Originally published in the Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 13 (1972), pp. 1002-6.
In Modern Times (From the Beginning of the 19th Century). THE MODERN SERMON. Part of the aim of Zunz’s most famous work, Gottesdienstliche Vortraege der Juden (1832), was to demonstrate, when this was challenged by the Prussian government (under the influence of Orthodox groups who saw the sermon in the vernacular as the beginnings of Reform), that preaching is not an innovation but an ancient Jewish institution. While this is true, the traditional derashah was, in fact, replaced in the 19th century by a new type of Jewish sermon, the Predigt, as it was called in Germany. There were a number of important changes in language, style, and content which, first in Germany and then in other European countries, gave a completely new cast to the sermon. This new type of sermon was delivered in the vernacular and unlike the occasional derashah, it was a regular feature of the service. It sought to express Jewish values in a contemporary idiom and in the thought-patterns of the day. Woven around one central theme, the modern sermon developed in orderly fashion, without academic digressions on the texts quoted, emphasizing edification rather than pure instruction. Although the early 19th-century preachers in Germany were not rabbis, preaching, instead of being delegated to a special functionary, eventually became the preserve of the rabbi and one of his most important duties in Western countries. Among the well-known preachers in 19th-century Germany were: Eduard Kley, Gotthold Salomon. Abraham Geiger, Samuel Holdheim, Jehiel Michael Sachs, Samson Raphael Hirsch. and David Einhorn; and in the 20th century: Siegmund Maybaum, Nehemia Anton Nobel, and Leo Baeck.
A. Altmann (see bibl.) has demonstrated the influence of the Protestant pulpit on the development of the modern Jewish sermon. The early German preachers consciously modeled their sermons on the patterns of Christian homiletics and used Christian guides to the art of preaching. Even Isaac Noah Mannheimer, the most outstanding 19th-century preacher, who pleaded for a closer link with the Jewish homiletical tradition, admitted “that we as pupils and disciples, as novices in the art of preaching which we have been practicing only a little while, can learn a great deal from the masters of the art, and we have gratefully to accept every guidance and instruction offered to us in their schools.” Zunz, in his brief career as a preacher at the New Synagogue in Berlin (1820-22), was influenced by Schleiermacher. It is even on record that the most popular Christian preachers of the time, such as Ritschl and Schleiermacher, used to hear the young preachers at Israel Jacobson’s temple in Berlin and give them, after the service, “manifold hints and directives.”
A reaction soon set in. There was a persistent demand for a truly Jewish homiletic, arguing, in Mannheimer’s words, that “it is always better to feed on one’s own resources than to live from alms.” But, generally speaking, the reaction in the 19th century only amounted to a greater use of rabbinic, especially midrashic, material as exemplified in the sermons of the illustrious preacher Adolf Jellinek in Vienna. Jellinek’s preaching attracted many of the intellectuals of his day who, in their quest for Jewish identity, needed his reassurance that Judaism was supremely worthwhile and still capable of making important contributions. Jellinek was fond of preaching that too many were saying: “Now Israel’s eyes were dim with age; he could not see” (Gen. 48: 10), whereas the truth was that Moses still spoke and God still answered him in thunder (Ex. 19: 19). Jellinek’s methods and strong Jewish emphasis influenced Jewish preaching everywhere. A later occupant of Jellinek’s pulpit, Hirsch (Zevi) Perez Chajes, for example, preached to a bar mitzvah the story of the woman whose vessels were miraculously replenished by the oil (II Kings 4: 1-7). The never-ending power of Judaism is always available if only Jews will provide the vessels with which to contain it. No matter how great the Jew’s spiritual demands, Judaism is capable of satisfying them (Ne’umim ve-Harza’ot (1953), 400).
Tobias Goodman is credited with being the first Jew to preach in the English language. Two of his printed sermons are: A Sermon on the Universally Regretted Death of the Most Illustrious Princess Charlotte, preached on Wednesday, Nov. 19, 1817, at the synagogue, Denmark Court, London (the first sermon to be both delivered and printed in English), and A Sermon Occasioned by the Demise of Our Late Venerable Sovereign, King George the Third, preached on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 1820, at the same synagogue (A. Barnett, The Western Synagogue Through Two Centuries (1961), 48-51). In December, 1828 a Committee of Elders was appointed at the Bevis Marks Sephardi Synagogue in London, to inquire into the best means of elevating the tone of public services. Among their recommendations was that an English sermon based on a text taken from Scripture should be delivered every Saturday afternoon. Before delivery every sermon should be examined by a committee of three elders for statements contrary to Jewish doctrine or hostile to the institutions of the country (J. Picciotto, Sketches of Anglo-Jewish History (1956), 818-20). In the U.S., preaching in the English language was introduced much later. Some preachers, like the Reform Rabbi David Einhorn, preferred to give sermons in their native German. Einhorn declared that “Where the German sermon is banned, there the reform of Judaism is nothing more than a brilliant gloss, a decorated doll, without heart, without soul, which the proudest temples and the most splendid theories cannot succeed in infusing with life.” The Jewish sermon in English was developed to a fine art by such preachers as Simeon Singer, Morris Joseph, Joseph Herman Hertz, Israel Mattuck, A. A. Green, Abraham Cohen, and Ephraim Levine in England; Stephen S. Wise, Israel Herbert Levinthal, Abba Hillel Silver, Solomon Goldman, and Solomon Bennett Freehof in the U.S. Two annual collections of sermons in English are those published by the Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox) since 1943; and since 1954, the collection by rabbis from all three groups in Best Jewish Sermons, edited by Saul I. Teplitz.
