Marc Saperstein. Journal of Modern Jewish Studies. Volume 4, Issue 3. November 2005.
Beginning in the eighteenth century, occasions related to war became a significant new venue for Jewish preaching. The declaration of war or its conclusion, a government‐proclaimed Day of National Fasting and Prayer or of Thanksgiving, a major victory or defeat of the nation’s armed forces—all generated sermons by Jewish preachers, who not infrequently publicized what they said beyond the synagogue walls. These sermons reflect the patriotic identification of Jews with the nation where they resided, the desire to demonstrate this loyalty to the larger society, the homiletical application of classical texts and historical precedents to new situations, the challenge presented by war to assumptions about human progress, the theological conundrum of enemy nations praying for victory to the same God, the poignant agony of Jews fighting against other Jews. This article reviews Jewish sermons delivered by British preachers mobilizing the rhetorical resources of Jewish and general literatures to express absolute identification with the Crown, the Government and the Empire, as well as sermons that express deep discouragement about the devastating cost of war in material, cultural, psychological and religious terms.
War presents special challenges for the modern Jewish preacher. General pronouncements about the value of peace in the Jewish tradition seem inadequate when one’s nation is under attack, or when it sends soldiers far from its borders in response to what the government has deemed to be a national emergency. The premodern homiletical tradition provided little guidance for this situation. It was only in the eighteenth century that we begin to have evidence of Jewish communities gathering for worship on occasions proclaimed by the government as days either of national humiliation and prayer or of thanksgiving, while their Christian neighbours were gathered in their churches. On these occasions, it was expected that a sermon would articulate both the insights of tradition and the sentiments of the Jewish congregants inspired by the situation on the battlefield. Sermons by Jewish preachers were noted in the Jewish and general press; it was apparently important for Jews that their expressions of solidarity be recorded. Sometimes the sermons were published either in ephemeral, pamphlet form or incorporated into a book, or both. Cecil Roth included a listing of the extremely rare pamphlet sermons in his Magna Bibliotheca Anglo‐Judaica, but few scholars appear to have read these texts (Roth 322-328).
In my Jewish Preaching 1200-1800, I published from manuscript a sermon by Hirschel Levin, rabbi of the Ashkenazi Great Synagogue of London, near the beginning of the Seven Years’ War, when conditions for the British seemed dire. At this time, Jews were not serving in the British forces, and the preacher insists that the only way they could serve their king was through the fervency of their prayer) (Saperstein, Jewish Preaching 1200-1800 347-58). Subsequently, I discussed a number of other European Jewish sermons delivered during the period from the Seven Years’ War to the final defeat of Napoleon as evidence for a developing sense of patriotic identification with the welfare of the nation’s military forces (Saperstein, “War and Patriotism in Sermons to Central European Jews: 1756-1815”, 3-14; “Your Voice Like a Ram’s Horn” 147-61). In the present article, I propose to continue the chronological survey to the early twentieth century, with a quick survey of preachers from across the spectrum of the Jewish religious community in Great Britain.
From the first years of the nineteenth century, we have sermons delivered at the flagship synagogues of the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities in London; though neither was delivered in English, both were translated into English and published soon afterward in pamphlet form. First was a penitential sermon given on 19 October 1803, appointed by royal edict as a day of general fast “for the purpose of invoking by penitential prayers success to His Majesty’s Arms”. This was a time when Britain was threatened with an actual invasion by Napoleon’s Grande Armée. The preacher at the Bevis Marks Synagogue of Spanish and Portuguese Jews was named Isaac Luria.
After outlining the duties of Jews under the present circumstances—to be generous with their wealth, and to offer “our personal services in the defence of this kingdom, in order to baffle the giddy and insidious projects of a powerful, vigilant, and inveterate foe”—Luria notes that such obligations apply to Jews in all countries, no matter what their government. Indeed, he reminds his listeners, French Jews are also praying at this time for a very different outcome to the hostilities. Yet—apparently responding to a criticism levelled against the Jews of France for siding with Napoleon—he insists that it is inconceivable that Jews in one country could be praying for a result that would harm their brethren in another country. Thus they cannot be praying in a spirit of “asperity or fanaticism”, unless under compulsion. In England, by contrast, Jews enjoy “unrestrained freedom of worship”.
