Sermon preached at the New London Synagogue on Rosh Hashanah 5726 (27 September 1965).
‘Teach me Thy way, O Lord; And lead me in an even path.’ (Psalm 27: 11).
Last Rosh Ha-Shanah, when our congregation met in a building bearing many of the marks of the ravages of time, we all looked forward to the future with a good deal of excitement but, if the truth be told, with a not inconsiderable degree of apprehension. We recognised that it was no easy task we had set ourselves—to build a new congregation, one, moreover, that was to swim against the stream. Our hearts today are full of gratitude to the Almighty who has prospered our efforts and who has kept us alive and has enabled to reach this season. We can look back on a year of very solid achievement. The building in which we worship is no longer shabby but inspiringly beautiful thanks to the labours of so many of our good friends. Our membership has grown rapidly. We have initiated many worthwhile activities, all of which have the aim of strengthening our faith. Much has still to be achieved, many problems have still to be solved, but we face the new year in a spirit of confidence. The experimental stage has long been passed. For all our faults and in a proper spirit of humility we can say that the New London Synagogue is no longer on probation but has passed the test with flying colours and is now a well-established congregation with a strong influence in Anglo-Jewry and even beyond it.
In my sermon last year I took as my theme : ‘What We Stand For’. It is, indeed, suitable to consider, at this period of spiritual stocktaking, this kind of question and I want to take up the theme further this morning. I take as my text the verse we read in the Synagogue during the Penitential season: ‘Teach me Thy way, O Lord; And lead me in an even path’.
The Psalmist here declares that there is a way along which God wishes him to walk. On this score he has no doubts. But he knows, too, that he has not as yet found that way. He implores God to teach it to him that he may follow it. And he implies that the recognition of all this is in itself the first essential step towards discovery.
All over the Jewish world today sensitive religious Jews are engaged in the quest for relevance. What has Judaism to say to the predicament of modern man? What is it that Judaism would have us do? In Israel there is a group of highly intelligent people who have formed themselves into an association bearing the significant name: Hevrah Mehapse Derakhim—‘Seekers of the Way’. This is the philosophy behind our congregation. We are seekers of the way.
Many would tell you that no search is necessary—that the way is carefully mapped out in all its details in the classical books of our faith. We cannot bring ourselves in all honesty to adopt such a superficial approach. We yield to none in our respect and admiration for the old books and their authors. We acknowledge that in them we shall discover much for the spiritual enrichment of our lives and even go further to as admit that the hard core of Jewish teaching is to be found in them. But, at the same time, we are forced to see that those books were compiled for the most part in ages very different from our own so that while much guidance is to be found in the old volumes it is futile to look there for all the answers. To use a motoring analogy it is sheer pretence to imagine that we are like the motorist travelling comfortably along an A road. Our position is rather like that of roadmaker who has to cut his way through difficult terrain. Nor do we wish to surrender our birthright as thinking Jews and Jewesses to work it out for ourselves by relegating our responsibilities to a Chief Rabbi who will do the thinking for us and whose dictates we are obliged to accept whether we agree with them or not. The slang expression for this kind of thing is ‘passing the buck’ and it ought not to have any place in religion, certainly not in a vigorously independent religion like Judaism which knows nothing of an apostolic succession and which reserves whatever priestly rites there are to people called Cohen! Even if a Rabbinic genius were available to solve all our problems, and there is none in sight, we would still be compelled to recognise that vicarious Judaism is the enemy of vital religion. As Solomon Schechter reminded us long ago, you have to write your own love letters and cannot get someone else to do it for you.
In a broad sense, of course, we, too, have found the way or rather it has been mapped out for us by the saints, sages and teachers. In matters of detail there is much room for quest and speculation but we do know where to look for the road which leads firmly to our destination. We stand, and make no apology for so doing, on traditional Judaism, first because we love its forms and its colourful and highly significant ritual and secondly because we are convinced that an approach based on our rich tradition is nearer to the truth than any other, otherwise the revelation contained in the Torah has been in vain. But in matters of detail—and detail is important—there can be no such certainty. It is all very well speaking of traditional Judaism but no one aware of the facts can accept with complete intellectual and emotional integrity all that tradition has bequeathed to us without a considerable degree of re-interpretation. We do not kill witches today or believe in witches at all. And we reject this belief, even though it is found in the Bible. We are fortified in this, to be sure, by the fact that our tradition itself gradually came to make the Biblical verses in this connection a dead letter. This means that tradition, rightly understood, is alive and dynamic. By the same token we can keep it alive by coming to grips, for instance, as we have tried to do, with modern scholarship and its implications for the doctrine of revelation.
But once we admit, as we have done, that there is a human as well as a divine element in the Torah then the problem arises how we can discover the living word of God for our generation. And once we say this then we are committed to the idea of a search—committed to looking for the road and imploring God to help us find it.
Let us admit at once that this whole idea of a search does not appeal to everyone. On the one hand there are those who treat religion as if it were nothing unless it can offer complete certainty in all matters. On the other hand, there are those who believe that traditional Judaism has had its day and advocate a return to what is called ‘prophetic Judaism’. It is not surprising, therefore, that we have been criticised by our friends who are both to the right and the left of our congregation in its theological position. Those on the right criticise us for not finding. Those on the left for believing that there is something to find. But we remain undaunted. To put it bluntly and clearly—what is known as ultra-Orthodoxy seems to us to fly in the teeth of reason while neither our minds nor our hearts can find permanent lodgement in Reform. It is the old story, mentioned in the Midrash, of the two paths, one of ice, the other of fire. To walk in the path of fire is to be burned. To walk in the path of ice is to be frozen. The wise man walks in the middle. A burning enthusiasm for Judaism without the correctives provided by reason is dangerous and can easily become a morally disintegrating force. That cold approach to Judaism which would turn it into a set of intellectual propositions is equally harmful. We may not be wise but we do see the value of the Middle Way and are not prepared to be stampeded either by those why cry heresy or those why cry timidity.
In the Scriptural praise of the holy land we find it described as a land whose stones are of iron (Deut. 8: 9). The Rabbinic pun on the word for stones—abhoneha—is to read it as boneha—‘builders’. A holy land can only be built up if its builders are of iron, if they are men of courage ready to court unpopularity for the cause in which they believe. Let us then be strong in our particular approach to Judaism—strong in principle, strong in courage, strong in determination and God will prosper our efforts.
Moses Hess, speaking of the difficulties of Jewish life in modern times, observed: Long, long is the way to the goal we seek but for the wanderer of two thousand years no way is too long. After the Psalmist has prayed for God to show him the way he concludes with the words which should be our prayer too:
Wait for the Lord;
Be strong, and let thy heart take courage;
Yea, wait thou for the Lord.