Originally published in Venture 2:4 (September 1958); transcript of a sermon preached at the New West End Synagogue on the seventh day of Passover, 5718 (11th April 1958).
And the Lord said unto Moses: ‘Wherefore criest thou unto Me? Speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward.’ —(Ex. xiv, 15)
The Israelites were trapped in the desert. Behind them were the Egyptians bent on their destruction, in front of them was the sea. God says to Moses in that dramatic moment: ‘Wherefore criest thou unto Me? Speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward.’
This verse contains one of the great truths upon which Judaism stands—that man must take the initial steps if God is to help him. The children of Israel must go forward into the sea before its waters can be divided. Prayer is great but there are times when even prayer is not enough. ‘The impulse from above’, teach the Jewish mystics, ‘must be preceded by the impulse from below’. The Midrash expresses the same thought in a comment on the vision of Ezekiel who saw the heavens open. The prophet exclaims: ‘Then a spirit lifted me up, and I heard behind me the voice of a great rushing: “Blessed be the glory of the Lord from His place”’ (Ez. iii, 12). The prophet hears the song of the angels behind him because the angels in heaven cannot sing until man sings his song of praise. The second-century teacher, R. Judah, said that each of the Israelites at the sea shore protested: ‘I will not be the first to enter the cold sea.’ But his contemporary, R. Meir, fond of the more complimentary interpretation of Scripture, suggested that each Israelite shouted with the fervour of faith: ‘I will be the first to enter the sea!’
Now, the lesson which emerges from all this is that you cannot have a successful, religious approach to life without pioneers who are prepared to plunge into a sea of troubles in the name of their faith, confident that eventually the waters will be divided. Religious teachers have repeatedly warned against the dangers and temptations of ambition but one feels that our community does not suffer so much from an excess of ambition as from a lack of it. Of course, there is ambition and ambition. There is a penetrating Rabbinic portrayal of God seizing Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, the determined enemy of the House of David, by his robe to plead with him: ‘Repent, and you and I and David will take delightful walks together in Paradise’. Jeroboam asks: ‘Who will walk in front?’ and God replies: ‘David will walk in front’. Whereupon Jeroboam hurls at his Maker the bitter retort: ‘If so I do not want your Paradise’. Inordinate ambition, a consuming passion for prominence, ‘the last infirmity of great minds’, can destroy a man. In its name he is prepared to throw away his most cherished gains, even Paradise itself. But there is the right kind of ambition, the ambition of the pioneer without which none of man’s conquests and none of his achievements could have been possible. The pioneer shows that it can be done. The first men to fly paved the way for the present-day wonders of air travel. The first man to scale Everest brought an elevation of spirit into the hearts of all men of adventure. It is on record that the first ship to cross the Atlantic carried a copy of a book in which it was demonstrated that it is impossible for men to cross the Atlantic.
There are many areas in our religious life where the pioneer spirit is needed but there is one in particular of special relevance to our situation today. The Anglo-Jewish community, despite the cheap sneers of those with little love for it, is a great community with splendid achievements to its credit. The majority of its members have a lasting affection and deep-seated loyalty for traditional Judaism. And yet there are few ready to make any real sacrifices for the perpetuation of the faith in any vital way. The vital Jews in Anglo-Jewry belong to a certain section of what are commonly called the Ultra-Orthodox for whom Judaism is a living faith. But, with the best will in the world, we cannot share their outlook. For us it is marred by a strong vein of fanaticism and intolerance and, let it be said, by a view of life that strikes us as ‘foreign’ because it is in reality an attempt to perpetuate the pattern of Jewish life in the admittedly great communities of Germany, Hungary, Russia, Poland and Lithuania. Much as we admire those Jewries, and much as we ought to be prepared to learn from their deep spiritual insights, we require an indigenous pattern of Jewish life, one that accords with our hopes and aspirations as men and women who live in England. I am not pleading for a type of ‘Anglo-Judaism’ which loses contact with Jewish strivings in other parts of the world. There is all too much parochialism and isolation already in Jewish life that we should seek to add to it.
What I am pleading for is an authentic approach to historic Judaism that is not a copy of the approach of other very different communities whose problems and even habits of life and thought are not our own. If you travelled to Germany in the pre-war years you would have found a special type of Jewish living which would have been unsuitable for Poland or Lithuania but which was admirably suited for the mentality of German Jews. The same applies to all the great Jewish centres, the richness of traditional Judaism can express itself in many forms. Up to date there is no Anglo-Jewish ‘school’ of Judaism in the sense that there was a Polish school, or a Russian school. For this pattern to emerge pioneers are required, people who so love their faith that they are prepared to live by it and realise the best that is in them by it. It is my strong conviction that many of those pioneers can be recruited from the ranks of this congregation.
‘And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances’ (Ex. xv, 20). Why the ‘sister of Aaron’, ask the Rabbis, was she not the sister of Moses, too? They reply that before Moses was born, when Miriam was only the sister of Aaron, she prophesied that a son, who would deliver his people from bondage, would be born to her parents. It was Miriam, who dared to hope long before the fate of Moses was known, who was worthy to lead in singing the song of victory. We need men and women of vision who are possessed of the enthusiasm, the deep sense of conviction, and the courage and the will to succeed if Anglo-Jewry is to continue as a faithful Jewry with much to contribute to the Jewish faith in our age. These men and women will be the worthy heralds of the Moses of the future, of those who will walk in front of our people on the road leading to God.