Jewish Preaching on Social Justice
By Marc Saperstein, Principal, Leo Baeck College
20 June 2007
I am deeply honoured to have been asked to be giving this lecture at the first Yahrzeit of Morenu ve-Rabbenu. Our association goes back more than 25 years, when I discovered to my delight that he had written a very kind review of my first book, Decoding the Rabbis: A Thirteenth-Century Philosophical Commentary on the Aggadah in the JC. A met him a year or two later on a visit to London. Then in the academic year 1985-1986, this congregation was good enough to provide him with a sabbatical leave to be a Visiting Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School, at which I was then serving as a junior faculty member. My office, and the flat that he and Shula lived in for the year, were in the Center for the Study of World Religions, across the street from the Divinity School. I think that he and Shula felt a bit as if they were living in deep golus that year – there were specialists in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, not to mention Christianity, but I was the only other Judaica scholar in the immediate environment. We spent a lot of time together.
After that year, I visited Louis and Shula a number of times, sitting with him and talking about all kinds of matters, particularly our shared interest in Jewish preaching – a research preoccupation for me, but only one of so many interests for him. My delight in the intellectual stimula-tion of those meetings was tempered by vague feelings of guilt for taking time away from his reading and writing. I felt that one of the important fringe benefits of relocating to London at the end of last June would be the opportunity of spending more time together. How devastating it was that my first day in my new position as Principal, the day of the Ordination ceremony at the LJS, was the day of his funeral.
One other connection was my contribution to his Festschrift (A Traditional Quest) of an article based on a eulogy for Menasseh ben Israel [who started the process that made it possible for rabbis to flourish once again in this country] that I had found in the hitherto unstudied manuscripts of sermons by Saul Levi Morteira of Amsterdam. In the first paragraph of that article, I noted some similarities between these two figures (including a physical resemblance): ‘a career combining synagogue responsibilities and outstanding scholarship, prolific writings in many areas of Jewish thought, an eminent reputation among both Jewish and Christian scholars, the courage of conviction despite controversy with a rabbinic establishment, an enduring legacy of words both spoken and written. Yibbadel le-hayyim arukim’ I concluded then in 1991. Is it a fantasy to surmise that these two kindred souls are perhaps even now discussing divrei torah in the olam ha-emet?
In choosing a topic for this lecture, I knew it would be associated with my primary research focus over the past 25 years: the history of Jewish preaching. My current book, scheduled to appear from the Littman Library in December, is on Jewish Preaching in Times of War, 1800-2001 – a topic that is unfortunately quite timely, but one I thought not appropriate for this occasion. And so I have chosen the theme of social justice as a topic for Jewish sermons. As far as I can tell, this was not a major focus of Louis’s own preaching. Perhaps some of you can remember when he spoke out on major issues of social justice from this pulpit – and I would be most grateful to learn of such sermons. His last book, Jewish Preaching: Homilies and Sermons (2004) is filled with magnificent homiletical insights but not direct engagement with the timely issues of ethics and social policy. Yet there is in his sermon on the parashah Kedoshim a passage that reassures me that he would not have been dis-pleased with my topic:
The word ve-ahavta in ‘ve-ahavta le-re’akha kamokha’ in our text refers to the sympathy and understanding and the desire for identification with other human beings that results from reflection on such things as our common humanity; that all human beings have the same basic needs, are hurt in the same way and are pleased in the same way, that their happiness is our happiness, and their misery our misery. . . . Above all, the way to cultivate the love of one’s fellows is to reflect that they are all created in the image of God; that He loves them all and has a place for them in His purpose.’
Note that he is talking here not just about other Jews, but about other human beings, sharing a common humanity. It is this empathy for the Other that forms the basis for a commitment to engage in issues of social justice that transcend the interests and needs of the Jewish community – a commitment, I am gratified to say, that I see exemplified in the writing and work of many of the rabbis of the Masorti movement.
