The ProsenPeople

The Rabbi Whisperer Ponders the Sermon

Friday, February 19, 2016| Permalink

Earlier this week, Amy Gottlieb wrote about how the works of I. B. Singer and the “beautiful, perceptive” women around her mother’s kitchen table individually inspired The Beautiful Possible as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

For fourteen years I worked as director of publications for The Rabbinical Assembly, editing theology, sermons, scholarship, and liturgy. This dream job appealed to my intellectual and religious curiosity, while offering me a unique role. I wasn’t a rabbi or a congregant, but an iconoclastic Jewish seeker who was a stand-in for a rabbi’s most challenging layperson. In many ways, I represented the Haggadah’s Four Children—wise, rebellious, simple, and curious—in the guise of a hard-working editor armed with a red pen, Chicago Manual of Style, and a patient typesetter on speed-dial. Over the years, this livelihood morphed into a sequence of freelance gigs: I edited sermon collections, consulted on sermon writing, and revised countless words written for spiritual seekers. I even moonlighted as a spirituality ghostwriter and was hired to write accounts of Ayahuasca-inspired mystical visions. A friend jokingly labeled me "the rabbi whisperer," a motif that made its way into The Beautiful Possible.

Sermons—empty, flawed, inspiring, ghostwritten— are excerpted throughout my novel. As a lifelong sporadic synagogue-goer, I’ve heard many varieties of sermon-speak, and I tend to listen to these oral, pastoral essays as if I’m at a poetry reading, imagining the rabbi as a poet wearing a frayed sweater in a smoky coffeehouse, shuffling a stack of wrinkled pages. As a poet, I’ve learned that there’s no meaning without cadence, no art without nuance. The rabbis I know who compose the most lyrical sermons are well versed in English and world literature; a good sermonizer knows Shakespeare and Rumi, along with the words of the prophets and the Baal Shem Tov. And a little Mary Oliver, Jack Gilbert, and Louise Gluck won’t hurt either.

But what is a sermon in the first place? A prose poem smeared with a message? A textual analysis shaped into a digestible sound-byte? The art of the sermon is filled with contradiction; the audience wants some kind of takeaway, but without nuanced language words become insufferably clobbering and flat. Yet on the other side, too much subtlety threatens to disappoint the congregant who doesn’t want to leave the sanctuary empty-handed. Veer too far in any direction, and you’ve fallen off the map.

Both poets and clergy are in the business of working with language to express a deep love of the world in all of its wild and mysterious permutations. Both need to crack open the human heart in some way, to awaken the spirit. Yet poetry is invited to dance with silence, with doubt, with uncertainty and surprise. Metaphorically, the sermonizer takes on the persona of the rabble-rousing prophet, while the poet is the prophet’s little sister, rowing her flimsy yellow kayak across a lake. The prophet gathers the tribe, imparts a lesson, feeds the hungry; his little sister tunes into the music of the spheres, catching the cadences of the lived world. But when the prophet ignores his kid sister and underestimates the power of her flimsy kayak, his message is imperiled.

Throughout The Beautiful Possible, I weave in quotes by Heschel, Tagore, Rumi, and Dickinson that invite readers to experience the possibilities of poetic language. The character of Walter stakes his claim in the poetic, the between, the uncertain. Rosalie and Sol are drawn to his sensibility, and poetry has the last word, as I believe it ought to. In the words of Grace Paley, master kayaker of the lived world: “I’m not full of prayers. I’m full of language.”

Amy Gottlieb's fiction and poetry have been published in many literary journals and anthologies. She has received a Literary Fellowship and Residency from the Bronx Council on the Arts, and an Arts Fellowship from the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education. She lives in New York City.

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