Sunday, August 15, 2010

Irrelevance

There's a very old joke that goes like this:

What did the parson preach about?
Sin.
What did he say?
He was against it.
I remembered this while reading a recent op-ed column in The New York Times by Rev. G. Jeffrey MacDonald, a UCC minister in Swampscott, Mass. He writes, "the advisory committee of my small congregation in Massachusetts told me to keep my sermons to 10 minutes, tell funny stories and leave people feeling great about themselves."

That also reminded me of something that Hebrew-school parents sometimes say when I ask them what their goals are for their children's Jewish education: "We just want them to feel good about being Jewish."


My heart sinks when I hear this, for several reasons. First, it might well be possible to feel good about being Jewish without ever attending Hebrew school. For example, a child could grow up with a lot of ethnic pride even if it's unfounded.


Second, parents might think that some, in fact a lot, of what we teach is likely to make children feel
bad about being Jewish: we might teach about religious obligations that our families don't fulfill (kashrut, Shabbat). Or we might teach about Jewish history and include the low points. I once had to deal with a rabbi's wife who wanted to come into the school and teach a course on the history of persecution.

Third, what do we mean by
good? Happy because we get lots presents at Hanukkah, plus challah every Friday evening? Happy because the newest Justice of the Supreme Court is Jewish? Some of these things are like eating ice cream -- they feel good up to a point, but too much can make you sick.

In other words, we gravitate toward a different sense of
good: the moral sense. We want our students to feel good about being Jewish because Judaism provides moral guidance and a sense of meaning in life. From the feel-good point of view, however, this is a downer, because it requires actually learning stuff.

It's much the same with sermons. As background, let me say that I grew up in a Reform congregation when an average sermon lasted at least 20 minutes, often 30, occasionally more, and rabbis preached mostly about current social issues. People actually came to temple to hear those sermons!


It's not the same today. For one thing, it's no longer true that a rabbi has superior education to all but a tiny minority of congregants. Today most adult Jews are college-educated and many have graduate degrees: although our education is almost all in secular fields, we have plenty of it overall. We don't feel a need for our rabbi to interpret everything to us and we certainly don't want anyone to tell us what to think.


As an adult I've lived in every region of the country, belonged to a number of different congregations, and visited many more. In addition, for most of my adult life, I attended Shabbat services every week, so I've experienced a variety of different approaches to sermons.


To generalize -- I hope not unfairly -- it seems to me that many rabbis have given up. Faced with congregations of members to whom religious Judaism appears irrelevant, rabbis have retreated from sermon topics that might possibly make it relevant, to topics that don't require much engagement with the religious dimensions of Judaism at all.


Thus, we can hear sermons that do not contain a single word of Torah, even sermons that seem explicitly contrary to Torah. Please don't take me for a traditionalist zealot; I'm not arguing that rabbis should never disagree with any element of Torah or
halachah. But I do think that if the moral lesson to be drawn from a sermon seems to be at odds with the Torah, it needs some explaining.

Nor am I saying that rabbis should exhort us to be more observant. I think it was a mistake for Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum, the rabbi in
And They Shall be My People: An American Rabbi and His Congregation, to measure his success only in terms of the number of congregants whom he persuaded to become fully observant.

Too many sermons, however, come across as something akin to group therapy, except that no one else is allowed to speak. The working out of an individual's personal problems usually isn't promising material for a sermon.


Rev. MacDonald also writes,


When they’re being true to their calling, pastors urge Christians to do the hard work of reconciliation with one another before receiving communion. They lead people to share in the suffering of others, including people they would rather ignore, by experiencing tough circumstances — say, in a shelter, a prison or a nursing home — and seeking relief together with those in need. At their courageous best, clergy lead where people aren’t asking to go, because that’s how the range of issues that concern them expands, and how a holy community gets formed.


Leave out "Christians" and "communion," and how is this any different from what we really
should hope to hear from our rabbis?