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The Art of the Sermon

The following is a transcript of Episode 154 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer and we’re recording on Friday, September 8th, 2023. 

Hey, at the end of our show this week, please stick around for the credits. I want to say something special about our producer, who helped found this show and stepping down this week.

Anyway, there’s an old Jewish joke. What does it mean when, at the start of the sermon, the rabbi takes off his or her watch and sets it down on the lectern? Absolutely nothing. So in my own religious life, I’ve undergone a number of evolutions over the years, and I’ve shared some of them here on the podcast. I daven differently and in different environments than I did when I was younger. I’ve had to get comfortable with seating arrangements in synagogues that once felt foreign and even transgressive. Truth is, throughout all those changes, I oftentimes felt like I was basically the same. Sometimes I said to myself, I didn’t change from my modern Orthodox upbringing, as much as modern Orthodoxy changed. Sometimes I even believe that to be true, even though my modern Orthodox friends usually disagree.

But I’ll tell you the one big change in my religious disposition that continues to surprise me, is how I went, in a relatively short time, from a sermon loather to a sermon lover. When I was helping to run an independent minyan in Boston, it was all volunteer led, and we had a policy that was akin to a bunch of other comparable independent minyanim, that the Dvar Torah should be no more than five minutes.

There was a logic to it. It’s hard for non professionals to do much more than that, and we wanted to incentivize people to volunteer. Also, educationally, it’s a powerful thing to deliver a simple, single message that people can remember and then maybe talk about over their Shabbat tables. That five minute Dvar Torah became like a sacrament, and I couldn’t fathom what it would be like to sit through a long sermon every week. 

But now it’s the thing that I actually look forward to most about our shul. I think we’re blessed with a great sermon writer and a rabbi, and I appreciate the craft. But more than that, I oftentimes find myself craving those few meditative minutes each week of some form of spiritual depth that’s curated for me. I feel like I need it. 

And even as I’ve come to appreciate a great sermon, I don’t want to be naive. The rabbi’s sermon is one of the original great polarizers of Jewish life. It’s one of these things that invites polarization because it operates on two levels. There are people who love it or hate it as a category, as a genre.

But then even among the lovers, they’ll divide each and every week about the specific sermon in question. And which, I ask you, to the rabbi is worse: the congregant who comes up to the rabbi huffing and puffing because they listened attentively and disagree vehemently with the rabbi’s message, or the congregant blowing smoke, the one who says, Rabbi, I loved the sermon, I agreed with every word.

I started to do just a little bit of research to prepare for today about the history of the sermon, this unique art form. It’s not easy to do because the category is so elastic and its connotations pull in so many different directions. Every time I typed “history of the sermon” into Google, it wanted to autofill “on the mount.” A lot of Christian histories of the sermon invariably hinge on Jesus sermons, defining the genre and becoming the standard against which sermons are measured. 

And it does kind of seem like our sermon today, in our synagogues, delivered in vernacular, lacking the religious and legal constraints that define precisely what you do and don’t do in prayer or how you read Torah, it kind of seems like a Christian construct that we’re imitating, until you remember and notice that we have really, really old homilies on Torah portions that seemed like they were designed to be delivered at the time that the Torah was read. In other words, the sermon slot at the synagogue. The core, for instance, of Pesikta D’Rav Kahana, a rabbinic commentary. It’s about a millennium and a half old. It includes introductions and midrashic expositions of the Torah that align with the holidays and the cycles of Torah readings. 

And it makes sense, anthropologically. Most attendees of Jewish services throughout our history couldn’t speak, read, or understand the formal liturgical stuff. The idea of a learned leader standing and saying something comprehensible, memorable, inspiring, some sort of takeaway. It doesn’t need that much of a complicated prehistory. 

You know, I started with that joke about a watch, but this week our producer David Zvi Kalman shared with me a great little piece of history, that clocks were placed in churches and synagogues because of the sermon. But not to keep them short, actually. People wanted them to be long so that they could feel they were getting their money’s worth. At its core, the defining feature of a great exemplar of the art form of the sermon is the ability to say something to the people that lives at the intersection between what they need to hear and what they’re capable of hearing, and in a way that blends between teaching something from our tradition and speaking to an issue with which they are struggling.

It’s a dance to sit at the center of multiple Venn diagrams, and because of that, because of the subtlety of what that takes, and because that means that a sermon has to be simultaneously learned and relevant and personal and compelling and persuasive and empathetic and comprehensible, it’s really hard to always get it right. 

This week is just about the best time of the year to be talking about rabbis and sermons. In just a few days, we launch a new Jewish New Year, which we Jews do not with fireworks or champagne, but with hours and hours of sitting in synagogues. For most American Jews, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the scant few times that they may in fact show up to a synagogue, and that means for rabbis and synagogues a rare chance, a bite at the apple, to do something really good and important and compelling. Maybe because if we succeed, maybe they’ll come back. But more importantly, because if we succeed and then we will have provided something really important to whomever happens to be there. 

