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Preaching in the Post-Sermon Age

By Yosie Levine

For anyone interested in understanding the trajectory of American values and culture, Charles Murray’s newest book, Coming Apart, is an important text.  Murray argues that over the past 50 years, two utterly disparate classes have emerged from the once-uniform American landscape.  Members of the upper class overwhelmingly attend certain colleges, marry one another, and live in enclaves far removed from people who are different from them.  Meanwhile, the core values that form the backbone of this upper class—marriage, industriousness, honesty, and religion—are eroding precipitously among the lower class.

The consequences are alarming.  While only seven percent of children are born out of wedlock among the upper class, the number is a staggering 45 percent among the lower class.  The employment gap is huge.  Moreover, people in the lower class pursue education less vigorously and are far less active in their local communities.  The members of the respective classes are increasingly ignorant about the lives of people unlike themselves.

Supported by a mass of data, Murray makes a compelling case and a sobering diagnosis.  His agenda is descriptive rather than prescriptive.  But, in considering ways to rectify what has gone wrong, he points to two phenomena that are worth examining through the lens of Jewish values.

First, there is the phenomenon of isolation: Members of the upper class are woefully out of touch with their lower class counterparts, partly because contact between the two groups is simply too infrequent.  Any prescription for mitigating this problem must surely include a formula for bringing different kinds of people together.

The Jewish tradition encourages this to happen organically by casting as wide a net as possible.  For devout practitioners, daily obligations require regular contact with people outside the immediate social circle.  While Jewish history is replete with charitable societies and institutions for the promulgation of Jewish values, individual duties in Jewish law cannot be outsourced.  Simply put, there is no substitute for personal involvement.  Mitzvot like visiting the sick, comforting the bereaved, lifting up the widow, orphan, and stranger, and inviting guests into one’s home demand continuous interaction with people who are, by definition, in a different life situation.

For those who are affiliated but less rigorously committed, the act of worship brings exposure to people in different life stages and of different backgrounds.  Synagogue demographics may be influenced by geography, but esteem and honor within a congregation are based on virtue.  Study, charity, and personal piety are honored, obscuring distinctions of class.

Even for those who attach to the Jewish story only a few times a year, the holidays help individuals clear the hurdles of class difference.  In Temple times, all Jews living in the Jewish state, irrespective of class, were enjoined to make three annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem; the idea was that all Jews would celebrate their holidays as a single community.  It was the ancient equivalent of an economy-class community retreat: Find ways for people to leave their natural habitats and comfort zones, and they will find the human ties that bind them.  While the practice itself is obsolete, its ethic remains very much alive.

One can envision many ways to encourage Murray’s divided American classes to come together.  David Brooks has suggested a post-high school year of mandatory national service.  Think of the benefits of Teach for America, for both students and teachers.  Another thought is to develop intelligent ways to improve and integrate public school systems.  In the “SuperZips”—upper-class zipcodes—that Murray describes, many public schools are highly regarded and considered perfectly viable alternatives to expensive private schools.  The trick would be to maintain these public schools’ high academic standards while absorbing a meaningful minority of children from lower-class backgrounds.

There is, however, a second, much tougher nut to crack: the challenge of mobilizing the upper class to “preach what they practice,” as Murray puts it.  Today, the ethic of non-judgmentalism predominates.  The elite are generally unwilling to tell others what they really think.  Members of the upper class know what works for them but say to themselves, “Who are we to tell others what is virtuous?”

Rabbis, too, are leery of moralizing.  The Torah commands, “Rebuke your neighbor”; but the Talmud points to the words that immediately follow: “But do not bear a sin because of him.”  As the rabbis interpret it, one must be absolutely certain that a well-intentioned rebuke does not encroach on the wrongdoer’s dignity.  Reproach may be a virtuous act, but discretion is more virtuous still.

Murray has it right: We live in a post-sermon culture.  As Leon Wieseltier puts it, “We wish to be right without anybody else being wrong.”  Except for the ultra-Orthodox, this sentiment prevails even—perhaps especially—among teachers and rabbis.  Their task would have once been described as conveying truths; today, however, they use a vocabulary of encouraging, persuading, inspiring, and perhaps influencing congregants or students.  Preaching is out of vogue.

Perhaps the pendulum will swing again, and those with good values and ideas will regain the self-confidence to share them with others.  In the meantime, consider this verse, among the last words Moses spoke to his people: “Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past.  Ask your father, he will inform you; your elders, they will tell you.”

There will always be voices of wisdom.  But the verse presupposes that we will have relationships with those wise individuals, so that they will be available to us when we need them.  If we want to start bridging the values gap in America, the answer is to re-learn not the art of effective preaching but the art of effective relationship-building.  The upper class does not need to preach more; it needs to reach out more.  Our day-to-day lives are filled with dozens of transactional relationships—with clerks, doormen, receptionists.  Imagine what could happen if we transformed even one of these into a meaningful human relationship.  

The capacity to preserve American exceptionalism is in our hands.  Opportunities abound.  We need to seize them. 

Yosie Levine is Rabbi of the Jewish Center on Manhattan's Upper West Side.