Two years later, on 5 December 1805, the circumstances were quite different. On 21 October, the British fleet under Lord Nelson had won a spectacular victory against the combined naval forces of France and Spain, a triumph that ended the immediate danger of a French invasion. Yet Nelson had been fatally wounded in the battle. The date 5 December was ordained as a day of thanksgiving for the victory but, although the official state funeral would not be held until a month later, the emotions throughout England were a mixture of jubilation and intense shock.
In his sermon at the Great Synagogue in London (delivered in German, but published in English), Chief Rabbi Solomon Hirschell avoided the vilification of Napoleon found in some of the Christian sermons delivered the same day; perhaps knowing Napoleon’s relatively benevolent policy toward Jews produced a measure of ambivalence. In addition to some of the expectable themes—the importance of expressing humble gratitude to God, the role of divine providence even when administered through apparently natural causes, the appeal for financial support of widows, orphans and the wounded—Hirschell discusses at length a theme that I have not found in the reports of the Christian sermons delivered on that date: the propriety of rejoicing at the victory of one’s own nation when this victory entailed the suffering and death of the enemy. It is striking that this theme was addressed by the preacher’s father, Hirschel Levin (Hart Lyon) on a similar Day of Thanksgiving during the Seven Years’ War (Saperstein, “War and Patriotism”, 6-7; “Your Voice Like a Ram’s Horn”, 151); Hirschell may conceivably have had the manuscript of his father’s sermon.
Let us skip over five decades, the last four of which (following 1815) were relatively peaceful. With the entrance of Britain into the Crimean War, the Crown ordained another day of Fast and Humiliation (26 April 1854), and the Jewish Chronicle carried reports of the sermons delivered by Jewish preachers for several weeks. Eager to bolster support for Britain’s intervention on the side of Turkey, Jewish spokesmen were able to appeal to an argument with special resonance for their listeners. As one of them put it, “the Sultan of Turkey had caught the sympathizing spirit of the age … he had bestowed liberty upon our heretofore persecuted brethren”. By contrast, the Tsar of Russia (Nicholas I) was known as “the modern Pharaoh”. Jewish sympathies thus comfortably coincided with British policy. Abraham Pereira Mendes of the Birmingham Hebrew Congregation described the line‐up of military forces as a fulfilment of biblical apocalyptic prophecy. Gog clearly refers to Russia, the gag, roof or uppermost part of the then‐known world. Rosh, Meshech and Tubal, the other geographical terms in Ezekiel 38 and 39, refer to Russia Proper, Muscovy and Tobolsky. Thus the prophecy, in mentioning various nations, could only be applied to Russia, “in whose camp Fins [sic] from the frigid north stand ranged by Poles from the genial plains of central Europe, while Sclaves [sic] and Cossack hordes from the southern steppes assemble beside Tartar bands from Asia”. The portent of “a great shaking in the land of Israel” is therefore a matter of deep concern.
Three years later, on 7 October 1857, which fell in the middle of the week of Sukkot, another Day of Humiliation and Prayer was proclaimed by the Crown following the outbreak of a rebellion in India and widely circulated reports—which later turned out to be exaggerated—of atrocities committed by the rebels against British civilians in India. The Times of London devoted four six‐column pages of small print to a summary of more than 130 sermons delivered in London pulpits (though none by a Jewish preacher), many of which were soon published in pamphlet form. One Jewish sermon received publicity in a general political weekly, The Examiner, which praised it and quoted it extensively. It was delivered by the Revd David Woolf Marks, minister of the West London Synagogue of British Jews, which, some 15 years earlier, had broken away from the religious establishment of British Jewry to identify with the new Reform movement. Marks later included it in the second volume of his Sermons Preached on Various Occasions.