And so I’m talking today to a master of the form. Rabbi David Wolpe is, as of recently, the Max Webb Emeritus Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. He’s also taken on some new roles as a visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School, Rabbinic Fellow of the ADL, and Senior Advisor to the Maimonides Fund. He’s the author of numerous books, perhaps most famously his very personal book, Why Faith Matters, a widely sought after lecturer and debater, perhaps best known for his gift of rhetoric in his teaching and his acclaimed sermons.

I imagine it’s a strange time of the year for an emeritus rabbi, and we hoped that Rabbi Wolpe’s wisdom about the pulpit might help our listeners out there, those still struggling for inspiration about what they’re supposed to say next week when they stand before it, and for the majority of us who will be sitting in the pews and maybe learning how to become a rabbi better listeners. 

So Rabbi Wolpe, thanks for joining us. First of all, I would love for you to say something about, this is probably the first Rosh Hashanah in a long time, maybe besides a sabbatical, that you’re not preparing for a sermon. So first of all, how does that, what does that feel like?

David: By the way, including the sabbatical, when I came back for the high holidays. This is the first, on Rosh Hashanah, I’m going down to Atlanta to be with my brother, which is the first time in 40 years I will have spent a Jewish holiday with a family member. So, yes, it’s a very strange feeling. I’ll be speaking on Kol Nidre at the synagogue, but I must say, it’s almost when you realize you’ve been carrying something for a long time and then you, it isn’t until you let it go that you realize that your, your shoulder is hurting. 

The lack of nervous tension approaching the holidays is wonderful and, and it allows me to focus on the things that you’re supposed to focus on traditionally, which I really never did. It was, it was very hard. The least, the position that is least susceptible in some ways to spiritual growth in a synagogue is the rabbi’s because his constant worry is for everybody else’s position. So that part is very nice and I thought your summary of the sermon and all the vicissitudes of the Jewish tradition was really outstanding.

It’s true that in some ways it’s a borrowed form, although Marc Saperstein has this wonderful book about Jewish sermons throughout the ages. And my sermons, which were never long, because I learned how to give a sermon from my father, who was a master, and his were always relatively short. But over the years they got shorter. So, I rarely spoke longer than ten minutes. On high holidays I did, but rarely did. And I found exactly what you said. For many years I wrote a column for the Jewish Week that was 200 words, and now I write a drash for the ADL that’s maybe 400. And it concentrates the mind, which is a good thing. You can’t have 30 messages in the hope that one of them sticks. You have to actually decide what it is you want to say.

Yehuda: Did you ever find that as your sermons got shorter, people felt, apropos the clock reference, that they were like, they didn’t get their money’s worth? I came to hear David Wolpe, and he just said this one thing, and then we were done, we had to go back to heaven forfend davening?

David: There were a couple of times that people said, I wish that had been longer, but that’s such a better thing to hear than, I wish that had been shorter. So, I was perfectly happy to take that. And also, the volume of stuff that a rabbi is supposed to put out in a congregation, drashes to the board, to the sisterhood, sermons every week, articles for the bulletin, make it really difficult to be continually both original and thoughtful. And so, I felt as though if I said something during the sermon, that was meaningful that I had fulfilled my obligation, even if someone wanted to sit there longer.

Yehuda: I want to come back to this a little bit later, because talking about the amount of work you have to do on behalf of others and what that does spiritually to the rabbis, we’re seeing this in droves right now for a whole bunch of spiritual leaders. And I appreciate your saying that you get to finally have the high holidays, spiritually.

I imagine though, there’s got to be a little bit of a flip side. It must feel strange and maybe a little, it’s a little bit sad. I’m curious to what extent the process of having to do the work to write these sermons, what was at stake for you spiritually in that, that it wasn’t just for others, you know, because you invariably discard the drafts that mean a lot to you, that the learning that goes into writing a great sermon stays with you regardless of whether it actually emerges on the paper for the people. So what happens in that process, preparing for the Yamim Noraim for a rabbi, spiritually in the search for figuring out what to say to others?

David: You’re absolutely right. My teacher, I don’t know if he was ever your teacher because you’re younger than I am, I think he was gone, Simon Greenberg. He used to tell us that your best sermons will always be delivered to you. And there’s no question that he was right about that. The sermons that actually mean something to me are the most impactful sermons for others, too. And when you find the problem that has been in one way or another gnawing at you and you manage to find a source or an idea or something that helps you articulate it, if you’re like me, I think by talking. So, the process of writing a sermon was the process of discovering what I think about something.

And I didn’t usually write, I, in fact, I never wrote out my sermon completely, in part because I do think by talking. So I would get up with notes, and I would say things invariably that surprised me, even as I was giving the sermon. In some ways, I will discover less about myself on these High Holidays because I’m not giving, I’m giving only one sermon instead of five.

But it’s a wonderful thing. It’s just like, as you know, the way to learn a subject is to teach it. And in a sermon, to some extent, you’re teaching the tradition, and to some extent, you’re teaching yourself. So, you learn both through giving a sermon.

Yehuda: Yeah, we’re, we’re similar in that respect. I once in a while will write out a speech, or, and I hate it. Because then I feel anxious that I get it right the way that I wrote it. But when I can actually get up and riff with people, it’s much more interesting, first of all, it’s much more interesting to you as a speaker and a teacher, but also all sorts of things begin to emerge on the other end.

So maybe share, I’d love for you to share a little bit with us about what the process of developing ideas for a sermon looks like for you. I suspect there are those who operate in the world who refer to a sermon less as a sermon, but more as a drasha, will say that it originates with the text. I opened up the Parsha, I read this, I read this, and then I emerged with something. 

I happen to be a skeptic of whenever I hear a rabbi get up and say, so, I read in the Wall Street Journal this week. And I’m like, that just means you were sitting and reading the Wall Street Journal, and you’re like, alright, I’ll talk about that. I’m curious how that, where it originates for you, because as you said, it does have to land with people in a way that moves them. And I’m curious how, how that business kind of takes place.

David: My answer is, like most rabbis, I tend to read for use. That is, there’s a small part of me, whether I’m reading a mystery novel or a, a Jewish text, there’s a small part of me that is always thinking, how do I turn this into a teaching? And so, I’m constantly alive to that possibility, and, and that’s true. Even in encounters with other human beings. Someone will say something, and I will have this weird split reaction. The one is the normal human reaction of, oh, that was very interesting, and I’d like to talk to you about that. And the other is the deformed rabbinic reaction of, oh, that would be great in a sermon, I’ll have to remember that.

So, I do it, I search everywhere. Sometimes it will be a question that someone asks me. Or there’s an issue in the Parsha that I think would make a good sermon. And sometimes, I think as I’ve gotten older, it tends to draw probably characteristically more from my experience and less from my abstract reading. So that, for example, my last sermon on Yom Kippur was essentially an apology to the synagogue for being the kind of person who’s kind of introverted and a little bit of a loner and how I sometimes walk by people and didn’t see them and, and that was, and that’s not, and I, I don’t think of that as a good quality and I know that along the way, I probably hurt people’s feelings in a way I didn’t mean to, really didn’t mean to. And that was a sermon that was really drawn just from knowing my congregation well enough to be able to be self revelatory. 

Because, to turn to Simon Greenberg one more time, I remember asking him as a student, and he was in his 90s, I said, how is it that you can talk to a congregation for like, I mean, I was there 26 years, how can you talk to a congregation for that long? Don’t you run out of things to say? And he said, very wisely, it’s the exact opposite. The better you know someone, the more things you have to say to them. And he was dead on. Just right.

Yehuda: I love that insight, it helps me understand something that I think has been a bias for me as a listener to sermons in my own synagogue, which is, yes, when the rabbi gets up, I actually want him, he has great things to say about Torah, but I actually want to hear from him about his journeys and his experiences and what he’s struggling with and I want him to make that connection. But when the Rabbinic student interns get up there, I just want them to talk about the Parsha and it’s because I’m skeptical, I guess, and here I’m being, I guess, a little snobby and a little bit old. I’m skeptical that they don’t yet have the weight of the experience yet to say something that, that will be, that will be as credible around around life experience, and it’s not that they’re not going to get there, but that they’re going to have to get to know the congregation, they’re going to have to get to know themselves. I wonder whether that’s basically the same dynamic that you’re suggesting. 

David: You have to earn intimacy. You can’t presume it. And also, when you’re young, I’ve seen this many times, everybody who’s ever had a child knows that no one has ever had a child before they have. So, it’s like a brand new revelatory experience. And then the rabbi gets up and talks about what it’s like to have a child in front of all these people who have children and grandchildren.

And they’re thinking, you don’t yet realize that this is not new. So you have to be very careful to respect your congregation’s life experience. But every now and then also, there is a bit of Torah that affects your life experience. And this comes to mind because I read it first in Saperstein’s book about Jewish preaching. Something I’ve repeated many times that, for example, changed my religious life was from Leon, Leon Modena, who was, I think, a 17th-century Italian rabbi, and he talked about prayer. And he said, this is the mistake that people make about prayer. 

Imagine you were standing on the shore of a lake, and you saw somebody pulling their boat to the shore. He said, if you were mistaken about mechanics and motion, you might think they were pulling the shore to their boat, but you know better. He said, but that’s the mistake we make about prayer. We think we’re pulling God to us, but actually, in prayer, what you’re doing is you’re pulling yourself closer to God.

And I remember thinking, that’s exactly what a drash is supposed to do. It’s supposed to use an example that you understand to change your orientation about something important and give you a different way to think about it. And I almost think of that one parable as a kind of perfect sermon.

