Rude Reader or Right Reader? Your Dear Rabbi Zahavy Jewish Standard Talmudic Advice Column for October 2019

Dear Rabbi Zahavy
Your Talmudic Advice Column

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

During the lengthy Rosh Hashanah services, I was reading a personal book in synagogue to help me pass the time. A person I know saw me doing this and criticized me for my rude behavior. I feel like he was out of line and want to tell him that I did nothing wrong. What is your advice for the best approach to doing this?

Reader in Ramapo

Dear Reader,

Up front, my advice to anyone who receives unsolicited advice or criticism for behavior that is mainly innocuous is to reply to the critic, “Thank you for your suggestions,” and to avoid further confrontations. So that’s what I suggest here as well, because I am assuming that in reading your book, you were not doing anything distracting or disruptive to others during the services.

In fact, what we do during our synagogue services are mainly activities that we could describe generally as “reading a book.” The sanctioned books that we use, of course, are the siddur for most services, the machzor for the holidays, and the Tanach for the Torah and haftarah scriptural readings.

Now if you want to know if by reading your own book you “did nothing wrong” and argue that viewpoint with your friend, well, that involves some further contextual analysis and some lengthier discussion of social norms.

Context does matter. Reading a book quietly in a public setting ordinarily is not rude or improper. So, you start off with a strong justification of the propriety of your actions. And in a general way, your friend was out of line for nosing into your activity.

But it would be helpful for me to know what the expectation of your synagogue is. Does everyone come with their own supplemental book to read during the lulls in the services? In some congregations this is common, and it would be out of line for your neighbor in the pews to criticize you at all.

Or were you the only one to bring an outside book into the services? In that case it might have been justified for your shul-mate to call you out.

I’m a traditionalist, and biased in this matter. I remember my late father, Rabbi Zev Zahavy, leading services as a rabbi in a big formal shul in New York City. He surely would not have been happy to look out from the pulpit to see his congregants reading random books during either the prescribed services or his carefully prepared sermons.

But there are less-formal shuls out there where wide ranges of alternate activities could be tolerated in and around the prayer services. In such more casual synagogue settings, if you did not bring a book to read, you could be seen as odd or old-fashioned.

So, you need to judge your situation and act accordingly. Is your service prim and decorous, perhaps like an opera performance? I’ve attended the Met Opera for many years, and I can never recall during seeing anyone trying to read a book during a performance — except the libretto of the opera. And in recent years you have the electronic librettos on the seat back in front of you, so you have no need to bring any book.

Or is your synagogue setting more spontaneous and less structured? In that case, you would be more justified in reading alternative texts or even to engage in subdued conversations during the chanting and performances of the services.

And you do not reveal your age cohort to us either. I’d hazard that older folk are more rigid and younger people more flexible in issues like this one. And of course, it’s nearly mandatory, if you have young children to entertain at the services, that you bring some appropriate children’s books for them to read!

Furthermore, is there study time or are there breaks set up during your services? In school study halls, for example, it’s not totally clear what you should or should not be reading.

I do recall during my high school years that my Talmud teacher roundly criticized us ninth graders for reading during our preparatory study time truly extraneous materials like Superman, Batman, and other comic books, which we kept concealed in the pages of our larger Talmud texts. I can’t defend that sort of activity, other than to say some of us finished our prep assignments quickly and had free time to fill. And also, we were kids.

If you are a college teacher, you face a related set of issues these days, because your students have either laptops or smart phones connected to the internet to read during your classroom teaching time. Many teachers tell their students not to use these devices during the formal class time because it is rude or distracting.

And indeed, this constant need that we face for multitasking and connectivity to alternative activities and communications is quite strong in our contemporary social worlds. It may be insurmountable to attempt to enforce a singular formal focus on the present activities on our students in classrooms, or even on our shul-goers in the pews.

Perhaps then you are justified to say that by bringing a book to shul to read during the services you did nothing wrong, given the realities and pressures of our modern social contexts. Or perhaps the backlash that some preach against the constancy of distractions has merit, and you should turn off your individual phones, close your personal books, and join with greater alacrity and intensity in the collective singing and chanting, and in the communal performance of rituals, that our religion prescribes and offers to us.

Perhaps that sort of shared traditional behavior indeed would be beneficial to you and to your fellow congregants and your community members. I do think that to make our humanity a little more connected, we all might want to more seriously consider electing such focused and singular options.

“But wait, Rabbi,” you may ask politely to follow up. “Our services on Sabbaths and holidays are long. I’m not that into the prayers themselves and I can’t just sit idly and twiddle my thumbs.” Sure, I do get it. And I have advocated in the past for increasing the mindfulness in our lives and specifically in our prayer times.

And no, I do not mean you should bring with you a book about mindfulness to read during the services. I prescribe that you become mindful for the duration of time you sit in shul.

Now that means being rooted here in the present, in the room, in your own body, in your own head. That’s hardly what our prayers advocate for us. Our liturgy takes us on various journeys in time and space, to relive the Israelite history and dramas of the past. And we also are asked to contemplate our future, the age of the messianic redemption, the time of the ultimate triumph of our nation, the judgments of each of us for our merits and our sins.

All this paradigmatically can be distracting to a high degree from our mindfulness of the present. But you can reclaim your present moment by paying attention to the room you are in, to your row and your seat, to your breathing and fleeting thoughts, and you can escape from the past and future to be here and now in the present.

I advocated in the past that we seek consciously, and decide to examine, one specific mindful issue at a time. Consider that this year I have tried to seek out greater compassion. And you too can try to look for it in your heart and yes, in your prayers, and do the same.

Let’s look at the Yom Kippur service of this past week, for instance. It can be seen — if you look at it closely — as a sustained exercise in seeking out compassion in two ways.

When we release ourselves of our vows at the start of the long day of atonement in Kol Nidre formula, what was that all about? Was it a legal proceeding? A courtroom drama?

Truly it was personal. We granted compassion to ourselves to free us from all the failures we have committed — for our large and small, inadvertent and deliberate acts of nastiness and meanness and oh-so-human failures throughout the year.

And we (tried to) forgive our neighbors and families for the same. And yes, that was hard to do. So, we beseeched the help of God to assist us in the course of our capacious, repetitious chanting and readings.

Yom Kippur prayers span hundreds of pages and the services are long and drawn out. I suggest that in such cases, you need to turn inward to make the prayers meaningful, not bring a book with you to distract yourself further from the facts of your personal strivings in life.

Why not make a Jewish New Year’s resolution now to take the time, every time you go to shul throughout the year, to meditate mindfully, to recognize your contexts and your thoughts, and to find within yourselves, through your praying, greater compassion and forgiveness for our world.

Tzvee Zahavy has been a distinguished professor of Jewish studies, religious studies, Talmud, halachah, Jewish law codes, and Jewish liturgy at major U.S. research universities and seminaries. He has published numerous scholarly and popular articles and books about Judaism and Jewish life. He received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. Go to www.tzvee.com for details of the rabbi’s publications.

The Dear Rabbi Zahavy column offers mindful advice based on talmudic analysis and wisdom. It aspires to be open and meaningful to the adherents of all the varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find this column in the Jewish Standard, usually on the first Friday of the month. Please email your questions to the rabbi at zahavy@gmail.com

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