Sermon delivered by Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs on the occasion of his induction as Minister of the New West End Synagogue, on Sabbath, 13 February 1954 (10 Adar Rishon 5714).
“O my Creator, give me understanding that I may transmit thine inheritance; strengthen and uphold me that I may be far from weakness and fear”.
These words occur in the New Year meditation in which the reader of the morning service offers supplication that he may be worthy of the great responsibility that is his and that he should be successful in his task of directing the hearts and minds of his congregants to their Father in Heaven. As I stand at this moment in the place of such pulpit giants as Simeon Singer and Ephraim Levine, after having been inducted into office by our revered Chief Rabbi, to follow them as Minister of this distinguished congregation, I am deeply mindful of these words—they are my prayer to God to guide me in the way on which I now set out. The prayer gives expression to the two ideals that will form the basis of my plan of work as Minister of this Synagogue—the ideal of the effective implementation of Jewish tradition and the ideal of unflinching courage in the attempt to transmit that tradition so that it becomes a vital force for Jewish living with relevance to the spiritual needs and strivings of Jews in the world of today.
Joseph Hermann Hertz has defined the conception of traditional Judaism prevailing in the Anglo-Jewish Community as follows: “The demand for a preliminary definition of Traditional Judaism is unreal. The words mean what they say: namely, the teachings and practises which have come down to the House of Israel through the ages; the positive Jewish beliefs concerning God, the Torah, and Israel, the Festivals, the historic synagogue service; the holy resolve to maintain Israel’s identity; and the life consecrated to Jewish religious observance—all of these in indissoluble union with the best thought and culture of the age, and with the utmost loyalty to King and Country.” Dr. Hertz speaks of a tradition which found some of its staunchest upholders among the members of this Synagogue. This Anglo-Jewish tradition is a great and glorious one, which never falters in spurning the superficial tinsel attractions of the Zeitgeist out of loyalty to the perennial ideals of our eternal faith. At its best it is a worthwhile blending of all that is good in the Jewish and British character. It is conservative but not hidebound; firm and consistent but not fanatical; proud of its origins but not insular; sober but not unimaginative; acutely conscious of the significance and importance of Jewish law but not formalistic; it has a love of learning but is not pedantic. The philanthropic achievements, in particular, of those who have followed this tradition have won the admiration of the whole world.
Tradition is a wonderful thing, but it cannot be inherited without personal devotion and identification. It must be vital as well as vivid, it must not be the monopoly of former generations alone, it must become our own possession. The Rabbis expressed this truth in their own inimitable way in a searching comment on the locus classicus for the idea of tradition in Judaism, the verse lisped by little children as their first excursion into Hebrew speech: ‘Moses commanded us a Torah, even the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob’. The Rabbis note that the word morashah, meaning ‘an inheritance’, can be pointed to read me’orasah, meaning ‘betrothed’. The Torah, they say, is not only compared to an heirloom, it is the affianced bride of Israel. They thus anticipated Schechter who, speaking of the need for personal commitment to religious truth, said: ‘You must write your own love letters’. The Rabbis remind us that this Torah which is ours today is the sum total of the spiritual endeavours of countless generations of pious forebears. Into its making have gone the martyrdoms, the sacrifices, the profound thoughts, the brilliant insights and wise counsels of saints, scholars, poets, prophets and dreamers, as well as the day to day heroisms of millions of ordinary Jews and Jewesses. It is a most precious and valuable heirloom this heritage of the congregation of Jacob. But an heirloom is often fragile and easily broken. It must not be used too often. It is set on its pedestal and admired from afar and only taken down and examined at close quarters at certain well-defined periods. This must never be the fate of the living Torah of Israel. The analogy of the heirloom must not be pressed to far; it must give way to that of the betrothed bride. It is not sufficient only to admire Judaism, to pay it homage two or three times a year and to feel somewhat uncomfortable in its presence during the rest of the year. It is necessary to love Judaism, with all that that implies in terms of exhilaration in contact, anguish in parting, perpetual effort to understand, ceaseless attempt to be worthy. In a very real sense, the Torah requires the dedication of the whole of our being to its service, of all our qualities of heart and mind and soul. In a very real sense, it demands our all, and, if we love it, we shall not be content to give less.
This is the ideal I have set before myself and which I now set before you—the ideal of personal commitment to and personal identification with the traditional Jewish way of life, unmarred by fanaticism, intolerance or narrowmindedness of any kind. It is a difficult task to bring such an ideal to fruition, one which calls for determination, staying power, and, above all, courage. I do not delude myself that the going will always be smooth and easy and that there will be no difficulties. It requires great courage from both Minister and Congregation to further the Anglo-Jewish tradition: courage to tread the middle path and avoid the extremes of the right and the left; courage to be loyal to the old while welcoming the new; courage not to rest on our laurels but ever to strive to deepen our understanding and appreciation of Jewish life and thought and practise. I hope that the Judaism I preach from this pulpit will be a courageous Judaism. To the best of my ability I shall see to it that no shallow, spineless Judaism, one demanding no challenge and presenting no sacrifice, shall be preached here. But I hope that I shall also see to it that no harsh, unsympathetic, inhuman interpretation of Judaism is voiced here.
When the ancient Jewish legend speaks of the worm shamir, which had the miraculous power of cutting through the thickest stone, and by means of which King Solomon built his Temple, it was but voicing the thought that a sanctuary cannot be built without resolute endeavour to see the thing through, without inflexible determination to arrive at the goal. But the legend tells us that the shamir, when not in use, was placed in cotton wool, in order to insulate it against destruction. A Jewish Minister, in his efforts to erect the temple of Jewish life, requires all the moral stamina and courage he can muster in order not to be deflected from his purpose. He must be gifted with the power of the shamir if he is to succeed. But it would be a sad day for him and for his congregation if his zeal ever allowed him to forget those basic human qualities of sympathy and understanding, without which a man soon becomes a soulless machine. He must not fail to set before his congregants a vision of greatness but he must ever be aware of their difficulties, their daily problems, and their sincere efforts to make the truth their own. He must at all times be ready to make their burdens more light, to strengthen them in their sorrows and to share in their joys. The modern congregation of Jews cannot be won by the critic with a big stick but only by the friend with a big heart.
And if I may now introduce a more personal note. I am fully aware of the high honour you have paid me by calling me to minister to your congregation. It is indeed an honour to be called to serve and interpret Judaism to a body of men and women who are serving the Jewish Community, the State of Israel, our beloved country, and the whole world with great distinction over many fields. I am also aware of the very high standards set by my predecessors, especially by that saintly man, Simeon Singer, whose memory is so revered here, and by Ephraim Levine, the master of the English language, the eloquent exponent of our faith, the man of wit and wisdom, and the guide and friends of all the members of the congregation. With your co-operation I hope to maintain those standards. It is the prayer and hope of the whole congregation that Rev. and Mrs. Levine be spared for many years to come to enjoy the fruit of their labours for Judaism and the Jewish people. I am indeed fortunate in having as my colleague the Rev. Raphael Levy, a sweet singer in Israel, a gentleman and a scholar, with whom it will be a privilege to work.
As for me I pray to the Almighty to strengthen my hands for the work ahead. ‘O my Creator, give me understanding that I may transmit thine inheritance; strengthen and uphold me that I may be far from weakness and fear’. May He bless all the members of this holy congregation, may He prosper the work of their hands and bring joy into their lives, and may He always be with them as they continue to labour to do His will in sincerity and in truth.