Yehuda: One thing that you’ve done throughout your career, in both your sermons, but also in your public writing is that you have, in spite of your apology, you have broken down the wall between the things that you are struggling with personally and the Torah that you mean to bring. And I, you know, you wrote in the Washington Post about divorce, you, and referenced what it means to be in a congregation and have your marriage on display for other people. 

And I know from many rabbis that they, oh, they navigate all the time. The question of, am I a person or am I exemplar? You’ve talked about illness, and your own struggles with illness throughout, and I’m curious where, I guess this is kind of a tricky question, where do you see the line between reading your own, like the same way you said, like, I’m reading for the sermon, between reading your own life for sermon, sermonable material versus, I guess the other side of that would be just being a human being and allowing that to inform the Torah that you’re teaching. Because I imagine that there’s a complicated piece around performance of one’s own identity relative to a congregation.

David: Right. I grew up in a, in a home and in a world where it was expected that you would have a public self and a private self. So, I know that this sounds heretical to a lot of rabbis today, my parents did not have people over for Shabbos. And I never had people over for Shabbos. Because that was my private self.

And I don’t, again, do I think that that is a good thing? No, I’m not, I’m not advocating it as a model for other rabbis. When my daughter was young, she’s now in her mid twenties, but when she was a little kid, she once said to me, you know, Daddy, I only like you in jeans and pajamas. And I think that she was already picking up on when he puts the suit on, he’s a different person. 

So, even those personal editorials were a kind of mix of the two. This is the rabbi talking about the person. But for me, it’s much harder. My father told me when he graduated, now this is a while ago obviously, from the seminary, one of his professors said to him, just promise me one thing, don’t ever let anyone call you by your first name.

And so he had friends for 30 years who called him rabbi. And I’m in that sort of intermediate generation. The ordination of women changed this a lot, I think, and made rabbis much more willing to be people. But I still do struggle with that, and what you’re pointing to very acutely is this sort of double vector in my life and in my rabbinate.

Yehuda: Do you think that it made rabbis more willing to the ordination of women or that it forced people? I actually, I, I think it’s more, I think it’s more hostile. I think women rabbis are not tolerated the boundary drawing the same way by congregants and are, are effectively forced into a very different type of performance of identity vis a vis their people.

I wonder whether your dynamic of the rabbi who doesn’t have people over for Shabbos but gets away with it, would be tolerable today to the next generation.

David: That is also true. I guess what I was thinking about was early on, I remember, when, in the first, like, ten years that the Conservative movement ordained women, a woman came back, a female rabbi came back from the convention, and she said, you know what I noticed? I said, what?

She goes, male rabbis have greater personal distance than female rabbis. They stand farther apart from each other. And I think you’re right. Women both don’t tend to be as split public and private. I mean, these are obviously vast generalizations. And congregants don’t allow them to be as distant. They won’t give them that privilege, even unless you really have to, unless you really force it. So it may be both.

Yehuda: Hmm. One of the things that you’ve spoken about for many years about the pulpit is the whole question of politics on the pulpit. You’ve written and spoken a lot about, you know, rabbis shouldn’t be pundits. To which I agree, A, because we have too many bad pundits already, and B, because there’s obviously some other function that rabbis are supposed to serve in the world.

I guess I would love for you to talk about that a little bit more, because you’ve, you’ve drawn fire for it, because you make other choices about what you want to speak about, which other people would rightly call political. So it does feel like the act of defining what is political is itself a political act. So talk us through what that means.

David: I think that’s very fair. I explicitly exempted Israel, for example, from that, which I agree is somewhat arbitrary. My concern was threefold, and I can do it very quickly. One is I had a politically divided congregation and if I had said, let’s make it as simple as we can. Yes, Trump, no Trump. Either one, literally half of my congregation would have walked out.

So there was one was, you know, people said, well, why don’t you just say this and teach them? And I thought nobody in the country is changing their minds. You think people in my congregation are going to change their minds? No, what they’re going to do is leave. 

And then, and that leads to the second issue, which is then what you do is on each congregation you put either a Democrat or a Republican crown on it. And you let people know that only people of this political party are welcome. And then I think it’s a tragedy for the Jewish people, because we actually need both. 

And the third difference was, that I never met a rabbi whose politics were one way, but they preached a different way because they thought the Torah had actually persuaded them that this was the right way. So, what we’re really doing is dressing up our previously drawn convictions in Torah, and that’s okay, but that’s not ever the way it’s presented. So I, for example, taught a class a few years ago in New York at Emanuel, and I took controversial issues, immigration, women’s abortion, gun control, so on, and I said, look, this class is, I’m going to give you the sources on both sides of the Jewish, and you make up your own mind, but I don’t want to pretend to you that the sources are all on this side or all on that side, because they’re not.

So, if we’re honest about our Torah, as opposed to, this is actually what the Torah teaches, I think the people who disagree with me are violating it, then I’m okay with it. But that isn’t usually the way it happens.

