Thursday, May 24, 2012

Preaching in the Post-Sermon Age

For anyone interested in understanding more deeply the trajectory of American values and American culture, Charles Murray’s newest book, Coming Apart, is an important text. Murray argues that over the past 50 years, two utterly disparate classes have emerged from the once monochrome American landscape. Those who belong to the upper class overwhelmingly attend a certain set of colleges, marry one another and live in enclaves, removed and apart from people unlike them. Meanwhile, the core values that form the backbone of this upper class – marriage, industriousness, honesty and religion – are eroding precipitously among the lower class.

These discrepancies in values have produced alarming trends. While only seven percent of children among the upper class are born out of wedlock, the number is a staggering 45 percent when it comes to the lower class. The employment gap is yawning. And people described as lower class pursue education less vigorously and tend to be far less active contributors to their local communities.  

More and more, America is dividing along class lines and the members of these respective classes are becoming increasingly ignorant about the lives of people unlike themselves.

In one of the most provocative segments of the book, Murray asks the reader to take a self-graded survey to establish how much exposure one has to the world that is not her own. Think about your own answers to questions such as these:
·         Since leaving school, have you ever worn a uniform?
·         Have you ever walked on a factory floor?
·         Have you ever had a close friend who could seldom get better than Cs in high school even if he or she tried hard?

With a plethora of data to support his arguments, Murray’s case is compelling and his diagnosis is sobering.

By his own admission, Murray’s agenda is descriptive rather than prescriptive. But in considering paths toward rectifying what has gone wrong, he alludes to two phenomena that are worth thinking about through the lens of Jewish values.

First, there is the problem in terms of isolationism. As Murray writes, Members of the upper class are woefully out of touch with their lower class counterparts. Contact between these two communities is simply too infrequent.

Any prescription that speaks to this issue surely has to include a formula for bringing different kinds of people together. The Jewish tradition ensures this happens organically by casting as wide a net as possible.

For devout practitioners with communal conscience, daily obligations mean regular contact with people outside one’s immediate social circles. While Jewish history is rife with the establishment of charitable societies and institutions for the promulgation of Jewish values, individual duties in Jewish law cannot be outsourced. Simply put, there is no substitute for personal involvement. Mitzvot like visiting the sick; comforting the bereaved; lifting up the widow, orphan and stranger; or inviting guests into one’s home are obligations that demand a constant and ongoing degree of contact with people who are by definition in another state.

For those who are affiliated but less rigorously committed, it is in the realm of worship that one is meant to gain exposure to people of different life stages and backgrounds. Synagogue demographics may be influenced by geography, but esteem and honor in the congregation is awarded based on virtue: Those who privilege study, charity and personal piety are accorded honor, further obscuring potential distinctions of caste.

And for those who attach to the Jewish story only a few times a year, it will be the holidays that help individuals clear the hurdles of class difference. In Temple times, all Jews living in the Jewish state, irrespective of class, were enjoined to make three annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

The vision was that all Jews would celebrate their holiday as a single community. And while this practice is essentially outmoded, its ethic remains very much alive. For it was the contemporary equivalent of an economy class community retreat. Find ways for people to leave their natural habitats and their natural comfort zones and, in the course of things, they will find the human ties that bind them. 

Short of demanding day-to-day civic involvement on the part of its citizens, one could envision numerous ways to encourage the coming together of the divided American classes Murray so aptly describes. David Brooks has suggested a post-high school year of mandatory national service. Think of the benefits of Teach for America – both for the students and the teachers. Another thought is to develop ways to intelligently improve and integrate the public school system. In the “SuperZips” Murray describes, many public schools are highly regarded and considered perfectly viable alternatives to expensive private schools. The trick would be to maintain high academic standards while absorbing a meaningful minority of children coming from lower class backgrounds.

Either of these propositions would surely represent a step in the right direction. The second, and much tougher nut to crack, however, is the challenge of mobilizing the upper class and encouraging its rank and file to preach what they practice. In this age, the ethic of non-judgmentalism predominates. As a result, the elite are generally unwilling to tell others what they really think.  Members of the upper class know what works for them, but say to themselves, “Who are we to tell others what is virtuous?”

The rabbis, too, are leery about the efficacy of moralizing. While the Torah commands: Rebuke your neighbor, the Talmud is quick to point to the words that immediately follow: but do not bear a sin because of him. The rabbis propose that the second clause qualifies the first. One must be absolutely certain that his well-intentioned rebuke does not encroach on the wrongdoer’s dignity. While there is a place for dogmatism, there is also a place for sensitivity. For one engaged in the virtuous act of reproach, discretion is an even higher virtue.

Whatever the principle, in practice Murray is certainly right to have identified that we live in a post-sermon culture. As Leon Wieseltier recently put it, “We believe that truth is a form of hegemony. We suspect that pluralism may require perspectivism, or at least a denial of the possibility of objectivity. We wish to be right without anybody else being wrong.” Outside the Ultra-Orthodox community, this sentiment is particularly prevalent even among teachers and rabbis, whose task would have once been described in terms of conveying truths. Today, they use a vocabulary of encouraging, persuading, inspiring and perhaps influencing their congregants or students. Preaching is out of vogue.

Perhaps over time the pendulum will swing again and those possessed of good values and good ideas will gain the self-confidence to share them with others. In the meantime, we would do well to recall the words that were among the last Moses taught to his people: Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past; ask your father, he will inform you, your elders, they will tell you. That there will be voices of wisdom and sage counsel is a given. But the verse presupposes its readers will have relationships with those wise men and women such that when the time comes, they will be able to access them and learn the lessons of history and experience.

If we want to start bridging the values gap in this great country, the answer is not to re-learn the art of effective preaching. The answer is to re-learn the art of effective relationship building. The upper class does not need to preach more; it needs to reach out more. Our day-to-day lives are filled with dozens of transactional relationships. Think of the clerks, the tellers, the maintenance staff, the drivers, the doormen, the delivery boys and the receptionists. Imagine if we transformed even one of these into a meaningful relationship. The capacity to preserve American exceptionalism is in our hands. Opportunities abound. All we need to do is seize them.

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