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A Light to the Nations

John D. Rayner
Fall 2001

A Light to the Nations  

(The  following sermon was  
delivered at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue of London on Yom Kippur Morning,  
September 27, 2001)






“Behold, darkness shall cover the  
earth, and gross darkness the peoples” (Isa. 60:2). That verse, from the  
Prophet of the Exile who provided our Haftarah, clinches as well as any the  
gloom that has enveloped us ever since the catastrophe of just over two weeks  
ago. In this global darkness, do we, the Jewish people, assembled in our synagogues  
on this Day of Atonement, have any light to offer to humanity? If the answer is  
yes, it is surely to be found in the timeless teaching of the Hebrew Prophets.




What is that teaching? It has  
three aspects, but fundamentally it is that the Creator of the universe is a  
moral God, and therefore righteousness is what God demands. Everything else —  
including, for instance, religious ritual — pales into insignificance compared  
with it. Ethical values are the only ultimate values.




“I hate, I despise your feasts,  
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies ... But let justice roll down  
like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21, 24).  
That is a recurring theme in Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah and Jeremiah, and in  
the prophecy of the Second Isaiah we have just heard. God, he says in so many  
words, doesn’t care one bit whether we fast, but cares profoundly how we treat  
our fellow human beings (Isa. 58:1-7).




Conquer Evil, Establish Goodness




The message is loud and clear, and  
imposes on us a twofold obligation: to conquer evil and to establish goodness.  
The terrorist assault on the United States was as evil as anything that has  
happened in recent times — and seemed even more so because we watched it  
happening before our very eyes on our television screens. In the hatred that  
inspired it, and the contempt for life and indifference to suffering it showed,  
it made us realize as almost never before how utterly merciless, terrifying and  
destructive evil can be.




There is therefore an inescapable  
duty to take strong action against the perpetrators and those who have in any  
manner aided and abetted them. And not only for the sake of justice. For this  
new phase in the ghastly history of terrorism holds unprecedented dangers for  
us all. The real possibility that terrorists willing to commit suicide may yet  
get hold of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, poses a threat to the very  
survival of humanity. Not only as a matter of justice, therefore, but for the  
sake of our own safety and that of generations to come, it is imperative that  
prompt and resolute action be taken. For both reasons, the prophetic  
exhortation, “You shall eradicate the evil from your midst” (which runs like a  
refrain through the book of Deuteronomy — a Prophetic book) needs urgently to  
be heeded.




Inveighed Against Nationalism




But this worthy aim can easily  
get mixed up with other motives such as pride and revenge, which masquerade as  
moral principles but are really nothing of the sort, and which would never have  
had the approval of the Prophets. On the contrary, they constantly inveighed  
against nationalistic power politics. And these extraneous motives could easily  
prompt rash actions that only compound the evil by inflicting still more  
innocent suffering and creating new and even greater dangers. Happily, the  
rhetoric we have heard from George Bush, Tony Blair and other world leaders has  
so far been relatively restrained and free of jingoism. Let us hope and pray  
that they and their advisers will keep cool heads in the days and weeks to  




In any case, it is one thing to  
conquer evil and another to establish goodness. That is a much bigger task. It  
requires education; the teaching of love instead of hate; of moderation instead  
of fanaticism; of generosity instead of greed. And it requires the application  
of these principles to international politics and global economics, to the  
healing of the divisions between rich and poor, and between East and West.




Furthermore, only the  
accomplishment of this bigger task can deliver real security. The ‘war against  
terrorism’ is an immediate necessity, but it will never be completely won until  
goodness is established as the chief motivating force of individual and  
collective human behaviour. Until then we shall live under a constant threat to  
our very existence. And that fact, frightening as it is, should also give an  
extra edge of urgency to all our efforts in the area of moral education.




Prophetic Spirit




These are some of the things  
which the Hebrew Prophets, if they were alive today, would surely be saying to  
humanity as a whole. But what about ourselves, the Jewish people? To what  
extent is the Prophetic spirit alive among us today, and to what extent,  
therefore, are we in a fit state to transmit it to humanity?




In many ways the Prophetic  
emphasis on ethics has continued to influence us. But it has also become  
obscured. It has become obscured by the Rabbinic penchant for legislation,  
which makes little distinction between ethics and ritual. And it has become  
obscured in recent times by a renewed preoccupation with ritual. Nowadays even  
American Reform rabbis tend to dismiss the Prophetic critique of ritual; to  
insist that the ritual Mitzvot, because they make us distinctive, are  
especially to be stressed; and to think that it is ever so virtuous to make the  
rules and procedures of conversion to Judaism more stringent.




There is therefore a renewed need  
to assert that the Prophets meant what they said, and that the survival of a  
people observing a distinctive regimen of colourful, exotic rituals may be of  
absorbing interest to anthropologists but is of total indifference to God  
unless that people is, by its ethical example, ‘a light to the nations’ (Isa.  




Righteousness and Universalism




But because ethical imperatives,  
by their very nature, transcend national boundaries, therefore the teaching of  
the Prophets was one, not only of righteousness  
but also, secondly, of universalism. And  
in this respect there has been in the Jewish world a marked retrenchment. The  
renewed emphasis on ritual is part of that, since rituals are valued precisely  
because they set us apart from others. But it is in relation to the State of  
Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians that the retrenchment is most  
noticeable. In that regard, the predominant mood of the Jewish people — to  
judge from innumerable propaganda leaflets, solidarity rallies, and letters to  
the press — is a euphoria of self-pity, self-justification and  




A year ago, so the official story  
goes, Barak made a generous peace offer to the Palestinians, which they turned  
down; therefore the current stalemate is entirely their fault and Israel is  
completely blameless. They should have accepted the offer. Instead, they have  
resorted to violence, which is inexcusable. The suicide bombings, in  
particular, are utterly to be condemned, and, after what happened in America,  
the whole world is beginning to understand what the Israelis have suffered and  
how right they have been to take tough counter-measures. Perhaps above all, the  
hatred for Israel instilled into Palestinian children is unforgivable.




