Sermon preached at the New London Synagogue, first day of Rosh Hashanah, 7 September 1964.
Welcome to our new Synagogue. Who would have dreamed last Rosh Ha-Shanah that we would be here worshipping together as a newly formed congregation? Now is not the occasion to refer to the events which have led up to the founding of the New London Synagogue. They are familiar to you and there is little point in opening up again the old wounds. Suffice it to say that men and women of principle have been prepared to sever intimate and precious ties in obedience to the truth as they saw it. The providential acquisition of these premises has increased the enthusiasm of us all, strengthening us in our determination to bring our new venture to fruition.
There can only be one theme for this morning’s sermon as we face the future with a prayer for God’s guidance in the year ahead and His blessing upon our efforts. What do we stand for? What kind of congregation do we desire to create? We have chosen to describe ourselves as an independent orthodox congregation. I should like to take each of these terms in turn and discuss them with you.
Let us discuss first the term “Orthodox”, because it is the one which has given rise to most misgivings. It was said of the Holy Roman Empire that it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. There is no doubt that we are sturdily independent. That we are a congregation is self-evident. But are we justified in calling ourselves Orthodox?
First, it is essential for us to bear in mind that the term “Orthodox” is unknown in Jewish tradition. It is a term taken over from Catholicism and was originally used as a term of reproach by the early Reform Jews, who characterised by it the upholders of the older tradition as hidebound in their thinking and practice. Furthermore, this new term is a relative one. What is considered orthodox in one community is looked upon as unorthodox in another. Why should you not know that in some congregations practices we all take for granted, such as the wearing of canonicals, weddings in the Synagogue, the sermon in the vernacular, are frowned upon as unorthodox? It all depends on the context. Within the context of Anglo-Jewry we are fully entitled to describe ourselves as Orthodox, without making a fetish of the term. We believe in the three tremendous ideas upon which traditional Judaism is based-God, Torah and Israel. We are fully observant in our congregational life and in their personal lives our members are as observant as the members of other Anglo-Jewish congregations which claim to be Orthodox.
Where we differ from some congregations is in our refusal to equate Orthodoxy with the refusal to think and inquire. We stand firmly on the right to re-interpret our ancient traditions in the light of new knowledge and we believe, moreover, that this process of re-interpretation has always gone on in Judaism. It is completely untraditional to arrest Judaism’s natural growth and development.
The late Rabbi Amiel, Chief Rabbi of Tel-Aviv, was fond of telling in this connection the story of a young rabbi who was appointed to the Rabbinate of a town renowned for the distinguished rabbis who had served there. One day the rabbi noticed that the congregation was using an old Sefer Torah whose letters had become faint through the passage of time. He consequently ruled that the Sefer was unfit for use until the letters had been retouched. The greybeards of the congregation were horrified. The greatest Rabbis, they declared, had themselves read from this Scroll. How dare a young upstart question their decision? The Rabbi had no difficulty in pointing out that, of course, in former times the Scroll was perfectly valid as it stood. In those days the letters were clear, standing out boldly, easy to read. But the letters had faded in the course of time. If the great Rabbis of the past were alive today they would be the first to acknowledge that the Scroll should not be used until the letters were re-written to shine with their original brilliance.
Not everything that has come down to us from the past is of equal weight or value. Loyalty to tradition is very different from ancestor worship. Judaism as a living and eternal faith must be seen as relevant to the spiritual needs and strivings of our day and must speak in the contemporary idiom. Its adherents must learn to come to grips with the special challenges of the twentieth century. Not wishing to sound the discordant note of controversy on this sacred day, I say only this, that our recent debate, which led to the establishment of this Synagogue, had to do chiefly with the assimilation of present-day knowledge regarding the Bible and the other classical sources of Judaism. It is not because we are indifferent to our faith that we wish to see it unfettered by untenable ideas. It is because we love it and wish to live by it that we desire to utilise all that is permanent and worthwhile in modern scholarship.
Can it be done? Is a happy marriage possible between faith and reason, emotion and intellect, commitment and objectivity, tradition and progress, the claims of the old and the call of the new? Some tell us that we are attempting the impossible. The word “impossible” does occur in the Jewish vocabulary, but it is used very sparingly. We find our inspiration for the future in the old tale of the birth of Isaac we read this morning. You recall that this child was called Yitzhak, from a root meaning “to laugh”, because Abraham and Sarah laughed at the very thought that they, in their advanced old age, could become parents. Israel’s birth and subsequent history was against all the odds. The thought that this tiny nation would give so much to the world invited ridicule. And yet today Jews are worshipping in their millions in synagogues throughout the world. Thank God we belong to a people unafraid of taking on seemingly impossible tasks and carrying them out successfully. With the help of the Almighty this congregation has already achievements to its credit. But all that we have achieved so far is, we hope, but a prelude to the things we intend to do for our faith and our people.
