Monday, July 20, 2009

Banging on the shtender

One of the best classes I ever took, in any field, was Homiletics, with Rabbi Haskel Lookstein.

Rabbi Lookstein taught this course on Fridays at YU, for members of the semichah program. I can’t imagine that the rabbi of Kehillath Jeshurun and principal of Ramaz had nothing else to do on a Friday morning, but every week he was there, helping us understand how to convey the Torah we had learned to various types of audiences.

I know I am not the only one who is greatly in his debt for this service; I'm still not a great orator, but I learned quite a bit in those sessions.

One of my favorite observations from Rabbi Lookstein’s class was this: You can only bang on the shtender [lectern] once. That’s it; you can come close, stop your hand just short, but once you actually hit it, you can never do it again.

As I understood his point, hitting a shtender while presenting a derashah is a demonstration of both passion and certitude, and to do it repeatedly, especially on diverse topics, demonstrates either a surfeit of passion or a surfeit of certitude, neither of which wins over an audience.

I am someone of passion, but I am rarely someone of certitude, so ironclad confident in my judgment that I will demand everyone agree with me. So I am not generally tempted to bang the shtender.

I did it once, for a Shabbos Shuvah derashah four years ago, when I was speaking about lashon hara tearing down community institutions. It was a particularly fraught time in our community, and I was right, I think; that wasn’t a squandering of the pulpit-thumping privilege.

But I wonder whether there have not been other times I could have, should have, given that resounding bang, whether there were not other causes I should have championed with the fever of the committed and the fervor of the certain:

Shabbos observance.
Mikvah observance.
Domestic abuse.
Parents and children.

I’ve spoken about all of these, of course. All of them, in different ways, carry great weight for Jews as individuals, for Jewish families, for the Jewish nation and for the world. Any of them could have been a topic warranting the Big Bang.

But, in the final analysis, the speaker is compelled to choose his opportunity, and so I did.

What about your rabbi? What makes him bang the shtender? Nothing? Everything? Or certain topics?


  1. I thought that the only reason to bang on a Shndender was to remind people to add Yaleh V'Yavo.
    You'd only need to bang twice on Rosh Chodhes Tevet when congregants need to remember Ya'ale V'Yavo AND Al Hanissim.

    Banging on a Shtender (or shouting) for emphasis during a Drasha seems unnecessary.

    Doing it more than once is like adding multiple exclamation marks!!!! which is not only bad grammar!!!! it looks silly!!!!!!!!

  2. besides hitting the shtender, other things that turn me off during a drasha are shrieking, yelling, whining, feet stamping, beard tugging, look up toward heaven, eye rolling, hand movements, back flips, etc.

    most of time, any of these things indicate either that rabbi really doesn't have anything important to say or that he is a poor communicator and had to compensate for a lack of power of words

  3. I would suggest that banging on the shtender or doing other things to emphasize a point should be done only under the following two conditions:

    1. The issue is of extreme importance
    2. There is a high probability that it will work.

    Otherwise the banging loses its effectiveness.

    The issues for which banging is appropriate will be vary by community, mainly because in some communities you will not make any headway on certain issues regardless of what you do.

  4. Gee, and Rabbi "Doc" Goldstein Z"L taught us back in MTA and Dr. Beukas in YU that one needed to have multiple ways to hook an audience and keep their attention, the we could worry about convincing them of anything.
    Rabbis speak to a very varied audience so the first rule is to segment them and think about how your message will play realizing that you can't reach everyone.

    W/R/T "banging", we have a saying at work, you can't focus on everything- see your earlier post about communities - decide where you are going to focus and try to move the world a little bit it one area.
    She-nir'eh et nehamat Yerushalayim u-binyanah bi-mherah ve-yamenu

    Joel Rich

  5. Michael-
    Is it unnecessary if people are sleeping?

    Personally, I'd agree that it's a turn-off. I'm not sure it's a function of an inability to communicate, though; see Joel's comment. It's theatricality.

    Define "work," please.

    Amen (both on the comment and on the closer)

  6. My Rabbi never bangs on the shtender, but he once gave a BEAUTIFUL drash about tefillah being the rhythm of the soul.

    For example, he tap-tapped the shtender while reciting the words to Adon Olam.

    And at the end, we all realized that the tapping was in tune to the beat of our hearts.

  7. I am defining "work" in this context as effectively improving the issue to a significant degree.

  8. Anonymous 8:32 PM-
    That sounds beautiful.

    Is that the only definition?

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  10. "I'm not sure it's a function of an inability to communicate, though; see Joel's comment. It's theatricality."

    looking back i can think of 2 rabbis whose shabbat-morning drashot i was interested in listening to. (1 has since made aliyah; the other delivers really amazing derashot and i try to daven in his shul now when i know he is not away.) neither ever had to resort to "theatrics" to get their message across.

    perhaps its a matter of preference.

  11. In this context that is the only definition I would use. While banging on the shtender might arouse the spirituality in someone with manifestations in behavior only observable sometime later, I am not sure it is worth losing one's moral authority (the only practical kind a shul Rabbi has in most places) in the short term when so much else may need to be accomplished. I hesitate to put quantitative values on Mitzvot, but, for example, is it worth motivating someone to put on tefilin sometime later if it means that a significant problem in the shul itself is not sufficiently addressed.

    Of course, you never know what someone will accomplish when presented with the right stimulus, but how do we decide such issues besides on what we can reasonably predict and assess?

  12. Lion-
    I'm not sure "resorting" is the word I would use.

    I think this goes back to a more fundamental issue: What is the purpose of a derashah? I think I've discussed this somewhere, but I'll need to take a look.