Social History from a Contemporary Sermon

Marc Saperstein in his superb Your Voice is like a Ram’s Horn: themes and texts in traditional Jewish preaching, points out that sermons are the most important genre for social history. Halakhah, kabbalah, and exegesis often only reflect the imagination and concerns of the author, while sermons delivered in public are more likely to actually reflect the issues of the era. H.H. Ben Sasson, Azriel Schochat B. Z. Dinur and others successfully mined them for the religious behavior and deviance of Jewish societies. Saperstein points out that unlike the other genres which allow projection by the author, sermons are usually more critical of the congregants when delivered and are cleaned up of much of the detail for publication.

This post continues to look at the sermons of Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky delivered last year at the Jewish Center. In the following sermon can offer the future historian a glimpse into the social world of the early 21st century. The sermon opens with a TV Evangelical family that is in the process of disintegration. Then notes that many in the community are not scrupulous in their observance. He offer direct observation of the deviance in the realm of Kashrut, Shabbat and Negiah. Congregants are loose about where they eat out, they find the laws of cooking on shabbos beyond their ken, and justification for not following negiah.

Rackovsky does not use the language of following the halakhic system that needs to be followed as an ideal halakhic aspiration or submission to the halakhic discipline. Rather, he refreshingly returns us to Rav Dessler’s idea of point of choice, our current religious fault line or current struggle. In this model, our piety is judged by our individual striving to succeed in the battle to do the mizvah and our lapses are judged by our indifference to choosing correctly. Those who only use the language of halakhic system tend to sort the behavior of people like grades of eggs. This person is makil, this one is mahmir, this one is right and this one is left. But to use the mussar language of struggle and choice makes it personal, volitional, and about avoiding self-deception and rationalization. (Whereas Rav Dessler had a modernist concern for self-perfection, I hear faint echoes of Evangelical Neo-Calvinist struggle with sin and failings in Rackovsky’s usage).

Lax observance of kashrut, shabbos, and negiah by overworked UWS lawyers. What else do these contemporary sermons teach us?

Who is “frum”?
Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky
The Jewish Center 5769

It seems that all anyone is talking about these days is on and Kate plus Eight, the TLC show chronicling the life of on and Kate Goselin and their twins and sextuplets.

Let me ask you a question: What are the actions that make someone an observant Jew, someone we might call ‘frum’?

• Another definition might be that observant Jewish man or woman attends minyan, keeps Shabbos carefully and knowledgeably, studies Torah regularly, is scrupulous in observance of kashrus inside the home and out and is careful to observe the laws of taharas hamishpacha and negiah. This may be a more technically correct definition, but it is not reflective of our sociological reality here on the West Side. If we are honest, we will admit there are plenty of people among us who do not do some-or any-of these things yet call themselves “observant.” Besides, even people who are meticulous in their observance make mistakes on occasion. So what does it mean to be frum in our community?

Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler Z”l mashgiah of the Gateshead and Ponavitch yeshivos, wrote his masterpiece, Miktav MeEliyhau in which he coined the term nekudat habehirah the point of choice. Each person has a point at which struggles take place and willpower and commitment are tested. No two people have the same nekudat habehirah, and our task is to work on ourselves and constantly push our own upward. We live in a community in which people are in a transitional, experimental phase, and often find themselves violating that which was previously a red line, whether in the area of Shabbos, boundaries in relationships or kashrus observance. Perhaps a more accurate and productive definition of observance-of frumkeit for our community is one based on the lesson of the nekudat habehirah.. We are guided by a halachic system regardless of what we do; being observant means that we are challenged to struggle to maintain and increase standards of observance regardless of our previous shortcomings. The moment we start to rationalize that certain rules don’t apply to us personally, or say they are archaic, too difficult to observe and prevent us from having a good time, we are railing against the maintenance of a strong moral framework.

In our social construct, we are often faced with nekudat habehirah moments. For some people, it may be in the realm of Kashrus. Of course, there are people whose jobs depend on going to non-kosher restaurants on business lunches, and who exercise the proper precautions in these situations, and those are not what we are discussing. I refer to the questions I often get from people about eating in non-kosher vegetarian restaurants, or establishments under represent a nekudat habehirah for people, as it allows for greater opportunities for socializing and there is a certain illicit thrill involved as well.

Secondly, an area that may test our commitment is the area of Shabbos. Most people in our community are not willfully violating Shabbos, but many are doing so due to ignorance or apathy. I have seen numerous instances in which people heat food on Shabbos in ways that are definitely prohibited. It seems that this is not even an area of nekudat habehirah, but rather an area people avoid because they are scared of doing it wrong, or feel it is too difficult for them to follow.

Another area that can severely test one’s willpower is the area of negi’ah physical contact with the opposite gender. It is easy to decide that the laws of negi’ah are too difficult, unfair or do not apply to us, but this is the response of the path of least resistance. Read the rest here (The quotes have been slightly altered because the Hebrew did not transfer.).

Here is yet another sermon by Rackovsky that was delivered Kol Nidrei last year. Once again it reflects the social reality. Olam Haba is spiritualized to mean freeing us from what hinders us in life. He briefly opens up on imprisonment through addictions and bad relationships, but the peak of the Yom kippur speech is how our professions are imprisoning us. Striving for the law firm causes people to lose their ability to make choices, they are imprisoned to the paycheck. They subject themselves to a life of turmoil.

The second ingredient in entry into Olam Haba is the restoration of freedom and release from imprisonment. But there are many kinds of prisons that are unrelated to actual incarceration, and which rob us of the ultimate freedom- the freedom to make our own decisions.

For others still, it is money that is the prison. In the legal profession, there is a slang term called “Golden Handcuffs.” This is when someone has a demanding, stultifying and soul crushing yet lucrative job in a law firm, and leaving it would be too costly, especially when considering debts to be paid and lifestyle choices that have to be supported. This term is now used with irony; given the sad state of employment in the legal profession, most lawyers are thankful to have any kind of job, let alone one with golden handcuffs. But in truth, this applies to any unrewarding profession that imprisons its practitioners, who are afraid to leave due to finances- especially because having a job these days is such a blessing. If having a job is a source of imprisonment, think about the imprisonment of the all encompassing worry and emotional turmoil that can be experienced- constantly bythose who are unemployed.
Read the Rest Here

Please keep sending me synagogue websites that have the sermons of Orthodox rabbis. I am especially looking for younger rabbis in important congregations, not the usual self-promoters and institutional speeches. These are less likely to reflect social realities. I am not looking for OU/YUTorah sanitized sermons, or those by ideologues and tools. I am looking for those under the radar and in the real world like this one. I was given two synagogues so far.

2 responses to “Social History from a Contemporary Sermon

  1. Anonymous in Teaneck

    I can understand why, in a past where fewer people were literate and/or wrote about their actions, sermons could possibly be “the most important genre for social history.” But in today’s world of blogs, listservs, self-published books, surveys, Facebook, and Youtube, this claim would be difficult to support. You don’t need to “mine sermons for religious behavior and deviance,” which are, after all, not primary sources. The primary sources are out there.

  2. Would a rabbi at the Jewish Center one generation ago have rebuked his congregants for not being shomer negiah? Isn’t this a good sign?

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