Happy Minyan Hits a Sour Note

I am sorry. Davening just isn’t what it use to be.

This past Shabbat, I wandered into a well-respected, modern Orthodox institution for Shabbat morning services. Because it was late, I wandered into a small room where the so called "happy minyan" was in progress. I was greeted warmly and invited in.

For the uninitiated, the happy minyan is a fairly recent American phenomenon, in which the melodies of Reb Shlomo Carlbach of blessed memory are infused into the davening.

Well, it used to be true that the melodies were infused into the davening. Now the davening is virtually one long Reb Shlomo-fest.

I realize that happy minyanim are found among all denominations that have adopted the practice to meet each group’s particular needs. My issue is with the way these minyanim are held in Orthodox synagogues.

We have a concept related to tefilah (prayer) called nusach. This word has been roughly translated as rite, such as the Sephardic rite, the Ashkenazic rite, etc.

Nusach involves the particular order of the prayers, as well as the way in which prayers vary by punctuation, phrasing and melodic pattern. By melodic pattern, think of something similar to a blues pattern.

A typical 12-bar blues progression allows the musician playing the melodic lead to dissect the notes that make up the chords. Nusach acts pretty much the same way.

Those leading the prayer service create intricate combinations of notes within the patterns or modes of the nusach but are bound by the chords that make up these patterns. In addition, certain prayers are open to innovation outside the nusach.

For example, there is a long-standing tradition of making the El Adon prayer in the Sabbath morning services a kind of dealer’s choice. There are also places where innovation is limited or prohibited outright. In the Ashkenazic rite, for example, the "Kaddish" said before the Shabbat Musaf prayer is a melodic constant.

Unfortunately, the man leading this happy minyan prayer service apparently had no real concept of nusach. In addition, he mispronounced many of the words. Clearly he was warm and engaging, but that does not in and of itself qualify someone for leading congregational prayer.

Just one week earlier, I was in another local modern Orthodox synagogue, where a guest of some musical renown was invited to lead the congregation in prayers. He, too, did not know the nusach and believed that spirited and catchy melodies were a fair substitute for proper davening.

I was privileged to know Reb Shlomo Carlbach, although I will not say I was close to him. (I wasn’t at Woodstock either.) I brought groceries for his mother of blessed memory and ate at his table while 2-year-old Neshomole was munching on cucumber salad. I tuned his guitars at a concert on the beach at Bat Yom in the summer of 1971.

This much I know: Reb Shlomo knew how to daven He knew the nusach and respected it!

Innovation serves a wonderful place in Jewish life. That being said, we cannot play fast and loose with the tradition.

Picasso’s abstract art was respected precisely because he had the technical skill of a classically trained artist. He did not paint abstract images because he didn’t know how to paint realistic ones.

Before those leading prayers innovate, they should understand the rules of nusach. They should have the skill and, yes, the humility to realize that the clapping and the warmth and spontaneity you can set your watch by must take a back seat to the integrity of public prayer.

I would love to hear the rabbis of these synagogues address the question of Jewish law and respect for nusach. It can be argued that a discernible unity in selected parts of the prayer service gives us a spiritual continuity we so desperately need in these difficult times. Our enemies are, after all, pretty good at prayer.

This does not detract from the sincerity and the warmth of the people I met in the happy minyan.

Rafael Guber is founder of the Sepia Guild and a featured expert on the PBS series “Ancestors.”