Impression of Jewish Preaching by Harry Essrig z”l

Reprinted from Journal of Reform Judaism—Winter 5748/1988

*Publisher’s Note: Amazing how relevant this piece is after 35 years!

It is not easy to assess the state of preaching in our synagogues today. Few surveys have been made. Little attention has been paid to this matter by our regional and national bodies. To a large extent we develop our idiosyncratic styles and rely on our personal judgments. The consensus is that preaching is declining in importance amongst the criteria for the selection of Rabbis, and as a result we do not accord to it the same priority as in days past. A cursory examination of the scene would no doubt establish the following causes for the change of status of what was once considered to be the central feature of the rabbinate.

Our seminaries do not seem to devote sufficient time to the preparation of students for preaching. One finds that our Rabbinical bodies at their conventions relegate this aspect to a minor spot on their agendas. Their journals, for the most part, neglect the consideration of changing patterns or the suggestion of aids for preaching; neither do they discuss substantial issues or invite an interchange of ideas among spiritual leaders in this area. My hunch is that Pulpit Selection Committees have shaken up the order of qualifications deemed essential for occupants of pulpits. The trial sermon has been abandoned, while the use of a videotape of Rabbinical competitors for a position has been suggested and repudiated. A profound transformation has taken place in our midst, but few forthright attempts have been made to salvage a deteriorating situation.

I would relish a comprehensive examination of the status quo. The question is: Does the effort justify the loss of equanimity and the distortion of perspective? Do we have to convince our laity once a year that we indeed can preach and therefore they do not need to frequent the synagogue again to be assured of this fact?

Three Styles of Preaching

It is my impression that the three branches of Judaism differ as to the style and content of their sermons. Perhaps I tread on dangerous ground in drawing such distinctions, but it may sharpen my observations. We once referred to the paradigms of moach, midrash, and musar as characterizing the approaches of our various movements.

The Reform rabbis, for instance, seem to favor a more essay-like style, in which a given thesis is examined and developed, hewing to structure and a clearly-reasoned theme. For the most part the purpose is to instruct and to appeal to the intellect, to convince and to agitate for the position advanced in the presentation. The mind is the focus of the preacher’s attention.

The Conservative preachers seem to prefer the use of midrashic materials to buttress their points and depend on the various homiletical techniques available to them. Metaphor and allegory plus anecdotes and illustrative material are desiderata and not as much concern is shown for the scaffolding of the sermon. The preachers seek to engage the emotions of their audiences and to motivate them to fulfill their lives as Jews. Sidney Greenberg has been most adept at providing such aids in his many publications and constant appearances at sermon seminars.

The Orthodox Rabbis seem to concentrate on exhorting their parishioners to maintain the traditional way of life, quote extensively from our Rabbinic sources, and perform their tasks in the classical sense of agitating for religious action and proper behavior in keeping with the tenets of the faith. Yet a number of very eloquent preachers have emerged in this group who challenge our generalization and once again underscore the fact that we should not place people in categories.

The Audience

Not much attention has been paid to our constituency. In a participatory democracy, which our synagogues have become for better or worse, it would behoove us to ascertain what our lay people want or need. We have noted the changing intellectual and sophistication level of our members and bemoaned the wide range of distractions that plague their lives. Perhaps it is time to solicit their expectations and to measure our performance thereby. This is not to suggest that we should submit to their standards, but, since they are on the receiving end and must be importuned to attend, it is reasonable indeed to establish some kind of partnership if we are to salvage our preaching role.

To some degree we have modeled ourselves after the Protestant ministers. Is this sufficient? What do the terms Rav, Magid, Darshan, and Matif suggest to us? Perhaps we have chosen the wrong rubric for our enterprise. Are we presumptuous in calling for a free and untrammeled open discussion of all the dimensions of modern preaching in which rabbis and lay people can participate in a kind of brainwashing approach? Or are the new generations of Rabbis coping better with the frustrations and disappointments that have dogged the heels of those of us who have struggled with this problem for the past few decades?

Bulletins and newsletters of our congregations probably would provide the most accurate insight into the state of affairs. Yet even a cursory glance would yield this cogent and perhaps upsetting information: our Friday night services abound with children’s services, guest speakers, forums, dialogues with the rabbi, special Sabbaths dedicated to various national organizations, etc. The practice of not listing topics is fairly widespread on the pretext that congregants should not be enticed by provocative titles. The obverse of this is that Rabbis can “cop out” by waiting to decide at the last moment what to preach or wait for the last sensation of the hour. I would hazard a guess that because of the multiplicity of sermon substitutes available, a Rabbi is expected to preach on an average of but once a month. I would not quarrel with such a state of affairs, providing this fact is acknowledged officially and new parameters are set up for the range of our calling.