In Eastern Europe the older type of derashah delivered in Yiddish by the maggid still predominated, but certain new features manifested themselves even here. The winds of change in the Jewish world moved the maggidim to find a rather more sophisticated approach. Preaching in Yiddish became directed to the needs of the individual as well as the community. The Haskalah movement was frequently fought by the maggidim with the weapons of pulpit oratory. With the rise of Zionism, many of its opponents used the same weapons to combat it, while others sympathetic to Zionism preached the love of the Holy Land and the legitimacy of Jewish nationalistic aspirations with new fervor. In fact, a new type of nationalistic preacher emerged and was given the name mattif (“speaker”; Micah 2: 11), to distinguish him from the old-type maggid. Under the influence of the Lithuanian Musar movement, with its strong moralistic concern, the derashah began to place greater emphasis on ethical matters. The hellfire preaching of Moses Isaac, the Kelmer Maggid (1828-1900), the most popular of the folk preachers, was directed largely against dishonesty in business and general unethical conduct (D. Katz, Tenu’at ha-Musar, 2 (c. 1958), 395-407). Many of the maggidim went to the U.S., England, and South Africa where their preaching was directed against the widespread desecration of the Sabbath and neglect of the dietary laws, abuses unknown in their native countries. Maggidim still flourish in the State of Israel, but there has been little development of the sermon in Hebrew and the rabbi-preacher is virtually unknown there as a regular and respected synagogue functionary. Among the Yiddish preachers of renown were: Hayyim Zundel, H. Z. Maccoby (the Kamenitzer Maggid), J. L. Lazarov, Z. H. Masliansky, Isaac Nissenbaum, M. A. Amiel, Zalman Sorotzkin, and Ze’ev Gold.
PREACHING TECHNIQUES. Simeon Singer in “Where the Clergy Fail,” an address delivered to young preachers on Jan. 17, 1904 (Lectures and Addresses (1908), 203-25), describes the aim of the Jewish preacher thus: “to teach the word of God to their brethren, young and old; to help them to the perception of the highest truths of religion; to uplift their souls out of the rut of the common, the sordid, the selfish, in life; to speak a message of comfort to the sorrowing, of hope to the despondent, of counsel to the perplexed, of courage to the struggling and aspiring.” In the belief that the art of preaching can be taught, the major rabbinical seminaries have departments of homiletics. Sigmund Maybaum taught homiletics at the Hochschule in Berlin, Israel Bettan at Hebrew Union College, Mordecai Menahem Kaplan at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Abraham Cohen at Jews’ College.
The modern Jewish sermon is usually based on a text chosen from the portion (the sidra or haftarah) read in the synagogue on the day the sermon is delivered. Books of the Bible which are not read in public, like Job, rarely furnish texts for sermons, though they may be quoted in support of a position the preacher adopts. Normally the sermon is delivered toward the end of the service. While the note of exhortation is never entirely absent from the sermon, many preachers nowadays prefer to use the sermon chiefly as a means of instruction, imparting information about Jewish faith, history, and teachings. The length of the sermon varies from preacher to preacher but on the average is about 20 minutes. Preaching from a prepared manuscript is the rule for some preachers while others prefer to speak extemporaneously. Adequate preparation is counselled by the best preachers. In the preface to his Faith of a Jewish Preacher (1935), Ephraim Levine compares the preacher who waits for Providence to put words into his mouth to Balaam who said the very opposite of what he intended to say. Oratory has now generally yielded to an easier conversational tone. Few preachers would today follow the example of Leo Baeck of whom it was said that he never used the personal pronoun “I” in the pulpit.