Some of the themes in Marks’s discourse appear in many of the Christian sermons: disbelief and outrage at the ingratitude demonstrated by the rebels toward a benevolent, humane and enlightened British rule, the horror at the reports of atrocities committed against British civilians, expressions of contempt applied to the primitive savagery of people who could behave in this manner, the need for a decisive military response to defend the British Empire, the obligation to support relief efforts on behalf of the casualties of war and their families, and the assertion that God was the source of hope for the vindication of justice, right and true faith. Absent from Marks’s sermon is the theme of self‐criticism that pervades much of the Christian preaching (appropriate to the mood of the day): the affirmation that the devastating mutiny was a divine judgment upon Britain for her sins as a nation, and the specification of such sins as British involvement in the opium trade, the toleration of prostitution on the streets, and the failure of British institutions in India (Stanley 277-89, esp. 279-81). There is no recognition in Marks’s sermon of sins, failures or shortcomings on the British side; indeed, he specifically repudiates this view. God is invoked as the source of hope, not the power providentially responsible for the disaster.
Marks does emphasize a theme that is understandably missing from the Christian preachers who took it for granted: solidarity with Christian neighbours and the patriotism of the Jews of Britain. Phrases such as “loyal citizen”, “good patriot”, “our duty as good citizens”, “patriotic spirit”, “a citizen amongst citizens”, “the patriotic and self‐denying spirit” punctuate the sermon every few minutes, as if it were necessary to convince either the listeners or a putative audience outside the synagogue. He even finds it necessary to raise the familiar challenge to Jewish patriotism—the traditional Jewish prayer for the messianic restoration in the land of Israel—and he responds in the traditionalist (not the radical Reformist) manner, affirming the belief in a future messianic redemption (including the restoration of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel), but insisting that it has no relevance to Jewish behaviour as citizens and does not diminish the Jews’ love for the land of their birth.
The other polemical thrust of the sermon is expressed in this extremely provocative passage:
Whatever opinions we may entertain with respect to the causes which have produced this serious rebellion, it is our duty as good citizens to practise self‐denial, and to refrain from indulging in harsh and intemperate criticisms, so that we may not in any wise paralyse the arm of the government by discussions of a merely speculative character. The immediate object of every right‐minded man should be, to put an end to anarchy and license, and to uphold the supremacy of the crown at every cost and under every pecuniary sacrifice. Equally incumbent is it on our part to repose full confidence in those who are appointed to the difficult and responsible task of administering affairs in the disturbed provinces of India. Nor must we display a hostile front to the government, if the humane principles applied to legitimate warfare fail to be employed, in every instance, on the present occasion, whilst dealing with miscreants who have cast a reproach on human nature. [T]o indulge a maudlin sentimentality for those, in comparison with whose crimes cannibalism itself almost becomes tolerable, is to betray great folly and unmanly weakness (Marks 162-63).
There were indeed some Christian (largely Nonconformist) preachers on this Day of Humiliation who condemned the “inordinate, secular, selfish ambition” that characterized British rule in India. It is difficult to determine how many in Marks’s congregation were critical of specific aspects of British imperial policy, and indeed what the preacher’s own views may have been. The thrust of his message is clear: this is not the time to speak out about the failings of government policy. Nor is it appropriate to “indulge a maudlin sentimentality” about future British reprisals -which indeed turned out to be more savage than the acts that provoked them. On this occasion, at least, Marks was uncompromising in his support for the brutal repression of the revolt and the vindictive, even indiscriminate, punishment of the population responsible for its excesses. Although the sermon is entitled “God Protects the Fatherland”, the absolute patriotic identification is not just with the nation, but with the Empire.
