• A
  • A
  • A

Sermons Heard by London Jews During the Great War.

By Professor Marc Saperstein

For centuries, Jews living in European lands were aloof from the wars in which their kings engaged, affected only—as in some of the Crusades—when armies engaged in other missions diverged from their primary purpose and attacked Jewish settlements. In the modern period things changed dramatically: emancipated or pushing toward full emancipation, Jews began to feel a patriotic identification with their country and its leaders, they became subject to conscription or were urged to volunteer when their country was threatened, they felt the need to demonstrate their patriotism on the battlefield in the sight of others who suspected their loyalty, they were confronted with the need to fight against and kill if necessary Jews in the army of the enemy.

For an understanding of these dynamics, the sermon can be extremely illuminating. Like other sources more or less contemporary with the events—the newspaper, the diary, the letter from the Front—the topical sermon draws us back to a unique moment in the past with all its ambiguities and uncertainties, when the future was as opaque to everyone as the future is to us today. 

Such sermons exemplify the often painful dilemmas about what to say in critical moments when the preacher’s country is at war, dilemmas that usually applied to Christian as well as Jewish clergy. In times of failure and discouragement and confusion, is it the preacher’s role to invoke God’s judgment and rebuke the listeners as part of the broader society for their shortcomings and sins? Or to rally the people to what may be a misguided faith in the government’s wisdom, the army’s proficiency, and God’s beneficent favour? Was it appropriate to raise critical questions about the policies of those in power, or was it the preacher’s role to inspire the will to sacrifice for the national cause? How should the preacher speak about the enemy: emphasizing their otherness, their evil, or the common human bonds they shared with the congregants? Should the preacher articulate the consensus of the listeners, or challenge their complacency? How would their preaching compare with that of rabbis in enemy countries—Germany and Austria—and with their Christian colleagues at home? Such questions faced preachers in more normal times as well, but they often took on a terrible urgency in times of war.

Texts of many of these sermons have been preserved, sometimes through extensive quotation in the Jewish Chronicle, more often through collections later published by the preachers. They are a rich resource for understanding the thinking of Jewish religious leaders in times when traditional faith was being challenged more severely than at any other period in the memory of their listeners. The texts of these sermons deserve to be gathered, read, and studied.

The most important sermons for Jews throughout the Empire were delivered by the Chief Rabbi, Joseph H. Hertz, who had assumed his position just the previous year. On the 1st of January 1916, a day of national prayer, the Chief Rabbi Hertz evoked in retrospect the staggering impact of the outbreak of war in early August 1914: “And then in one day a cataclysm engulfed civilization. . . . 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 forever; that they find insuperable difficulty in fitting these things into our sense of the overruling Providence of God.”

But Hertz was by no means the only London preacher of power. There was Moses Gaster, Hakham of the Sephardic Bevis Marks Synagogue; Hermann Gollancz of the Bayswater Synagogue; Aaron Asher Green of the Hampstead Synagogue in London; Samuel Daiches, since 1908 the Lecturer in Bible, Talmud and Homiletics at Jews’ College, London. The non-Orthodox Congregations were represented by two outstanding preachers, Morris Joseph, of the West London Synagogue of British Jews, and Israel Mattuck—who, like Hertz had begun his British career only the previous year—in Liberal Jewish Synagogue.

Fortunately, many of the texts of the sermons delivered by these Jewish preachers in response to the war are now accessible. In early July 2014, Leo Baeck College sponsored an international academic conference on the theme “Rabbis and The Great War”. The papers delivered at that conference were published in European Judaism 15/1 (Spring 2015).; two of the papers—dealing with the sermons of Joseph Hertz and Morris Joseph, are accessible on this website. In addition, following the conference, a new website entitled “Religion and War. A Historic Collection: Sermons From World War I” was launched. The site includes the full texts of 76 rabbinic sermons (including a few examples by Christian preachers) responding to the war, presented in chronological order.  This includes 27 sermons by London Jewish preachers.

The URL is  http://www.religionandwar.org/      

It is our hope that this record of religious leaders responding to unimaginable cruelty and suffering along with inspiring bravery and sacrifice will help foster a deeper understanding of the past, along with resonance for the present.






These articles were made available to the London Jews in the First World War - We Were There Too project with the kind permission of the Editorial Board of European Judaism and Berghahn Books. They appear in Volume 48, Spring 2015: Rabbi Joseph Hertz by Rabbi Colin Eimer (pp. 23-32) and Rabbi Morris Joseph by Professor Marc Saperstein (pp. 33-46).

Give us your feedback

Please tell us what you think to help us develop and progress this vital resource

London Jews in the First World War - We Were There Too

Follow us on social media:

© London Jewish Cultural Centre 2018

Website : beachshore