This empathy, which Louis Jacobs identifies as lying at the heart of the ‘ethical monotheism’ – a phrase that he uses in that sermon – can be demonstrated in so many passages of the Bible about our obligations toward the stranger or alien – not to oppress the alien, to provide equal treatment to the alien, to love the alien because we, having been once in that situation, know what it is like to be an alien. A similar kind of empathy underlies what is undoubtedly one of the greatest social justice sermons ever written: the 58th chapter of the book of Isaiah, words that I trust are so familiar that I need not cite them in full, but only a brief excerpt:
Behold on your fast day you see to your business
And oppress all your labourers!
You fast in strife and contention, and you strike with a wicked fist! . . .
Ha-lo zeh tsom evharehu, Is not this the fast I desire:
To unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke,
To let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to ignore your own kin.
What courage it must have taken to proclaim those words on some Yom Kippur in some unknown synagogue, knowing that the Honorary Officers would probably have plenty to say about the prophet offending the wealthy machers of the shul!
There are many sources in the rabbinic and medieval literature that reaffirm such obligations toward the needy and disenfranchised of Jewish society, especially the obligation of giving charity to the poor. But the truth is that social justice in the contemporary sense – a passionate concern not just with impoverished Jews but with the injustices that afflict many in the general society, indeed in the world community – that is a theme that is difficult to trace before the 19th century. I have been working on medieval and early modern sermons for many years, and I can tell you there are extremely few examples of evidence that Jewish preachers felt an obligation to speak out and act on behalf of the Christians who were oppressed by other Christians, or even by fellow Jews.
There were good historical reasons for this reticence. Medieval Jews lived at the pleasure of the monarch, who tolerated them not because of a commitment to the value of pluralism and religious diversity but because they were a direct source of tax income for the royal treasure, and an indirect source of economic development. The king was therefore viewed by Jews as a source of protection – and justifiably, as every government wants to have a monopoly on the use of violence and prevent people from rioting in the streets. They benefited from a strong royal power, and feared when that power was weak or challenged.
Movements of social protest from the downtrodden classes could in general not directly attack the king, but they could attack those who were viewed as the economic agents of royal oppression: the readily accessible and highly vulnerable Jewish communities. Therefore movements viewed in the broader historical context as progressive, challenging royal authority on behalf of broader rights (such as the peasant revolts of the late 14th century) tended to lash out against Jews, and they aroused terror in Jewish hearts. Medieval Jews were concerned enough about their own security; it rarely occurred to them to be troubled about the poorest Christian inhabitants of the towns or the serfs bound to the land.
[I once published a single passage exemplifying the exception to this rule, taken from an early 15th century manuscript of Byzantine ser-mons. It is a beautiful passage that I think may be of some interest. In it, the preacher cites a teshuvah dealing with an important halakhic issue regarding the strangers or aliens in our midst:
Rabbi Isaac ben Barukh wrote in response to a legal question: ‘The [Talmudic] statement, ‘The poor of your city have priority over the poor of another city’ (BM 71a) means that that you do not send charity to a different city if it is needed in your own. But regarding those who come from a different city to yours, we do not say, ‘The poor of your city have priority’. Rather, we diminish the amount to be given for the local poor in order to give to the poor who have come from elsewhere. (End of quote from the Responsum).
Even though the author of the Turim (YD 251) states that he is not persuaded by this decision, in fact the reasoning makes sense to me. A poor person who comes from afar and knows none of the local people is in danger of dying of starvation. Whoever draws him near is worthy of a great reward for hospitality. We do not investigate who this foreigner is and what he is about before giving to him; rather, we should give to whoever holds out his hand in need. The sages have said that even a Gentile should be given food together with poor Jews for the sake of peaceful relations; how much more so the foreign Jew.
But such medieval empathy for the stranger, extending even to the needy Gentiles, is – unfortunately – rather unusual.
If I were in a different place, addressing a different audience, I might review the tradition of social justice preaching among the American Reform rabbis – a characteristic that differentiates American Reform Judaism from its German roots. The high point of such preaching came in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Forceful, eloquent orators – Joseph Krauskopf in Philadelphia, Emil G. Hirsch in Chicago, J. Leonard Levy in Pittsburgh, Leon Harrison in St. Louis, Morris Newfield in Birmingham, and Stephen S. Wise in New York – most of whom delivered their message of social and economic justice at Sunday weekday services, spoke at times to as many as a thousand worshippers.