Similar was the Chief Rabbi, Hermann Adler, in the context of the South African War. On 4 November 1899, preaching at the North London Synagogue, Adler alluded to “the reverse which our troops have unhappily sustained during this week”; here he was referring to “Mournful Monday”, 30 October, when the British suffered severe setbacks culminating in the loss of close to 1000 soldiers. Therefore, “our minds are absorbed, even as it becomes loyal Englishmen and Englishwomen, by the critical position of a portion of her Majesty’s forces, on whose behalf our prayers have just ascended”. He then pulls out all the stops in his assertion of Englishness, quoting from Milton’s Areopagitica (“Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation, rousing herself like a strong man after sleep…”). Then, responding to individuals inclined to question the efficacy of prayer in a military context, individuals “who would criticize such utterances with the cynical sneer, ‘Providence is ever on the side of the biggest battalions'”, he invokes the great military victories of the previous generation in conjunction with Jewish triumph of a more distant past:
Was God on the side of the biggest battalions on the day that Judas the Maccabee defeated the drilled legionaries of Antiochus? …. on the days when [George Lucan, Earl of] Scarlett’s Dragoons rode through the Russians at Balaklava, and a handful of [Sir Henry] Havelock’s heroes saved our Indian Empire? Our troops and their commanders have already shown by their splendid courage that they worthily uphold the traditions of British valour and British chivalry. And our hearts must be filled with mingled sadness and satisfaction, knowing, as we do, that among the brave men who have fought gallantly, and among those who have fallen in the battle, dying a soldier’s honourable death, there have been a goodly number of our brethren in faith who have cheerfully sacrificed their lives in the service of their Queen and of their flag, feeling that it is sweet and glorious to die for one’s country.
The reference to “mingled sadness and satisfaction” at the Jews who have fallen in battle is an extraordinary reflection of the apparent need to demonstrate Jewish gallantry in the public domain.
Adler’s appeal at the end of the sermon mentions “the sick and the wounded—both British and Boer”; there is no dehumanization of the enemy as in Marks’s discourse about the Indian revolt—the enemy here was primarily white Europeans. But the patriotic commitment to nation and empire is every bit as manifest (Adler 106-16). The text of this sermon was quickly published, and six hundred copies were circulated to the press, with special bound copies sent to the Queen and leading ministers of the government.
Quite different in tone is the sermon delivered by the Italian‐born Benjamin Artom, Chief Rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese congregation, on 17 September 1870, 10 days before Rosh Hashanah, and two months after the outbreak of the Franco‐Prussian War. Here we will find no profession of patriotism, no focus on Britain and her interests, no discussion of the propriety of British intervention as opposed to the risks of isolationism. There is no reference to the fall of Emperor Napoleon III and the declaration of the French Republic two weeks before the sermon was delivered. Or to the fact that to an extent greater than ever before, Jewish forces in the armies of the two belligerents were fighting each other. The treatment of the two combatants is relatively even‐handed (“the evils which now afflict two generous nations”).
What distinguishes the sermon, therefore, is the expression of deep discouragement at the very fact of war. It is not a challenge to the belief in God, as we will see in the wars of the following century. Rather, the devastation wreaked by the opposing armies with their technologically sophisticated new armaments becomes a challenge to the accepted beliefs about the civilization and progress. The critique of the cult of progress had been launched in cultural circles through the idealization of a traditional past associated with the Oxford Movement, Young England, the Pre‐Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Gothic Revival (see Auerbach 172). But there was also a religious critique, and Artom’s sermon is a fine articulation of its principles:
What does all that progress regard? … Tell me the discoveries that have recently been made in order to root in the human heart love for our neighbours, in order to inspire a deeper fondness for labour and economy, in order to prevent poverty? Instead of that, you will have announced that fearful implements of death have been invented; the mitrailleuse, which spreads destruction by manifold mouths at the same moment; the chassepots, which throw bullets that tear the poor flesh into which they penetrate; the needle and rifle guns, which fire with astounding rapidity and kill without a moment of respite; these are some of the results of civilization when it is not prompted by morality. And is it for such inventions that God has bestowed upon men an immortal soul and a creative intellect? (Artom 151)
The preacher’s role thus becomes not the stirring of patriotic identification with one side but, rather, the probing of self‐criticism. British avoidance of combat is not an occasion for complacency. Through the rabbinic dictum cited at the beginning of the sermon and invoked in the middle (“War is sent to desolate the earth when iniquity prevails, when justice is not done, when the law is erroneously explained”), he shifts to a discussion of the moral causes of war, and these turn out to be phenomena identified not in France or Germany but at home in England: the failures of justice, the deterioration of social morality, the decline in the standards of religious instruction. These themes may seem like conventional topoi that can be found in the rhetoric of rebuke dating from almost every generation. But Artom concretizes his generalizations in a way that makes the sermon quite vivid and appropriate for the penitential mood of the period leading up to the Days of Awe.