Yehuda: Okay, so that takes a position which I’m broadly sympathetic to around the rabbi as educator. To be honest about the fact that our tradition is multivalent and complicated, that there are not clean and clear answers, but there’s also a rabbinic voice, call it a pastoral voice, call it a prophetic voice, which says, of course, that the tradition is full of complex ideas, but that part of our responsibility as religious leaders is to be curators for people, this not that, and at times to actually insist that even though there are a variety of texts and traditions on either side of an issue, that our spiritual energy is supposed to be on one side or another.

Right? For instance, mass incarceration, income inequality, housing insecurity, are things that are rightly phrased as political and are also totally the province of Isaiah and Jeremiah.

David: I agree. No, I agree.

Yehuda: So what, what does that, what does that sound like when it’s not, here are the sources on income inequality, decide what you want to do?

David: So, but here is the deal, you’re absolutely right, and I’m glad you’re making this diyuk, this further refinement, because then I can say that, this is what I would do. I would say, look, it’s a disgrace that we have homeless people all over Los Angeles who clearly, I mean, whether the issue is more mental illness or, or income inequality or there are a lot of different views of that, it is a disgrace.

The politics comes with, here are different kinds of solutions and I’m going to tell you which solution is correct. To enunciate the value of, for example, the persecution of the Uyghurs is wrong. The killing of Khashoggi is wrong. The, leaving people lying on the street in their own filth on Santa Monica Boulevard as wealthy people walk by them is wrong. And I, as a rabbi, know the policy prescription and the party that will solve it in a way that is consistent with Jewish values, because that I don’t believe. That I think is much more complicated than people generally think, and in my own experience, the reason they think it’s uncomplicated is because they don’t have good connections and and thoughtful friends on the other side who can tell them why they disagree with their opinion.

Yehuda: I see. So you think that part of the issue is basically we’re in our bubbles and therefore once I’m in a bubble I’m gonna reinforce the positions I already hold. It may also be because we don’t have enough templates for the for what you’re trying to draw as a distinction, which I oftentimes speak about as the spectrum between the moral, the political, and the partisan. And because we have so many models out there right now of how partisanship pigeonholes our moral and political instincts, those become the templates that we invariably use to express our moral and political positions, as opposed to seeking out a different vocabulary that doesn’t tell people exactly what to do in the world, but forces them to think and wrestle with the problem.

David: So as a, I would invite speakers from the right and the left on a whole variety of issues. I think I’m probably the only person that ever had a debate in his synagogue between Jeremy Ben-Ami and Morton Klein. That was an interesting and spark-filled evening, but I think a really good one because people from each side had probably never heard the arguments of the other side.

And my job, I believe, is not to persuade people that clearly bad things are bad. It is to open their thinking, to give them Torah sources, to back up their moral instincts, and to try to get them to struggle with with what are obviously, the issues that reach this level of societal turmoil are issues that are never that simple. They just aren’t. And I think that that’s a good thing.

Yehuda: I guess I have, I have my own mixed feelings about debates, because I don’t, I don’t know that people learn as much from them. And I guess I want to use that as an example to ask, if a congregation, your congregation is successfully capable of curating speakers from the right and from the left. I also don’t love that example because I don’t think it’s a fair fight, but we can argue about that.

If the synagogue is curating for the adult education program from the right and the left, then you are in fact modeling that the synagogue can be a bipartisan space. But then what, what, then, is the voice of Rabbi Wolpe in a debate between Morton Klein and Jeremy Ben Ami? What is the,

David: It was to challenge, it was to challenge both of them, which I did.

Yehuda: To challenge. And to emerge on what side? Or not, not on the right or the left, but what is the counter cultural posture about a commitment to Israel that you would have wanted your participants to come away from that would be more transcendent than either the J Street policy position or the ZOA policy position. 

David: I would want them to come away with greater sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians and greater understanding of the conclusions of the right wing. So I understand now why, in, in some ways, in some ways I want them to come away sort of Yossi Klein Halevi-ish.

That is, this is a clash between two rights, as opposed to the good and the evil. And it’s therefore difficult to, and that, and obviously, there were parts of, of the positions that I thought were just wrong. And those were the ones that I tried to challenge, but I, but I showed my views with a question as opposed to an argument.

And I found that to be a much more effective, now I don’t know if any minds were changed. But then, and the same thing when I spoke about what was going on in Israel today. I mean, I clearly have very strong views about it. And by the way, my political sort of rule is if someone asks me as an individual, I will always tell them. I’m not hiding my political views. I just don’t want to stand up as a rabbi and announce them, as though they come from Sinai and not from David. 

And so I expressed what I thought were the serious concerns that people felt in Israel and why this was such a difficult issue, but I didn’t tell them, “And therefore, you should pass the reasonableness, but not the selection of judges.” You know, that’s not, I don’t feel that’s my role.

