After 45 years in the English-speaking Jewish pulpit, plus occasional forays into sermonizing since my official retirement, I must have given thousands of sermons. I still have the notes or texts of many of these sermons; I mostly spoke from headline summaries, though for state occasions I used a full written text. What will happen to my files when I am gone, I have no idea.
I also have the notes of lectures I gave in many places to many audiences, Jewish and general, and sometimes when I come across notes of my lectures I am quite impressed at myself.
I recall seeing a coffee-table book about London in the 1960s, in which Chaim Bermant wrote the chapter on Jewish life. He said the Hampstead Synagogue, where I was the minister at the time, had, considering the sermon and the singing, the best Shabbat service in London, and he praised my “felicities of expression.” A great compliment, but I wasn’t in the same league as the really great pulpit orators of that generation of British rabbis – Kopul Rosen, Israel Brodie and Ephraim Levine.
At Jews’ College (now called the London School of Jewish Studies), our elocution teacher was Mr. Johnson, a non-Jew who made the rounds of the synagogues to hear his students speak. I still have somewhere the letter he sent me after my induction address at the Bayswater Synagogue and I treasure both his compliments and his criticisms.
Mr. Johnson stressed correct enunciation. Many of today’s rabbis could learn from him; they don’t speak up, they don’t stop for breath, you never know where one word ends and the next begins, they repeat themselves over and over again, and they don’t so much talk English as “yeshivish.”
I learned the art of preaching from many people. Isaac Levy, whose Hampstead pulpit I later assumed, taught us in his Homiletics class how to develop a theme. Louis Jacobs reminded us of Shakespeare’s notion that you can even find sermons in stones. S. M. Lehrman said that a good sermon was amplified conversation, and constantly said that the preacher must have rapport with his congregation.
Chief rabbi Brodie had a wonderful way with classical English, and made magic out of a Midrash. When he quoted “our rabbis of blessed memory,” the congregation physically savored his words. Chief rabbi Jakobovits had amazing content, command over his audience and was a master at the art of peroration. No one could give a eulogy like Rev. Ephie Levine. When he spoke at a funeral, one was transfixed. My contemporary Cyril Harris was an expert at vocal inflexion. My teacher Rabbi Koppel Kahana, who was not really meant to be teaching sermonizing but Halacha, objected if we merely read the Gemara: we had to sing it. I think he meant that we had to live the text, and I suspect that is also part of giving a sermon.
In my student days in London I sometimes went to hear the famous Christian preachers, but was often disappointed at their theatricality and lack of substance.
In my youth in Melbourne, Rabbi Danglow’s sermons at the St. Kilda Synagogue were models of ordered thinking and systematic preparation. Rabbi Sholem Gutnick, at the suburban Caulfield Synagogue, insisted that sermons had to have distinctive Jewish content. His brother Chaim, at the nearby Elwood Synagogue, was a genius at pondering events and episodes. No orator could compete with my colleague Ronald Lubofsky.
In Israel one of the few great preachers is Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau. He is worth hearing again and again, in Hebrew, English or other languages.
A Negro preacher once said, “First I tells ’em what I’s goin’ to tell ’em. Then I tells ’em. Then I tells ’em what I’s told ’em.” A useful pointer: the congregation must see how a sermon hangs together.
When vernacular preaching began in Britain two centuries ago, Jewish preachers learned from Christian pioneers of the art how to show the congregation that a sermon has an architectural system. The texts of their sermons often use complicated classical language, but you can see that the sermon has design and structure.
The 19th century sermonical tug-of-war between chief rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler and the Reform minister Rev.
Professor David W. Marks is a fascinating chapter of history; both were highly effective preachers.
One of the finest practitioners of architectural exegesis was the 15th century statesman-scholar Isaac Abravanel, who announced the questions he was going to deal with and then proceeded to answer them in detail.
A great teacher was life. It gave me an understanding of how to handle real people and real problems. No compliment was more telling than the remark, “I was sure you were talking to me this morning.” Having lived through the realities of life, this is why the ideas, substance and style of an experienced preacher are generally far deeper than those of a beginner.
Even greater than having life as a teacher, I learned from the Almighty. The prayer book says, “barukh she’amar v’hayah ha’olam, “Blessed be He who spoke, and the world was.” Unlike human beings who limit themselves to words (the “barukh she’amar” types), God doesn’t just speak – He acts. He spoke, and the world came into being.
This too is a lesson for the preacher – don’t just talk: use words as building blocks for action.
Be careful in what you say, and give people a lead by means of deeds that turn fancies into facts.
I believe it was Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz who said that when a rabbi gives a Dvar Torah, he ought to speak “in pupik arein” – right to the listener’s gut. The rabbi who speaks above people’s heads – apart from muttering instead of producing his voice – and thinks he is at the yeshivah shtender or on the lecture podium, is ignoring his audience. He is what the sages called “hamor nosei sefarim – a donkey carrying books.” People don’t need a walking or talking library but a genuine human being who knows who they are, where they’re at, and where they need vision, hope and a helping hand.The author is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney.