without a second of silence. Didn’t he need to pause to take in some air? Year after year. At a certain moment, he developed a growth on his lip. He had to go in for surgery. Thankfully, they were able to take all the bad stuff out, and he looked again as before he got the deformity. You would think: A sign from Up High should do it. It didn’t. He returned to non-stop chatting. After half a year, his growth returned. I moved house so I don’t know what happened after that. But that case too shows: For some, that’s the best they can do.

When you conclude that, you won’t be angry at him anymore. You’ll feel bad for him. If you could help him, you would. And that, the Sages tell us, is the only proper mindset to reproach someone: from compassion.

The same for the rabbi who learns Torah during the aloud repetition of the standing prayer. He knew. He couldn’t help himself. He was in shul before I ever knew there were shuls, bored stiff. He just can’t stop. Therefore, he also races through prayers. He can’t help himself. But, he’s a great man, a great rabbi, a gentile person, a fabulous teacher. No one is perfect. Only G^d is, I drilled into my children’s heads. In congregations, weaknesses even out, and strengths of people add up, making us worthy as a group.

Someone remarked that Tzibur (congregation) is made up of the first letters of Tzaddik, Bennoni, We, Rashah: saintly, average, and, evil. Even the wicked belong. You would leave them out, I add, you’d get Botz, mud.

There is an obscure piece of medical knowledge that could help many a well-meaning talker. Our brain is wired such that it cancels out our own voice. So, when we talk, we can still hear everything that goes on around us. But the one we talk to cannot. So, the people we talk to cannot follow the sermon, Torah reading, chazzan for every second they can hear us! For those who heard us, we pressed the sound off button. The talker, though, hears no disturbance. (This is similar to our arm movement and our eyes. We can read a text we move in front of our eyes but a bystander cannot. I often wondered how small kids can stand all the screaming they can do when packed together by the dozens. Well, when they scream, the sound of other screamers is diminished too. Try it. It also works at our ages.)

Are There Tricks?

The best is to say something after the service. There are a whole host of things you could throw in to promote that you don’t make things worse. During the service, I carry a card that reads: “Don’t chatter.” I may put it up close to my face, make eye contact, and smile. I tell you, it’s a winner.

1. Talk with compassion, empathy, love, or, at least, respect. If you’re not a people person, become one first, or forget about trying to stop talkers.

2. Smile. Whatever you say and whatever the other says.

3. Don’t talk about principles but about your needs. “I’m not saying that you shouldn’t talk, it’s not my place to criticize, but it’s so hard on me.”

4. I’d like to ask something, but if it’s a reproach, please don’t throw it to the wind. Take it to heart a little. Otherwise, I would have sinned.

5. You’re so much wiser/younger/more learned than me, I’m certain that you can benefit from a little hint I would give you.

6. You know how much I love/respect you, don’t you?

7. I hate to tell you this, but … [works well with Israelis].

8. You don’t seem yourself today. You’d never talk during … How are you?

9. I don’t hear well on one ear, and then, even when you whisper, I can’t hear the reading, sermon, chazzan, etc., because I don’t hear depth.

Never lie. Only say the above when it’s true and you mean it. It may take some homework and therapy to get there. But, Jewishly, is anything more important than improving our own character traits?

Sometimes, I correct someone on the spot, trying to do as much of the above as possible. I need to watch out that the correction doesn’t bother others more than the original disturbance. I often say: I’m not saying what you should do, but can’t hear the Torah reading.

I also noticed that when I ask someone to stop talking, I made it extremely hard for him to do so. Our human need for autonomy makes most of us rather disobey than comply, even against better judgment. (That’s why those who are commanded and observe are more meritorious than those who perform and were not commanded.) So, first of all, I don’t keep on hushing. I give them some slack to stop. And after the service, I ran to tell them, saying, how impressed I was that he stopped, that I know how hard it is, that it shows how wise and holy he is. And if he didn’t stop, I tell him that I realize I gave him an impossible task, and I beg for his forgiveness.

If you think you can’t help, switch to giving compliments. Possibly, a few dozen well-meant praises over weeks could improve your chances. Some folks are allergic to any comment. Then, don’t. A cold peace is peace too.

With all this in mind, listen to what the rabbis say about this. Derech eretz kadmah latorah, being civil goes before (not: instead of) serving G^d.

