Elchanan Weinbach

A Memorial Day Look At Wartime Sermons

Each week rabbis are challenged to present their congregants with a meaningful message about the issues of the moment. Often, those issues touch on the over-extended realm of politics.

I am a rabbi who does not discuss politics, and I made that clear before I assumed my position. I generally choose to speak about that which unites, I will not endorse a particular party or politician (that’s illegal anyway), and I model respect for the officers of government (however challenging that has become). Still, three years into my tenure, my congregants know that I consider many topics that are usually labeled “political” as, in fact, religious.

Human rights, the environment, the responsibility to protect, and the God-given right to justice are religious issues. This attends not only to my pulpit; it places me squarely within more than two hundred years of what might be termed the modern rabbinate.

As Memorial Day approaches and we honor those whose lives were cut short by the demands of war, I draw inspiration and strength from a remarkable collection of sermons found in “Jewish Preaching in Times of War 1800-2001,” collected by Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein, now of the Leo Baeck College, for the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. The book reaches from the Napoleonic Wars at the beginning of the 19th century all the way to responses to 9/11.

For me, three things stand out from this important collection.

First, it is a fascinating contrast when rabbis on opposite sides of a conflict present their interpretation of Scripture and rabbinic literature and reach very different conclusions. A dramatic example is a rabbinic exchange during the Civil War. (I quote heavily from Rabbi Saperstein throughout this piece.)

When a sermon delivered on January 4, 1861, a Day of National Fast and Humiliation proclaimed by President Buchanan (imagine that!), Rabbi Maurice J. Raphall of New York preached “The Biblical View of Slavery,” challenging Christian preachers who condemned slaveholding as a sin, asserting that the biblical “doom of Ham’s descendants, the African race” remained in full force to this day, and insisting that slavery is never condemned as sinful in sacred scripture.

On the opposite side, Rabbi David Einhorn of Baltimore excoriated Rabbi Raphall’s position with savage sarcasm — “is Slavery a moral evil or not?” As a result, Rabbi Einhorn’s name appeared on the list of abolitionists to be targeted by secessionists, and he was persuaded to flee northward for his safety. Interestingly, the board of trustees of his congregation wrote to him that when changed conditions might make it possible for him to return, “it would be very desirable for your own safety, as well as out of consideration for the members of your congregation, if in the future there would be no comment in the pulpit on the excitable issues of the times.”

Unwilling to be bound by any such restriction, Rabbi Einhorn moved on to positions in Philadelphia and New York.

Second, it is encouraging that so many of my colleagues and I stand fast in the great tradition of compassion for our enemies. On Thursday, 5 December, 1805, a “Day of General Thanksgiving for the success of his majesty’s fleet under Lord Nelson, off Trafalgar” was observed throughout both the churches and the synagogues of England. On all such occasions, Jews gathered in their synagogues at the same time that their Christian neighbors assembled in their churches; a special liturgy was followed, and the chief rabbi delivered a sermon explicating the meaning of the events celebrated. On this occasion, Rabbi Solomon Hirschel departs from the general vilification of the enemy found in the sermons of his fellow clergymen, instead devoting considerable attention to whether it is proper to rejoice at the victory of one’s own nation when this victory entails suffering and death among the enemy.

I can say from experience that compassion for an enemy in war, when the general tone describes that enemy as being anything from tyrannical to Amalek, is certain to upset many congregants; still, it is the task of the rabbi to address this spiritual matter that transcends politics. The Rabbis of the Talmud declare God as having compassion on the Egyptians at the splitting of the sea. Can we not manage the same?

Finally, the grimmest task facing any rabbi is to eulogize the death of children, which all soldiers are. How inspirational, therefore, is the sermon Rabbi Ronald B. Gittelsohn gave at the U.S. Marine Corps cemetery at Iwo Jima in March 1945. In it he pleads that the opportunity presented by the sacrifices of The Great War not be wasted.

I quote from his sermon: “This war, with all its frightful heartache and suffering, is but the beginning of our generation’s struggle for democracy. When the last battle has been won, there will be those at home, as there were last time, who will want us to turn our backs in selfish isolation on the rest of organized humanity, and thus to sabotage the very peace for which we fight. We promise to you who lie here: we will not do that. We will join hands with Britain, China, Russia in peace, even as we have in war, to build the kind of world for which you have died.” (It is interesting to note that the last sentence was edited out of the official version on record with the United States Army Chaplain Center and School.)

The upcoming Memorial Day is a time for religion to give honor to the fallen and comfort to the bereaved, and to bring its bright and critical light to bear on all sides of our many conflicts. As our prophets and rabbinic leaders have done for millennia, and as these shining examples from the modern rabbinate have modeled for us, let us remember clearly the tragedy of war, the responsibility to seek universal peace, the ever-present need for a careful and probing examination of the motives towards war on all sides.

This much we owe to the memory of our fallen, to the victims of war — combatants and civilians — and to the dictates not of politics but of our religion.