Don’t Say Videotape in Your Rosh Hashanah Sermon

An embarrassing event occurred at a Conservative synagogue in Newton, Massachusetts. I’m sure that the synagogue’s rabbi had no idea about the NFL’s New England Patriots‘ videotaping scandal when she sat down to write her Rosh Hashanah sermon. She probably also didn’t know that the Patriots’ owner (and her congregant) Robert Kraft (pictured at right) had said that he didn’t know his team was using a sideline camera that caused a $750,000 fine and the loss of a draft pick. The video camera was confiscated at the beginning of the Patriots’ season opener and Mr. Kraft embarrassingly expressed his displeasure with his head coach.

Jason Schwartz wrote about the awkward shul moment in the Boston Magazine’s blog “Boston Daily”:
After a week of Cameragate, you’d have to imagine that Bob Kraft was looking for that type of escape when he strolled into his Newton temple late this morning. But thanks to a faux-pas from a rabbi who’s apparently had her head stuck in a giant blintz for the last week, no such luck.
I go to the same temple as Kraft, so I’m pleased to report that he did an outstanding job chanting a lengthy haftorah portion (a selection from the prophets) before the congregation today, but things got a little bumpy at the end of the service when our rabbi rose to deliver the sermon.Her main trope was that people should act as as though God is always watching them. Not a bad lesson, except that in making her point she must have made an endless number of references to acting like you’re being videotaped. This was awkward.Somewhere in the middle of the sermon, she somehow managed to stumble onto a story about Cal Ripken, Jr. and what a positive role model he is (why she referenced Cal Ripken of all people, I have no idea–this sermon was all over the place). Her basic point was that Ripken always knew he was being recorded on the field, so he behaved accordingly. This was especially significant, she said, in this modern age where “sports scandal” is so prevalent.

Of course, the rabbi at the Newton synagogue really can’t be blamed for her awkward references in her sermon to videotaping and sports scandals. But the old adage that one must consider the audience is relevant here. The last sermon that she gave that made headlines was a couple years ago when she spoke about gay rights in the Conservative Movement causing the synagogue’s cantor, who objected to the sermon, to resign his position and start a new congregation.

I remember being a guest rabbinical student at a Houston synagogue while I was studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary. My visit was immediately following the Enron debacle and, knowing there were former Enron executives at this congregation, I recall scrutinizing my sermons for that Shabbat to make sure there was nothing that if taken out of context would be embarrassing.

I also remember choosing my words very carefully when I delivered a sermon this past June about Princess Diana. Having just read an article about her and the upcoming tenth anniversary of her tragic death, I was eager to speak about her life from the pulpit. It so happened that I gave this sermon on the Shabbat that one of Leslie and Abigail Wexner’s sons was celebrating his bar mitzvah at my former Columbus synagogue. I was hesitant to give this sermon because I didn’t want the audience to mistakenly think I was comparing Abigail Wexner to Princess Diana, although there are several striking similarities between the two women including their marriages to older, public figures and their humanitarian and charitable activities. Of course, one man approached me following the prayer service to tell me how brilliant my sermon was and that he understood the hidden comparison I was making. I told him that was not my intention at all, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

Perhaps the real lesson of this rabbi’s sermon is that rabbis should choose their words carefully… and watch Sports Center before the High Holidays.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller