A recent article in “Jewish Action,” the magazine of the Orthodox Union, bemoaned the fact that the sermon has become less important in the life of the synagogue. Just a few months ago, in a front-page article, the Wall Street Journal explored the culture of the Kiddush Club and how some congregants go for Kiddush during the rabbi’s sermon.
Noted historian Jonathan Sarna, who often comments on trends among American Jews, put it like this: “Once upon a time, some people went to synagogue to talk to God. Nowadays, more and more people come to see their friends.” The prayers and sermons, he concluded, “are a distraction. Conviviality goes better with a drink.”
What motivates some congregants to absent themselves from the rabbi’s sermon? Rabbi Marc Saperstein, a professor of Jewish History and a scholar of Jewish sermons, remarked that “homiletics is not an art that is especially valued today.” This is not really a new development. Almost thirty years ago, Rabbi Norman Lamm, past president of Yeshiva University, wrote: “The art and science of homiletics have fallen into disfavor and even disuse in the course of a generation or two.”
But there can be great value in a sermon and a powerful sermon can change a person’s way of thinking. A dynamic sermon can lift a person out of his or her apathy and help propel that person to action. An emotional and touching sermon can motivate an entire community to take major steps and can help create an amazing and tangible energy that can save lives and rescue those in need. Haven’t we all witnessed a sermon from a rabbi which has led to the raising of thousands of dollars for Israel or for Jewish and other people in need?
In our current Torah readings, we see how the powerful words of Moses gave the Israelite slaves strength and hope for a brighter, triumphant future. As George Burns put it, “The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending, and to have the two as close together as possible.”
With that advice in mind, let’s not write off the sermon just yet!Rabbi Marc Mandel of Touro Synagogue in Newport can be reached at rabbimandel@