Wednesday, September 3, 2008

I hate the rabbi's speech

The new Carnival of Self-Mastery is out here.

[Side note: Speech = sermon = message = talk = derashah. Put whatever name on it you like.]

I always find it funny when people assume that rabbis enjoy giving speeches, that we want to bore you for as long as possible with our observations on Torah, life, the universe and everything.

As a rabbi with a dozen years of regular speechifying behind me, and having discussed this off and on with quite a few other rabbis, I can tell you that one of the most welcome changes in American synagogues, from the rabbinic perspective, would be the elimination of the rabbi’s speech.

Why do I hate the speech?
*First, I spend entirely too much time in writing these speeches, out of proportion with the time I spend on other pursuits.
*Second, I don’t enjoy public speaking, and so the whole endeavor adds greatly to my stress load.
*Third, I hate listening to speeches, so I feel odd putting other people through the experience of listening to my own.

But, even though one guy (yes, you, Jon,) likes to start the first few bars of “Ein KEilokeinu” when I get up to speak, the truth is that I have been told by numerous people that the speech cannot be eliminated; the rabbi's speech is, for some reason or another, a meaningful part of shul for them.

Yes, even though Lion of Zion insists that I shouldn’t speak every day of Yom Tov, I have people who come to shul just because of whatever it is they draw from the speeches, and so all the rest will have to suffer along with me.

Several years ago I floated the idea of printing out the speech and putting it in the lobby for people to take and read, rather than impose it on the shul from the bimah, but even that was rejected. I do realize that words are often more effective when spoken than when written, so I understand it, but I really would have preferred the written form.

So here I am on Wednesday, contemplating a speech for Parshat Shoftim while ideas float through my head for Rosh HaShanah.

I am actually at the anniversary of my first speech as full shul rabbi (previously I had been a rabbinic intern, a wholly other experience worth discussing some time). That first speech was in Congregation Ohawe Sholam, Young Israel of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Parshat Shoftim 5757/1997. I had married the sainted Rebbetzin two weeks earlier, we had moved in on the previous Sunday, and for my first Shabbos I wrote a speech demanding that more people come to weekday minyan.

It was a harangue, basically, because we had faced real difficulty getting a minyan at shacharis that week. Being a kid, I figured that the speech would be a good time to address the problem; when else do you have everyone there in the room for a good moral and practical lesson about communal Judaism?

That taught me my first on-the-job lesson about speeches: When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. I thought my speech was the way to reach people about anything and everything, so, of course, I should use it to bring about change.

In truth, the rabbi’s speech is a horrible tool for instigating change:
*It is aimed at a captive audience, many of whom are contemplating kiddush, lunchtime company, a shabbos afternoon nap, their personal problems, etc.
*It is directed at a large crowd of wildly different personalities, so that it cannot be tailored for everyone – and those for whom it is not customized may well dislike, and even resent, the message.
*It is part of a weekly (or, in Tishrei, almost daily) barrage of messages, which can overburden the audience.
*It doesn’t allow for real discussion and feedback.
*It comes with all of the baggage that the listeners have from past speeches, and even past rabbis.

Far better to speak to every person in shul directly, one by one, than to attempt to reach them with a speech.

Nonetheless, there are things a rabbi can do to give his speech a better chance of success. Here are some things I’ve picked up over the years:

1) Know that the speech is not about you, Rabbi, and your issues; it’s about the people who are sitting in shul, and what interests and motivates them.

2) Recognize that rabbis don’t change people, people change themselves. If anything, the speech is about helping people to decide to change themselves. Present a case, but don’t expect anything grand to happen; that’s an inappropriate expectation.

3) Realize that you, Rabbi, may have been thinking about a certain topic or issue for a long time, but your thoughts need to be properly unpacked and presented for the listeners.

4) Please, Rabbi, please only speak about topics you know about and understand.

5) Classes are Talmud Torah; speeches generally are not Talmud Torah. The venue is wrong, the lecture format doesn’t work well. Reaching HaShem and meeting HaShem’s expectations is (hopefully) the goal of rabbinic leadership, and Torah is your medium, your way of conveying a message, your way of inviting people to aim for achieving that in the future.

6) And above all, Rabbi: If your message isn’t inspiring to you, don’t bother delivering it. Tell people you have a cold this week, or make up some other excuse, but giving a dead speech will not only waste everyone’s time this week, it will also burn your capital for the future.

And on that happy note, I’m off to write my speech for Shoftim…wish me luck.

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  1. At our shuil, the rabbis delegate a lot of the drashes during the High Holidays, and focus most of their energy on the big 2: Erev Rosh Hashana and Kol Nidre. Don't you have any eager young (or retired) congregants who've been really immersed in some study lately and want to share some inspiration with the klal?

    (Of course, on both nights the sermons are followed by shul board leaders making the case for higher donations, so immediately after the rabbis' speeches there's often a rush on the door...)

  2. I do have people who would volunteer, without a doubt, but that would lead to far more trouble:
    1) From some corners: Why didn't the rabbi do it? Isn't that part of his job?
    2) From other corners: Why didn't they ask me?
    3) From all corners: That speech was terrible, because...

  3. 1. If you start this off earlier in the year, and get the board and others to hype how much non-speechifying work you're doing, people will get used to it. And possibly enjoy the alternative viewpoints offered. (Or the chance to kvetch about them)

    2. Always a problem, for everything. We solicit info from members every year about what kinds of things they're interested in. Delivering drashes is one of the options they can check. If they are terrible, just make sure they are given an oportunity on one of your usually more poorly-attended Shabbats.

    3. The kinds of people who do this will say that about yours too - you just won't have to hear about it. ;)

  4. Oh, and re: # 2 - our rabbis like to vet drafts of the drashes from new (or controversial) speakers. You can make this an across-the-board policy and then only read the ones you think will be problematic.

    Takes a lot less time to edit/make suggestions on someone else's drash than to write your own.

  5. Hi Tzipporah,

    If I thought someone couldn't do a good job, I couldn't put him up on any weekend, whether a standard one (100-140 people) or a week when we anticipated poor weather and might drop a dozen or two. It's not fair to people who come to shul, to subject them to a poor dvar torah.

    But I might float the idea of the substitute derashah to my president anyway, and see what he says...

  6. Can a young rabbi who's learned Shas before his first shteller really call himself a "kid" at that aforementioned shtellar?

    -Someone who remembers you from way back

  7. Glad to be remembered; who is it that remembers me?

    But as far as your comment: Of course I was a kid. Maturity is not about how much you learn, it's about how deeply you understand it.