It has been argued that such preachers, who had little use for ritual or ceremony, and often dispensed almost entirely with post-biblical Jewish sources in their preaching, disciplined American Jews in their growing affluence, laid the foundations for new institutions of Jewish philanthropy, and inculcated an awareness that responsibility for the condition of the workers, the poor, the oppressed was an integral part of what it meant to be a Jew. This often entailed criticizing governmental policies, or even the practices of wealthy Jewish employers from the pulpit – decisions that involved considerable courage and generated vigorous controversy and antagonism. The ‘Social Gospel’ ideal of their Protestant colleagues provided a natural context in which these preachers could claim the mantle of ‘prophetic Judaism.’
Alternatively, I could base this lecture on the collection of more than 1000 sermons delivered by Rabbi John Rayner, largely at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, that have come to the Archives of the Leo Baeck College Library, with an extraordinary detailed ledger, starting from his Ordination sermon of 21 June 1953 and ending with his Kol Nidre sermon of 5 October 2003. Many of these address social justice issues; this rich collection will undoubtedly be the source of at least one PhD dissertation, as will the papers of the man whose memory we honour this evening.
But I will concentrate for the remainder of my lecture on British examples, emanating not from the progressive movements but from circles of British orthodoxy with whom I believe Louis Jacobs felt a kinship. (The passages I cite are all taken from published collections; countless additional sermon texts remain scattered through past issues of the Jewish Chronicle or in the papers of individual rabbis.) I start with a negative example. The first sermon in my forthcoming book was delivered at the Bevis Marks synagogue on 19 October 1803, a day of national fast proclaimed by the Crown because of the fear of an imminent invasion by Napoleon’s armed forces. The preacher was named Isaac Luria (no apparent relation to the great Kabbalist who lived more than two centuries earlier). His sermon, delivered in Spanish, was immediately translated into English and published in pamphlet form, in order to demonstrate that Jews were listening in their synagogues to sentiments of patriotism similar to those being heard by their Christian neighbours.
Now a review of some of the published sermons preached on the same day allows a comparison of the content of Luria’s discourse with that of his Christian colleagues. The most important common theme was the insistence upon a providential order that regulated the events of history in accordance with divine justice, with the corollary that military defeats or threat represent a chastisement for national sins, and consequently the necessity of averting or at least mitigating God’s punishment through prayer, fasting, and other means of atonement, alongside military preparedness.
Yet there is a significant difference between Luria’s sermon and those of the Christian preachers, and not just the occasional and passing reference to rabbinic literature. Luria is unwilling to specify the national sins that have triggered the divine chastisement, while the Christian preachers exemplified the moral decay of British society with condemnations of sexual immorality, profanity, and the involvement in the slave trade. To cite just one example, a Christian cleric with the auspicious name Charles Wellbeloved said on this day of national fasting and prayer, ‘The shores of the Atlantic too . . . resound with the voice of mourning, either in the families whom British merchants have plundered of their kindred and their friends, or in the luxurious plantations, which rise and flourish by the oppressive labours of an unpitied slave.’ That is a kind of rebuke that Jewish preachers at this time either judged to be irrelevant to their concerns, or felt too insecure to state in public.
By the end of the century, the situation had changed. On Yom Kippur, 10 October 1894, Chief Rabbi Hermann Adler, preached in the Great Synagogue of London on ‘The Sinners in Zion’ (referring not to the Land of Israel but to his own community). He began by contrasting contemporary preachers, who tend to deal ‘too much with generalities,’ with the prophets of old who ‘spoke with a plain bluntness that could not be mistaken, aye, with a grand passion of scorn and hate for all that was evil and corrupt. It is this plain speaking, this direct practical application, which invests their admonitions with such undying sublimity.’ After discussing his Text from Isaiah 33:14-17, he proceeds to the application, which ad-dresses very directly, with a vehemence and rhetorical power not generally associated with this diplomatic personality, the prevalent sleazy business practices of his time:
Can they persuade themselves that they despise the gains of oppression, who try to exact the utmost toil out of their labourers and employees in return for the scantiest wage, the barest pittance that can keep body and soul together – not a living but a dying wage? Or they who take advantage of the necessities of their workmen and women, compelling them to labour on the Sabbath? Or they who are money-lenders, and who claim usurious rates of interest from the victims whom they have entrapped, who corrupt youths by advancing money and pandering to their vices and follies? Or they who defraud unsuspecting creditors who have trusted to their debtors’ honesty? Or they who remove goods before bankruptcy, and thus flagrantly defraud and rob?
