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Trump-era sermons should focus on character, not policy

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One of the reasons I switched synagogues was for want of a better sermon. The sermons I was hearing consisted of the rabbi’s views on current issues, with occasional kabbalistic references that were generally taken out of context. I had a feeling sermons should be something more.

I am not the only one who feels this way. In his book, Studies in Jewish Preaching,  Rabbi Israel Bettan explains that the sermon began with the prophets and was then succeeded by the homiletic interpretation of the pharisees and rabbis. As Rabbi Bettan, former president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, writes, what began as exposition of text developed into more –  an explanation of the text along with an idea that can be deduced from it.

In all likelihood, this is the part of the early sermon to which Philo of Alexandria refers in the second part of his Life of Moses when he speaks about the “matters of philosophy” that were learned in the synagogue. As Rabbi Marc Saperstein has written in his Your Voice Like a Ram’s Horn: Themes and Texts in Traditional Jewish Preaching, over the centuries, sermons were known to include polemics, philosophical issues, legal issues, and even occasionally pertained to world events. In those cases, the sermons generally explained them by reference to providence and faith.

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All of this is to say that sermons are far more than about personal views. They are by their nature substantive, and by design impactful.

Rabbis have a choice to critique the Trump administration’s policies in their sermons. But in some senses, that would represent a missed opportunity. Instead, I would suggest that the focus of their sermons should be on the improvement of character. Here’s why.

U.S. President Donald Trump is a polarizing figure, and the members of any congregation will likely already have made up their minds about the president and his policies. A simple message of acceptance or rejection of said policies would therefore be ineffective at best.  Such would not be the congregational response, however, to a critique of character, and that is because virtues, such as humility and patience, are ubiquitous in the Jewish tradition. Regardless of one’s political leanings, Jews are conditioned to appreciate the value of refined characteristics.

In so doing, our rabbis would be bringing their treatment of the current administration in line with the talmudic approach to non-Jewish rulers. For example, in Tractate Tamid, the Talmud recounts a tale in which Alexander the Great is outsmarted by a group of women. They force a treaty with Alexander by telling him that if he conquers them he will be seen as merciless, and if they can defeat him he will suffer great embarrassment in having been defeated by women. The Talmud does not take the opportunity here to critique Alexander for his expansionist policies, rather it draws attention to the folly of his self-assuredness.

Pharaoh is likewise sharply criticized, not for his decrees but his brutal habits – he liked bathing in babies’ blood  – and his delusional view of himself. Conversely, when it comes to respected figures, such as the Roman figure Antoninus, the close friend of Rabbi Judah the Prince, the Talmud conveys the way he used using everyday objects to communicate to Rabbi Judah his suspicion that his daughter was having an affair. In this case, the Talmud is praising Antoninus’s cleverness.

In all these examples, it is not the figures’ policies but their character that is the focus. Perhaps that was because the rabbis felt that a ruler’s decrees are ultimately in God’s hands, but that those figures can be directly blamed for their character. Like their talmudic predecessors, our rabbis would do well to concentrate on the virtues that human beings, and leaders in particular, are expected to have. There will be no shortage of material. 

Jonathan Milevsky is a PhD candidate in religious studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.

Jonathan L. Milevsky holds a PhD in religious sudies from McMaster University. His book on David Novak’s natural law theory, will be published by Brill next year.