U.S. President Barack Obama seems to have more faith in synagogue sermons than most Jews I know. This year, in anticipation of the High Holidays, he once again held a teleconference with some 1,000 American rabbis across the denominational divide asking them to stress themes close to his political agenda such as health care, resumed talks between Israelis and Palestinians, and, of course, Syria.
But he didn’t stay for the sermon when he visited the synagogue in Stockholm on Erev Rosh Hashanah on his way to the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg.
Though I’ve preached countless sermons, a few even in Stockholm, I was never sure that what I had to say mattered to those who heard them. Only a handful of people would react. One of the most common “compliments” would be, “I didn’t fall asleep this time,” perhaps alluding to the biting definition of a rabbi as “invisible six days of the week and incomprehensible on the seventh.”
Having agonized for weeks before the High Holidays about what to say and how to say it in the hope of providing a year’s supply of Judaism for those who aren’t likely to be in synagogue on other occasions, I didn’t particularly like to be told, albeit in jest, that the best I accomplished was keeping people awake. It made me feel like the author of the infamous marginal note in a sermon manuscript: “Shout – argument weak!”
Though I’ve happily forgotten most of the comments I received over the years, a few have stayed with me. One of the first sermons I ever preached as a rabbinic student was in a congregation in London, England, dominated by one of the scions of Anglo Jewry. For him, form was apparently more important than content. Acknowledging that English wasn’t my first language, he complimented me on my address: “No split infinitives, no prepositions at the end.”
After preaching in a congregation in South Africa, its rabbi emeritus praised me, tongue-in-cheek I assume, for putting in a good word for God.
In another congregation there, I was approached after the service by a man who said he was one of its founders. Therefore, he felt entitled to tell me that mine was the finest sermon ever preached in that synagogue. He then asked me for a copy of it, because, “I’m very deaf – didn’t hear a word.”
Yet I refuse to give up on preaching and have always paid great attention to what I wanted to say to the congregation. I tried my best to be topical, relevant and, I hope, articulate. Historically, the Reform synagogue brought back the sermon to Jewish life and used it as a way of educating Jews about their heritage and how it relates to the realities of their lives. I saw myself as one of its exponents.
The sermon in this scheme of things was to be a bridge between the traditional texts and the day-to-day experiences of worshippers. Scholars of 19th-century Wissenschaft (Jewish science) who sought to anchor non-Orthodox Judaism in Jewish sources made a case for the traditional roots of the modern sermon. The emphasis on “the ministry of the word” in the Protestant Church was no doubt also an influence.
In 1989, soon after the appearance of my book of sermons, Walking Toward Elijah, I published an article with the same title as the headline for this column, in which I also cited Franz Rosenzweig, the most influential thinker in modern Judaism. He found his way back to Judaism partly thanks to the sermons by Rabbi Nehemiah Noble of Frankfurt. I argued that even if congregants appear to be less enthusiastic than was Rosenzweig, they may be at least subliminally affected by what rabbis tell them from the pulpit.
It’s clear, however, that sermons matter less nowadays, both in the church and in the synagogue, even in Reform congregations. Perhaps not only worshippers but also preachers have given up. Thus in many places, especially in Israel, little is being said from the pulpit beyond the liturgy. Elsewhere, sermons have often become perfunctory addresses peppered with strings of quotations from obscure sources gleaned from Google and similar authorities.
Dare one hope that the 1,000 rabbis who were on that conference call with Obama moved their congregations to pay attention to their sermons by making them sufficiently informative and inspiring beyond the president’s narrow agenda?