The sermons delivered during the Great War in Britain seem to me much closer to the spirit of Artom than to the spirit of Marks and Adler. Rare is the patriotic fervour that recognizes no ambiguity in the conflict and proclaims that “God Will Protect the Fatherland”. Instead, the dominant motif—undoubtedly influenced by the German origins of many in the congregation—is one of dismay, discouragement, confusion, a sense of devastating failure that undermines cherished beliefs in progress, even possibly in divine providence. This is in striking contrast with the patriotic élan in the sermons by French, German and Austrian rabbis at the beginning of the war (Elon 305). Thus the report by the Jewish Chronicle on 21 August:
Devoting his sermon to the subject of the War, the Rev. Morris Joseph preached as follows from his pulpit at the Berkeley Street Synagogue last Saturday [15 August]: We resume our Sabbath Services this week in circumstances all but unparalleled in the history of mankind…. The lust to destroy and slay has taken possession of minds hitherto chiefly concerned to heal the hurt of the world, and to set the feet of mankind more firmly on the high‐way of progress. It is a terrifying paradox, a cruel blow to our optimism and our most cherished ideals. It makes us doubt the value, the reality of our civilization, the stability of righteousness, the fixity of purpose of God himself.
Not unexpectedly, Joseph insists that our first duty is to “brush such doubts aside”, to keep one’s faith in God, and to “rally to the help of our beloved country in her hour of need”.
Two months later, reports of the German invasion of Belgium and atrocities against its civilians helped solidify a sense of the justice of the British cause. Yet Hermann Gollancz at the Bayswater Synagogue, preaching on 24 October on “The War and the Belgian Refugees”, condemned not Germany alone but all who were responsible for the catastrophe:
Shame on the world as a whole; shame on the sham term “civilisation”; shame, above all, on those rulers of the world who have “God” on their lips at every turn, and are themselves the devil incarnate! Shame, shame upon the hypocritical leaders and counsellors of nations who have thrown the firebrand into the midst of the peoples, and caused the conflagration that is now bringing disaster and desolation upon the whole earth! Shame again upon those so‐called men of science whose inventions, if not by design yet in practice, have become the curse of the world! (Gollancz, “The War and the Belgian Refugees”, 203)
Occasionally, we even find an element of self‐criticism of British society, suspicion of the extreme nationalism that many thought to be responsible for the war. Following the sinking of the “Lusitania” on 7 May 1915 hostility toward Germany spilled over to attacks against aliens in Britain. According to the Jewish Chronicle, Revd D. Wasserzug of the Orthodox Dalston Synagogue said in his sermon for the first day of Shavuot, “In our battles with wrongdoing and injustice, we can win only by love, never by hate. To oppose crime by crime, to loot the shops of the alien enemy as a reprisal for the unspeakable crime—the destruction of the ‘Lusitania’—is, alas! Worse than useless. We only add to the crime” (Jewish Chronicle, 28 May, 16). A few months later, Hermann Gollancz raised “the question, as to how far the share of our country in the cruel war in which we are now engaged, is justified”, though he went on to insist that “we have entered into the War, and it has to be ended” (Gollancz, “The War and the Jews of Eastern Europe”, 239-40).