‘I do know,’ he goes on to say, ‘that there are unhappily Jews who are guilty of these practices, which are denounced in the public press and universally condemned. I should be shamefully remiss in my duty were I to forbear from severely castigating such practices. . . . If Isaiah were in our midst, how would he thunder forth his denunciations!’ A sermon like this justifies the conception of ‘prophetic Judaism’ being enunciated, at least on occasion, from the establishment centre of British Jewry.
Nor was this an anomaly among Orthodox British preachers. One of the most popular and highly reputed for his eloquence was the Rev. Simeon Singer, of the New West End Synagogue. In May 1906, speaking on Leviticus 25:35 (‘If your brother, being in straits, comes under your authority’), he devoted his sermon to the ‘Sweated Industries Exhibition’ at Queen’s Hall. I wish this sermon from 101 years ago could be given wider publicity, as it has so much poignant resonance for our own time. The exhibition, he noted, casts ‘a lurid side-light on modern civilization,’ challenging the assumption of inevitable progress, and serving to ‘rouse the conscience of the people of England.’
He asserts that recent legislation has improved conditions for workers in factories, but not for the workers in the ‘home industries’, who often work 12 hours a day, under conditions injurious to their health, to earn 9 or 10 shillings a week. Thus he notes ‘the lace work intended for ladies’ and children’s dresses, paid for at twopence an hour, and generally involving ultimate injury to the worker’s eyesight.’ ‘Would that one of the ancient Hebrew Prophets were alive in our midst!’ he proclaims. ‘If the eloquence of the Prophets was raised specially on the side of the poor and oppressed, it was because these classes stood most in need of advocates’. Again: ‘prophetic Judaism’ from an unexpected quarter.
In this sermon, Singer introduces the consumer dimension of this social injustice, a theme quite relevant to contemporary issues, stating that ‘a higher standard of duty on the part of the purchasing public is the one form of remedy that is in our own hands. To buy things in the cheapest market, altogether regardless of the cost to the bodies and souls of others at which our bargains are got – is not this a form of sweating?’ He strongly condemns the use of sweated labour in the book folding trade, especially the production of ‘the cheaper sort of Bibles and Prayer-Books.’ With dripping irony, he notes that ‘By working twelve hours a day [folding paper], as much as from nine to ten shillings a week can be earned when employment is abundant!’
But he points out with pride that the Authorized Prayer-book, which he edited, was produced and sold at one shilling, not by sweated labour but through the generosity of a woman from the community. ‘I am proud to tell you that every precaution possible to human foresight was taken from first to last, that whether for printing or binding, no estimate should be accepted merely because it was cheap.’ If that could be applied as a general policy of consumer purchases, the exploitation of child labour in distant parts of the world might be severely reduced!
Another sermon with a social justice message of contemporary resonance was delivered by Hermann Gollancz at the Bayswater Synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, 1918. It was a period of peak xenophobic anti-alien sentiment in Britain, which had crystallized in a massive rally or-ganized by the National Party in Hyde Park two weeks before the sermon was delivered. That rally produced a petition calling for the internment of every ‘enemy alien’ without distinction, eventually receiving well over one million signatures. Gollancz called his sermon ‘Nationalism Within Bounds’; in it he defended a patriotic identification with one’s country and uncompromising support for it in the war it was still waging, against the Central European powers, while condemning the excesses of a very different kind of nationalism.