About the Author
MM is a prolific and creative writer and thinker, previously a daily blog contributor to the TOI. He often makes his readers laugh, mad, or assume he's nuts—close to perfect blogging. As a frontier thinker, he sees things many don't yet. He's half a prophet. Half. Let's not exaggerate. He doesn't believe that people observe and think in a vacuum. He, therefore, wanted a broad bio that readers interested can track a bit what (lack of) backgrounds, experiences, and educations contribute to his visions. * This year, he will prioritize getting his unpublished books published rather than just blog posts. Next year, he hopes to focus on activism against human extinction. To find less-recent posts on a subject XXX among his over 1500 archived ones, go to the right-top corner of a Times of Israel page, click on the search icon and search "zuiden, XXX". One can find a second, wilder blog, to which one may subscribe, here: https://mmvanzuiden.wordpress.com/ or by clicking on the globe icon next to his picture on top. * Like most of his readers, he believes in being friendly, respectful, and loyal. However, if you think those are his absolute top priorities, you might end up disappointed. His first loyalty is to the truth. He will try to stay within the limits of democratic and Jewish law, but he won't lie to support opinions or people when don't deserve that. (Yet, we all make honest mistakes, which is just fine and does not justify losing support.) He admits that he sometimes exaggerates to make a point, which could have him come across as nasty, while in actuality, he's quite a lovely person to interact with. He holds - how Dutch - that a strong opinion doesn't imply intolerance of other views. * Sometimes he's misunderstood because his wide and diverse field of vision seldomly fits any specialist's box. But that's exactly what some love about him. He has written a lot about Psychology (including Sexuality and Abuse), Medicine (including physical immortality), Science (including basic statistics), Politics (Israel, the US, and the Netherlands, Activism - more than leftwing or rightwing, he hopes to highlight reality), Oppression and Liberation (intersectionally, for young people, the elderly, non-Whites, women, workers, Jews, LGBTQIA+, foreigners and anyone else who's dehumanized or exploited), Integrity, Philosophy, Jews (Judaism, Zionism, Holocaust and Jewish Liberation), the Climate Crisis, Ecology and Veganism, Affairs from the news, or the Torah Portion of the Week, or new insights that suddenly befell him. * Chronologically, his most influential teachers are his parents, Nico (natan) van Zuiden and Betty (beisye) Nieweg, Wim Kan, Mozart, Harvey Jackins, Marshal Rosenberg, Reb Shlomo Carlebach, and, lehavdil bein chayim lechayim, Rabbi Dr. Natan Lopes Cardozo, Rav Zev Leff, and Rav Meir Lubin. This short list doesn't mean to disrespect others who taught him a lot or a little. * He hopes that his words will inspire and inform, and disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed. He aims to bring a fresh perspective rather than harp on the obvious and familiar. When he can, he loves to write encyclopedic overviews. He doesn't expect his readers to agree. Rather, original minds should be disputed. In short, his main political positions are among others: anti-Trumpism, for Zionism, Intersectionality, non-violence, anti those who abuse democratic liberties, anti the fake ME peace process, for original-Orthodoxy, pro-Science, pro-Free Will, anti-blaming-the-victim, and for down-to-earth, classical optimism, and happiness. Read his blog on how he attempts to bridge any tensions between those ideas or fields. * He is a fetal survivor of the pharmaceutical industry (https://diethylstilbestrol.co.uk/studies/des-and-psychological-health/), born in 1953 to his parents who were Dutch-Jewish Holocaust survivors who met in the largest concentration camp in the Netherlands, Westerbork. He grew up a humble listener. It took him decades to become a speaker too, and decades more to admit to being a genius. But his humility was his to keep. And so was his honesty. Bullies and con artists almost instantaneously envy and hate him. He hopes to bring new things and not just preach to the choir. * He holds a BA in medicine (University of Amsterdam) – is half a doctor. He practices Re-evaluation Co-counseling since 1977, is not an official teacher anymore, and became a friendly, powerful therapist. He became a social activist, became religious, made Aliyah, and raised three wonderful kids. Previously, for decades, he was known to the Jerusalem Post readers as a frequent letter writer. For a couple of years, he was active in hasbara to the Dutch-speaking public. He wrote an unpublished tome about Jewish Free Will. He's a strict vegan since 2008. He's an Orthodox Jew but not a rabbi. * His writing has been made possible by an allowance for second-generation Holocaust survivors from the Netherlands. It has been his dream since he was 38 to try to make a difference by teaching through writing. He had three times 9-out-of-10 for Dutch at his high school finals but is spending his days communicating in English and Hebrew - how ironic. G-d must have a fine sense of humor. In case you wonder - yes, he is a bit dyslectic. If you're a native English speaker and wonder why you should read from people whose English is only their second language, consider the advantage of having an original peek outside of your cultural bubble. * To send any personal reaction to him, scroll to the top of the blog post and click Contact Me.
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