Power of Speech

Tracing the History of the Synagogue Sermon

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published October 06, 2006, issue of October 06, 2006.
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I don’t know about you, but I’m no fan of the sermon. Much as I try — and I do try — to pay rapt attention to the rabbi’s words, my mind tends to wander far, far away from the subject at hand or else is completely taken up with cataloging the grammatical and syntactical errors that emanate from the pulpit. Mind you, I don’t fall asleep, but then I’m not exactly agog with excitement either at the prospect of being preached to. And in this, I’m not alone: All you have to do is count the number of nodding and bobbing heads in the sanctuary as the rabbi holds forth to realize that the contemporary sermon is often far more of a soporific than a stimulant.

It wasn’t always that way. Where many of us today suffer the sermon in silence — it seems to be just one of those things, take it or leave it, that define the American synagogue service — earlier generations of American Jews, especially those who, at the turn of the 20th century, viewed themselves as Modern Orthodox, embraced it with a vengeance. To them, the sermon — when rendered in English — spoke of urbanity and worldliness, of the compatibility between tradition and modernity, of the power of language and the allure of a big vocabulary. Back then, the English-language sermon conferred distinction, not only on those who delivered it but also on those who received it.

Even so, it was an uphill battle to transform the English-language sermon, then a novelty, into a set piece. It took awhile. Initially, most Orthodox synagogues had grave reservations about its acceptability: From where its members sat, the sermon smacked too much of Protestantism or, worse still, of Reform Judaism. Orthodox Jews preferred to do without than to occasion dissent and engender controversy within their ranks. As late as 1918, according to a detailed sociological study of synagogue practice in the greater New York area, conducted by Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, only slightly more than 10% of congregations — the Reform ones, mainly — featured an English-language sermon or made use of the vernacular in making announcements. “One to whom the future of the Jews and of Judaism is an object of concern cannot but view with alarm the condition of the synagogue, as indicated by the cold figures in the statistical columns,” he noted, adding that the widespread absence of a regularly scheduled sermon in English showed just how few synagogues had actually “reckoned with the environment.”

Kaplan knew firsthand of what he wrote, for in the course of his early career his attempts to deliver an English-language sermon on Rosh Hashanah turned out to be the stuff of scandal. Hired in 1904 by New York’s flagship Orthodox synagogue, Kehilath Jeshurun, to set the congregation on a more modern footing, Kaplan had planned to address the congregation — in English, of course — on yontef. But the Slutska Rav, Jacob David Willowski, a major Torah personality from the Old World who was then in town, pre-empted his younger colleague by delivering a more traditional droshe — in Yiddish — instead.

Some contemporary observers believed that Kaplan had willingly deferred to the Slutska Rav, whose standing considerably dwarfed his own. Others, however, claimed that Kaplan had no choice in the matter, since the Slutska Rav had actually forbidden his junior colleague from delivering a sermon in the vernacular. From the rav’s perspective, the sermon sounded the death knell for traditional religious practice in the New World. Better to leave the synagogue than to listen to one, he advised.

As tongues wagged (and clucked), the sermon-that-wasn’t became somewhat of a cause célèbre in New York religious circles. “I hope there is no truth in the story that Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on 85th Street forbade its rabbi to preach in English,” noted a columnist for the Hebrew Standard. But if there is, and Yiddish was preferred over English on “religious grounds, it is a great Chillul Hashem (Desecration of God’s Name).” The actions of the Slutska Rav, another commentator added, constitute a real “blow to honest Orthodoxy.”

In the end, “honest Orthodoxy” — an Americanized and modernized Orthodoxy, at that — triumphed, at least for a couple of generations, and the English-language sermon became a standard part of the service, even its high watermark. Congregants came to place a premium on both it and those rabbis with proven oratorical ability, while rabbinical seminaries made a point of training would-be clergymen in the fine points of public speaking. An exercise in modernization, the sermon almost single-handedly affirmed the possibility of being a worldly person as well as a person of faith.

These days, less formal and more interactive kinds of exchange between rabbi and congregant are increasingly de rigueur, rendering the sermon more of an intrusion than a privilege. Even so, if we bear in mind just how seriously earlier generations of rabbis and congregants had taken to it, perhaps we won’t be quite so quick to tune out and drift away the next time the rabbi gets up to speak.

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