Yehuda: I want to stay on Israel, if we can, for a minute, because you said right at the outset you parsed off Israel as being somewhat different from the conversation. I think that reasonable people could disagree about which version of what it means for a synagogue to support Israel. You’ve raised money for organizations involved with Israel.

Meanwhile, many rabbis out there, especially younger rabbis, report a phenomenon that they will call the death-by-Israel sermon. You almost can’t get it right. Either it is perceived as being too pro-Israel, and therefore not taking seriously the moral and political concerns that actually most Israelis possess, or it winds up being perceived just by using one word or another as being anti Israel, and then suddenly there’s a board conversation.

So, I’m curious how you navigated that over 26 years in your position. I assume that there was some amount of calibrating to what your congregation could tolerate. But how would you encourage, especially earlier career rabbis to be able to courageously speak about Israel from the pulpit, which I agree with you is an important thing to do, and simultaneously manage to maintain their jobs, their careers, and to say something serious when they actually do so?

David: In this, I would say two things. The first is, in some ways, I’m not a good person to give this advice, because with Israel, I never really faced the, your job is on the line. And so I don’t want to get on my high horse and tell other rabbis, you should do this, when I know that for them it’s an existential issue. And for me, it never was, that’s why there are a variety of issues that are coming up in the Conservative movement that I try not to take a public position on for exactly that reason. It’s like I, I had a very specific kind of population in my synagogue and that made some things a lot harder and other things a lot easier.

The other thing I would do is I would try to speak about Israel in this sense from classical sources, and say, this is what Israel has meant in the Jewish tradition. And only speak about the political situation if you feel like it’s both imperative and you’re willing to take that risk. I can’t tell you to take that risk or tell you you should.

I think it’s important to speak about Israel and to educate Jews about Israel and maybe to speak about the history of Zionism and where we came from so that they’ll have more context. But to say what should happen now, I think that’s really every rabbi on their own. Because the particular configuration, I had a young rabbi whom I know very well, and she said to me, I will not mention the word Israel in my synagogue because if I do, you know, it’s basically all hell breaks loose.

So I can’t tell her you have to, but I did say to her, but you could talk about Israel in the Jewish tradition. You could talk about Israel, about how the Zionist movement started, or something like that. But, it’s extreme, I don’t know of any issue in my lifetime that has grown so enormously toxic and hair-triggering as Israel has, among especially younger people.

Yehuda: You know, going back to something you said at the outset of this answer, I want to see whether we can extrapolate it, to a larger conclusion, which is, you said, I can’t tell other rabbis what to do based on my own experience because I had, these are unique conditions that you had at Sinai Temple of the congregation and your skills and your interests, and they lined up. You know, one of the things that comes with A, denominations and B, social media, are the perceptions that a rabbi here is actually supposed to be a rabbi there. 

And denominations have one effect because they say, okay, here are these groups of, whatever it is, 1,500, 2,000 Conservative rabbis in America, and they represent a school of thought. And social media kind of amplifies that by saying, you’re not just giving your sermon to these people. Your sermons are going to be on YouTube, and they’re going to be shared on Facebook, and they’re out there for people.

And I wonder whether we’ve totally gone beyond what really should happen, which is, you are the rabbi of your shul. You are speaking a Torah and talking about issues in ways that this population can hear, and it shouldn’t line up. And the fact that it doesn’t line up what you say at Sinai versus what Eddie Feinstein, another conservative rabbi, is saying at VBS, versus Sharon Brous, at IKAR. You’re all conservative rabbis, or Adam Kligfeld. You’re all conservative rabbis in Los Angeles. There’s others. They don’t line up ideologically. They don’t line up politically, dispositionally. And that’s probably okay, so long as VBS is getting the Torah and the sermon that they need, and IKAR is getting the sermon that they need, and the folks at Sinai Temple. 

So maybe, maybe there’s something here about reatomizing the rabbi and synagogue experience that I, I don’t know if we could put the cover back on to this, but feels important. 

David: Now, I’ll tell you the analogy the way I think about it. It used to be that a comedian would give a set in a club, and they could work on it for months, because they would give it to different clubs all over the country, and then they would go on Johnny Carson, or the Tonight Show, or one of the, one of the shows, when it was polished and ready.

And in some ways you do that with themes with your congregation. You work on them for years and you come back to them and you talk about them again. You can’t do that anymore. In any congregation where sermons are streamed or they’re on a podcast or whatever, what you say is in amber, you know, preserved forever. And I think it’s inhibiting in a certain way. I agree with you. 

I mean, all the people that you mentioned, one of, one of the blessings of being a rabbi in Los Angeles in all the years I was there, is we all got along, even though we were ideologically not always the same. Everybody was friends.

And we would talk about this. It’s like, one of my congregants, it used to be, we would say, one of my congregants happened to be at a bar mitzvah at your shul, and I heard you said this. And they would say, well, I said that, but I really said this, or whatever. But now, It’s like the whole world can hear everything you say, and that’s, that’s a society wide issue.