Sermon illustrations are taken from the personal experience of the preacher, Jewish history, the Midrash, natural science and psychology, and, latterly, hasidic lore. L. I. Newman’s Hasidic Anthology (1934) and M. Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim (1947-48) have come to serve as sources for sermon illustrations. Quotations from secular literature are used to develop themes. In a typical sermon outline on Kol Nidrei by Milton Steinberg (Sermons, B. Mandelbaum, ed. (1954), 58-63) there are references to the geonim, Walter Pater, Tennyson, Leibnitz, Omar Khayyam, and W. L. Phelps. Louis I. Rabinowitz (Out of the Depths (1951), 332-5) builds a Kol Nidrei sermon around a poem by the modern Hebrew writer Zalman Shneur. In a Day of Atonement sermon by Israel H. Levinthal (Steering or Drifting—Which? (1928), 128-35), there are quotations from Judah Halevi, the Talmud, the prayer book, a Christian legend, folk language, the Bible, and the Midrash. Preachers in the U.S. frequently take for their sermon theme a book, movie, or play that has received much attention for its treatment of some moral or religious question. Some sermons conclude with a prayer. This and other pulpit pretensions, however, were severely criticized by Franz Rosenzweig in his scathing attack on preaching in Sermonic Judaism (N. N. Glatzer, Franz Rosenzweig (1953), 247-50). The chosen text and the way it is treated depend on the individual bent of the preacher but, judging by published sermons, certain themes are constant. Each of the festivals, for example, has its particular message so far as the preacher is concerned. The theme of Passover is freedom; of Shavuot Jewish education (in Orthodox pulpits the immutability of the Torah); of Sukkot trust in God and thankfulness for His bounty; of Hanukkah spiritual light; of Purim Jewish peoplehood; of Rosh Ha-Shanah the need for renewal; and on the Day of Atonement sin and atonement. In addition to the weekly Sabbath sermon the rabbi preaches on the special occasions in the life of his congregation; anniversaries, weddings, funerals, installation of officers, at a bar mitzvah, and at his own induction. A number of rabbinic manuals contain sermonic material in capsule form for the rabbi’s use on special occasions (e.g., H. E. Goldin, Ha-Madrikh, 1939).
ISSUES OF THE DAY IN PREACHING. The modern Jewish sermon frequently addresses itself to particular problems which agitate the Jewish community as well as to wider issues of universal import. There is much discussion on the extent to which politics should be introduced, but few Jewish preachers accept a total ban on political questions. There are numerous instances of preachers seeking to influence their congregants either when a topic is a source of controversy in the community or when they feel that widely held views are contrary to Jewish teaching. Themes treated in the contemporary pulpit are: the controversy between religion and science, the role of the State of Israel, the permissive society, intermarriage, Jewish education, war and peace, social injustice, racial discrimination, the use and abuse of wealth, and Judaism and its relation to other faiths. The 1968 edition of Best Jewish Sermons contains sermons against the taking of drugs; on the “death of God” movement; fair housing; the estrangement of the Jewish intellectual from Judaism; recreation; and the need to care for the hungry of the world. Rabbis have fought to free the pulpit from control by the lay leaders of the congregation. When Stephen Wise was being considered for the influential post of rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in New York, Louis Marshall, the president, held that in controversial matters the pulpit must remain under the control of the trustees. Wise refused to consider the post under such conditions and eventually founded the Free Synagogue to uphold the principle of pulpit liberty.
In 19th-century America the slavery issue was echoed from the Jewish pulpit. Morris J. Raphall preached that slavery was a divinely ordained institution since it is sanctioned in the Bible. David Einhorn, however, attacked slavery from the pulpit as “the greatest crime against God.” As a result, his life was placed in jeopardy and on April 22, 1861, Einhorn and his family were secretly escorted out of Baltimore.
With the rise of the Reform movement the issue of Reform was hotly debated from the pulpit. A favorite text for the Reform sermon, used by Geiger and others, was: “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth for ever” (Eccles. 1: 4). The “earth” represents the essential, unchanging spirit of Judaism, which must be interpreted by each generation in the light of its own needs and insights. Often the same set of texts would be used by both Orthodox and Reform preachers in support of their positions. The “wicked son” of the Passover Haggadah was, for the Orthodox preacher, the Reform Jew who asks “What is this service to you?” For the Reform Jew the son who represented their point of view was the “wise son” who was ready to ask the intelligent questions demanded by the new age. Chief Rabbi N. M. Adler preached in London, on the second day of Passover in 1868, a sermon against the abolition of the second day of festivals in the Diaspora, a matter which at that time had begun to be an issue in the struggle between Orthodoxy and Reform. His son and successor, Hermann Adler, at the beginning of the 20th century, refused to permit a synagogue under his jurisdiction to appoint Morris Joseph as preacher because the latter had published views “at variance with traditional Judaism.” Solomon Schechter, living at that time in Cambridge, pointed out that if doctrines were to become the test of a minister, then the greatest names in Jewish learning—Zunz, Graetz, Herzfeld, Joel, Gotthold Salomon, Rapoport and others—would never have been permitted to preach in a United Synagogue (R. Apple, The Hampstead Synagogue (1967), 23-27). Chief Rabbi J. H. Hertz preached a series of sermons, Affirmations of Judaism (1927), attacking the new Liberal movement founded by Claude Goldsmid Montefiore and others.
See also Homiletic Literature. [L.J.]