Address Presented by Dr. Marc Saperstein at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati Graduation - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Address Presented by Dr. Marc Saperstein at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati Graduation

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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Dr. Marc Saperstein, Principal, Leo Baeck College, presented the HUC-JIR/Cincinnati Graduation Address on May 19, 2011.

Is the Jewish Sermon on Its Deathbed?

Allow me to begin by speaking personally. Putting both sides of our family and both components of the College-Institute together, David and I are fourth generation graduates of HUC-JIR. My mother’s mother’s uncle, Abraham Benedict Rhine, born in Siauli (Shavli) Lithuania in 1876, graduated from HUC in 1902; he wrote the first English study of Yehudah Leib Gordon and translated a Popular History of the Jews by Graetz.

My father’s uncle, Adolph (Gedaliah) Lasker, a son of the Orthodox rabbi in Troy NY, graduated from the Jewish Institute of Religion in 1930. He was serving in Temple Emanuel of Lynbrook when he died at age 35 in 1933, and my father, then a student at JIR, took over in that role.

My father Harold was JIR class of 1935, and his younger brother Sanford class of 1944. And then myself in 1972 and David a year later. In short, this institution has played a central role in our family for well more than a hundred years, and I am so deeply honored by being here in this capacity today.

Another personal detail, which I have never shared publicly with anyone before now. I have here a short letter dated  November 13, 1944, two months and eight days after I was born, addressed to my father who was then a Chaplain with American forces “somewhere in (liberated) France”.

Dear Harold,

It was a great joy to have your letter of October 17th and to know especially of Marcia’s contribution, with some help from you, in meeting what you call the manpower shortage. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if some day that gentleman were to be a student at the Institute, or, as Miss Adelstein suggests, the President of the Institute, unless his father gets ahead of him. .. .

Faithfully yours,


Well Stephen S. Wise was a great leader, but not a prophet. He wasn’t quite right on the all the details; of course the Leo Baeck College did not exist at the time. But coming back to HUC-JIR today  as Principal of Leo Baeck College makes me feel that in some sense, the spirit of Wise is with us together with that of my father and uncle, and their uncle and my mother’s great-uncle—and it is all coming together.

But I am here not to speak about myself but about the subject that has been the focal point of my academic research and publication for some 32 years ever since the book based on my doctoral dissertation went to press, namely: the Jewish sermon.

In this context I would like to pay tribute to three individuals who were crucial in the process that led me to choose this core subject of my efforts. First my father: listening to his sermons week as a week as a child, and then as a teenager, I came to appreciate the power of the sermon to educate, to stimulate, and to inspire. Second, Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold, Hillel Rabbi at Harvard, who first planted the seed at a time when I was an English literature major and had no intention of a career in Jewish Studies, that I should study the history of the Jewish sermon. And to Israel Bettan, whom I never met, but whose Studies on Jewish Preaching, the only significant published academic book in English at the time I began the research that led to my own first book on the subject, Jewish Preaching 1200–1800, convinced me that this was a vast literature worth further investigation, convinced me to pick up his mantle and carry it forward.(I understand that he is the source of the18 minute rule for the graduation address, which I shall endeavor to honor.)

What I have published has been about the Jewish sermon in the past, from the 13th century through 2001. What is the state of health of the sermon today. Is it on its deathbed?

Certainly not in the other Abrahamic religions. We read all the time about Muslim preachers at their Friday worship, many of them stirring up rather fanatical and extremist passions, but these Friday sermons also played a critical role in mobilizing opposition to Mubarak in Egypt and Gadaffi in Libya.  Christian evangelical preachers make the sermon the core of the worship experience at huge mega-churches. In the African-American community, the sermon continues to thrive. It is tragic that a full career of beautifully crafted sermons by Rev Jeremiah Wright—and his published texts are certainly worth reading—was condensed by the conservative media in the spring of 2008 into one unfortunate 5-second sound-bite, though President Obama, even in distancing himself from certain pulpit formulations, has paid tribute to the inspirational power of the preaching of his rebbe in Chicago.

But in our own communities—despite the monumental infusion of new energy and creativity resulting from the voice of women heard in the American Jewish pulpit— the sermon on the whole often seems to be neglected, something of an embarrassment. The idea of expecting a congregation to listen passively to their rabbi speaking for a significant period of time seems to some undemocratic and passé. The time allotted to the sermon constantly diminishes. Even the term “sermon” appears to have become problematic, with many preferring “d’var torah”, which often implies less formal preparation and less application to anything of serious concern in the world today.


Based on the study of Jewish sermons in the past—medieval, early modern and modern—where, if anywhere, does it look as if the contemporary Jewish sermon can continue to play a significant role? I will mention three areas.