On Rosh Hashanah, Gollancz entitled his sermon “Nationalism Within Bounds”, responding to mass demonstrations in London in favour of new legislation that would mandate the internment of every “enemy alien” without distinction, rather than the existing policy of case‐by‐case determination. Characterizing this pressure as “mob‐rule”, he denounced the excesses of nationalism pushed beyond reasonable limits:
Heaven shield this country from the theories and practices of such pseudo‐loyalists, such extreme nationalists, who would deny to such as are not British‐born the right to dwell in this country as peaceable and law‐abiding citizens! … Why persecute and oppress those whose sole crime is that they had the accident to be born in a foreign land, even in an enemy country? … Do the English forget that they are a composite race? Does not history speak of the early settlers in this country, the Romans, and Saxons, the Danes, and the Normans? … It has always been the pride of English law in the past that a man is innocent until he be proved guilty. Then in the name of common sense and honesty, in the name of Heaven’s law of humanity, I say, leave the guiltless alone and undisturbed. Let not people say (as I have heard it said): “England is no longer a free country”.
Here the theme is not just the cost in the destruction of human lives and the progress of civilization, but also the toll the war has taken on the values cherished by a nation purported to be fighting to defend them. One is struck on the whole by lack of vindictiveness and demonization of the enemy.
The devastating carnage of human lives on both sides appears to have taken a toll also in religious faith. On the Sabbath of 25 December 1915, Morris Joseph invoked the most celebrated Christian passion play to drive home an attack against the traditional religion of the majority of combatants. Here is how Joseph begins his sermon:
I have read that Anton Lang, the impersonator of the Christian Saviour in the Oberammergau Passion Play, was killed in battle a few weeks ago. The event was symbolic. According to the old Apostolic idea the recreant Christian, who has “tasted the good word”, and “fallen away”, crucifies his Lord afresh, and “puts Him to open shame”. And what faithlessness to the “Prince of Peace” can be more flagrant than that which has plunged twentieth‐century Christendom into the worst horrors of war? Among the many wounds inflicted upon the Master by his followers none has been more cruel or more deadly. The Gospel of Peace and Goodwill, which he claimed to have been divinely chosen to preach, has been flouted, derided, falsified by its plighted adherents. Verily Christ has been slain in this war (Joseph 214).
The report turned out to be incorrect. Lang, who played Christ in the passion plays of 1900 and 1910, also played him in 1922 and lived until 1938; the announcement of his death was based on a letter arriving in the United States that mentioned the death of a relative with the same name, but the New York Times article announcing his death had been corrected two months before the sermon was delivered in London. Whether or not Joseph knew of the correction, the homiletical point apparently seemed irresistible. Turning the tables on the medieval Christian charge that Jews regularly re‐enacted the crucifixion in their ritual murder of Christian children, Joseph insists that in the previous 15 months of war, Christ had been killed once again, in accordance with an established pattern, by his followers, the Christians.
The frequent appeal to God’s favour rankled in the hearts of Jewish preachers, as well as those of some of their Christian colleagues. A week after Joseph’s sermon, 1 January 1916 was proclaimed by the Crown as a day of national Intercession Services, the second during the war. In his sermon delivered on this occasion A. A. Green, minister at Hampstead, complained bitterly about the improper invocation of God in the present context:
Throughout the whole of this War there has been too much mention of God amidst conditions as ungodlike as can possibly be conceived…. Hymns of hate, creeds of cruelty and religions of reprisal have hidden the sunshine of religious civilisation behind a dark cloud of international misunderstanding…. In such circumstances many of the appeals to God have seemed but mockery and blasphemy, while there are times when the oft‐repeated prayers of intercession convey repugnance instead of comfort, and their well‐intentioned sanctity fades away before their well‐defined sacrilege (Green, Sermons, 138-39).
More fundamental was the loss of trust in God generated by the unprecedented carnage and destruction that we find sorrowfully acknowledged in sermons to Jewish audiences. Speaking on the 1 January 1916 national day of prayer at the Great Synagogue, Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz reflected back on the impact of the previous 17 months:
[I]n one day a cataclysm engulfed civilization; and the poet could truthfully exclaim, “Our world has passed away,/ In wantonness overthrown;/ There is nothing left to‐day,/ But steel, and fire, and stone”. None could have foretold that civilized mankind would rush back to savagery with such dreadful fervour. No wonder, that for some this world‐calamity has put out in their firmament the stars of hope and faith for ever; that they find insuperable difficulty in fitting these things into our sense of the overruling Providence of God. We are thus witnesses of a human tragedy unapproached in civilized history” (Hertz, Sermons, Addresses and Studies, 1:26-27).
