Sermon preached on the Consecration of the New Hall of the New London Synagogue on 10 September 1967.
“When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof. . . .” (Deut. 22: 8).
Three years ago, almost to the day, this venerable Victorian building became the home of our new congregation and we prepared to hold our first Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Services with a blend of apprehension and confidence: apprehension at the magnitude of the task we had set ourselves, confidence in our capacity to see it through. Two years ago, again almost to the day, we assembled here once more, this time to rejoice in a tastefully redecorated building from which, by a process we liked to believe was typical of our wider aims, some of the clutter had been removed so as to inspire a more refined and at the same time a more committed form of worship. We now meet for the third time to dedicate our splendid new Communal Hall and Classrooms.
We give thanks to the Almighty for enabling us to achieve so much in three short years. We pray to Him to make us worthy of His bounty and to guide us aright in the years ahead. Our thanks are due to Mr. and Mrs. Jack Posnansky who saw the dream of a new Hall in the first instance and who have done so much to make it a reality, to the architects and their willing helpers, and to all who have donated so generously to the cause. Long may they be spared to witness their efforts bearing rich fruit.
There was no need for me to look long for a text for to-day’s address. An entirely appropriate one is provided in this week’s portion: “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof. . .”. “Bayit hadash”, “a new house”, is, incidentally, the Hebrew name of the New London Synagogue and to-day our new house has received its complement of rooms to allow it to function as a home for a lively congregation.
Our text is thinking of the children of Israel as they are about to enter the promised land. There, they would eventually lead a settled life, they would plant vineyards and build new houses. But houses in those far-off days generally had flat roofs which were used much as we use gardens to-day. There was danger, therefore, of someone accidentally falling off the roof and coming to harm. Consequently, the verse commands the making of a protective parapet around the roof.
It requires no great stretch of imagination to apply our verse to the problem of making Judaism a viable force in the modern world. No sooner do we begin to consider new ways to the Jewish heart and fresh interpretation of our faith than we become aware of the danger that too much of tradition may be lost in their implementation. An old house already has a parapet. It is the new house which needs one.
This has long been the central problem for those Jews who are responsive to the call of the new. The Rabbis, in a comment on our text, argue that a tiny house what we would to-day call a ‘mini-house’ requires no parapet. There is no danger that anyone would fall from such a low roof and even if he did he would not be badly hurt. But how uncomfortable to live in such cramped quarters! Those who do not take Judaism sufficiently seriously to see that there is a problem, the puny souls who cannot face the challenge, those who are quite content with a ‘mini-Judaism’, they have no dangers to fear but the price they have to pay is to have to live permanently a stunted, frustrated, Jewish existence. But for those prepared to face the problem squarely two possibilities have been presented since the emancipation, two different attitudes to the question we are considering. Roughly speaking, these are the attitudes of orthodoxy and classical reform.
Recognising the sincerity of the advocates of both these interpretations of Judaism and acknowledging their power we can, with the hindsight of history, now see that in some respects they have both been in error. Reform has had the courage to build a new house but in so doing has all too frequently overlooked the need for a parapet. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, has been so pre-occupied with providing a parapet that the house itself has been neglected. This Congregation is at one with many other contemporary congregations in believing that it is possible to work out a new approach which has the loyalty to the past typical of orthodoxy together with a responsiveness to modern life and thought typical of reform; that it is possible to build, as we were commanded to do, a strong house with an adequate parapet.
To make clearer what we mean and at the risk of causing offence, let me give one negative and one positive example in order to illustrate the kind of approach we have in mind.
Together with our fellow-Jews all over the world we have been thrilled beyond measure at the tremendous events which took place in the month of June. It is a great pity that many official representatives of traditional Judaism have tended to be over-concerned with the more literal and indeed cruder aspects of the new challenge. The sacred places of our faith are dear to all of us but some of the antics which have taken place at, for instance, the Tomb of Rachael and the Cave of Machpelah seem to be a surrender to superstition rather than a rebirth of spirituality.
For the positive example, we refer to our now well-equipped Hebrew Classes and to our highly skilled Headmaster and his capable Staff. Our teaching to the children is, and will be in the future, of the treasures of traditional Judaism but the approach to tradition will be an honest one. We do not intend to allow our children to gain the impression that Judaism teaches that which they know to be false. Nothing is taught in our Classes to weaken the values inherent in our tradition but nothing is taught to make the children question our intellectual integrity once they grow up and begin to think for themselves.
The old benediction; “Who has kept us in life, and has preserved us, and enabled us to reach this time”, gives thanks to God for enabling us to reach “this time”. Homiletical license permits us to give a specific meaning to the words “this time”, living in the past is possibly an attractive hobby but it is a very expensive one. Judaism is a living faith. It is not archaeology, it is not only history, it is certainly not mere antiquarianism. It can, if allowed to, speak in convincing accents to the predicament of modern man. It is wholly relevant to his situation. If properly understood, interpreted and applied, it is not only the most powerful philosophy of life for Jews but, many of us believe, will increasingly be called upon to make a contribution to the spiritual life of the whole of mankind. It is the task of this generation to give thanks to God at “this time”. Let us then by all means be concerned with the parapet. But let us be far more concerned with building a new house.
We pride ourselves on being an independent congregation. While in no way belittling congregations affiliated to bodies with a common philosophy, whether of the right or of the left, we feel that independent congregations which do not wish to toe any party line also have their place on the Jewish scene and we are resolved to make our contribution as such an independent congregation. There are, no doubt, many difficulties ahead, many problems to be solved, many positions to be worked out, much woolly thinking to be overcome, much further building to be undertaken. But we feel, for all that, that our mood is the right one. We are fortified by the friendly spirit which prevails here. We are encouraged by the enthusiasm of our members, let us go forward then in serving the faith of our Fathers, as we thank God: “Who has kept us in life, and has preserved us, and enabled us to reach this time”.