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Our Lovely Privilege

August 1928 — Reform Temple, Service held in conjunction with the first international conference of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, Berlin, Germany


It is a great honour for me to be allowed to speak before this distinguished assembly at the present time, when we are all gathered together to consider the spiritual possibilities of Judaism.

You have told me that you will forgive my many linguistic shortcomings, and I hope you will further make every allowance for an untrained preacher who would find it difficult to address so great an assembly, even in her own tongue.

You are present here as representing an organised religious community, but surely you feel with me that the relation of the individual soul to his God must always be in the foreground [of our thought]. The Psalmist brings to us his message as does the Prophet and the Priest. The relation between the universal man and his God is of such a holy nature that we do not often attempt to deal with it from the pulpit. And yet it is exactly this aspect of religion that is of supreme importance, and we have to consider how we can bring it home to ourselves and which way we want to demonstrate it to those for whom we are a leader. We, with all of our limitations, our hopes and our aims, seek to approach the perfect, infinite God. Without wanting to penetrate into the hoy of holies of our co-religionists, we must strive to lad them to this communion with God [as well].

This morning, I want to examine only two aspects of this subject. I would emphasize that personal religion has a definite relation to organised religion and that personal religion must be given attention as it tends to become weakened and eventually ineffective. By “organised religion” I meant the external expression, the public observance by the religious community of the teachings of our faith. We know that it is the fashion today to decry organised religion. It is enough, we are told. For each person to lead a good life: outward observance is of little importance. It is conduct which matters supremely. “Whey should a man attend services when he can lead a good life without doing so?” And who, in having this opinion, thinks himself thoroughly modern and we who think differently, old-fashioned. Let us examine the question more closely: Judaism is our religion, and we all want to lead a Jewish life.

The [organised] religious community to which we belong influences our opinions and gives our religion its characteristics: indeed, it makes it possible for it to exist.

As the great theologian, Baron von Hügel, said: Nobody would enjoy the sense of bounding health, racing along some dune on a balmy spring morning, without having eater a good breakfast beforehand. There is a connection between the lump of camphor in our drawer and the odor which the camphor gives. Religious customs are, in religion, the camphor and the breakfast, and the detached believers would have no camphor scent, no bounding liberty, had there not been from ancient times these concrete, heavy, primitive things. There are certain things that we get out of organised religion which give our personal religion nourishment, but we should not get the influence of the past by a mechanical process; we must strive to make this assimilation ourselves.

If God, as we believe, is the God of life, then we must seek to harmonise our lives with His. The task is a difficult one. If God were not the moving force of all life but static, the approach would be less difficult. God demands partnership from us. We must move forward with Him in the creation of joy and righteousness. ON account of modern inquiry, which we have no desire to ignore, our conception of God has somewhat changed. Yet modified or elaborated as it may be, the teaching of our ancestors that God is not only immanent in all things but is also outside of them since they cannot contain His perfection, urges us to seek direct communion with God at all times.

Our fathers taught that righteousness leads to God. If ours is to be a Jewish life, it is not enough to say that theoretically we believe in righteousness, truth, love and beauty. We must actually; express these beliefs in our life.

Our fathers laid stress on irreproachable conduct, and it is that emphasis of theirs that directs our thoughts into activity today. It is because of the teaching of God’s Unity which has been transmitted to us that we feel that all of life must be consecrated — body, mind and soul, because the Creator is One and indivisible and expresses Himself in His creation.

The conception of the immanence of God, derived from faith in His Unity, has grown stronger with the advance of modern thought. We believe in one moving force through which we and all the universe are created. God is manifested in us and in all our doings.

It is from the past that we have received the doctrine that sin separates us from God, but that we can turn at any moment from our evil doing and by our own efforts again come into contact with the spirit of goodness, which is God. We believe in the oneness of humanity, as all people are children of God. We believe that the spirit that comes from the eternal God is eternal, and that nothing can loosen this tie. We believe that we are a Brotherhood scattered over all of the world, but united and kept alive for the specific purpose of spreading belief in the one God, and this belief is expressed in all of the doctrines that we have inherited.

Now I suggest that these beliefs colour our personal religion. They come to us in the first place through the stud of our Bible and our history. But we must work on this inheritance before it can be of any real value to us. As Goethe said, we must “earn it to possess it.” It must come to life through the activity of our own spirit. It must be adjusted to the needs of modern thought and modern life. (This process can be greatly facilitated through the observance of) Sabbaths and Holy Days [which] give us the opportunity to commune with God in fellowship. Moreover, the teachings contained in our ceremonies emphasize [the importance of] leading a good life. If they did not do this, they would be completely worthless. There would be no value in worship services and symbols if they did not, preserved in their Purity and Beauty, serve as aides to right living.

