As debates raged over masks, Zoom and vaccine status, U.S. rabbis faced many challenges when it came to devoting their full energies to the content of their sermons during the High Holy Days in recent years.
Yet this month, with a return to relative post-COVID normalcy, Jewish spiritual leaders are able to once again refocus attention on the message they wish to deliver to their congregations at the most heavily attended worship services of the year.
In interviews with rabbis from across the United States as they were preparing for upcoming Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, most were working to balance the need to address the important issues of the day while still giving their congregants a meaningful, spiritual and theological message that transcends the current headlines.
The tension between the two “is something rabbis struggle with every year,” says Rabbi David Baum, spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Kodesh, a Conservative synagogue in Boca Raton, Florida.
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Many rabbis decide to split the difference. The late Rabbi Alexander Schindler, who led the Reform movement for many years, made it his practice to discuss political issues on Rosh Hashanah while delivering a purely spiritual message on Yom Kippur.
But this year, with the time of spiritual reflection meeting the upcoming U.S. midterm elections and a turbulent U.S. political reality impacting directly on the lives of congregants and their families, Rabbi Jonah Pesner suggests “we simply have to do both at the same time.”
“This year, we simply can’t not talk about abortion justice and the assault on the bodies of people who give birth,” says Pesner, the director of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington. “We can’t not talk about trans families and kids who are under assault, and we can’t not talk about the elephant in the room – which is the threat to democracy in America, and one that is so inherently antisemitic.
“We Jews know, throughout history, the dangers when authoritarian regimes rise,” he says. “Our own safety is in jeopardy right now.”
With white Christian nationalism on the rise and establishing itself into the political mainstream ahead of November’s midterms, Pesner says he is seeing “an unprecedented level of rabbis seeking our counsel [at RAC] when it comes to calling out the antisemitism of a candidate without appearing to endorse the other candidate.” (The appearance of campaigning for a particular candidate would jeopardize a synagogue’s tax-exempt status.)
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, leader of New York City’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (the largest LGBTQ synagogue in the country), says she finds it so crucial that her High Holy Days sermons speak to the moment that she doesn’t write them down, talking only from notes.
“I never decide much in advance exactly what I’m saying,” says the veteran human rights activist. This year, she says she will “absolutely talk about the current crises and plagues facing our world, including rising antisemitism, racism, fascism, authoritarianism, Ukraine and the role of white Christian nationalism.”
She adds that she also plans to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But Kleinbaum stresses that just because she speaks about current events doesn’t mean her sermons will necessarily be downbeat. “I will also talk about hope and how we build foundations for future generations no matter what the reality of our world. How it matters that we do teshuvah [repentance] and work on our individual lives and relationship to God, our communities and families, even in a burning world, and why that matters. And how we must build a community of resistance and love, reflecting God’s goodness in the world and acting as agents for peace, compassion and kindness.”
High Holy Days liturgy
Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman of Temple Habonim in Barrington, Rhode Island, plans to address the current moment’s most political issue on Kol Nidre, the solemn Yom Kippur evening service. He will discuss reproductive rights and the implications of the Supreme Court’s landmark Dobbs decision last June, when it held that abortion was no longer a constitutional right.
“I will be talking about Dobbs and the recent decisions on school prayer from the perspective of American pluralism and personal autonomy and choice, which is critical for our lives as Jews here and is being directly undermined,” Voss-Altman says.
“I will be talking about Dobbs and the recent decisions on school prayer from the perspective of American pluralism and personal autonomy and choice.”
He plans to address gun control in another holiday sermon, relating to the July 4 shooting in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park that killed one of his former congregants, who was also his daughter’s preschool teacher. It relates to the High Holy Days liturgy of “who shall live and who shall die.”
Although he frequently discusses Israel and the Palestinians in his sermons, Voss-Altman says there is so much going on close to home right now that he doesn’t “feel like there’s space for me to discuss Israel” during these High Holy Days.
Rabbi Stephanie Alexander, from Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina, says she will be following the Schindler formula: spiritual concerns on Yom Kippur, but very much “addressing current events” on Rosh Hashanah.