Late in 1917, Morris Joseph returned to the impact of the war on religion: “We begin to question our most fundamental convictions. We ask ourselves, “Where is God in all this terrifying upheaval? Where is His goodness, His omnipotence?”(Joseph 199; cf. Cambell 2-3)
Needless to say, preachers do not allow such questions to remain unanswered. The need to reaffirm hope, to assert the ongoing beneficence of God even in a time when it was difficult for many Jews, and perhaps even many rabbis, to feel God’s presence in history, was an integral part of the preacher’s task. This could be done through the homiletical use of traditional material. For example, Joseph Hertz in his 1916 Intercession Sermon resorts to the aggadah about Adam’s terror and gloom when he saw the sun set for the first time, fearing that the darkness would last forever (cf. Gen. Rabbah 11, 2, b. Pesahim 54a), thereby both validating the emotions of dismay and hoping to reassure the listeners that the darkness was only temporary.
In addition, the preachers point to more empirical evidence that even in a time of devastation and disaster, values reflecting the power of goodness remain. Again, Hertz refers to the “stern resolve” of the British nation, the “readiness for unbounded sacrifice”. “Millions have been made to feel what mankind steadily refuses to see in times of peace, that there are certain absolute values for the vindication of which no sacrifice, not even the life of our nearest and dearest, is too great.” Perhaps echoing the sentiments of his predecessor Hermann Adler, he speaks with pride of the Jewish role in Britain’s military effort: “Nobly have also the sons of Anglo‐Jewry rallied round England in the hour of her need. And our Honour Record will be rendered longer and more luminous now that the large number of our brethren who are naturalized British subjects … have been admitted to the glorious privilege of fighting for their country” (Hertz, “Through Darkness to Light”, 26, 28-29). But the public recognition of the legitimacy of doubt brings us into a spiritual arena for which there is little evidence in the previous century.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the patriotic call to rally behind the flag is a leitmotif that characterizes most of these sermons in time of war. Yet there is a spectrum of views on a central question: whether the commitment of one’s country to war can be seen in the sermons to shake fundamental, core beliefs—a spectrum that does not seem to correlate with the preacher’s denominational position within the Jewish community. Does war raise previously unarticulated questions about the policies of one’s government and undermine confidence in political leaders who are sending their youth into battle, or do the pressures for national unity restrain and stifle such questions? Does the spectacle of modern technological advance exploited for the destruction of life on an unprecedented scale challenge assumptions about culture, civilization, the march of progress? Does the massive loss of young and innocent life, the triumphs of an enemy defined as evil, produce a crisis of faith in a God who is sovereign Master of history and ultimate guarantor of justice? How do the often bleak realities of the present relate to the familiar texts of a classical or sacred tradition?
Political theorists, moral philosophers, theologians have the leisure of waiting until they are ready to commit themselves in print on such weighty issues. Rabbis, preachers of any faith—like syndicated columnists and editorial writers—so often must address these issues without having access to adequate information, while still uncertain as to the full meaning of the events that encompass and endanger their society. Such uncertainty may be used rhetorically as part of the message, but it cannot be the final word: the genre of the sermon requires that it conclude with faith, not agnosticism, with hope, not despair. The preacher’s task is to mobilize the available information in order to confront with honesty the unexpectedly brutal realities of war and the social pressures to demonstrate patriotism in time of crisis, and to craft a message, rooted in texts from a very different age, that informs, reassures and uplifts without endorsing the most jingoistic sentiments of the moment. The response to this rhetorical and conceptual challenge makes the wartime sermon a historical source of not insignificant value.