Monday, December 19, 2011

Christopher Hitchens' lessons on writing a derashah

[Not sure how I feel about this: Bringing the Kotel to You at Life in Israel]

I saw the following in Christopher Hitchens' 2004 bashing of Michael Moore on Slate. It's an attack on Moore's style of documentary, but it's also a very good point regarding the way a rabbi sermonizes:

I know, thanks, before you tell me, that a documentary must have a "POV" or point of view and that it must also impose a narrative line. But if you leave out absolutely everything that might give your "narrative" a problem and throw in any old rubbish that might support it, and you don't even care that one bit of that rubbish flatly contradicts the next bit, and you give no chance to those who might differ, then you have betrayed your craft. If you flatter and fawn upon your potential audience, I might add, you are patronizing them and insulting them. By the same token, if I write an article and I quote somebody and for space reasons put in an ellipsis like this (…), I swear on my children that I am not leaving out anything that, if quoted in full, would alter the original meaning or its significance. Those who violate this pact with readers or viewers are to be despised.

Two points here:
1. Certainly, a derashah must have a point of view. However, a derashah which only presents that view and fails to point out and address opposition is simplistic and dishonest.

2. Sources must be cited honestly. Quoting half of a midrash or a commentary because that supports your contention, but omitting the rest without so much as pointing out the problem, is, indeed, dishonest.

A good derashah, in my point of view, acknowledges complexity and addresses it with nuance, and uses sources without abusing them. Writing a good derashah is hard work. No wonder my Thursdays were such nightmares when I was in the rabbinate...


  1. Complexity and nuance are two things that many speakers and writers are *not* looking for. Too many speakers/writers are simply looking to convince - not to engage the listener in a conversation seeking truth or depth or any of that nebulous difficult stuff. Unfortunately, that is how many of them approach their learning (it all goes hand in hand). And therein lies a big piece of our problem with contemporary learning. We ignore Rav Kook's exhortation at our own peril, at the Torah's peril: that we live in sophisticated times and people will require ever more sophisticated presentations of Torah.

  2. I think there is a tacit acknowledgement on the part of most listeners that a derasha is not an essay or a documentary. It is relatively short and homiletic and that requires a certain degree of simplification, although how much is difficult to say (and obviously simplification is not the same as deceit or misrepresentation).

    I also think that some (by no means all) listeners don't want complexity and nuance either. There are certain issues where people want to hear "We're right; they're wrong" and I don't think that's healthy either.

  3. Good post about intellectual honesty in the teaching of Torah, especially in the context of a derasha.

    A derasha is not a shiur, and a shiur is not a year-long study of a topic;
    1) meaning that there is not a lot of time, and you can lose your rhetorical point covering all positions, and
    2) There is a difference between ziyuf haTorah and leaving things out. There are plenty of statements and positions that sound bizarre and problematic if just quoted, and presenting them outside of a full analysis is not just "stating the other side," but actually misrepresenting them. Sometimes leaving them out is absolutely necessary so as not to misrepresent.

  4. R' Mordechai-

    How widespread do you think that 'tacit agreement' is? And is it in the practical interest of brevity, or is there some other reason for ut?

    R' Michael-
    Valid points, but I feel that erring on the side of non-inclusion is a greater problem than erring on the side of inclusion.

  5. what do you call a rabbi who tells his congregation something they don't want to hear? Fired.

  6. I think most people are aware that a derasha has its own particular requirements, although I can't put a number on how many think that.

    I think it is mainly about brevity, but there are other factors, such as the need, in at least some congregations, to cater for diverse levels of Jewish knowledge and observance and, in all congregations, to provide a "bottom line," some coherent insight that the community can take away and hopefully apply to their lives.

    Adam: as the old joke goes, if a rabbi's congregation doesn't want to fire him, he isn't a rabbi; and if they do fire him, he isn't a mentsch.

  7. Hitchens had a real connection to the middah of Emmes, it's sad that his beliefs themselves were the opposite. May Hashem give him a another chance to use his kochos for true Emmes. (for those who don't know, he was a Jew, which he only found out in middle age).

  8. Im thinking im partial to Michael's point. Less is sometimes more. Throwing in every nuance of a problem, question or topic is going to leave people starving---for chulent, not more Torah in the context. A simple "there is more to be said here and it deserves a class or more but..." is what I try to do...though I'd be interested in how you handle that? As well, even in my classes I feel I got to cut stuff out. In sermons even more so. Brad

  9. One of the toughest things for a congregant is to hear his rabbi proclaim controversial things from the pulpit that the congregant wants to challenge for good reason. The captive audience sits imprisoned in silence, unless the rabbi has enough self-confidence (or whatever) to invite comments and questions.