Her sermon will discuss “how the Jewish community has been involved in defining and navigating religious liberty since the very founding of our country, how it is currently endangered by legal decisions and pending legislation on the state level here in South Carolina, and how we need to draw on our personal experiences of discrimination to be vocal advocates for the protection of religious freedom today,” she says.
Rabbi Harold Kravitz, senior rabbi at Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka, Minnesota, and current president of the Rabbinical Assembly (the umbrella organization for Conservative rabbis), says that engaging with public struggles isn’t just for moments of particular crisis for Jews or American society at large – it should be a regular practice.
“It’s our ongoing responsibility to speak to what is on people’s minds and how they can wrestle with issues, whether they are personal or social – through the lens of Jewish sources and values,” he says. “That’s why I feel it’s important to speak about issues that have social consequences – and by definition, such issues are political. One is making a political choice if one speaks out about a social issue and one is making a political choice if one chooses not to.”
The key to doing so successfully, he adds, is the way such a message is delivered.
“One cannot be partisan, but everything is political. It’s very important that we speak about these topics in a way that is not polarizing or disrespectful of different views. It’s okay to make people uncomfortable. But we should be doing it in a way that is respectful. After all, a rabbi is also trying to build a community and not alienate people.”
Striking that balance is not always easy, says Kravitz, who admits to receiving his share of blowback and resistance from congregants over his long career. “My experience is that when someone tells a rabbi that their sermon is too political, what they’re saying is that they disagree with the politics they’re expressing,” he notes with a wry chuckle.
Torah, Torah, Torah
Not every rabbi believes the pulpit is the place for politics. Rabbi Marc Mandel, an Orthodox rabbi who leads the congregation at the historic Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, says current events won’t be a part of his High Holy Day sermons this or any other year.
“I will focus on spiritual material and Torah ideas, and connect them to the prayers and spiritual growth for the new year,” he says. “My father always taught me that anyone can read the newspaper, but people come to shul to hear the rabbi speak about Torah.”
“My father always taught me that anyone can read the newspaper, but people come to shul to hear the rabbi speak about Torah.”
It is not only Orthodox rabbis who make that choice on the High Holy Days. As much as he cares about these issues, Rabbi Baum of Boca Raton will not be mentioning antisemitic violence, reproductive rights or the war in Ukraine when he speaks on Judaism’s holiest days.
“Over the course of the year, I’ve spoken about most of these pressing issues as they’ve happened in real time,” he explains. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, he says, his “challenge as a rabbi is to send a message that isn’t just relevant for the next week or two, but something that will be important for the entire year.
“I would say that I do address current events, but in the realm of what people face on a day-to-day and year-to-year basis,” Baum says. “This year, I plan to discuss – in the aftermath of COVID – the epidemic of loneliness and the way in which our synagogues exist to be communities, and how we should dedicate ourselves to try to make people less lonely in the synagogue and out in the world.”
In another sermon, he plans to address antisemitism and Israel – but “in a larger frame” than the current news headlines. He aims to delve into issues of identity and connection between Jews around the world, particularly the relationship between American Jews and Israelis.
“I think what it comes down to is you have to know your community and your people.”
Baum believes the degree to which any given rabbi decides what to speak about in the most important sermons of the year is a highly individual decision. It depends not only on a spiritual leader’s preferences and inclinations, but on the nature of their congregation.
“I think what it comes down to is you have to know your community and your people. Any of us can write – and today we have the internet, we can publish on our websites and our blogs; we can send any message we want to the whole world. But when rabbis stand on the bimah on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and give sermons, they are delivering words to a specific community of people.”
“They know these people, they know what they’re thinking about and what they’re struggling with. I’m always thinking: What does my community need to hear?
“What might be pressing for someone who’s living in one part of the country might not be pressing for those living in another. Some congregations might be homogeneous; others include a diversity of views. That will really affect one’s choice of topics.”
Ultimately, Baum says, the recipe for a successful sermon that reaches the hearts and minds of congregants begins and ends with “a rabbi who really knows and understands the community they serve.”