Temple Israel in Memphis. (Temple Israel/Wikimedia)

History of the Synagogue Sermon

The Rabbi's sermon has seen many changes throughout Jewish history.

That sermons were delivered in the synagogue, especially on Sabbaths and the festivals, from early Rabbinic times, is attested in numerous Midrashim. It would seem that the later Midrashim had their origin in sermons, although the Midrashim themselves bear all the marks of literary productions in their own right.

The usual preaching method, until the modern period, was to take scriptural verses out of context and to apply them to the religious and ethical questions of the preacher’s time. This method of scriptural application became known as derush (from a root meaning ‘to search’ or ‘to enquire’) and the sermon became known as a derashah (from the same root, as is the word Midrash itself). Preachers were known as Darshanim or Maggidim (‘Speakers’ or ‘Tellers’).

Again until modern times, the function of preaching belonged not to the Rabbi of a town but to the special class of preachers, usually learned men but not necessarily well versed in the practical Halakah.

In Eastern Europe, Maggidim would wander from town to town to preach in the synagogue, attracting the masses by their popular, homely expositions liberally sprinkled with proverbs, folk-tales, and illustrations from the daily life of their audiences.

Collections were published of the sermons of the more renowned preachers and these were used as guides for preachers everywhere.

A New Kind of Sermon

Although the historian Leopold Zunz, in his famous work, Gottesdienstliche Vortraeger der Juden, published in 1832, sought to demonstrate, when challenged by the Prussian government (under the influence of Orthodox groups who saw sermons in the vernacular as the beginnings of Reform), that preaching is an ancient Jewish institution, the traditional derashah took, in Germany, the new form of the Predigt, as it was called.

The new type of sermon was more formal and in the vernacular, and it became a regular part of the service. The modern sermon is also based on a scriptural verse, usually taken from the portion of the weekly Torah reading, but treats a particular theme in systematic fashion and its aim is more one of edification rather than instruction.

Alexander Altmann has shown how the early German preachers consciously modeled their sermons on the patterns of Christian homiletics and how they would even use the famous Christian preachers as guides to sermon-construction.

At a later stage, opposition to this reliance on Gentile forms led preachers such as Isaac Noah Mannheimer and Adolf Jellinek to use much more Rabbinic material in their sermons.

The modern type of sermon became the norm in England and in the USA. Even in Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century, where the art of the old Maggidim still flourished, the sermons in Yiddish were often more sophisticated than in the past and more relevant to the burning social and political issues of the day.

Sermons Today

In modern Rabbinical seminaries, Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative, homiletics is an important subject in the curriculum. For the modern Rabbi, preaching is an important part, perhaps the most important part, of his Rabbinic activity.

Certain fashions in preaching have become the norm. On the festivals, for instance, every Rabbi would see himself as having failed in his duty if he did not devote his sermon to the particular theme of the festival–freedom for Passover, trust in God for Tabernacles, the importance of Jewish survival for Hanukkah, and so forth.

Among the more general themes to which the modern pulpit addresses itself are: the alleged conflict between religion and science; the role of the State of Israel; the permissive society; intermarriage; Jewish education; war and peace; social justice; racial discrimination; the use and abuse of wealth; and Judaism in relation to other religions.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.


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