Prayer, whether seen as introspection or as a transcendent conversation with a divine God, allows us to access emotions that have been hidden behind the profanity and banality of everyday life. Where else can I voice my fears of death, aspirations for my children and regret for my mistakes? If prayer is understood as a framework for emotional honesty, then community supports this process of personal discovery.
The Hebrew term for a house of prayer, Beit Knesset, literally means house of assembly, a meaning also preserved in the English term “synagogue” derived from the Greek term for assembly. As the name suggests, the synagogue’s essence is not its physical form or location, but rather the assembly of the minyan — the quorum of 10 — which creates a communal space for the full prayer service. The traditional prayer book is written in the plural, emphasizing the congregation’s symphony of voices that is richer than any individual voice could be.
But community can also overshadow the individual with an oppressive collective atmosphere, similar to a political rally. Prayer must therefore occupy a delicate position that offers a supportive, mutual experience, while also protecting the individual’s sense of agency; it must accept ambivalence alongside faith.
Esther Sperber, “The Paradox of Communal Prayer”, The Jewish Week (25 September 2015), 23.