I mean, you walk down the street, and if you yell at somebody, it could be on a cell phone and on social media the next day. I think that this is not a healthy way to be, but at least for the moment, we seem condemned to it.

Yehuda: Yeah. I, yeah. I don’t know whether it’s a chicken or egg because I do know of congregations who would love for their rabbi sermons to go viral. Because sometimes the rabbis know this. Of course, for our own ego, we want the sermon or the article. We want everybody to see it and be like, wow, what a great, wise sermon. It’s totally usable. It’s teachable, et cetera. So I’m not saying it’s not the rabbis themselves who are seeking out this, but it’s oftentimes the congregants. 

And I think we’re all asking for something that is, that might be good from the perspective of the brand of either the rabbi or the synagogue. That’s a place where there are electric sermons every week. But it’s not great from the perspective of spiritual relationships that need trial and error and failure over time

David: No, because, really, I would say, look, I mean, I had a very public rabbinate. But I will tell you, and this is the God’s honest truth, the most powerful and memorable moments of my rabbinate, even though I love sermonizing and I love writing, they weren’t the sermons and the writing. They just weren’t. They were, like, the time that I had to bury this person, or I sat with that person, found out something about them that I had never known that changed how I understood them.

Or it was a hospital visit, or it was a wedding that people thought would never be. I mean, those, that’s where the real stuff happens. And so, if your, if your, energies are on the, on, concentrated on what happens beyond your walls, it’s true that your congregation will suffer, because the point of being a rabbi is to be a rabbi to people.

Yehuda: There’s an article that, this goes back to what we’re talking about earlier, there’s an article that just went viral this past week. This is a totally dumb thing to say because I don’t remember who wrote it or where it was. But it was a Christian pastor who was leaving his congregation. He was a young guy, very successful, and basically leaving because of all of the forces that we’re talking about, one of which is political polarization and partisanship, pulling his congregation apart, the demands in terms of public presence showing up in the world, the total absence of a personal life, essentially a lot of components that we’ve talked about so far.

And we’re seeing this in the Jewish community in the decline of the number of people who want to be in Jewish public service jobs. And there’s a lot of forces behind this. And the rabbinate is one of the most visible. 

You know, at the same time. You had a remarkable career doing this work. It sounds like you liked it. I’m curious if you can make a case for it, for a life in the Rabbinate, in spite of the fact that maybe the conditions today are harder than they would have been 26 years ago. Social media,

David: They’re harder. They’re harder in many ways.

Yehuda: Yeah, and I’m curious what the case is and what recommendations you would give both to rabbis and to congregations that want to employ rabbis to help people through this moment.

David: One of the reasons that they’re harder is when my father came home, he was done. There was no email. There was no social media. It’s like, if somebody called and there was an emergency, so they called and there was an emergency, but that was it. He was home for the night. There is no off anymore. Even when you’re on vacation, and you put that message on that says, I’m not checking email, nobody believes it. They all know you’re checking email, you’re just not answering. So, that’s true of every profession, but in the helping professions in particular, doctors, rabbis, so on, it’s particularly onerous.

Nonetheless, if you want a life where you never have to doubt that what you’re doing is meaningful. And you get to know a remarkable community of people because I don’t think that there is a synagogue in the United States that doesn’t have, in some ways, a remarkable community of people, because people are remarkable once you really get to know them in any community, anywhere.

And you want to create a place where the greatest epidemic of America, which is loneliness, finds its greatest cure, which is community. And you want to spend your life studying and learning the longest continuous tradition in the world that teaches people how to grow their souls. And you want to feel like at every moment you’re experiencing things that enrich what you do, because everything enriches your growth as a human being and therefore your role as a rabbi, then there isn’t a better thing to do.

It’s absolutely wonderful. The only caveat that I will, which has been a sort of leitmotif through this entire congregate conversation, is you have to match the right rabbi with the right congregation. If a rabbi in a congregation that doesn’t fit them is excruciating because nobody just doesn’t like the rabbi. You don’t like the person in some way because they’re hardly separable. But in the right congregation, it is a fantastic and rewarding and beautiful thing to do. And I know rabbis that have had a terrible experience in one congregation and went to another and did remarkably well because the match was right.

I was really lucky that I found the right match. But if you do, or if it’s not a match of a congregation, it’s a Hillel or a camp or whatever, whatever it is you want to do, I think it’s a, it’s a fantastic life.

Yehuda: How would you encourage synagogue boards of directors, communities that are looking to, looking to actually not just hire a rabbi, that’s the trivial expression, but to be led by a rabbi? What does it look like for them to, what, what mindset do they need to get into in order to be able to hire someone?

The reason I’m asking is because I think a lot of congregations, they want splash, they want someone who’s going to be able to like run the capital campaign, but what they least know that they want, but probably most need, is a rabbi who’s going to push them and challenge them. You know, that’s like, that’s the autoimmune kind of problem of our congregations.