Only Part of the Truth




Most of that is true, but it is  
only part of the truth, the part  
Israel’s Government and the Anglo-Jewish Establishment want us to hear. It is style='mso-bidi-font-style:normal'>also true that even after the Oslo  
Agreement, and especially under Barak, Israel, in defiance of world opinion,  
actually stepped up the building and expansion of settlements in the occupied  
territories; and that by its savage reprisals, its collective punishments, its  
confiscation of Palestinian land, bulldozing of their homes, cutting down of  
their fruit trees, and expropriation of their water supplies, Israel, even  
while engaged in peace talks, has done just about everything possible to  
undermine whatever faith the Palestinians might have had in the peace process,  
and driven them to desperation. And it is likewise true that, though Barak’s  
offer was generous in relation to what Israeli public opinion was willing to go  
along with, it fell far short of what the Palestinians felt in justice entitled  
to demand.




In short, the myth of Jewish  
blamelessness cannot be sustained. It gives me no pleasure to say that, but it  
is the truth, and from this pulpit, I trust, the truth will always be spoken  
even when it is unpalatable.




The Hebrew Prophets would have  
been deeply shocked by our people’s present mood of self-righteousness, for  
they were essentially critics of their own society. The opening verse of our  
Haftarah sets the tone: “Cry aloud, do not hold back, let your voice resound  
like a trumpet; declare to My people their transgression, and to the house of  
Jacob their sins” (Isa. 58:1). And they heaped scorn on the false prophets who  
fraudulently fed the people’s complacency, saying “Peace, peace, when there is  
no peace” (Jer. 6:14).




Today’s Prophetic Voices




Happily, however, the Prophetic  
spirit is not completely dead among us. The State of Israel, in its  
Proclamation of Independence, explicitly invoked ‘the principles of liberty,  
justice and peace as conceived by the Prophets of Israel’, and in many ways,  
though not all, it has lived up to that high ideal.




When in October 1953 an Israeli  
army unit under the command of Ariel Sharon massacred sixty-nine men, women and  
children in the Jordanian village of Qibya, only one rabbi in Anglo-Jewry, to  
my knowledge, had the decency, the courage, and the Prophetic spirit, to  
condemn the atrocity, and that was my predecessor Rabbi Leslie Edgar — a fact I  
am very proud of, as I hope we all are. (The only public support he received  
was from the then editor of the Jewish  




And today, too, there are  
Prophetic voices in the Jewish world. They are theologians like Michael Lerner  
and Marc Ellis in the United States, and writers like Amos Oz and David  
Grossman in Israel. They are the signatories of the Joint Israeli Palestinian  
Declaration under the heading, ‘No to Bloodshed, No to Occupation; Yes to  
Negotiations, Yes to Peace’. They are organizations like Peace Now and Netivot  
Shalom, and, not least, Rabbis for Human Rights, comprising some scores of  
Israeli Progressive, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis. Among their plans for  
the future, one you should know about is that next Tu bi-Sh’vat (28 January)  
they intend to plant 30,000 olive trees to replace those which Israeli forces  
and settlers have destroyed in Palestinian land. That will be a truly Prophetic  




Above all, there is again a  
cease-fire, offering one more chance to negotiate a peace settlement which both  
sides can accept with dignity and honour. Let us hope and pray that the chance  
will not be missed.




A Day for Self-Criticism




Today, of all days, is not a day  
for self-righteousness. It is, on the contrary, a day for self-criticism. It is  
not a time for pointing a finger at the faults of others, though they are many  
and grievous, but for confronting our own. It is a time for listening to the  
voice of the Prophets, which challenges us to say and do, not what is popular  
or fashionable or comforting, but what is right. It may not seem expedient, but  
then it is another key principle of the Prophets, and the third element in  
their teaching, that what is morally right, though it may seem inexpedient at  
the time, will ultimately prove to have been expedient, too.




And here, I submit, lies the  
resolution of the dilemma Rabbi David Goldberg posed to us last night: that we  
seem to have to choose between loyalty to our people and loyalty to God. Did  
not the Prophets love their people? Yet they castigated its leadership. Did  
anybody ever love the Jewish people more passionately than Jeremiah? Yet he  
condemned their sins — and for that very reason — all the more passionately.  
So, too, those who are urging Israel to adopt policies that are morally right —  
policies of restraint, moderation, compromise, and respect for the rights of  
the Palestinians, policies conducive to peace — do not love their people less  
than those who applaud the present sterile, hard-line, tit-for-tat policies  
which lead nowhere except to an endless cycle of more and more violence and  
counter-violence, and ultimately total disaster: they love their people more,  
because on the policies they advocate the very survival of the State of Israel  
and of its people will ultimately depend. They are not worse Zionists: they are  
better Zionists!




Transcending Nationalism




At any rate, if we Jews have  
anything significant to say to humanity in this hour of darkness, it is surely  
this threefold teaching of the Prophets: that righteousness is everything; that  
it is universal, transcending nationalism; and that what is morally right will  
ultimately prove to have been politically expedient. If we wish to be a light  
to the nations, that must be our message. And if the message is heeded, a time  
will surely come when ‘the people that walked in darkness will see a great  
light’ (Isa. 9:1) Bimherah b’yameynu. Amen.


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