Sunday, February 11, 2007

Coercion, part one

. . . or, "the continuing saga of Birkat HaMazon."

Last Shabbat (Sabbath), I tried to explain to some of the women in my local synagogue who’ve been giving me such a tough time that the Conservative Movement has tended to bring what were private and/or home-based rituals, such as Birkat HaMazon (Grace after Meals) and the Passover seder, into the synagogue to ensure that people actually perform the mitzvah (commandment).

One woman pointed out that, years ago, we only did Birkat HaMazon communally when someone sponsored a sit-down Kiddush. After thinking about that for a minute, I realized that she was right. Ouch.

Okay, moving right along . . . .

“You’re right. But when we do do Birkat HaMazon together, why do people complain that I’m singing too loudly when I lead? You don’t complain when the cantor sings loudly enough to lead the entire congregation in prayer. So why do you complain when I do?”

“Because the cantor’s leading a congregational prayer, and you’re not. Birkat HaMazon is a private prayer. Not everyone wants to join in. We’ve just been davvening (praying) for three hours. Some of us would rather talk. You should show some respect for us.”

"We don’t want to pray under compulsion,” said another woman. "We don't want to be coerced."

You missed the point, apparently. The whole idea of making Birkat HaMazon into a communal ritual was precisely to make sure that everyone said it.

Okay, moving right along . . . .

“So when we bring out the bentchers (Birkat HaMazon books), we should just ask those who want to bentch (say Birkat HaMazon) to join us at one or two tables, and ask everyone else just to keep the conversations a little quieter until we’re done.”

“No, don’t tell us to be quiet. We don't want to be told what to do.”


No one wants to be told that they should be praying.

No one wants to be told that they should be quiet when someone else is praying, even—or is that “especially?”—when they’re supposed to be praying, too. That would be like praying under compulsion. And who wants to be reminded that Grace after Meals is obligatory?

Essentially, those of us who wish to fulfill our obligation to say Birkat HaMazon have to do it almost on the sly. I feel as if I’m expected to apologize for doing what I'm supposed to be doing.

Later, I asked the Hubster, “Why do they give me such a hard time when you and the cantor do the same thing when one of you leads Birkat HaMazon? Don’t you both sing loudly enough for the whole room to hear you? Don’t you ever ask for quiet, or bang your hand on a table to get the yackers to quiet down?”

“Yes, but you do it that much more often. You’re like a drill sergeant.”

What, you too?


The verdict is in: Shut up (sing more quietly) and put up (learn to ignore the noise).



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