David: It’s true. And it’s difficult. What I would say to the rabbi is, push them and challenge them after you know them. One of the most useful things that was said to me, was said to me by Bob Wexler, used to be the, President of the University of Judaism, now AJU. And when I came to Sinai, he said, just remember, you’re going into someone else’s house. You don’t go into someone else’s house and rearrange the furniture. You wait for a couple years, and then you’ll be part of the house too, and then you can do it. So, that’s really important, is the rabbi has to get, you don’t have people’s trust just because you were ordained. Once you know each other, then you can work together.

And I would say to the board, give this person a time, give this person time for you to grow together. Because everybody unfolds over time. And also understand what weaknesses and deficiencies you’re willing to accept. I mean, I have major deficiencies as a rabbi. If you want a rabbi who understands budgets, not me. If you want a rabbi who is, you know, opens his home and has people over all the time, it’s not me. And I’m not saying that those aren’t good things. They are good things, but they’re not me. 

So if I went to a congregation that insisted on those things, would have been, it would not have been a good match. So you have to know yourself well enough to know this and this and this are weaknesses we can accept as opposed to just strengths we’re looking for. Because every rabbi has weaknesses. Because rabbis, believe it or not, they’re human beings.

Yehuda: Yeah. So you’re going to be sitting in shul this year. You get to be on the flip side of someone else giving a sermon without putting too much pressure on whoever is giving the sermon where you are so you can abstract it a little bit, what’s the kind of Torah that you want the Jews in the pews to hear this year around this High Holidays? What’s the, what is the burning stuff or the, the echo of the shofar that’s most pressing for you that you think we need to be listening for?

David: I think I want two things. I want one, for them to understand that, that there’s nothing, not only is there nothing wrong, there’s something really beautiful about Jews caring about Jews. And that doesn’t mean that you don’t care about other people. That’s part of being Jewish. But that Jews have a responsibility to other Jews in this world, even and sometimes especially those they don’t agree with.

And the other thing that I’d like to hear is something that touches me and makes me think about my own life in ways that will make me a more generous, more kind, and I think that the, the biggest quality that’s missing in public life, a more humble person, you know, we’re all so certain about everything and, and the older I get, you know, I tell people all the time, it’s like when you get older, you think you get answers, but you don’t. What you get is you see more of the puzzle, which just makes you realize you know less than you used to. 

So that’s what I hope for, but I’m also going to try really to work on myself and not to be the snarky, you know, ugh, person should have said this and they could have used that story and why didn’t they? I’m really going to try to just experience it as one should as opposed to being like, you know, a judge in one of those TV contests that holds up a number.

Yehuda: Yeah. I mean, that’s the great irony of the synagogue experience in Rosh Hashanah and Kippur is that the whole liturgy is about God sitting in judgment of the world, but what’s really happening is all of us sitting in judgment of the rabbi. 

Last thing, you’ve been very generous with us, but any preview of what you’re hoping to speak about in your Yom Kippur sermon?

David: I will actually, I will tell you, I don’t usually know until I get really close, but I was sitting with my successors, with Rabbis Guzik and Sherman, and I said to them, you know, I want to talk about something that’s like, has nothing to do with the two of you or anything you’re going to talk about. And then literally just at that moment, it came out of my mouth, I said, I think I’ll talk about aging. Because I’m about to be 65. And I saw this t-shirt that said, isn’t it weird that I’m the same age as old people? And I thought, actually, a lot of Jews are aging. And it’s a really important topic about how we deal with it and what it means and how our society deals with the aged. And I’ve never spoken about it. And it’s time. So I think that’s what I’m going to talk about.

Yehuda: Amazing. Well, thank you all for listening to our show this week, and special thanks to our guest, David Wolpe. 

Identity Crisis this week was produced by David Zvi Kalman. David Zvi Kalman was the founding producer of Identity Crisis, and it’s just an unbelievable chavruta to me, and to our team here, in imagining this show three years ago, which launched coincidentally the first week of the lockdown of the pandemic and has become indispensable to the Hartman Institute. I want to thank David Zvi as he moves on to other professional ventures, sticks around as a fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute, but is always going to be part and parcel of the identity of this show. 

I want to thank our executive producers, Maital Friedman, with assistance from Miri Miller, Sarina Shohet, and Talia Harris. This episode was edited by Gareth Hobbs at Silver Sound NYC. Our production managers, M Louis Gordon, and our music is provided by Socalled. Transcripts of our show are now available on our website, typically about a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online at

We’re always looking for ideas what to cover in future episodes. If you have a topic you’d like to hear about or comments about this episode, you can write to us at You can rate and review our show on iTunes to help more people find it. You can subscribe to our show everywhere podcasts are available. We’ll see you next week, thanks for listening, and Shana Tova.

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