It is an established fact that attendance at services is appalling. The special events attract large crowds of course, but an ordinary service with only the rabbi preaching finds most of the pews unoccupied. Our Saturday morning services are rescued from apathy because of the fortunate embrace of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah ritual by the Reform movement. This disturbing situation is related to the attenuation of religious concerns amongst our laity and to the remarkable, if not revolutionary, change in the role of the Rabbi. Pastoral, administrative, fund-raising, community, and public relations activities have pre-empted our preaching duties. It is only on the High Holy Days that the sermon comes into its own. The people expect Sinai-like thunder, and spiritual leaders spend an inordinate amount of time in making sure that the congregants are sufficiently awed and impressed. The weeks before Rosh Hashana are the most agonizing periods in the lifetime of a Rabbi and his/her family.

Current Trends

For almost three decades we have been providing an homiletical exchange for Rabbis, first in mimeographed form and for the past ten years or so in the publication The American Rabbi. Over 800 Rabbis of all branches of Judaism subscribe to it on a regular basis. Between 200-150 manuscripts are presented to us, of which about 75 are published during the course of the year. We rarely solicit sermons. The ones received are carefully edited and the authors informed as to our decisions. This regular feedback is appreciated by many contributors. Over the years we have called attention to some fine preachers who are emerging in our midst. Sidra interpretations are included as well as reviews of books of sermons that somehow never seem to make their appearance in our Rabbinical journals. Apparently the service that we are rendering is appreciated by our subscribers.

Last year we announced a most ambitious project: to conduct a national survey of the state-of-the-art of preaching. Most of the Rabbinical bodies contacted did not wish to set aside time on their schedules for such discussions, because their members were more interested in Chomer Lidrush than in techniques and diagnoses of preaching problems. Individual questionnaires, rather detailed ones, were prepared but only about 25 responded. We cannot therefore arrive at any general conclusions but the observations noted above have been confirmed.

In addition, the following comments have been made:

  • Our people are interested in hearing discussions of problems affecting their personal lives or the spiritual struggles of their rabbis.
  • There is no religious apperceptive mass within which the message can fit —there is no familiarity with our traditional sources
  • The weekly preparation of sermons is most discouraging and usually only outlines are prepared.
  • It is only for the High Holy Days that sermons are written out and much time spent on their preparation.
  • There is much need for the accumulation of illustrative materials, anecdotes, and quotations from Jewish and general literature.
  • Some Rabbis are experimenting with more informal approaches, such as moving about on the bima with a portable microphone, sitting on a stool behind the lectern while discoursing on the Torah portion or interspersing short interpretations during the course of the service, instead of delivering one talk.

Here indeed is an important realm for research, and we await the support of the proper bodies to pursue this matter.

Six Future Directions

In the meantime we must be content with touching upon the following aspects of contemporary preaching:

  1. It is perhaps time to take a revolutionary step forward and no longer make the Pentateuch the major theme of our sermons. We are either repeating ourselves or making such convoluted interpretations as to do violence to the original intent of the Torah. Most of us are drained by this time-and-energy-consuming task of connecting the narrative and legislative sections of the Pentateuch to modern living. In the process we have neglected the whole gamut of Jewish literature, the rest of the Bible, the writings of philosophers, mystics, thinkers, moral teachers, etc. Our people wallow in a sea of ignorance about significant events in Jewish history, relationships with other civilizations, and the various crises that our people have endured and overcome.
  2. If our main purpose is to teach about Judaism, then we should relegate the consideration of social and political issues to other occasions and forums. We are not turning our back on the prophetic tradition but only recommending that another venue be considered.
  3. For me, a more compelling consideration is the feeling that the Jewish-Christian encounter will become the central issue of our times for members of both faiths. We should take up this challenge in our synagogues and devote our attention to a discussion of the basic elements in Christianity and where they differ from those of Judaism. The Christian world is slowly modifying its evaluation of our faith and it behooves us to become much more knowledgeable about the relationship between these two great religious forces in Western civilization.
  4. Spiritual and personal concerns must move into the center of our preaching. That is the only way in which we can touch lives and quicken interest. What does being Jewish mean to us? The Rabbi should try to present a coherent religious philosophy during his/her incumbency of a particular pulpit, perhaps be a little bit more open with his/her own life experiences and stop being afraid of the vulnerability that comes with self-exposure. We are not as fragile as we are supposed to be, and if we are, a bit of therapy would help.