Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Take me to the round church, where echoes resound and my spirit is found

Several weeks ago, ZT wrote a post about different seating configurations for prayer, which may seem too "inside baseball" for those who aren't independent minyan entrepreneurs and thinking about this stuff all the time, but I'm going to write about it anyway because, well, it wouldn't be the first time.

ZT contrasts two approaches, the Single Direction Approach and the Circle Approach (which includes Concentric Circles), and states the pros and cons of each one. Let's look at the various options and sub-options, and first whittle away the unacceptable ones.

First of all, for the reasons that ZT states, the single circle (with all participants around the periphery of the room, facing inward) is voted off the island. The giant acoustic void in the middle of the room makes it dead in the water. Concentric circles are still ok, because the innermost circle can be made arbitrarily small, eliminating the dead space in the middle, and achieving almost the same population density as the Single Direction Approach. Yes, aisles are necessary, but this isn't so hard to do; Kol Zimrah often has three or more.

Next, within the Single Direction Approach, we'll eliminate any sub-options where the leader is in the front of the room. There are two sub-sub-options if the leader is in the front: (1) the leader is facing the congregation, and (2) the leader is facing forward. (1) is unacceptable because it sets the leader apart from the rest of the community, and suggests a top-down style of leadership. The leader should be a member of the community, facilitating the others in prayer. (2) is unacceptable because it makes the leader unable to see the community, and it is harder to facilitate a community in prayer if you can't get any visual feedback from them. As ZT says, the leader is literally talking to a wall. However, a much more palatable option is when the leader is at the center of the room, as at Hadar or in Sephardi synagogues.

To review so far:
  • I. Single Direction Approach
    • A. Leader in front
      • 1. Leader facing forward
      • 2. Leader facing the congregation
    • B. Leader in the center
  • II. Circle Approach
    • A. Single circle
    • B. Concentric circles
So there are two viable sub-options. They both have pros and cons, but overall I prefer concentric circles, but not for the same reasons that ZT suggests. He says:
The Circle Approach proponents i daven with tend to talk about it in terms of emphasizing the value of the community and valuing the connections within the community. It demonstrates a caring about who is in the room and who is praying with whom.
In contrast, a commenter says of the Single Direction Approach that "the common direction gives a feeling of unification of purpose."

I think these philosophical approaches are nice, but secondary. I would focus first on the practical aspects, and if they're done right, then the rest will follow. If the configuration allows for spirited davening, then there can be a feeling of unification of purpose even in the Circle Approach, and there can be a sense of connected community even in the Single Direction Approach.

Philosophically, I'm with those who want a unification of purpose (I think prayer should be primarily about that purpose and not about connections with other people; the connections with the other people are a powerful means of achieving that purpose, not the other way around), but practically, I'm with the (concentric) Circle Approach, and here's why:

1) Being able to see the other people in the community is at best a mixed blessing, and can (as ZT suggested) feel intrusive. However, I think being able to hear the other people is very important, and assuming that we project our voices forward, the Circle Approach allows everyone to hear and everyone to be heard. In the Single Direction Approach, there are people in the back who can't hear others (except their echoes) and people in the front who are talking to a wall. In the Circle Approach, everyone can hear lots of other people.

2) As a frequent sheliach tzibbur, it is important for me to be able to see the community so that I can gauge their mood at each moment and be most effective in facilitating the community's prayer. This is somewhat possible in the Single Direction Approach with the leader at the center, but is more limited.

3) It's easier for the leader to feel like a member of the community this way. One of my best experiences as a sheliach tzibbur was last November at TLS/DCRC. We were in concentric circles, and the size of the crowd relative to the size of the room necessitated maximum chair density, so the innermost circle (where General Anna and I, as shelichei tzibbur, sat) was very small, like 6 people or so. We didn't feel like we were broadcasting into the void (as I sometimes feel when leading in a variety of different seating configurations), because this inner circle reflected everything right back, creating a resonant chamber (like the sound box of a guitar). After each prayer started, I didn't feel like I had to be "leading"; I could just jam. The intensity developed within this inner circle spread to the rest of the room. In JGN's lingo, we were a "circle facing outward", even if we were physically facing inward.

Some odds and ends:

Based on this approach, I don't think there's a contradiction (as ZT suggests) in sitting in a circle for most of the service but facing east for Barechu, Amidah, or other things. If the reasons for sitting in circles are practical rather than philosophical, then there may be times in the service when the philosophical value of a unified purpose may outweigh the practical value of sitting in circles, and the formal call to worship may be one of these. And for the Amidah or other parts that are said individually, none of the practical pro-circle arguments apply. That said, there's no good reason to face east for, say, Psalm 29, just because people happen to be standing.

Another commenter on ZT's post says:
An alternate approach to a circle, concentric circles, and everyone facing one direction is to put people in rows that are curved. That fosters the sense of community and closeness that a single circle does, and it allows for the group to face a single direction and unite in space and purpose. I love it because there is no way for someone to be at an edge or on the periphery of the communal prayer experience.
The problem with this approach is that there's no good place to put the leader. The options are:

1) The leader is at the end of the front (inner) row/arc. Then the leader does indeed feel like s/he is on the periphery, especially since other participants tend to avoid sitting near the leader (which I'll discuss in the next post).

2) The leader is at the center of the front row. Then the leader is facing the front wall and can't see the community so well, and we run into the same problem as I.A.1 above.

3) The leader is at the center of curvature (the place where the center of the circle would be if the circle went all the way around), facing the community. Then the leader is set apart from the rest of the community, and we run into the same problem is I.A.2 above.

4) I suppose the leader could be in one of the rows other than the inner arc, but this could still be awkward for a combination of reasons.


  1. other participants tend to avoid sitting near the leader

    They say that in Chelm, so many people tried to sit in the back row in shul, they just took it out.

  2. speaking of back rows and such...
    I was gabbai for a minyan at my high school, where they absolutely would not let us daven in anything but front facing rows for the first 4 days of the school week. (Fridays we concentric circlified.)
    We discovered a coping mechanism for the "back row syndrome". People avoid the front row like the plague, even though our shaliach tzibur was in the middle of the room. I think they just don't like having nothing between them and the wall.
    But if you put a few chairs, like maybe 3 or 4, in front of the first row you want people to sit in, there is enough of a "psychological front row" so that people will actually sit in the first real row of chairs.
    Even high schoolers. Early in the morning. After walking uphill both ways.

  3. Regarding your last point about concentric curved rows: I think that it would actually work out well for the S"TZ to sit in the center of the middle row (ie if there were five curved rows, sit in the middle of the 3rd row). The S"TZ could see/ sense the vibe of much of the kehilah (you can tell from people's backs whether they're into it or not, mostly), everyone could hear the S"TZ and hear each other, and those MOST on the periphery could see the S"TZ as well.

  4. In defense of 1a which you eliminated (facing one direction, with the davenner in front): this is not about "praying to a wall" -- to me it is about directing our prayers beyond, whatever that means. By having everyone not face a leader or face each other but stand privately/together and face Out, it emphasizes that davenning is not about us, or not just about us, and certainly not about any one person; it's about something bigger and beyond the boundaries of the room, to which we all now direct our attention. That's a very holy component of Jewish prayer choreography for me so I'd invite you not to dismiss it out of hand.

  5. Jo:
    I didn't dismiss the Single Direction Approach entirely -- I.B still stands, for all the reasons that you mention. I dismissed I.A.1 (leader in the front, facing forward), because of the difficulty for the leader to have a sense of the community that s/he is facilitating in prayer. And if the leader is in the front, then it seems that everyone is facing the leader (or at least the leader's back). Why do you prefer I.A to I.B?

  6. BTW, when I'm davening the silent Amidah (and thus not trying to coordinate with anyone else), I prefer to face a wall.

  7. So, my sephardi shul at home has curved rows, and tebah in the middle of the room (as is traditional). Its a HUGE space, so the intimacy we value is not there, but at least architecturally, it is possible to have curved rows and a chazan in the middle