Preaching and Change
Rabbis speaking in the local language, e.g. German or English, was once denounced as forbidden but now is commonplace. Some people mistakenly conclude that if rabbis forbid something they want to do, they can still do it because the rabbis will eventually change their minds. While this argument might contain a kernel of truth, it is wrapped in cynicism and — in this case — historical inaccuracy.
In its initial phase, much of Reform’s energy was spent on making Judaism more similar to Protestant Christianity, which was the dominant and “respectable” religion in Western Europe. Many of the changes instituted were designed to make synagogue services resemble church services. Among these was a transition from a traditional rabbinic drashah, a relatively brief midrash-style analysis of the weekly Torah portion, to an edifying sermon, a longer lesson designed to teach key ideas. The Reform emphasis on edifying sermons mirrored Christian practices and moved the focus of the services to the sermon, rather than prayer.
Leading rabbis sensed the significance of this change. Some responded by focusing on the language of these sermons — the local language rather than Yiddish. They forbade giving a sermon in the local language and some went so far as to insist that people get up and leave if a rabbi starts to preach in the local language. However, this reaction was not universal, even among leading rabbis.
Relatively early in the debate, Rav Tzvi Hirsch Chajes (Minchas Kena’os, p. 990) wrote in 1849 that there is no sin in preaching in the local language. He points out that this was common practice in Spain, Italy and Arabic countries. If anything, it is better to preach clearly and eloquently than in Yiddish, which he calls “a stammering language that cannot be understood” (Isa. 33:19). He approves of sermons in the local language. Even before this, in the 1820’s, both Chakham Isaac Bernays and Rav Ya’akov Ettlinger (author of Aruch LaNer) had begun preaching in German.
In 1865, a rabbinical conference in Michalowitz, Hungary resulted in a legal ruling signed by 71 rabbis, chief among them Rav Chaim Halberstam, author of Divrei Chaim. The first of nine rulings declared that rabbis are forbidden to preach in the local language. Additionally, if someone attends a synagogue and the rabbi begins to preach in the local language, the attendee must get up and leave. Generally speaking, those who signed this legal ruling affiliated with what we now call Ultra-Orthodox or Charedi Judaism.
Perhaps more interesting than those who signed the legal ruling are those who did not. Rav Azriel Hildesheimer, at the time the leading figure of moderate Orthodoxy (or Modern Orthodoxy) in Hungary, opposed the legal ruling. Regarding preaching in the local language, he wrote: “This cannot be found in any legal authority. Of the proofs brought for support, some are inconclusive and others can be conclusively disproven.” Regarding attendees, he added that “it is clear that there is no hint anywhere that listeners must go outside.”
Rav Moshe Schick, a leader of mainstream Hungarian Orthodoxy at that time, also refused to sign the legal ruling. In a responsum on preaching in the local language (Responsa Maharam Schick, Orach Chaim 70), he explains his views on the issue to a rabbi whose entire congregation only understood the local language. He explains, based on a teaching of his mentor, Rav Moshe (Chasam) Sofer, that we cannot act strictly if it would give the advantage to religious deviants. If rabbis refuse to reach out to their congregants in the local language, people will be overwhelmed by the influence of deviationist preachers and publishers. Therefore, a rabbi who speaks the local language and wants to counter the influence of non-Orthodox preachers, in a place where people only understand the local language, he need not worry about leading others astray with his example. In such a case, where they will find a less worthy rabbi who will preach in a local language, Maharam Schick writes, “I have not found any prohibition for someone who fears God to preach in the local language.”
However, Maharam Schick concludes by saying that his colleagues disagreed with him and he must accept their conclusion and forbid preaching in the local language. If this is an enactment to protect the Torah, we must uphold it. This makes it sound like a decree by Hungarian rabbis. Similarly, when writing about an issue addressed in another section of the legal ruling, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, Orach Chaim2:42) dismisses the ruling as a local matter for a specific time and place. It may have been a necessary measure to counter trends in 19th century Hungary but it does not bind others in different situations.
Similarly, Rav Yechiel Ya’akov Weinberg (Seridei Eish 2:53:7, 2:149 in old editions) permits sermons in the local language. He distinguishes between prior generations, in which sermons were given in German in order to draw people toward the German Enlightenment, and his generation in which German sermons are used to draw people to traditional Judaism. He even says that if the Chasam Sofer were alive at the time of the writing of the responsum, he would be very happy to see traditionalist rabbis preaching in German in order to fight foreign influences.
From the beginning of the declarations that the practice is forbidden, other leading rabbis dissented and permitted it. The communities that allow the practice today ideologically descend from those that were led by Rav Azriel Hildesheimer, Rav Moshe Schick and others with similar views. Even some of the rabbis who forbade the practice because of its socio-religious implications would probably reconsider in America of our time. And even today, the communities that ideologically descend from those led by Rav Chaim Halberstam and his colleagues, who forbade the practice completely, still only allow sermons in Yiddish.