September 9, 1999
They Have Your Attention—But Can They Keep It?
The art of sermon giving, and what to do when your rabbi can't speak
Fresh out of seminary, Rabbi Naomi Levy gave High Holiday sermons the way she thought they were supposed to sound -- formal, ponderous, laced with phrases such as "my dear friends." Every once in a while, however, she would look up from her prepared text and slip into her natural cadence; it was at those moments she found her voice, hit her stride. The young rabbi was learning the secret of reaching a congregation: being herself.
"In every discipline, there are moments when you move beyond yourself and hit 'the zone,'" says Levy, who a few years ago stepped down as spiritual leader at Mishkon Tephilo in Venice to write her book, "To Begin Again." "Giving sermons is like that. There are peak experiences when some chemistry happens that is beyond what is on the paper, beyond what is in your mind, when something intermingles between the community and the speaker. And it's magic."
It is the kind of chemistry that rabbis dream about achieving during the High Holidays, when they deliver their most-listened-to sermons of the year.
Rabbis are deeply aware that for congregants who attend synagogue perhaps only on the High Holidays, one good 20-minute sermon can determine a lot: who shall pray and who shall daydream, who shall be inspired and who shall doze, who shall return to shul next week and who shall wait until next year.
"For the rabbi, the High Holiday sermon is a return to Sinai," writes Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin in her foreward to "Living Words: Best High Holiday Sermons of 5759" (Sh'ma Press). "The audience is never so open, the atmosphere never so charged and the stakes never so high as on these days of repentance."
A Sense of Awe
Most rabbis spend all year thinking about their speeches. Every occurrence, anecdote and news event is filtered through the prism of one question: Does this have a High Holiday message hidden in it?
"Rabbis agonize over their High Holiday sermons," says Rabbi Richard Levy, dean of the rabbinic school at Hebrew Union College. "There's a real sense of yirah, awe, appropriate to the season. How can I confront the themes of the day, stand with my people before God and gain a positive judgment by the words that I say?"
Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills says the process of preparing a sermon provokes a lot of anxiety.
"It's a difficult vehicle for communicating," she says. "It's difficult to say something powerful and passionate in a relatively short period of time. And it's not an interactive communication, so that also makes it difficult."
There also lurks the knowledge that "sometimes people are inclined to be critical of a rabbi's sermon," Geller says. "When you have a large and quite diverse community, it is a situation where you know that while you might be inspiring and moving and challenging some congregants, there are clearly going to be others that have very different reactions."
No Rabbi Is
For some rabbis -- those who are not gifted or well-trained speakers -- the holiday speeches are especially challenging.
"Every rabbi has his or her strengths," Naomi Levy says, "but there is no rabbi who is perfect. Unfortunately, being a poor public speaker is to have your weakness publicly demonstrated."
Some rabbis who are painfully aware of their own shortcomings make their speeches shorter or hand the sermon over to an assistant rabbi or qualified congregant. Others -- even those who are decent speakers but would like to improve -- seek help from professional coaches.
But often the congregation is left to take the initiative, to approach the rabbi. The alternative is suffering through a poor delivery, or confusing or irrelevant content.
"Every year, we would talk about how much we loved our rabbi and how brilliant he was and how important it would be if he learned to give a talk," one active congregant says. "We said to him, 'We love you; you're wonderful; we can't understand a word you're saying.' "
A board member at another shul says the issue of the rabbi's inability to connect with congregants through speeches came up at contract-renewal time, but the rabbi seemed to want to breeze past it.
"Since then," the board member says, "no one has been comfortable going to him to say we want to continue the discussion on speaking -- even though we said we would at that meeting -- because who wants to sit face to face and criticize a rabbi pretty roundly about his speaking?"
But rabbis and speech experts alike say that kind of criticism, delivered by the right person in the right manner, is usually appreciated.
That was the case when congregants at Young Israel of Century City came to Rabbi Elazar Muskin after his first Yom Kippur sermon 14 years ago. The members told their new rabbi that they wanted him to speak extemporaneously rather than reading from a written text.
"The person was sharing his honest feelings. That comment was not out of lack of respect. I wanted to learn and grow, and if your ego gets in the way, you're not going to change and you're going to pay for it dearly," says Muskin, who has since ditched the verbatim delivery and has become an engaging speaker.