Alluding unmistakably to the National Party rally, he said, ‘Heaven shield this country from the theories and practices of such pseudo-loyalists, such extreme nationalists, who would deny to such as are not British-born the right to dwell in this country as peaceable and law-abiding citizens!’ (82 The advocates of such measures ‘are not the friends they pretend to be, but the real enemies and betrayers of this country. Why persecute and oppress those whose sole crime is that they had the accident to be born in a foreign land, even in an enemy country? . . . Do the English forget that they are a composite race? . . .
Is it not, alas, one of the signs of a degraded society, when encouragement is given to the ‘espionage’ of one’s own neighbour, and when one sees displayed in an open thoroughfare the invitation to ‘inform against local Huns?’
It has always been the pride of English law in the past that a man is innocent until he be proved guilty. Then in the name of common sense and honesty, in the name of Heaven’s law of humanity, I say, leave the guiltless alone and undisturbed. Let not people say (as I have heard it said): ‘England is no longer a free country.’
This from an Orthodox rabbi preaching on Rosh Hashanah, while the Great War was still be fought! Would we hear this kind of preaching about xenophobia and challenges to basic freedoms from such quarters today?
Prostitution was an issue that arose in a number of the sermons (as it had in Jewish texts and responsa going back many centuries). Benja-min Artom, Hakham of the Sephardic community in the 1870s, went beyond the standard lamentation of the phenomenon as a sign of the decline of morals in Jewish society to think about the underlying causes:
There is society for the suppression of vice; but what are they doing? Do they strive to prevent vice? Do they study the means of teaching the people of the lowest classes how to . . . appreciate sobriety, to shun intemperance and vice, and consequently how to avert misery and misfortune, disease and untimely death? Oh no, they are content with punishing those that have fallen low into the depth of vice. They are not the protectors of Society; they are only its avengers. (Artom, 151)
At this time, the problem did not involve significant numbers of Jewish women. That would change with the influx of impoverished east European Jews at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Jewish involvement in the ‘white slave trade’ became a scandal to the community, and (as Lloyd Gartner has shown) Anglo-Jewry provided much of the leadership for an international effort to end this scourge. Following a path-breaking Report by the Jewish Association for the Protection of Girls and Women, Hermann Adler, and Joseph Hertz after him, attended and addressed meetings of the International Congress for the Suppression of Traffic in Women and Children, which Hertz described as ‘the organized and articulate conscience of contemporary humanity on this terrible world-old problem of White Slavery’ (II, 235).
In a sermon delivered in June 1927 at the St. John’s Wood Synagogue before international delegates representing Jewish Associations, Hertz noted that Jews were both ‘victims and villains’ of this scandal, insisting that while the Jewish miscreants involved in the trafficking of women for prostitution are ‘merely the human miasma from the swamps of despotism, corruption, and racial hatred’ in eastern Europe, nevertheless ‘No efforts must be spared that due and condign punishment be meted out to the malefactors’ (I, 342-3). Needless to say, this is not a problem that has disappeared in our century, when reports of the trafficking of girls and young women appear in the media virtually every week.
We have just observed the 25th anniversary of the cessation of the Falklands Campaign. In the midst of that conflict, Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits gave a public Address at London’s Central Synagogue on ‘The Morality of War’. Apparently he felt the need to justify his discussion of a topic with political ramifications, as he began be stating that in addition to promoting the observance and understanding of Jewish law, ‘It is equally right that Rabbis should also be expected to relate the wider moral teachings of Judaism to the contemporary scene. If this occasionally means that they have to ‘dabble’ in politics, or make statements that have political overtones, to the extent to which such statements are governed by or impinge on moral considerations, then so be it.’
Policy of the British government was not the only sensitive issue to which he alluded in that address. In discussing the biblical prohibition of ‘scorched earth’ tactics in warfare, the ‘wanton destruction’ of property ‘including the demolition of building’, Jakobovits notes, ‘I will not discuss here the possible relevance to what happened recently at Yamit’, when Israeli buildings were destroyed before the settlement was handed over to the Egyptians. Here, using the rhetorical technique of raising a question in the minds of the listeners by stating that he will not discuss a particular issue, Jakobovits was apparently suggesting that the Israeli government’s decision to destroy the buildings and trees may have entailed a violation of the Torah principle of bal tashchit.
