This started out as a response to a comment on BZ’s Hilchot Pluralism series, but then got so long I figured I should just post it here.
The comment says: I don’t understand the strong prejudice against stage directed davening. It’s treated like a problem to be solved, rather than a comfortable and comforting aspect of communal prayer.
Here are a few reasons for one liberal Jew’s strong preferance for stage direction-free davening:
1. Because calling out page numbers (unless they’re sung in nusach and absolutely nothing else is said– which is very rare) are distracting if you’re trying to focus on your tefilah and locate yourself in the flow of the service.
2. Because it’s just as easy to make a chart of prayers and corresponding page numbers and leave copies on all the chairs or blow it up and hang it up somewhere or write it on a board where everyone can see it.
3. Because with a few exceptions in the service, Jewish prayer isn’t about everyone doing precisely the same thing at precisely the same time. There might be days when I want to focus on Psalm 148 for a good long time. I don’t want someone mandating that I move on to Psalms 149 and 150 when I’m not ready to. It’s also incredibly uncomfortable to try doing one’s own thing in a setting where the tefilah is heavily “managed” by the leader. For example, my minhag is to stand for the me’ein sheva on Friday night. But when I’m at BJ, where the rabbis say something along the lines of “you may be seated” after the amidah and everyone feels like they have to sit, I feel a thousand curious eyes staring at me whenever I choose to remaining standing. I feel exposed, and it’s not a good feeling. What would be the danger if the rabbis said nothing and let those people who wanted to sit sit and those who wanted to stand stand? (And those who don’t care or don’t know there’s a choice could just look around and see what other people are doing.) It feels simultaneously dictatorial and infantilizing to be told when I must sit.
4. Because I believe that prayer is a time for connecting to God/self/community, and not a time for extraneous preaching, stage directing, fundraising, and other verbal patter. I want to pray the prayers, not be interrupted with thoughts about those prayers or how I should pray them. I once had a teacher who said that when he has difficulty with a prayer he works it out at his desk, not while he prays. This resonates with me.
5. The most common rejoinder to all of this is that eliminating stage directions doesn’t work for people who aren’t familiar with the prayers, the Hebrew, the flow of the service, etc. I have several thoughts about this. First, the alternative (announcing stage directions) tends to leave people no better off knowledge-wise than when they started. If people are always being told when to sit, stand, and flip the page, most (though admittedly not all) will continue to rely on these directions rather than learn the service for themselves. Take a look at the majority of liberal synagogues in the US— stage directions reinforce “pediatric Judaism.”
Second, there are effective ways of helping people learn about prayer or figure out where we are in the service without announcing it from on high. We can offer classes in prayer, assign “buddies” to sit next to someone who is unfamiliar with the service, make those photocopies I mentioned above, etc. I don’t deny that it can be awful and disconcerting not to know where you are in the service; I just think there are better ways to address this than by subjecting everyone to stage directions.
Third, when people experience really good tefilah they are inspired to learn more about it and become self-sufficient. I see this all the time in the independent minyan scene. People often come who have no idea what’s going on, get hooked on the reflective, serious, non-dictatorial atmosphere, and are then moved to figure out how to be a part of that. It’s extremely difficult for a prayer leader to facilitate this kind of atmosphere if he/she also has to stop every two minutes and worry about calling pages and giving stage directions. (FWIW, in situations when I’m required to announce page numbers when I lead, I most often find a friend who is willing to call pages for me so I can focus on the davening.) How often is it that the rabbi up on the bimah giving directions really looks like s/he’s concentrating on her/his own prayer?
Jews are leaving liberal Judaism because they are tired of being preached at, sung to, undereducated, underestimated, and treated like they have no potential for spiritual or technical growth in prayer. Modern Jews are also hungry for authentic and compelling prayer experiences. A new approach to tefilah that includes reducing or eliminating stage directions in favor of some focused praying and some good educational efforts might— in some communities— help stem the tide.