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My rabbi talks too fast — can I tell him or is it rude?

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Dear Bintel,

My rabbi, who is young and wonderful, talks too fast during his speeches. I try to lean forward in my chair, hold my ear out, cup my hand around my outer ear, but to no avail. Is it appropriate to offer him speech coaching since I’ve been in the business through theater and performing? Or is that simply “chutzpadik”?


Where Is That Still, Small Voice?

Dear Voice,

There is nothing disrespectful about offering your feedback and help, so long as you do it kindly and directly — and only once. The trick is that you have to stop pushing if he declines your help, and accept that you may not know the whole story. He might worry that if he accepts coaching help, he is opening himself up for critical feedback from you after every sermon he gives, which would make him anxious on the pulpit.

You also need to be clear on what you can help with. You say the problem is that he talks too fast, but your attempts at solutions — leaning forward, cupping your ear — suggest that he is difficult to hear, and speaking too softly. Someone who talks too fast can be hard to understand, but you should be clear on whether the issue is speed or volume before you approach him, so he can take your advice most usefully.

If you are ready to graciously accept his no, then reach out. You could approach him one day after services, but I think it is better to send an email. After services, most rabbis are still “on the job,” or on alert for people trying to speak with them, and other tasks that require being focused and performative. He might not have the time to really think about your offer, or instinctively give you an answer without thinking it through. With an email, he can process the criticism in the comfort of his home and consider your offer more fully without being put on the spot.

The email can be something such as:

Dear Rabbi Bookcase,

I very much enjoyed your sermon today. [Insert a line of specific praise, reflection, or thought about his sermon]. You probably don’t realize this, but I’ve noticed that the sound from the bimah doesn’t carry very well to the back of the synagogue, which means that sometimes it is hard to understand you, especially when you speak quickly. I know there is not much we can do with the limits of the space, but I’m actually a trained voice coach through my years of theatre and performing work, and if you were ever interested, I’d be happy to spend an hour or two in the synagogue one day finding some ways to get your voice to carry clearly. I’ve worked with many people on just this aspect of public speaking, and it usually is not hard to find strategies that amplify a voice in a particular space.

I don’t mean to make you self-conscious. The sermons are wonderful, and it’s not a big deal to sometimes move closer, but I thought you would want to know that the faster talking can make it harder to understand for those of us in the back.

With all my best, and looking forward to many more sermons,

The idea is to be kind, clear about the offer (how many times would you meet, how long would the meetings go, etc), and give him an easy out if he wants to say no. The clarity is critical because he might hesitate to sign up for a blanket agreement, but will be more at ease if he knows the parameters of what you are offering.

I’d suggest holding off for a few months if the rabbi is very young — as in, just out of rabbinical school and clearly new to public speaking — and if you don’t have any independent relationship with them. In this case, you might shake their confidence more than you intend, and it might just be a case of nerves that will resolve with more practice.

You rabbi might be more inclined if you are in a smaller synagogue, or an Orthodox one which does not use microphones on Shabbat, but no matter the situation, being clear about the offer, kind about the feedback, and gracious about the decline will keep you in smooth waters.

Shira Telushkin lives in Brooklyn, where she writes on religion, fashion, and culture for a variety of publications. She is currently finishing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America. Got a question? Send it to [email protected].

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