1.Response to Extraordinary Events

As a historian, I have been attracted to the “topical” sermon. Unlike the “timeless” sermon , which could be delivered a decade or a generation earlier or later, this sub-genre is bound to a specific moment in history. And indeed, there are times when extraordinary, unanticipated events solidify a community in unexpected ways and create a need for rabbinic response from the pulpit. These can place considerable demands upon the rabbi’s capacity to articulate an appropriate response under circumstances when he or she may feel just as bewildered and distraught as the congregants.

An example from the 19th century. Abraham Lincoln was shot while sitting in a stall at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC on Friday evening, 14 April 1865 (which happened to be Good Friday for Christians and Hol ha-Mo’ed Pesah for Jews). Reports of the shooting were in the morning newspapers, and many Jewish preachers learned of Lincoln’s death while walking to the synagogue or during the Shabbat service.

Last February, as part of the World Union for Progressive Judaism conference in San Francisco, I visited Congregation Emanuel with a group of other delegates. I did not realize until then that this was the congregation I had briefly cited in my latest book, Jewish Preaching in Times of War 1800-2001. The reference wasbased on a newspaper article written by a member, who reported that at the Shabbat service on 15 April 1865, as the rabbi, Elkan Cohn, was ascending the pulpit to deliver the sermon he had prepared, handed a note informing him that Lincoln was dead. Initially overcome by emotion, Rabbi Cohn recovered and spoke extemporaneously; the version preserved in the newspaper article is said by the author not to do justice to the eloquence of the preacher, but it retains considerable power in print.


None of us, I assume, will ever be faced with a challenge like that. But many of us will remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy on Friday, 22 November 1963. The report of his death was broadcast a little before 1:00 pm Eastern time. Most American rabbis had completed preparing their Friday evening sermons by then, or at least were well along in the process. Kennedy’s death stopped everything: overcome by shock, disbelief, anguish, anger, uncertainty, rabbis – like all other Americans and many throughout the world – were for a while incapable of thinking beyond the moment, gathering in every detail as it emerged from radio and television reports. Then reality imposed itself: there would be a worship service in the synagogue that evening, attendance would be closer to that on Kol Nidre than on an ordinary Friday night. People wanted, needed, to hear their rabbi say something that was more than merely recapitulating the facts and the thoughts being expressed throughout the media by many news commentators and international heads of state. There was little time to prepare. What to say?

And similarly the news of the outbreak of massive attacks on Israel by Egypt and Syria that came to the attention of many rabbis before the end of Yom Kippur 1973. And the Sabra and Shatila massacres between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in 1982. And Tuesday, September 11, 2001, less than a week before Rosh Hashanah?

These were occasions where it would simply not do for the rabbi to lead a discussion about the parashah, or to share a half-worked out idea hoping that listeners would fill out the time with their own thoughts. Despite the overflow of media comments and analysis from experts in various fields, at such moments Jews needed to hear their rabbi speak with the proper balance of anguish and reassurance, of humility and authority. At such times, saying the wrong thing can make matters worse, and careless formulations may arouse unexpectedly negative reactions. They are certainly not occasions for the rabbi to try to be impressive, self-indulgent or even especially original. But at its best, under such circumstances the sermon can play a significant role as an aid towards healing.

2. Ongoing Adult Education

A very different function for the sermon is represented by the texts in my book, Exile in Amsterdam: Saul Levi Morteira’s Sermons to a Congregation of ‘New Jews’ (HUC Press, 2005). Morteira was the leading rabbi in Amsterdam; he delivered sermons virtually every week from 1619 until shortly before his death in 1660 (four years after he signed the document of ex-communication for Baruch de Espinosa, son of a former warden of the congregation, who grew up listening to many of Morteira’s sermons but rejected the entire worldview that informed them).

This was a congregation composed at first entirely of members born and educated as Christians in Portugal. Some were sophisticated, successful physicians and international merchants, who had decided to leave their familiar environment and come to a Jewish community that was being created ex nihilo. They knew that they wanted to be Jews, but they knew almost nothing about what this actually meant. For this congregation, the sermons of their rabbi – delivered in their vernacular Portuguese, presenting material of a challenging intellectual level that did not pre-suppose much prior knowledge, in a beautifully constructed form that guided the listeners through the presentation and helped them to remember its main points – were an ongoing program of high-level adult education.

Morteira served in a single congregation throughout his career, performing life-cycle events of joy and sorrow for two or even three generations of the same family, watching infants he named grow to maturity and to have children of their own. Most of his listeners in Amsterdam would hear the sermon in the context of a positive relationship with the preacher, whose authority is derived not just from a title, or a reputation, but from years of interaction.

