For anyone who likes a good exegesis but might be guilty of having dozed off during the rabbi’s Saturday morning sermon, or two, a “sermon slam” may provide the perfect fix.
A cross between the rhythmic genre of slam poetry and more traditional rabbinical sermonizing, a sermon slam entails individuals performing short variations on divrei Torah, fusing elements of spoken word, fiction and personal narrative with conventional religious lessons and commentary.
On the evening of June 18, Rabbi Adam Cutler of Beth Tzedec Congregation convened Toronto’s first ever such event, inspired by the sermon slams co-ordinated by the U.S.-based organization Open Quorum.
“These slams are happening across the States… I thought it would be a really amazing idea to do it here,” said Rabbi Cutler.
Held at the downtown bar The Central and MCed by the artistic director of Toronto Poetry Slam, Dave Silverberg, the inaugural Sermon Slam was attended by about 30 people and consisted of performances by eight “slammers,” each of whom had five minutes to creatively pontificate on the designated theme of “Inside/Outside.”
“The theme is intentionally broad. We picked one that connected to the parshat hashavuah that came before and after the event, thinking people might want to relate to either, though there was no requirement to do so,” explained Rabbi Cutler.
A panel of three judges – Roni Hoffman, chair of the local Paprika Theatre Festival; Rachel Gordan, a University of Toronto postdoctoral fellow in American Jewish studies; and Rabbi Jordan Helfman, assistant rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple – weighed in on each entry, à la American Idol.
The audience ultimately voted on their three favourite sermons, taking both style and substance into account.
Ranging in religious affiliation and level of on-stage experience, each participant demonstrated a unique performance technique and a variant riff on the given theme.
Yacov Fruchter, spiritual leader of the Annex Shul, led the crowd in a rendition of the Passover seder song Vehi Sheamda, which references the idea that in every generation there are those who try to kill the Jewish People. He then rhapsodized about the advantages of feeling like one is perpetually on the outside.
Author Brian Baruch gave an impassioned, lyrical address about the idea that biblical Jerusalem was destroyed by external forces, but through doubt and assimilation, Jews are destroying themselves from the inside.
Baruch Lipinsky, a legal researcher, delivered a more cerebral, traditionally constructed sermon about Jews needing to straddle the line between performing civic duties and upholding their halachic obligations.
Lauren Stein, a workshop facilitator who spoke in expressive verse about the conflict she experiences between outer principles of helping the world’s unfortunate and inner misgivings about her ability to effect change, received first place with the most audience votes.
Second place went to Adira Winegust, a fledgling psychologist who lyrically weaved ideas about therapeutic attempts to reconcile a person’s inside and outside with themes of externality and internality in the Torah.
Evan Malach won third place for singing a song about longing for Jewish belonging and community, which he wrote for his upcoming Fringe Festival play, A Simple Twist of Faith.
Rabbi Cutler hopes the event will continue to happen “at least annually” in Toronto.
“Sermonizing and [poetry] slamming are both opportunities to present in an exciting way one’s ideas… I think there are many Jews out there who have a lot to say and are looking for ways to say it. This is a great format for that.”