In honour of the centenary of the Armistice for the Great War, I’ve been reading a series of sermons collected by Mark Saperstein in his terrific "Jewish Preaching in Times of War" (Littman 2008). These are sermons preached from right within the First World War. I owe a huge debt to Professor Saperstein's work.
You can feel clouds of war gathering already in 1913 reading this extract from the Induction Sermon of Joseph Hertz as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of this country. Hertz, of course, was the first rabbinic graduate of JTS, and this was his local Shul. I’m not sure where the sermon was preached - it could have been at this very pulpit.
“Ours is an age of doubt and disillusionment. Times are out of joint. Theological foundations are rocking. Dreams of humanity that but yesterday seemed within grasp of realization are dissolving into thin air in the face of the malicious race-hatred that is being fanatically preached and the purposeless human slighter cynically practised, in the opening decades of the 20th Century.”
Hertz came to this country from South Africa. I wonder if he brought with him a particular fear of war having been closer to the Boer War than other British Rabbis.
Then in July 1914, war broke out. In August of that year, the Jewish Chronicle reported Rev Morris Joseph preaching at Berkley Street Synagogue,
“We resume our Sabbath services this week in circumstances all but unparallel 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 highway of progress. It is a cruel blow to our optimism and our most cherished ideals. It makes us doubt the value, the reality of our civilisation, the fixity of purpose of God himself.”
Joseph went on to argue that our faith should be strong in face of such challenges, but the existential challenges, particularly to those who felt that the world was a romantic place of progress, were very real.
Saperstein suggests that part of the rip at the heart of Rabbis speaking about the First World War - and how could they not speak about the First World War - is that so many had German ancestry themselves.
In a High Holyday sermon in Philadelphia, German-born Rabbi, Joseph Krauskopf shared this;
“Not in the darkest ages of the past has the world been so full of violence, so crimsoned with blood, so smitten with savagery. Our eyes roam over scores of battlefields, our feet stumble against the bodies of thousands of human beings slain, of tens of thousands mangles - slain and mangled by fellow human beings who had never known each other, who had never entertained the slightest ill-feeling against each other... We enter homes from which went forth in the prime of youth and manhood, and in response to the fatherland’s call, husbands and fathers, brothers and sons, who will never, never return, who moulder in some unknown grave or ditch, who have paid with their heart’s blood some diplomat’s blunder, some monarch’s land greed or lust of power.”
Saperstein notes that British Rabbis had found it easier to support the Boer War, American Rabbis, largely from Eastern Europe, had found it easier to support the war against the Spanish.
But this war, the Great War, pitted Jew against Jew.
Rabbi George, Gedaliah, Silverstone, was an Orthodox Rabbi, born in Poland, serving a congregation in Washington
“Whose heart did not throb with agony, whose eyes did not fill with tears, whose blood did not turn cold in his veins upon reading in the newspapers about a Jewish soldier in the Russian army who stabbed with his bayonet a soldier from the Austrian army. The mortally wounded man cried out with his last breath, Shma Yisael Adonai Eloheinu Adonia Ehad’ and with the world echad, his soul departed. When the Russian soldier realised that he had killed one of his brothers, that he had thrust his bayonet into a fellow Jew, he went out of his mind with grief. Alas, alas, that things like this happen in our time.”
Some were even opposed to entering the war. The American Rabbi to a German-speaking congregation, Maurice Harris of Temple Israel of Harlem, argued for civil disobedience in the face of what he saw was unjustifiable militarism;
“How stirred was the civilised world when 1500 persons lost their lives on the Titanic - and now such a loss of life is a daily incident” He called for civil disobedience to keep American out of the War - 22 Sept 1914, “Even when monarchs, bureaucracies and Governments, trained in the militant school, may be hesitant in relegating war to the past, the masses of people must decide for peace. If they decide with an insistent note, “We will not fight,” where is the power of Government to promulgate a war? The old standard set in the Crimean was, ‘Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die,’ must be rejected by the people. They are not pawns, but living beings. Theirs is to reason why. They must ask what right has a Government to plunge the land into war?”
But for the vast majority, especially once war had been declared by the Americans, it was possible to feel conflict about war in general, to feel conflict when the enemy also has Jewish soldiers and still support this war and to support it without equivocation, especially after the attacks on the American ships, the Essex and the Lusitania. And most especially after America formally entered the war. At this point, any suggestion of failing to support their country could have been seen as treacherous, but it’s not just a fear of being labelled disloyal to his homeland that motivates Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the great leader of American Reform Judaism in the early 20th C;
“We have not gone into the war because of the Lusitania, nor because of any single ferocity of undersea warfare, but because these and similar things represent a type of national mind or rather of governmental theory which will either subdue and conquer the world or be overcome by it. To the task of repressing and of combating this world-menace that nations may again dwell amid security and all peoples emerge from under the shadow of the destroying sword - we have resolved to dedicate our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honour.”
There is a proud nationalism in these words of the Detroit based Reform Rabbi, Leo Franklin;
The US President’s declaration of war “leaves no doubt as to where this American people stand upon the question of a final settlement with those who have betrayed humanity; that it definitely cuts off all hope that any might have held for the discussion of peace while Germany and her allies occupy an inch of territory that is not rightfully theirs... It says much for the spirit of the American people that it stands to a man squarely behind the President in his decision and that its men and its women are willing to continue their sacrifices of life and of treasure; yes that they would have resented as un-American any other attitude than that which has been taken by the President.”
“The time has passed” he later taught “to ask whether our participation in the war will prolong it or bring it to a more speedy conclusion. It is too late for us to discuss these things now, even if, now that war has been declared. What seems to me to be the case is that this great people have heard what was spoken to our fathers centuries ago “Lo Taamod Al Daam Re’echa” - Thou shall not stand by the blood of your fellow.’ (Lev 19:16)
And later Rabbi Franklin preached “America’s tasks is not so much to bring the blood-thirsty Teuton to his knee as it is to wipe out for all time the possibility for the spread of that Teutonic autocracy.” He wanted German to be “cured of her madness and lifted out of her degradation, to sit once again in the circle of civilisation” but before that was possible, America and her Allies must “win this war, must win it in no indecisive manner and on no terms of compromised, but must win it in such a way that there shall be no doubt henceforth in the mind of any man or in the consciousness of any people that autocracy is dead beyond the possibility of resurrection, that tyranny is destroyed forever from the earth, and that Prussianism, that foul and filthy thing through which the lowest degradation of the human spirit expressed itself, shall never lift its hideous head again”
Powerful words - words it is impossible not to read without weeping for the autocracy that was still to come long after the defeat of Germany in WW1.
I want to conclude with Rabbi Joseph Hertz, as it were, formerly of this parish. Saperstein reports that on the first Sat of 1915 and again in 1916 Hertz and his Sephardi colleague, Hacham Moses Gaster, presumably from just down the road at the Spanish and Portuguese congregation on Lauderdale Rd, held an Intercession Service, a new Minhag-Anglia version of the traditional talmudic Day of fasting and supplication.
These are Hertz’ words from that service - 1st January 1916. May we never have need again of such sermonic bravery and pain.