We are an independent congregation. We have decided to take our destiny into our own hands, to work it out for ourselves. The system we have come up against of rigid control from above is peculiar to Anglo-Jewry and is unknown in both Jewish history and in Jewries today in other parts of the world. It is a system which deprives synagogue workers of initiative, which stifles individuality, which frowns upon creative originality. Its justification was that to some extent it worked, but it works no longer. There comes a time in the affairs of men when independence must be seized in the name of integrity and authenticity.
I am glad, though unworthy, to have a congregation composed of independent thinkers and men of action. Controversy will not be entirely avoided in this pulpit, particularly controversy of the healthy and stimulating kind. A year or two ago there appeared in the New Yorker a cartoon depicting the bishop of an affluent, comfortable American congregation advising a young curate how to conduct himself. The bishop says: “Just avoid controversial topics in the pulpit, such as politics and religion”. True religion is a vital force and its power over human lives is such that after having been brought under its influence they can never be the same.
If there is any meaning to our boast that there is no priesthood in Judaism and that the Jewish ideal is that of a kingdom of priests, a priestly people, then we cannot afford to maintain the notion of ecclesiastical domination. Traditionally the Rabbi is a teacher, not a conscience caretaker. By virtue of his training and years of Torah study he no doubt knows more about Judaism than the majority of his congregation and it is this, and only this, which gives him the right to act as their teacher. But any teacher worth his salt must be prepared to learn as well as to teach. I am honoured to have been called to lead this congregation precisely because you are not a congregation of yes-men. If I have the privilege and responsibility of teaching you the Torah I am fully conscious of how much I can learn, and have already learned, from your wisdom, your sense of loyalty and your readiness to make sacrifices for the ideals in which you believe.
It is my earnest hope that the attitude that will prevail here will be one of an adventurous quest. There are many complex problems we, together with the rest of our generation, are called upon to face. The rabbi has a right and a duty to endeavour to bring the light of Judaism to bear on these problems but this does not mean that he must offer facile, bogus solutions. The only honest thing he can do is to say to his congregation: Let us work it out together. Let us search for the Torah for our age strong in faith that that Torah is there to be found. Let us refine our ideas together by means of a living Judaism with a glad acceptance of certainty in those areas in which certainty is to be found, and an equally enthusiastic welcoming of the questing spirit in those areas in which truth is still to be won.
We turn now to the third term in our description. We are a congregation. A distinction is frequently drawn between a crowd and a congregation. A crowd is formed of people with no common aim who just happen to be present together at a certain place and time. They may have come together to witness some event or participate in it but afterwards they go on their way indifferent to one another. A congregation, on the other hand, is composed of individuals who pool their varied experiences for the enrichment of one another and for the furtherance of ideas and ideals they hold in common. In the scriptural verse which tells how Moses assembled his people, two names are given to the body of the people. One of these is kahal, corresponding to a gathering of like-minded people. The other is edah, corresponding to the mere assembly of the people irrespective of any common aim. Thus, one can read into the verse: “And Moses assembled (va-yakhel) the people (adath) of Israel” (Ex 35:1) the idea that Moses succeeded in creating a kahal out of a mere edah. Moses took a rabble of slaves and fashioned them into a mighty nation whose contribution to the ennoblement of mankind is still not spent. And the old magic is still at work: the Torah of Moses, the glory that is Judaism still has the power of fashioning a group into a community whenever Jews come together in its name.
We are in truth a congregation. We have struggled together, we have come to respect one another as fighters in a common cause, we have encouraged one another in difficult times and we intend to work together in the hard but exciting times ahead. There is a delightful Hasidic interpretation of the verse: “Do not hate thy brother in thy heart”. The Hasidim take this to mean: Do not hate one who is your brother in heart, one who has the same ideals as yourself and who is moved by them as you are. We are truly a band of brothers. All who have worshipped with us have remarked on the real spirit of fellowship we have managed to create. This is a precious asset which we can use for the benefit of Judaism in our community. We have an excellent opportunity of building not alone a synagogue but a kehillah, a congregation devoted to the Jewish ideal in all its ramifications and to its realisation in our corporate life. Many are the tasks ahead and great the opportunities. May we rise to them as we have risen to the initial challenge.
So far I have spoken of our responsibilities in our own circle. But we are not sectarian in outlook and we want to look beyond our own immediate sphere of activity to the wider community of which we are a part and the wider world to which we belong. The hero of this day, to whom we refer repeatedly in our prayers, is Abraham and the Abraham saga points the way for us.
This man Abraham recognized his Creator and acknowledged him as God. At first the interests of the Patriarch were centred on his own little group. This is the first lesson we can learn from the ancient narrative that it is futile to try to bring the Abrahamic idea to the world unless you are prepared to start in the daily round among a small circle of like-minded friends. But the circle must be constantly widened and the vision of these friends must never become narrow and circumscribed.
Together then with faith and dedication we shall work for the future in the community and beyond it. May the God of Abraham be our help, leading us and guiding us to become faithful disciples of Abraham, a source of blessing to ourselves and the whole community.