Preaching from the pulpit is a real challenge these days. With few exceptions, rabbis have had to trim their sermonic sails, even during the High Holidays, sidestepping politics, throwing in autobiographical snippets and a joke or two, and ending gracefully, like docking a family boat.
In contrast, when I was growing up in the 1960s, sermons were among the most anticipated events in synagogue life, especially on the eve of Rosh HaShanah and Kol Nidre night. At Oheb Shalom Congregation in Baltimore, MD, our senior rabbi, Abraham D. Shaw, dressed in a majestic white robe and a pillbox-style kippah (yarmulke), regaled us with his powerful oratory.
For more than a century and a half in the Reform Movement, High Holiday sermons were consequential both for the rabbi and the congregation, as hearts were receptive and the pews packed. It is fair to say that many congregants came just to hear their charismatic rabbi preach on the pressing issues of the day. It was also customary for High Holiday sermons to be printed and distributed for further review, even compared to rabbinic discourses of neighboring synagogues.
So why has the Reform preaching tradition gradually waned over the past half century? I surmise the following three factors may have played a role:
- The prominence of prayer or davening in synagogue services has increased, leaving less time for preaching. Several years ago, I found myself in a public disagreement with the president of a non-Reform, progressive rabbinic school. When asked how his school trains rabbis to preach on the High Holidays, he said his students are urged not to speak, but rather to concentrate on the davening. “People no longer want sermons,” he insisted.
- The American Jewish community is today more fragmented and less tolerant of those holding opposing views than at any time since the Vietnam War. Reform Jews are not immune to the lack of civility that is plaguing public discourse, making preaching from the pulpit on divisive issues tricky, even risky. One congregant insists on boldness from the pulpit, another steadfastly aims to block any attempt by the rabbi to question his or her political views, and still another wants only comforting and spiritual words.
- Feminism and the ordination of women have had a transformational impact on Jewish preaching. Women rabbinic preachers have demonstrated that charismatic male-ness is not the sine qua non of success in the pulpit. In an effort to overcome gender inequality in Jewish life and to promote the egalitarian ideals of Reform Judaism, they boldly used examples from their own lives. It would not be an exaggeration to say that women rabbis may have saved preaching in the Reform pulpit from extinction.
While the grand oratorical sermon style practiced by charismatic male rabbis is a thing of the past, I believe that preaching from the pulpit remains an indispensable part of the modern synagogue experience.
- Nothing can replace the immediacy of well-chosen words in speaking truth to power and empowering the powerless.
- Meekness on the pulpit does not inspire audacious hospitality, the welcoming of spiritual seekers into our synagogues.
- At a time when powerful and dark forces, such as religious fundamentalism and political authoritarianism, threaten the future of democracy in the United States, Europe, and Israel, it is rabbinic malpractice, or at the very least a shirking of rabbinic responsibility, not to rally the Jewish people around the prophetic tradition to pursue peace and justice.
If rabbis cease boldly voicing the living words of our prophetic tradition, the spirit of Reform Judaism surely will wither.