The story is told of an old-fashioned Galician Jew who visited Vienna where he was exposed for the first time to a modern synagogue and its solemn German sermon. He was puzzled to hear the familiar Hebrew title of the biblical book ‘Kohelet’ (Ecclesiastes) translated into German as “der Prediger”—”the preacher.” When he related his experiences to a friend, the latter explained to him that one can indeed learn a lot about preachers from Kohelet (and this is not limited to the book’s repeated plaints about “vanity of vanities”).
Consider for example Kohelet’s famous list of seasons and times for every purpose under heaven. In addition to a “time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” and so forth, most of those pairs of opposites leave room for a neutral third option; after all, it is possible for a person to be neither weeping nor laughing, neither mourning nor dancing.
There appears, however, to be one glaring exception to this pattern, in the verse that speaks of “a time to be silent and a time to speak.” Is it really possible to conceive a situation that is neither silence nor speaking?
Yes indeed, concluded the friend. Such a situation may be found in the sermons delivered by those modern preachers who can wax so eloquent before their congregations—and yet say nothing that is substantial or memorable!
The preceding anecdote reflects a tension that divided many Jewish communities when they confronted the challenges of modernity and the Enlightenment. Toward the close of the eighteenth century, and especially during the first half of the nineteenth, as Jews in Europe were being admitted to citizenship in their lands of residence, numerous proposals were offered to overhaul Judaism with a view to putting it in touch with “the spirit of the times.” It is easy to appreciate why some of the more radical changes would have provoked the rage of traditionalists. And yet some of the suggested reforms strike us today as utterly unexceptionable, making it all but impossible to imagine why anyone would have objected to them at the time.
One of these surprisingly contentious proposals called for rabbis to preach inspirational sermons in the local language on all sabbaths and festivals. From the perspective of our contemporary North American Jewish scene, where the weekly English sermon is one of the mainstays of nearly all synagogue services, it is hard to imagine a time when sermons were not preached, let alone to understand why anyone would be offended by them.
At any rate, both the demand for sermons and the resistance to them were a recurring feature in the evolution of modern Judaism. The issue was addressed, for example, by the Jewish Consistory of Westphalia, the governing body that was established in 1808 under the auspices of Napoleon’s brother Jérôme Bonaparte to regulate the affairs of the local Jewish communities and to oversee the Jewish citizens’ integration into the post-Revolutionary world order. The Consistory’s first significant enactment was an 1809 document delineating the “Duties of the Rabbis” which attached crucial importance to the delivering of edifying sermons, preferably in German.
Similar clauses appeared in the synagogue regulations legislated by several German states. In spite of the official sanctions, the practice was very slow in catching on outside a few major centres. An ambitious program for redefining the rabbinate, published by the educator David Caro of Posen in 1820, insisted that the modern rabbi should employ artistically crafted inspirational sermons in order to achieve his religious objectives in the most effective manner. These German discourses should expound the sacred commandments while addressing universal moral values.
From 1820 to 1822, one of the preachers at the Reform temple in Berlin was a bookish young scholar named Yom-Tov Leopold Zunz. Zunz became aware of an accusation emanating from the traditionalist camp to the effect that the introduction of weekly sermons was nothing more than an imitation of a Christian practice that had never been customary among authentic Jews.
Indeed, in the Jewish communities of Germany, France and eastern Europe, the rabbi’s preaching was restricted to a few occasions during the year. In most cases, the discourses were offered only twice: on the Sabbath preceding the Day of Atonement on the theme of repentance, and a lecture before Passover dealing mostly with the complex dietary regulations that govern that holiday. In some communities, the rabbis also preached prior to one or two additional festivals. Some of the liberal rabbis, sensitive to the allegations that they were emulating gentile customs, made special efforts to incorporate elements of the traditional Jewish “d’rashah” into their speeches.
As a scholar well-versed in the history and literature of the Jews, Leopold Zunz was exasperated by the charge that the synagogue sermon was somehow foreign to our tradition. He had previously responded to a government edict requiring Jews to retain “authentic” Jewish names by publishing a learned monograph in which he demonstrated that Jews throughout history had always adopted names from the surrounding gentile cultures. In this case too, his reaction took the form of an erudite academic study of “the Sermons of the Jews” (Gottesdienstliche Vorträge der Juden), published in 1832.
Zunz’s treatise traced the history of Jewish homiletics and scriptural interpretation from their beginnings through to his own generation. He adduced evidence that sermons were as old as the synagogue itself and had accompanied the reading of the Torah back in the days of the Jerusalem Temple. He compiled an exhaustive bibliography of the vast corpus of rabbinic Midrash, and demonstrated that much of that literature had originated in sermons that were delivered in ancient synagogues on sabbaths and festivals. He showed how skillfully the ancient Jewish preachers had applied rhetorical structures to their craft. Clearly, the synagogue preachers of modern Europe were not copying alien practices—if anything, it was the Christians who had borrowed their sermons as part of their inheritance from their Jewish antecedents.
Indeed, Zunz’s research was unassailable in its precision; and though Jewish scholarship has advanced considerably since his time, “the Sermons of the Jews” (usually in a revised Hebrew translation) continues to be consulted profitably almost two centuries after its original publication—a boast that can be made by very few works of academic research.
After tracing the development of Jewish preaching in the age of Midrash, and through the Babylonian academies of the talmudic and post-talmudic eras, Zunz continued his historical excursion through the medieval synagogues of north Africa, Italy, Spain and France, describing the specialized genres of philosophical and kabbalistic discourses that emerged in those cultures. He left no room for doubt that sermons were a pervasive part of religious life in the synagogues and academies, whether in the holy land or in the diaspora.
It remained for him to explain why the medieval French and German communities had departed from the established norm by discontinuing the venerable practice of weekly sermons. He hazarded a number of possible reasons to account for this development: for one thing, the Ashkenazic services were prolonged by the cultivation of cantorial virtuosity and by the inclusion of many piyyuṭim (liturgical poems) in the liturgy, so that the further addition of a sermon would overstretch the patience of the worshipers. Moreover, many Jews preferred to derive their inspiration from reading books or in the talmudic academies rather than from orations from the pulpit. Most significantly, Zunz attributed the decline of Franco-German Jewish preaching to the atmosphere of fear and oppression that silenced the tongues of the preachers and unsettled the concentration of their audiences.
And so the upshot of all this scholarly labour is that, if you are happen to be of those Jews who derives satisfaction from listening to inspiring sermons, you need not feel guilty about indulging your passion.
And the bad news, I suppose, is that if you are one of those congregants who find the preaching irritating or tedious, you will have to look for another pretext for tuning it out
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