I was recently at a bat mitzvah in Vancouver where the rabbi gave a provocative and timely sermon. It was about two topics I’d discussed a lot over the past week. One – the fining and public shaming of L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling over his racist rant – I’d parsed with friends and family over casual conversation. I had analyzed the other topic – the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations’ rejection of J Street’s membership bid – in a blog post for Haaretz filed just that afternoon.
There was nothing unusual in the form the rabbi’s sermon took. He opened with two topics from the news, made an argument about each, found a common conceptual thread, and linked the entire discussion to Judaic sources.
Yet, as the sermon unfolded, I recognized a familiar, low-level anxiety I often feel when listening to rabbinic sermons, a feeling I’d seldom paused to examine before. I soon clued into the source of my discomfort: it was the discomfort of feeling silenced.
I thus couldn’t help wondering whether we need a new model. What if sermons were opening statements in a broader, community discussion? What if sermons were no longer viewed as words from on high to be absorbed, silently, but rather platforms from which vigorous conversation takes place? A study conducted last year by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs revealed that, on sensitive topics such as the politics of Israel, rabbis are nervous about speaking out of fear of backlash. Might a reconsidered sermon model help warm this chill factor?
At the end of the Oneg Shabbat celebration that evening, I introduced myself to the rabbi. I noted the bravery of his remarks and then proceeded to lay out some reactions of my own. There were areas that still troubled me conceptually. There were areas about which my own legal knowledge in the area of hate speech, for example, is limited, and I wanted to pose some followup questions. He listened warmly, we exchanged a few thoughts, and said goodnight.
The next day, I traded emails with a friend, a constitutional law expert, who clarified some issues for me. That night, at a family dinner, I continued the conversation with a relative who had also heard the sermon.
The upshot? I felt gratified and enriched by all of followup conversations. And, most curiously, I ended up agreeing with the rabbi’s sermon more than I had when I heard it.
All this leads me to wonder, as well, whether readers of this column ever feel a similar sense of annoyance or frustration that our Ottawa Jewish Bulletin conversation – as is the case with the newspaper form in its traditional role – might feel similarly unidirectional. There are always letters to the editor, of course, but traditional newsprint columnists are generally discouraged from responding to them directly. This ends up leading to a dynamic that feels much less like a mutually enriching conversation and more like a customer complaint.
There is another model, however. The legal scholar Stanley Fish, who used to contribute to the Opinionator blog on the New York Times website, would engage readers in a two-way, back-and-forth discussion from one blog post to the next. Surely there is an inherent satisfaction to the writer and to the reader in polishing the edges of what sometimes might feel like a brittle exchange into a productive and altogether human conversation.
It’s a model that we might consider adopting more forthrightly in our communities: in our congregations, at AGMs, at public talks where some speakers have been known to be whisked offstage prior to questions so as to keep the evening “flowing,” and in our community papers. One antidote that is already present is the wonderful new www.ottawajewishbulletin.com. There, readers can comment, respond to one another, and writers can even comment back. This is the way forward. While I hope my writing sometimes strikes a chord, please know that my ideas are enriched by your reactions.
Mira Sucharov, an associate professor of political science at Carleton University, blogs at Haaretz.com.