For the week ending 1 December 2007 / 21 Kislev 5768

The Silent Treatment

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Dave in Detroit
Dear Rabbi,

I’m not Orthodox, and I’m not even religious. I am getting interested in finding out more about Judaism, though. Some things make sense to me, others I’m working through. Some practices seem meaningful to me, others I’m still searching for meaning. However, I recently had an experience that was a bit of a setback. I went to an Orthodox Temple wanting to see what it’s like, what goes on there and what the people are like. I went at the time I’ve seen people going in, but I must have entered at the time the prayers were going on. I tried not to disturb, but I didn’t know my way around, where to go, or how to pray. So I approached a few people, one after the other, and they all either ignored me, grunted or otherwise made me feel unwanted. I have to be honest with you, Rabbi, I never thought I’d be treated that way by other Jews, and I’m not sure I’ll ever go into an Orthodox Temple again. Would you please help me through this?

Dear Dave,

I totally empathize with you and regret that you had such a bad experience your first time at an Orthodox synagogue.

I assure you that there are a lot of great, friendly and interesting Orthodox Jews in Detroit who are also interested in you and in your interest in Judaism. I can put you in touch with some.

The synagogue you visited may have been an exception, but it was probably more an issue of timing or an unintentional lack of sensitivity to where you were coming from that resulted in the treatment (or lack thereof) that you received.

Let me explain.

It sounds like you entered the prayers at the main part and height of the service. This is the standing prayer that is recited silently, during which one is not allowed to speak.

All prayer, and particularly this part of prayer, is taken very seriously. This is the part in which one is literally talking to G-d, the Master of the universe — a personal and prized audience with the Boss. Just as a person would not interrupt a conversation or meeting with an earthly king or judge (one could get thrown out of court for just letting a cell phone ring, let alone actually answering), all the more so one may not interrupt his counsel with G-d by engaging in another conversation.

Therefore, if you approached people during their personal silent prayer, they may not have noticed you were speaking to them. Many people pray with their eyes closed and try to tune out distractions.

Others who may have noticed you probably regretted not being able to help you, but felt it was not the type of emergency that warrants interruption and figured they’d talk to you after that part of the prayer was over (about 10 minutes). They may have grunted or gesticulated to that effect but the meaning was lost in translation. By the time they could approach you, you may have already made your beeline for the exit door.

Finally, there may have been someone there who, while not in his standing silent prayer, may have been engaged in the prayers leading up to it. Generally, one may not interrupt his prayer there either. However, technically, one is allowed to respond (between paragraphs) to someone’s “shalom”. The scenario you describe would seem to be tantamount to saying “shalom” such that they should reply, at least briefly, in order to welcome and help you. Still, since this is not so common, people may not have known to, or felt unsure about answering.

I encourage you to try again, but call first to explain your interest and ask what event they recommend you attend for your first visit. If you go for prayers, it would be best to go for afternoon or evening prayers first, particularly Friday afternoon before the Sabbath. If you get there a little early, you’ll surely find someone to welcome you and help you with whatever you’d like.

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