It happened to Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson too. When Artson was a rabbi in Orange County, a congregant who worked as a communications consultant offered him a one-on-one speech tutorial to strengthen his speaking style. "It was clearly meant as supportive," recalls Artson, now dean of the University of Judaism Zeigler School of Rabbinical Studies. "I took it as a great gift." Now Artson teaches sermon giving at the UJ.
Stephanie Waxman, who teaches speech to rabbinic students at HUC, has coached several local rabbis, and she says improvement is certainly possible.
"Nobody is born speaking," says Waxman, whose father, Stanley Waxman, taught speech at HUC for 30 years before relinquishing the reigns to his daughter more than 10 years ago.
"You could be the quietest, most dry person, and I can still make you good up there, if I can teach you to follow your instincts," says Alan Rappoport, who founded the Media Edge, a company that trains CEOs, athletes, politicians and celebrities in the art of public presentation.
Waxman says getting to a person's core is the way to hone a great speaker.
"I always feel that my challenge is to get rabbinic students to stop thinking and to get below the brain -- find out what is going on from the neck down and what is going on in their gut and heart, and what they feel passionately about. If we can contact that, we can help them communicate that passion," she says. "If they're completely divorced, it usually doesn't filter down to our hearts as an audience."
Rappoport says he has never coached a rabbi, but as a shul-going Jew, he has longed to spend just a few crucial hours with dozens of rabbis he has heard speak over the years.
"Half of what guys like me do is clear out the underbrush and work on bringing back who they really are, and strip aside the performance stuff. We let them feel free and safe to be a communicator, and we give them the techniques to do it," says Rappoport, who works from Bellevue, Wash., and has offices in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
He suggests that congregants whom the rabbi respects approach the spiritual leader without pretense, asking him first to critique his own presentation skills. Next, the congregants should bring forward concrete criticisms, with examples, collected from three distinct segments of the population. Finally, congregants can suggest the rabbi consult a speech coach.
Finding a coach who can deal with content as well as delivery is essential.
"You want someone who will approach the training very strategically in making a stronger connection between the ideas the rabbis want to get across and the style they are using to deliver it," Rappoport says.
Congregants must make sure to get an important point across to the rabbi: "We don't want to change you or turn you into some kind of Hollywood robot rabbi or clone communicator," congregants should tell the rabbi, Rappoport says. "We just want to build on the way you are com-municating in a large group and help you be the best you can be."
Most rabbis today are well aware of the perils of speech-giving in a media age, when bits of information are fed to people in tasty sound bites and being asked to process complex thoughts is considered an imposition.
"We are in competition with television, which is fast-paced, multicharacter, dramatic and violent," says Waxman. "How do you calm down, slow down and listen to one person teach you something?"
Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom worries that the art of the drasha -- of public speaking in general -- has been lost as respect for the spoken word has diminished.
"We live in an era of great impatience," he says. "People miss what at one time the drasha was -- an interpretation of biblical insight or rabbinical insight being developed. Now we have 'Sesame Street' sermons, where everything has to be entertaining. We've always got to have this monster."
Rabbinic schools seem to be aware of that challenge. Yeshiva University in New York, which ordains Orthodox rabbis, will offer a speech course for the first time, in addition to homiletics, the traditional course on developing a sermon around a biblical text. HUC, the Reform seminary, has long had a speech communication class, and the University of Judaism, for Conservative rabbis, intertwines public speaking into its homiletics course and other courses as well.
Rabbi Ron Shulman, who teaches homiletics at UJ and leads Congregation Ner Tamid in South Bay, says students can use the time at seminary not only to hone their speaking skills but to figure out their strengths and weaknesses.
"We talk about developing your own style, finding your own voice," he says. "The school will guide students to different aspects of rabbinic work. There are a lot of different and important roles for a rabbi to fill."
Temple Emanuel's Geller says that the sermon is often overestimated and that it is just one part of a very large service and part of long process of repentance, which begins well before congregants take their seats.
And, she says, congregants must be prepared to be active listeners.
"I think congregants are better listeners when they come with open hearts and open minds and open souls," Geller says, "and when everyone remembers that it is not about the rabbi's sermons, it is about the individual spiritual work that each of us has to do."