Personal religion can thus be influenced and nourished through public worship, but this result cannot automatically be achieved. An organized religion is made up of fractions of personal religion and each person must make his own contribution to the spiritual possessions which will form the inheritance for succeeding ages. Organised religion is a necessary background. I repeat, while we are children our parents fit our lives into this background, but as we grow older, we once again adapt this background for ourselves. And yet there are numbers of people who say that they do not want organised religion.

What happens? I think this happens, and I say it with a full sense of responsibility: in nine out of ten cases, or in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, ordinary people lose their sense of consecration. They lose their interest in prayer. They lose the consolation and stimulus of religion. They become indifferent and callous, and worship their own whims and fancies, their own material advancement. Of course there are rare souls who still lead the most intensely spiritual lives without any organised help whatever, and I have allowed for them in the one in ten. But I think they are really so rare that they should not be counted as more than one in a hundred.

I also freely admit that there are a number of average people who without any allegiance to the fellowship of Jews retain something of the religious side of life, even while they lose most of it. We would ask ourselves whether we dare say that we or those whom we wish to influence, belong to the class of exceptional souls who can do without any prop whatever. We ask, further, whether we could care to possess or to transmit a feeble, attenuated faith which lacks the blessing of virility which a living Judaism gives.

Now the second problem I want to suggest to you is: what can personal religion, which I prize as the most precious of all things, do for us? We must admit that there is a difference between a life touched by infinity and a life limited by tat which is perceived by the senses by facts provable by the human mind. We want the unprovable, we want love, truth and beauty, and we can only find those on the spiritual plane. Personal religion can give us a standard of being. If we can admit nothing better outside ourselves, we do not bother to struggle for the best. Religion urges us to fight evil as contrary to the Divine Law. It urges us to combat abject misery, sin and disease because God is. In His name we can work, as we believe in co-operation with Him, since through Him goodness must ultimately prevail. Personal religion can give us a reason for trying to find a purpose in life. It gives us hope in moments of despair. Since we can actually come in contact with the God of Love, we cannot doubt the existence of love. Religion can consecrate happiness and intensify it. It can give consolation in times of sorrow. It can life our lives out of dull monotony and give them a touch of poetry and romance. It can combat loneliness and give us increased dignity and self respect. It gives special beauty to family life and also to friendship. It can, in short, make life worthwhile.

Now friends, if we want personal religion I would urge in all sincerity that we must not cut ourselves adrift from organised religion; if we do, we lose the best nourishment we can obtain. Organised religion has a part in the evolution of personal religion. It is the material upon which personal religion is grafted, but the process of grafting must be individual. Every human soul must, through thought, prayer, and study, cultivate his own religion to suit himself. We Jews produce, each for himself, from the stock of Judaism, a living variety of the Jewish religion. We must work out and apply the doctrines which we receive from the past. We can find help if we seek it through prayer, by getting into contact with God. We must study and read, and we must not acquire a religious view of life, to think as well as to pray. We have to ask ourselves whether each situation in which we find ourselves is right, if it is in harmony with Judaism. We have to ask ourselves whether the social conditions under which we live are based on righteousness, whether the pleasures we follow are good, whether our moods are worth bothering about, or whether they are unworthy. We must ask ourselves: are we living as if we were conscious of the presence of God and are we expressing every day something of His love? We must be sure that the books we read or write elevate our life’s worth and that our friends have the same endeavour. We must know whether our relations with those whom we employ or with our employers are right, whether our work is honest, whether we are furthering the spiritual interest of our country, and whether we are working for the cause of international peace.

We have to answer all of these questions for ourselves. And many of us have also in our small, inadequate way to seek to persuade others to desire personal religion for themselves. I would venture to suggest that the only hope that we may influence others lies in the strength of our personal religion. If that is real and effective, it may here and there be our lovely privilege to kindle, with the light of our enthusiasm, some other wavering, seeking soul. Personal religion produces personality. We can only feed our bodies without it, but not the whole being, and personality, which is the whole being, depends on the evolution of religion [to make it strong and effective].

It follows that if we want to live completely, we must have a care to bring our lives into touch with the Divine. In this union we may find the strength that we are seeking; for our eyes will be given the power of true vision. Perhaps too, the hope of immortality comes to us when the spirit finds itself in contact with God through religion, with God, with whom there is no death Indeed, it was through communion with God that the idea of eternity first came to be felt in the human heart and each of us can attain personal beliefs through prayer and meditation. Then we shall feel that if we love, we can live forever; then we shall know that the search for truth calls us to a service which must endure forever. Thank God that we men and women are allowed the experience of love and the search after truth. Thank God that the only finality is in Himself.



Source: Lily Montagu: Sermons, Addresses, Letters and Prayers, trans. Ellen Umansky, (New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1985) pp. 327-334.


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