Sermon delivered upon the start of the New London Synagogue, 1964.
May I begin with a few personal remarks? First I want to say how much the loyalty of my friends and supporters has meant to me. In particular I refer to the deposed Board of Management of the New West End Synagogue. A more sincere, courageous and spirited group of friends no man could have and no man could deserve. But I know that they will agree with me that we are not determined to go ahead because of personal reasons but because we are convinced that our ideas are shared by the overwhelming majority of the members of the New West End Synagogue and by many deeply committed Jews in the wider Community. Nor, I think it should be said, have my friends and I had or have any ambitions of occupying high office in Anglo-Jewry. We do not subscribe to the doctrine: ‘Hold what you like as long as you hold your tongue’. We have felt that certain things had to be said even though the result is that we are left to tend our own garden. After all, one’s own garden is sweet and fair things can grow there.
In our congregation we wish first of all to further an adherence to Judaism capable of summoning forth the best that is within us. We wish to have an order of service, an educational programme catering to the needs of young and old, and a spirit of true fellowship, with the aim of increasing our devotion to the faith we love. We shall be an ‘Orthodox’ congregation but let me say a word or two about this much abused, highly charged emotional term. A favourite story of mine is that of the American Conservative Rabbi who explained the three trends in American religious Jewish life to a member of the extremist party in the State of Israel, the Neture Karta. We, too, said the Neture Karta man, have these three trends. The Neture Karta are Orthodox, the Agudath Yisrael are Conservative and the Mizrachi are Reform. It all depends on where and on how the term is used. If by ‘Orthodox’ you mean ‘fundamentalist’, if you mean a rejection of the best modern scholarship and a refusal to come to grips with the real problems posed by modern thought, then we are not ‘Orthodox’ and, moreover, we are proud not to be ‘Orthodox’. But if by ‘Orthodox’ you mean—what the term has certainly meant hitherto in Anglo-Jewry—an acceptance of traditional Judaism, if by ‘Orthodox’ you mean ‘Progressive Conservatism’—the equation is not mine but that of the preamble to the United Synagogue by-laws—then we are Orthodox.
We believe Judaism to be true. Its ideas are eternal, its values of permanent significance. It is a rock which can never be moved. It is no insubstantial fabric, to be blown into wisp by the howling winds of change. But Heaven help us if we make our faith inhospitable to new knowledge, suspicious of fresh ideas; a credulous, unquesting religion, fit only to be preached by know-alls to congregations of docile sheep. You will recall that in the house of worship in St. Petersburgh Place, to which we are tied with such strong bonds of affection (now surrendered by ‘managers’), there is a splendid, vaulting, soaring roof, directing the minds of worshippers to the great mystery at the heart of faith. For in the New West End Synagogue, and, we hope, in our new congregation, we do not know all the answers, we feel that this generation is called to be something more than a mere replica of previous generations, however noble their lives, and that there is profound wisdom in the old Rabbinic idea that each generation must embark on its own search for the truth of Torah.
While it is both seemly and natural for us to be primarily concerned with our own religious needs we cannot overlook the implications in our stand for the whole of Anglo-Jewry. Of the late Dr. Hertz it used to be said that he preferred the peaceful way if there were no other! We did prefer the peaceful way and tried as hard as we could to avoid controversy. But unhappy as the results of the controversy have been it is well for us to remember that there is nothing like a good strong dose of controversy to breathe new life into our religious outlook. One of the positive aspects of the whole sorry business of the past few years is that questions such as the nature of divine inspiration have been widely discussed in the press, at the dinner table, and during wedding and Barmitzvah celebrations. They have even been known to have interrupted card evenings. People have been set thinking and that is always a good thing. Our young men and women, in particular, are now enjoying the fruits of wide educational facilities. They are being trained to think, to assess, to weigh and measure, to reflect and consider, and while, alarmingly, some of them allow themselves to be stampeded into an acceptance of blind dogmatism, many of the more sensitive among them can only be held by a faith which challenges the mind as well as the heart. It hardly needs saying, but in reply to some of our opponents it has to be said, that we do not stand for an easy religion. Anyone who desires a dispensation from Jewish observances will not find it in our Synagogue. It is total faith that we advocate, for true faith cannot be other than total. Religion is either everything or it is nothing. But in the name of total faith we refuse to abandon rich areas of present-day thought and experience from under its purview.
If there are important implications in what we are trying to do for ourselves and for Anglo-Jewry there are, too, implications for World Jewry. It would be both stupid and arrogant to make more of this than the situation warrants but for better or for worse the eyes of other—larger and more important—Jewries are upon us in our deliberations. It has been said that the French revolution was a world revolution which took place in France. On a very much smaller scale, our debate mirrors one which going on at the present time all over the Jewish religious world. In brief this debate is between those who accept the need for a re-interpretation of Judaism, so as to bring out its relevance to our twentieth-century predicament, and those who reject the legitimacy of re-interpretation and acknowledge no need for it. Anyone familiar with Jewish history knows that had it not been for the principle of re-interpretation, evidenced in the work of our greatest thinkers, sages and men of action, we would not be here today to discuss whether the principle is valid.
Let us then go forward, friends, in the way divine providence has thrust upon us, though in our human frailty we would willingly forgo its rewards in our fear of the difficulties. For, make no mistake about it, difficulties there will be in plenty. No worthwhile venture is possible without them. ‘If it is life you want’, say our Rabbis, ‘it is suffering you want’. The Chinese language is a sign language and I am told that it has the same sign for ‘crisis’ and ‘opportunity’. There is a severe crisis in the affairs of our congregation. There is a severe crisis in the affairs of Anglo-Jewry. If only it could have been avoided! Now that it has come let us turn it into a golden opportunity to do great things for our faith and that of our children’s children.