In such circumstances, the sermon takes on a special character. Each one must be complete in itself, intelligible to a visitor who will be hearing the preacher only once. But it is very different from the sermon by a guest preacher who may never return. It is perhaps more analogous to the academic lecture in the middle of a course, where the speaker can assume knowledge that has already been developed and build upon it. Morteira’s sermons were indeed a medium for life-long Jewish learning.

Is the sermon effective as a teaching technique? Not just as a source of entertainment or inspiration, but of education? Probably not as effective as a class in which rabbi and congregants read and analyse texts together, but there will be many in our congregations who attend services regularly, but do not come to classes. Not either/or, both both/and.

3. Prophetic Social Justice     

This is the kind of preaching for which Rev. Jeremiah Wright was pilloried and excoriated. Indeed, he had a provocative, confrontational, even incendiary way of putting things. But none of his rhetoric, not even the notorious ‘God damn America’, went beyond the prophets’ condemnation of contemporary Israelite society. Jeremiah Wright’s rebuke of America was actually mild compared to that of his biblical namesake who prophesied defeat, destruction and exile for his country at the hands of God’s instruments, the Babylonians.


There is very little continuity of this tradition in the medieval and early modern Jewish homiletical literature. While some Jewish preachers certainly understood their role to include condemning the failings of Jewish society, this rarely applied to the inequities of their host societies. Even with the emergence of a new style of Jewish preaching in nineteenth-century Germany, the purpose of the preacher was primarily to educate, edify, inspire, perhaps even to entertain, but not to criticize and condemn. Many nineteenth-century Jewish preachers, including Isaac Mayer Wise, made it a matter of principle to keep politics out of their pulpits, a policy that eminently pleased their trustees and wardens.


But elsewhere in the United States, forceful, eloquent orators – Joseph Krauskopf in Philadelphia, Emil G. Hirsch in Chicago, J. Leonard Levy in Pittsburgh, Leon Harrison in St Louis, Morris Newfield in Birmingham, and Stephen S. Wise in New York, many of them early graduates of HUC – delivered their message of social and economic justice at Sunday services, speaking at times to as many as a thousand worshippers. Solomon Freehof has argued that such preachers were the ones who made the case that responsibility for the state of the workers, the poor, the oppressed was an integral part of what it meant to be a Jew. This often entailed criticizing governmental policies, or even the practices of wealthy Jewish employers from the pulpit – decisions that involved considerable courage and generated vigorous controversy and antagonism. The ‘Social Gospel’ ideal of their Protestant colleagues provided a natural context in which these preachers could claim the mantle of ‘prophetic Judaism’.


My sense is that this style of preaching is out of fashion today – that we have moved back to the model of the early nineteenth century with a sermon expected to educate, edify and entertain, not to provoke and disturb. Perhaps one reason is that the tradition of prophetic condemnation of social injustice is so widely available in the opinion pieces of our newspapers and other media, where pundits and politicians and would-be prophets weigh in day after day, that the rabbi’s role in speaking out on controversial social issues may seem superfluous. That is certainly true when it comes to criticism of Israeli government policies; do we really need – some think – to add our voices when so many are engaged in attack? And it certainly may be a risky undertaking for the preacher.


But should rabbis be content to speak only about the parashah and ‘stick to religion’, while avoiding the issues that most deeply trouble our society? Is it an abuse of the rabbinic position to take a strong stand from the pulpit on a matter of controversy and contention? While we are certainly not prophets or the children of prophets, personally I believe it is an abnegation of an important component of the role of the Progressive Rabbi to abandon the prophetic role that is indeed taken up so impressively by many of our Christian colleagues.


A concluding point about publication and preservation of sermon material, intended especially for colleagues receiving their honorary DD degrees. I find it extremely encouraging that many rabbis have chosen to place the texts of some of their sermons on the websites of their congregations. We should be following the example of Christian seminaries that have collected video-tapes of their best preachers to be used as models for students learning the homiletical art—and indeed, the video-tape is much closer to the actual sermon than any written text can be.

I urge all rabbis who write out their texts either completely or in detailed outline to keep their papers safely stored away for future use, and leave instructions that the texts of their sermons not be tossed out for the garbage collector by younger relatives who can’t imagine that anyone would be interested in them, but sent for safekeeping to the American Jewish Archives or another an appropriate archival collection. The sermons given by rabbis plant seeds in the minds and souls of their congregants, but more than this, they are also part of the historical record of our people. Who knows but that some future graduate student may gratefully use such texts for an MA or PhD dissertation, or—as I have done in my most recent book—some future historian, addressing some future HUC graduation, may have incorporated the text of the entire sermon into a book.

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.