Review: Preaching in times of war - 1800-2001

By Rabbi Dr Jeffrey Cohen, May 16, 2008
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Marc Saperstein
The Littman Library of Civilization £39.95

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)

    Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011