Sermon originally delivered on 3 November 1957 at the New West End Synagogue; subsequently published in Venture 2.3 (March 1958), pp. 2-4.
Then Samuel took a stone, and set it up . . . and called the name of it Eben-ezer (Helpstone), saying ‘Hitherto hath the Lord helped us’ (I Sam. vii, 12.)
This is an historic occasion in the life of our congregation. The foundation-stone we dedicate this day is truly a ‘stone of help,’ a token of our thanks to God Who has prospered our efforts, Who has blessed our work and Who, we pray, will be our help in the future as we build a Synagogue Centre worthy of the finest traditions of this great house of worship.
The stone has been dedicated by a philosopher and statesman who is admired and respected wherever men cherish the things of the mind and the spirit, one who belongs to the world but in a very special and intimate sense belongs to this congregation, of which he is the most distinguished member. There is a lovely serenity about his life which provides a living commentary to the verse in the Book of Job: ‘Wisdom is with aged men, And understanding in length of days.’ It is our fervent prayer that he and his gracious lady be spared to witness the erection of the Centre as a tribute to their life and work, to see it used as a focal point for many kinds of worthwhile activity near to their hearts, and that we may long continue to benefit from their inspiring example.
And now a word about the Centre itself. For some years a number of devoted servants of this congregation have been fired with the vision of a sister-building to the Synagogue in which the authentic spirit of Judaism would find its expression, in which the eternal truths of the faith we love will be able to speak in contemporary accents to men and women of the twentieth century. Three hundred years ago, round about the time of the readmission of the Jews to this country, Sir Henry Wotton wrote: ‘Good building consisteth in Firmness, Commodity and Delight.’ In the hands of its capable architects the new Centre will fulfil these conditions in its material fabric but they are a useful description of our spiritual aims as well. Firmness, Commodity and Delight are sound ideals to hold before us as we embark on our exciting project.
By Firmness we understand an undivided loyalty to the Jewish faith and a confident attempt, both in the new Centre and in the Synagogue, to explore its spiritual treasures in the sure knowledge that Jewish wisdom has much to offer a confused world. There must be no aimless wandering in search of a philosophy of life when we have one ready to hand in our Judaism. Powerful Jewish convictions and sound Jewish principles are needed now more than ever to guide us amid the perplexities of our time. The chief function of the Synagogue is to affirm bravely that man is not alone and that ‘underneath are the everlasting arms.’
But firmness of principle is not to be equated with narrowness of vision, intolerance or fanaticism. Franz Rosenzweig, who built a Centre similar to ours in pre-war Germany, was so right when he said: ‘The soul of a great Jew can accommodate many things. There is danger only for the little souls.’ We hope that our new Centre will be spiritually commodious, affording hospitality to a variety of viewpoints, encouraging a healthy individuality among its members. If the modern Synagogue is to be the Temple of the Jewish spirit then the miracle of which the Rabbis spoke long ago must be repeated that ‘no man ever said to his fellow, the place is too narrow for me to lodge in Jerusalem!’
So much for Firmness and Commodity. But Delight is just as important as these for good building. A satisfying edifice must be attractive to the eye as well as strong and spacious. We must try to recapture some of that spirit which enabled our ancestors, no matter how difficult their existence, to speak of the ‘joy of the mitzvah’—Simhah shel mitzvah. The teachers of Judaism never tire of stressing the need for joy in religion. Said Judah Ha-Levi: ‘Contrition on a fast day does not bring you closer to God than true joy on the Sabbath and festivals.’ ‘Who lives in joy,’ said the Baal Shem, ‘does his Creator’s will.’ We must remember that Judaism can provide us with aims and ideals for the enrichment of our lives. That it is no dreary faith but one with sound answers to man’s unrelenting quest for meaning and purpose. Our Synagogue and our Centre must strive to keep us aware that we have our place in the achievements of an ancient people which has given much to civilisation and which has not lost the secret of eternal youth.
Firmness, Commodity and Delight—these will be our aims. Our text speaks of the ‘stone of help.’ A stone is strong and unyielding. It defies the elements. It possesses a high degree of permanence. It resists change. But the concept of help implies a measure of change, it suggests dissatisfaction with the present and the need for intervention and alteration. The symbol of the stone and the symbol of help express the two aspects of a healthy religious outlook—stability and development. The permanent truths of religion do not change. They serve as a constant ideal, as a challenge to each generation. But the approach to those tremendous truths is subject to change so that, in the words of the Rabbis, each age requires its own interpretation and its own interpreters.
God willing, this will be our aim in the work we begin this day. Our approach to Judaism will be firmly grounded in the unchanging verities of the Jewish faith. Our trust in the Rock of Israel will not waver. But, at the same time, we shall not be deaf to the call of the times, nor indifferent to the spiritual needs and strivings of this age. Our faith, we dare to hope will be a dynamic faith, growing, vital and vivid, as rich and as deep as the soul of man. May He Who helped our fathers in days of old be with us in the years ahead. Amen.