Prayer, for All Its Public Features, Is an Affair between Man and God

July 15, 2020 | Shalom Carmy
About the author: Shalom Carmy teaches Bible and Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University and is an affiliated scholar at the university’s Cardozo law school. He is also the editor emeritus of Tradition, a journal of Orthodox thought.

In the decades after World War II, one of the most salient differences between Orthodox and Conservative synagogues was that the latter had mixed-sex seating, and the great controversy within Orthodoxy was whether it was necessary to change this practice to keep up with the times. Shalom Carmy considers those debates in light of the changes to public prayer inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic:

Beneath the conflict about ritual propriety lurked a deeper question of religious orientation. At the time, many Orthodox leaders thought that the clamor for mixed pews reflected a spectators’ conception of communal prayer: The rabbi and cantor performed as MCs at the “services” at which the postwar upwardly mobile American laity played the part of the appreciative or critical audience. By this way of thinking, the Orthodox congregation, by -contrast, was presumed to consist of individuals who knew how to pray on their own, who grasped the structure and the basic content of the prayers for Sabbath, festivals, and weekdays, even if they were not experts on the texts and regulations. This triumphant sense of superiority was bolstered by one’s overall impression of lay commitment, observance, and lack of literacy when the uninitiated attended Orthodox synagogues.

I rehash this ancient piece of Orthodox triumphalism not because it is entirely wrong but because, like many partial truths, it manifests certain blind spots. When social isolation became the norm in March, the Orthodox synagogues that I know locked their doors almost immediately. Everyone knew the fundamental regulations; nobody had any doubts about the importance of health. Overnight, people who made their way to shul three times a day transferred their time of prayer to their homes, reciting the same liturgy, with the necessary adjustments, while requiring hardly any rabbinic guidance.

This smooth shift into the home, necessitated by the public health crisis, confirmed the creed that prayer, for all its public features, is fundamentally an affair between man and God.

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