Jew­ish Preach­ing: Hom­i­lies and Sermons

Louis Jacobs
  • Review
By – September 24, 2012

For as long as there has been a bib­li­cal text, ser­mons have been preached. Rab­bis have sought to inter­pret, elu­ci­date, clar­i­fy, broad­en, leg­is­late and oth­er­wise com­ment on the text. Rab­bi Louis Jacobs has been preach­ing and teach­ing for over 60 years. This col­lec­tion of some of his ser­mons and hom­i­lies on the Torah read­ings and on Pirkay Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) is a delight­ful and much appre­ci­at­ed con­tri­bu­tion to this genre. 

Three sig­nif­i­cant com­po­nents make this vol­ume attrac­tive. The Intro­duc­tion gives a thor­ough yet con­cise his­to­ry of Jew­ish preach­ing. Jacobs cov­ers rab­binic d’rashot, philo­soph­i­cal exe­ge­sis, Renais­sance preach­ers, and the mod­ern ser­mon, com­plete with the influ­ence of Chris­t­ian modes of ser­mo­niz­ing. The sur­vey cites all the clas­sic works in this field and is an excel­lent sum­ma­ry. He also makes dis­tinc­tions between hom­i­lies and ser­mons, and writ­ten essays ver­sus speech­es to a live audience. 

The sec­ond part of his Intro­duc­tion is an appeal to keep ser­mons focused on Jew­ish the­ol­o­gy. Too often preach­ers wan­der far afield and feel oblig­at­ed to bring cur­rent events or oth­er issues into their talks. Rab­bis are (or should be) more famil­iar with Jew­ish texts and con­cepts than they are about polit­i­cal sci­ence, sports, movies, tele­vi­sion, med­i­cine, cur­rent events, etc. That is the rabbi’s task — to teach. Judaism can be faith­ful­ly pre­sent­ed in reli­gious terms with­out obscurantism. 

He then pro­ceeds to offer numer­ous exam­ples of this type of ser­mon. Through the use of sto­ries, para­bles and midrashim, Jacobs con­veys the beau­ti­ful lessons of Judaism. Top­ics include human progress, faith, a reli­gious out­look, trust, the pow­er of ideas, mar­tyr­dom, asceti­cism, Jew­ish expres­sion, human strug­gle, dig­ni­ty, mir­a­cles, and many more. He does not shy away from dif­fi­cult issues. He accepts the chal­lenge of pre­sent­ing Judaism to a mod­ern audi­ence— couched in the tra­di­tion­al idioms of the faith. What is also attrac­tive about these ser­mons is that they are all quite short and to the point: anoth­er les­son to be learned by those who preach today. Lay­man and schol­ar alike will enjoy this book.

Wal­lace Greene, Ph.D., has held sev­er­al uni­ver­si­ty appoint­ments, and cur­rent­ly writes and lec­tures on Jew­ish and his­tor­i­cal subjects.

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