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Jewish Preaching in Times of War (review)

From: Conservative Judaism
Volume 64, Number 1, Fall 2012
pp. 75-77 | 10.1353/coj.2012.0037

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Marc Saperstein has virtually created a new field of Jewish studies: the scientific study of sermons. He has done major studies of medieval and modern sermons and now, in this—his latest volume—he studies what rabbis have said to their congregations during times of war in the last two hundred years.

What should a rabbi say to his people when his country is at war? Should he follow the example of the kohen gadol in the book of Deuteronomy, who was told to rally the soldiers before they went off to war and tell them that God was on their side? Or should he follow the example of Jeremiah, who railed against entangling alliances and urged his people to stay neutral in the wars between their neighbors?

Dr. Saperstein shows that the rabbis of the last two centuries have taken both approaches. In times of discouragement and confusion, some saw it as their task to appeal to their listeners to be patriotic, and some saw it as their task to warn their congregants against the moral sins that cause and that accompany wars. Some raised critical questions about government policies, and some inspired their listeners to sacrifice for a noble cause. Some articulated what their listeners already believed, and some challenged their listeners to see the war in a very different light. Some brought their communities a message of pride and confidence in their country; others brought to their audiences some harsh but valid truths that they believed needed to be heard. All spoke to specific congregations whose attitudes, affinities, values, and concerns were shaped by the community’s location and historical setting, as well as by the rabbi’s own background.

Dr. Saperstein provides a close and careful introduction to these sermons, as well as explanatory footnotes. He explicates the texts, bringing forward allusions that the listeners of that time would have caught, but that may not be understood by a contemporary reader. He thus sets these sermons in their historical and cultural contexts.

For example, he discusses a sermon by Sabato Morais, given during the Civil War. He notes, first of all, that it was given on July 4th in the American calendar, corresponding to the 17th of Tammuz in the Jewish calendar. Which event had priority in the mind of the preacher: the anniversary of the sad day when the walls of Jerusalem were breached many centuries ago, or that of the joyous day when America was born? Morais referred to the Jewish date, and used it as a background for the discussion of the American date; he employed the grim mood evoked by that day in Jewish history to convey the sentiments that he felt when the fate of the Union hung in the balance.

Saperstein points out that this sermon was given at the request of the Philadelphia Urban League, which tells us that non-Jews also cared about what a rabbi had to say on the issues of the day. We might not have expected this, given the small Jewish population in America at that time. Saperstein further points out something that we would otherwise not know: at the time the sermon was being delivered, the battle of Gettysburg was being waged just ninety miles away. It was only later that word reached Morais that the Union army had stood firm. In our age of instant communication, it is hard for us to imagine the uncertainty of the mood in the congregation to whom he spoke that day.

And one more curious fact about this sermon: Morais said, “I am not indifferent to the fact, dear friends, to the event that four score and seven years ago brought to this new world light and joy.” Is it coincidence that Lincoln used the same elegant phrase—“four score and seven years ago”—to begin the Gettysburg Address, or is it possible that he may have read it in the Jewish Messenger? No one can say for sure, but it is a tantalizing thought, is it not?

One thing that strikes the contemporary reader is the difference in style and language between the sermons of a century or two ago and the sermons of today...


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