My final example moves from the UK to the empire. Louis Rabinowitz was a distinguished scholar who served as Chief Rabbi of the Transvaal during the tumultuous years 1945 to 1961. Most South African rabbis refrained from speaking out publicly against the apartheid system, knowing that there would be powerful condemnation by Jews and non-Jews alike if they did. Rabinowitz was a courageous exception. Preaching in the late 1940s on the lesson Metsora, he described the natural tendency to turn away from unpleasant things and pretend that such things as filth and evil do not exist, a tendency which is ultimately destructive not only to others but to oneself. He clinched this point by citing at length a news-paper article from the previous Sunday containing a ‘vivid and horrifying account of the non-European Hospital here in Johannesburg’.
The article ‘would in itself call for immediate redress solely in the name of suffering humanity’, but it goes on to appeal to the reader’s (and thus Rabinowitz’s listener’s) self-interest through the newspaper’s em-phasis on the danger to the European population of the scandalously inadequate treatment of Natives suffering from tuberculosis and other infectious diseases. The preacher then concluded,
There you have it-we ignore unpleasantness and filth at our own personal peril. And what applies to physical disease applies with equal force to the diseases of the spirit. Is it not the whole sad history of 1933-1939? The world saw the miasma of evil slowly but inexorably spreading and thought it could ignore it, until it spread over the world. It is good that we turn our minds from time to time to unpleasant things, to the seamy side of life, for we ignore it at our peril.
A few years later, he expressed his often-reiterated Zionist commitments in emphasizing the timidity and fearfulness of Jews toward their neighbours in the Diaspora. ‘The Jew, rendered fearful by the sense of in-security, which comes from being a vulnerable minority in all countries, has been afraid boldly to proclaim that such and such an act is contrary to the ethical principles of his faith. . . . I am sure that [you] will be wryly amused, for instance, to hear that a member of my congregation wrote a letter to the Council asking them to forbid me from speaking on the native question, but to confine myself to Jewish ethics! His record of condemnation not only of government policies but of Jewish involvement in the system, though not as outspoken as he later said he wanted it to be and should have been, is rather poignant and inspiring. (Conclusion)
The consumer’s responsibility in purchasing items sold at low prices but produced by workers receiving starvation wages and forced to endure appalling conditions; the pressures for the government to clamp down upon entire groups within the population perceived as alien and threatening; the trafficking in girls and young women exploited for sexual bondage – these were all issues addressed powerfully by preachers in significant London congregations a century ago and more. What does it mean for our understanding of human progress, for our vision of a messianic age, that these problems seem every bit as daunting to us today as they did then, though the geographical parameters have been expanded to the global level? Does this reveal the inability of the sermon, even when delivered by a talented preacher, to affect and change pattrns of social behaviour? Does it justify the trend for preachers to avoid addressing such intractable social justice issues and confine themselves, as Louis Rabinowitz put it, to a Jewish ethics limited to personal character traits disengaged from the larger society?
Without endorsing the deracinated sermon that is nothing more than a comment on contemporary affairs, I believe that there is still a desperate need for the sermon of prophetic Judaism, rooted in the texts of our tradition but unafraid to trouble the comfortable as well as comforting the troubled. And I believe that this is what Morenu ve-Rabbenu meant when he wrote, near the end of his last published book:
The world has no use for a religious faith that bids its adherents to view life through rose-coloured spectacles, oblivious to the evil in the universe; but it also has no use for a faith which passively accepts suffering as the inevitable and unyielding fate of mankind.
Judaism recognizes that life is often brutal, dangerous, nasty, grim and insufferable; but it is an optimistic faith, none the less, not in any facile sense, but in the sense that it believes man is capable of working with God in the struggle against evil until the time comes when evil and pain will be vanquished. Then the good will prevail, but it will be a good earned by man with the help of his Maker (Jewish Preaching, 230).
Yehi zikhro barukh. May his memory remain a blessing and inspiration for us all.