Sermon – So it’s war again

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 25 March 2011

It is a sensible principle of sermon writing that one should not ignore that which is going on in the world This moment in a service is about Judaism –  it is about our relationship with text, about Torah, about teaching But it is also about life – about the news, about issues, about the major ethical and religious concerns of our lives.

Over the last fortnight, with the news filled with disasters yet again – both man-made and natural – as I sat down to write, the impact of this struck me. In my relatively short rabbinic career to date, this is the second time I have stood before a congregation while elsewhere in the world families are still rooting through the devastation of a massive tsunami.  More than once have I grappled in public with the concept of divine providence in the aftermath of major destructive earthquakes. I have given sermons after fires and floods, bomb blasts and terrorist attacks.

And, most shocking for me, was the realisation that my rabbinate has been entirely to the backdrop of war.  In fewer years than I have fingers, I have delivered three sermons on Jewish attitudes to war – including from this Bimah when I spoke last year before Tony Blair’s appearance before the Chilcott enquiry.  When I did so who might have thought that only a short while later we would once again be in the world of UN resolutions, no-fly zones and liberal intervention, with British planes in action over Libya.

It is tempting to suggest that this is evidence of a world going to pot.  But of course, it is not. I am assured that there is no evidence that there are more natural disasters now than in the past, it is just that in the age of rolling news and satellite phones we know about them, and can see them, as never before. The phenomenon of terrorism is not a new one.  And nor, of course, is war an invention of the modern age –  the nature of war, our awareness of its horrors from a distance, may have changed, but a generation which does not experience significant military conflict is the exception not the norm.

Throughout history, rabbis have stood before their congregations and delivered sermons against a backdrop of disaster.  And throughout history, rabbis have attempted to process the shared experience of military action through the lens of Jewish texts and values.

This truth is wonderfully captured in a collection of sermons compiled and annotated by the current Principal of the Leo Baeck College, Marc Saperstein, entitled “Jewish Preaching in Times of War”. In it, Professor Saperstein, the world’s leading authority on Jewish homiletics, has collected together some of the best examples of sermons delivered by English and American rabbis at times of war.  They make for instructive reading.  They provide a fascinating insight into the culture of Jewish communities in the modern period.  More importantly, they also shine a light on the challenge of speaking about military conflict as rabbis, and indeed, the challenge for all of us in grappling with war as Jews. The same three features, three tensions, are found in many of the sermons, and they are the same three tensions that I feel as I stand today once again wishing to speak about our current military intervention in the world.

The first feature, especially found in earlier sermons but present throughout, is a sense of patriotism – partly a love of country, but primarily an awareness that as Jews we are duty bound to be in a positive relationship with the state in which we live.  As expressed by HP Mendes in a sermon in 1898 against the backdrop of the Spanish American War: You do not need me to remind you that it is our duty to support the government… But there is a tension between this and the Jewish role as a prophetic voice, critiquing government, and challenging injustice wherever it might be. As Mendes then continued: but while we render loyal obedience to the temporal needs of the country of our adoption, we cannot forget the bible.  Or as the American Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn, expressed it in a sermon addressed to an anonymous correspondent who had written angrily about his Rosh Hashanah 1965 sermon on the Vietnam War: We are history’s most obstinate and persistent rebels against conformity… a people that has always insisted on applying its moral imperatives to every aspect of life. And that is how I feel again today.

The second tension is one within Judaism itself.  Judaism is a religion that idealises peace, that sets great store by pursuit of peace as a primary virtue.  It recognises that experience of war has a negative impact on individuals and society. To quote a sermon delivered by then chacham Benjamin Artom at Bevis Marks in 1870: Even when successful, war is a fearful calamity.  It creates ruin and misery and leaves behind a track of blood and of tears.  It destroys all the treasures that peace had carefully and slowly accumulated… Yet ours is not a pacifist religion.  Judaism also recognises that sometimes military conflict is not the worst option.  The challenge of our time is to decide when that point is reached.  The point, to quote a sermon delivered by Isidore Harris at West London in 1914: When, in the language of the prophet Joel, God spoke to the nations and bade them: Beat your ploughshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears. And this is the dilemma that most of us feel as Jews when thinking about military action – not an unwavering pacifism, but a recognition that each conflict must be judged on its own merits.

And finally a recognition of how sensitive it is to talk about politics in a religious setting, alongside an absolute certainty that to do so is a Jewish obligation.  This is expressed very powerfully once again in the sermon by Gittelsohn: [Jewish] ethics cannot and must not be isolated from the warp and woof of practical life. The notion that individuals should strive to be righteous in their personal lives, but that societies and nations need not, is just about as utterly un-Jewish as anything could be. When you ask whether the rabbi has a right to speak on the ethics of foreign policy, you ask the wrong question.  This isn’t a matter of right but of obligation – of solemn ineluctable duty.

Reading Saperstein’s book it is clear that these three tensions are with us as rabbis and as Jews whenever we speak against a backdrop of war.  The imperative on rabbis to respond to the news in sermon has been there throughout Jewish history as it sits on me this morning.  To quote the Book of Kohelet – There is nothing new under the sun. We can only hope that next week when I stand here I am able to talk not about conflict or disaster, but simply about the Torah portion