Depictions of American Jews on television are often a barometer for the way in which Jewish writers, and presumably Jewish viewers, understand their Jewish identity. The 1990s series “Northern Exposure” featured the character of Joel Fleischman, a young Jewish doctor from New York who moved to rural Alaska to practice medicine as the town’s only physician. In one episode, when Joel receives word that his uncle Manny has died, he seeks a minyan with whom to say Kaddish. (Never mind that one is not obligated to say Kaddish for an uncle.)
Joel initially explains, “You need nine guys on a field to play baseball and 10 Jews in a room to say Kaddish.” So, the entire town of non-Jewish residents embarks on a mission to find nine other Jews to enable Joel to say Kaddish for his uncle. A successful businessman offers to fly them in and provide a stipend; the local innkeepers agree to provide accommodations; and the radio station launches a PR campaign. One by one, the residents of Cicily, Alaska track down random Jews from across the state.
But just when it seems likely that Joel will have his minyan, he reasons that a minyan of Jews is meaningless. His community — his minyan — should be made up of his friends and neighbors, rather than fellow Jews with whom he has no relationship. The award-winning episode depicts the ways in which this American Jew’s ties to humanity as a whole supersede any meaningful connection to his particular people, even for the performance of a distinctive ritual act.
What is noteworthy about this episode of “Northern Exposure” is that it highlights one of the problems American Jews have with the concept of the minyan — namely, its particularity. The hard distinction between Jew and non-Jew is considered problematic in a multicultural, pluralistic society. There’s something additional that bothers contemporary American Jews with regard to a minyan. I have a feeling that if that episode of “Northern Exposure” were being written today, Joel Fleischman probably would decide that it is fine for him to recite Kaddish alone, by himself.
The minyan, the required quorum of 10 adult Jews needed for public prayer and Torah reading, has been a core component of Jewish life throughout the millennia. Even the earliest sources about the minyan in Mishnah (Sanhedrin 1:6 and Megillah 4:3) assume its prior existence, offering a set of supporting verses from the Torah to lend greater credibility to an already existing rule, and clarifying which prayers require it.
The minyan represents a microcosm of the entirety of the Jewish people, and its requirement for the recitation of key prayers underscores how the Jewish people’s primary spiritual experiences are not solitary ones, but rather public and communal. Traditionally, a minyan comprised only men. The first official move to include women in a minyan came at the Frankfurt (Reform) Rabbinical Conference of 1845, when Rabbi Samuel Adler brought the issue before the rabbis in a resolution that boldly declared that the woman “has the same obligation as man to participate from youth up in the instruction in Judaism and in the public services, and that the custom not to include women in the number of individuals necessary for the conducting of a public service is only custom, and has no religious basis.”
The notion of the minyan is about far more than counting to 10. The minyan raises important questions that reveal the inherent tensions between the ideas that shaped this requirement and our own — questions about Jewish peoplehood and distinctiveness, about hard and fast standards, and about the role and authority of the larger group in religious life. How central is the idea of community when the pervasive spiritual locus of America is the individual?
Inherent in the notion of minyan is the privileging of communal prayer. The minyan becomes a new existential entity that changes the very nature of prayer and its efficacy enabling the recitation of prayers that the Rabbis termed devarim she’bekedushah, words of such holiness that they can be expressed only within a communal structure. This term applies to those parts of the service requiring a minyan, including the Barchu, the Kedushah of the Amidah and the Kaddish. Therefore, the most sacred prayer experience draws from, and reinforces, a sense of community (and also Jewish particularism), as we approach God as Knesset Yisrael (the collective unity of Jewish people). Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in his introduction to the Koren Siddur, “There is space in Judaism for private meditation — the personal plea. But when we pray publicly, we do so as members of a people who have served, spoken to, and wrestled with God for longer and in more varied circumstances than any other in history.”
The indispensable nature of the larger community is also seen in the ways in the fixed timing and structure of our communal prayer services, modeled after the ancient sacrificial service in the Temple that was also a national and communal experience. Rabbi Mark Washofsky, in “Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice” describes the Temple, “where the daily and festival offerings were performed in the name of all Israel and where the Jews worshiped God not only as a collection of individuals but as Israel, a single and unique people. In a similar way, the Rabbis ordained that the ‘Temple-like’ aspects of our own prayer service, those that involve the sanctification of God’s Name, be recited only in the presence of a congregation.”
The idea that the minyan represents a microcosm of Knesset Yisrael is explained by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in “HaSiddur v’haTefillah”: “It is not just that the main prayers are recited publicly, among the ‘community’ of at least ten, but rather that each community prays like one part of the larger unity of the people of Israel in its completeness.” (Translation mine)
In contemporary American Reform synagogues, the minyan as a concept continues to be “on the books,” while a variety of factors in American Jewish life render it problematic at best, and irrelevant at worst. So, while the familiar and normative nature of the minyan prevents it from being abolished officially, it is, in many cases, disregarded in actual practice. But the symbolic realm of religious life cannot be so casually jettisoned. And there remains, for me, a qualitative difference between davening alone, or even with a few others, and praying with a community, as defined by classic parameters. Perhaps my own fascination with the notion of the minyan was reinforced by the experience, like so many others, of searching for minyans for the 11 months that I was saying Kaddish for my late father a couple of years ago. Unlike TV’s Joel Fleischman, I found it quite meaningful that total strangers could complete my community, and help me to fulfill my personal obligation. My need for nine others — and theirs for me — suggested that such interdependence is more than a religious legal stricture. It is a key to understanding some of the central values of Jewish life.
In insisting upon a minyan within my own congregation, our members were first struck by the seeming arbitrariness of 10. That we are only counting Jews is experienced, I think, as a kind of tribal oddity by some, and with a twinge of embarrassment by others.
In building and expanding community within our congregation — whose population shrinks significantly during the winter months — the concern with “getting a minyan” becomes paramount. At graveside funerals, at shiva houses and at holiday services that our shul hadn’t organized in the past, we are constantly reinforcing the notion of the minyan by counting. When our 10th adult Jew arrives, each of us feels as though our presence really counted. And when we don’t have a minyan, and we delete the Torah reading, the Barchu, the Kedushah and the Kaddish, we expand the numbers of those recruiting others to join us the next time.
In the contagious concern for drawing 10 adult Jews, we are asserting that community matters and that, even as we welcome everyone, there are “membership” privileges and responsibilities that come with identifying as a Jew. In looking for a 10th (and often for an eighth and ninth as well) we are communicating that Jewish spirituality is one that relies upon the involvement of others and finds its fullest expression in communities that symbolically represent the entirely of the Jewish people. Such messages are urgent ones, not only for my synagogue, but for a contemporary American Jewish life that increasingly focuses on individual meaning, and which is uncertain about the role of group identity in a global world. The issues that make the notion of minyan so problematic in a contemporary American context are precisely the sorts of concerns that are at the heart of determining the future of American Jewish life. So, while the minyan itself is hardly an urgent issue in American Jewish life, re-evaluating the place of the minyan may help us work out a new calculus that restores a sense of peoplehood to our religious lives, reacts against an increasingly isolated individualism and posits that we need our fellow Jews to give expression to our most sacred words.
Rabbi Leon A. Morris is the spiritual leader of Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, N.Y. His essay “Longing to Hear Again” appears in “Jewish Theology in Our Time: A New Generation Explores the Foundation and Future of Jewish Belief” (Jewish Lights, 2010). His research on the minyan was conducted as a member of the Hartman Institute's North American Scholars Circle.