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To pray or not to pray?

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2004-02-13

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

I was waiting for my flight to Israel at Heathrow airport last week when I was invited to make up a Minyan (ten men required for a formal service) to say the afternoon prayers.

I asked where it was going to be held. And I was told in a private El Al lounge. I willingly went along. But I soon discovered to my dismay that the lounge was full of a very wide range of passengers, most of them not, at least outwardly, religious in the Jewish sense. The service itself was taking place in a section of the lounge where the luggage is stored. The person leading the prayers did so loudly and boldly with no regard to the others present.

Now you might argue that this was quite legitimate. It was after all an El Al lounge and no one was being forced to join in and a ten-minute barrage of noise was surely not the worst thing that could happen to pampered sybarites luxuriating in their bought exclusivity. Perhaps they needed a good injection of spiritual values.

But I was very uncomfortable. You see I was brought up in a culture that did not believe in flaunting ones religion. It was considered positively indecent to parade ones good deeds. The mark of a truly religious person was someone, modest and reserved, gentle and spiritual who did not go around trying directly to proselytise, although by setting a good example certainly hoped to influence people.

Some would argue that this is a typical Western European apologetic attitude that characterises the Galus, the Diaspora. And it is true that we need no longer apologise or hide our Judaism (unless we live in France). I well remember the days in Britain when we were told not wear a kappel in public (as if the hats we wore made us any less conspicuous) and I’m delighted that nowadays one can almost wear whatever one wants. But it seems to me there is difference between a Jew dressing the way he wants to and praying in a public place (unless cordoned off or well away from others). Somehow publicly displaying ones intimate (they should be) moments with ones God is to me a sacrosanct and very private business that requires either a shul or modesty.

In this respect I rather envy the Muslims. They do it is true have to pray five times a day but only for a moment or two and can just sneak quietly behind a vending machine or a row of chairs and silently bow down for a tick. Indeed I have often seen religious Jews at airports seek out discreet corners to pray in. But we need to gather ten males to join conspicuously together to make a loud noise for about ten minutes for the shortest prayer, Mincha. And when this happens outside the toilets at the back of a transatlantic jet it is a very embarrassing experience.

I do not like flaunting my religious practice as opposed to appearance in public. If I ask for a kosher meal I am not likely to offend anyone except a vegetarian or if I pray privately I am not interfering with anyone else or impinging on the general atmosphere. But if a noisy large bottom is shockelling under my noise for ten minutes then I find it impinging and inconsiderate and against the religious values I was brought up on. On the occasions when I have reluctantly participated I felt so awkward my prayers were utterly useless (to me at any rate). Of course the way some people shout into their mobile phones when they are in a crowded bus or train is just as unpleasant and intrusive and inconsiderate.

I was taught that when in the company of non-Jews or non-Religious Jews to find a way of saying my blessings discretely, not bawling them out in a show of public religiosity or spiritual one upmanship. But nowadays things have changed and it’s all in your face, like it or lump it. There is a triumphalism about some orthodox people that I am very uncomfortable with and I believe has a negative effect on many uncommitted Jews as indeed happens in Israel. And I accept that they probably find me a symbol of Western decadent values. But on the other hand there is a great deal to be said in favour of some of these values, particularly public discretion and sensitivity to the feelings of others. Accommodating to different cultural values is not a defeat; it is a sign of religious maturity.

There is a well-known true story of a young Lubavitch rabbi who had spent a fruitless session trying to win over a secular Jewish professor. Before he left he asked permission to say Mincha quietly in the office. The professor was so impressed he changed his mind. But still I think it was the discreet spirituality as well as the commitment that impressed him. If he had been sitting quietly minding his own business at an airport and a whole group of them would have muscled in to pray loudly into his eardrums I doubt he would have felt too benevolent! And I’m prepared to bet that more people are going to be positively influenced by such an approach than by aggressive tactics.

It may be true that biblically we Jews were an aggressive bunch and certainly Judah Maccabee was no shrinking violet. But thousands of years of living amongst others have had some benefits along with the pain. If we expect other religions to reign in their aggressiveness we might start doing something about our own.

Shabbat Shalom



PS The trip to Israel was to celebrate the birth of another grandson, Yedidya.

As his mother is Francophone his ‘secular’ name will probably be Didier rather than Jedediah!