How rab­bis have re­acted to war

The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM -

RE­VIEWED BY RABBI DR JEF­FREY CO­HEN

RAB­BIS WHO in­vest much ef­fort into the prepa­ra­tion of their ser­mons, while aware that some (many?) of their con­gre­gants pre­fer me­dia anal­y­sis to rab­binic ex­po­si­tion of po­lit­i­cal is­sues, will be re­as­sured as to the sta­tus and in­flu­ence of the ser­mon by this schol­arly, yet im­mensely read­able, vol­ume.

S.M. Lehman, a dis­tin­guished preacher and lec­turer in homilet­ics, was fond of telling his stu­dents that if they put no fire into their ser­mons,they should put their ser­mons into the fire. The em­pha­sis of this study is not on the qual­ity of the preach­ers of the last two cen­turies — those quoted are only the most dis­tin­guished and ar­tic­u­late Amer­i­can and Bri­tish, Ortho­dox, Re­form and Lib­eral, spir­i­tual lead­ers of their day — but rather on the spe­cial na­ture of their mes­sage in times of cri­sis and war.

In ad­di­tion to the pub­lished ser­monic lit­er­a­ture, the au­thor has mined Amer­i­can and Bri­tish archives, li­braries of rab­binic sem­i­nar­ies, trans­ac­tions of his­tor­i­cal so­ci­eties and col­lec­tions of in­di­vid­ual con­gre­ga­tions, in or­der to an­a­lyse the guid­ance those preach­ers were giv­ing.

He de­scribes the ex­tent to which they felt obliged to ex­pound and ap­ply bib­li­cal and rab­binic texts or draw on sec­u­lar lit­er­a­ture; how they bal­anced pol­i­tics and re­li­gion; how, es­pe­cially dur­ing the First World War, they dealt with the is­sue of God’s ap­par­ent tol­er­a­tion of such mass car­nage, and with the pres­sures they were un­der to iden­tify to­tally with the poli­cies of gov­ern­ment, as well as the prac­ti­cal mat­ter of what Jews could do to keep the home fires burn­ing and al­le­vi­ate suf­fer­ing.

The ten­sion be­tween the de­sire for free ex­pres­sion of moral con­science on the one hand, and the per­ceived need for the lead­er­ship of vul­ner­a­ble Jewish com­mu­ni­ties to demon­strate unswerving pa­tri­o­tism on the other, pro­vides a fas­ci­nat­ing and timely back­cloth against which to plot the chang­ing per­cep­tions of our day. The left wing ten­dency is now so vo­cal, with a high pro­por­tion of Chris­tian clergy (to say noth­ing of laity) preach­ing op­po­si­tion to the war in Iraq, if not war in gen­eral.

This may be ex­em­pli­fied by one strik­ing quo­ta­tion from a ser­mon of Chief Rabbi Her­mann Adler (Novem­ber 1899) wherein he sought to strengthen sup­port for the Bri­tish ac­tion against the Bo­ers:

“The en­tire na­tion has been stirred to a grand pas­sion, not of ha­tred, not of lust for con­quest, but of warm, whole­hearted pa­tri­o­tism and loy­alty…which has knit­ted to­gether all par­ties and sec­tions in the fixed de­ter­mi­na­tion to up­hold our coun­try’s fame and hon­our.”

Adler and his col­leagues could never have en­vis­aged a sit­u­a­tion where pa­tri­o­tism would be­come passé, sovereignty largely ceded to Brus­sels, and the very con­cept of Bri­tish­ness per­ceived as a con­tentious is­sue.

Pro­fes­sor Saper­stein also chron­i­cles some of the most chal­leng­ing sit­u­a­tions con­fronting preach­ers, from the dilemma of hav­ing to eu­lo­gise tsars, monar­chs or po­lit­i­cal lead­ers who had been man­i­festly anti-Jewish, to some less prob­lem­atic but typ­i­cally stress­ful sit­u­a­tions faced by preach­ers, such as the mur­der of Pres­i­dent John Kennedy on a Fri­day. This ne­ces­si­tated most rab­bis hav­ing to aban­don their care­fully pre­pared ser­mons in or­der to ex­tem­po­rise a wor­thy trib­ute and of­fer some com­fort and hope for the fu­ture.

I com­mend this as a pi­o­neer­ing con­tri­bu­tion to the so­cial, re­li­gious and po­lit­i­cal his­tory of An­glo-Jewry. Rabbi Co­hen is the au­thor of the re­cently re­pub­lished 1001 Ques­tions and An­swers on Pe­sach, Val­len­tine Mitchell, £16.95 (£35hb)

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