Sermon on the thinking of Rabbi John Rayner and the General Election

9 July 2024 – 3 Tammuz 5784

By Rabbi Aaron Goldstein (The Ark Synagogue)

This week, Liberal Jews celebrate the life of the foremost influential Liberal Rabbi of his generation, Rabbi John Rayner (z”l).

Born in Berlin in 1924, he came to England in 1939 on one of the Kindertransports. He is most well- known or his influence on our liturgy, the prayer books that I grew up with, Service of the Heart and Gate of Repentance, and the prayer book we are using to day Siddur Lev Chadash.

John’s thinking is also vital in what he wrote on Jewish Ethics, progressive halakhah, Israel and other contemporary events of the time in which he lived. John died in 2005 and on Monday, we celebrate the centenary of his birth with a conference at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John’s Wood, focussing on his thought and writing.

As well as my computer, Rabbi John Rayner’s ‘Principles of Jewish Ethics,’ is a constant companion in my bag. He cites three fundamental principles, the Imitation of God, Humanity being created in God’s Image, and the Golden Rule, its positive form from Torah (Lev 19:18) to love another as oneself and Rabbi Hillel’s formulation, ‘what is hateful to you, do not do to others.’ Of these:

The Imitation of God focuses on repeated injunction to “walk in God’s ways.” So upon verses such as, ‘You shall be holy because I the Eternal One your God am holy (Lev 19:2),’ and, ‘as God loves the stranger, so we should love the stranger (Deut 11:22),’ the ancient Rabbis mirrored the language for God’s attributes, mercy, grace, righteousness etc. (Sifrey Deut 49) and extended it to our actions (Sotah 14a).

Noting a critique of this concept, John wrote:

“All this implies, of course, that we know what the divine attributes are. But even if we take the view that this is not a matter of revelation but that we merely ascribe to God all those qualities which we admire most in human beings, even then to try to live in accordance with those qualities, although the argument is then circular, is still a noble ambition.”

Asking, why we need both the Divine Image and the Golden Rule:

“Because the Golden Rule by itself could be taken to mean that we should care for others only as much as we care for ourselves – which, when our self- respect is low, might mean very little. But as Ben Azzai and Rabbi Tanchuma pointed out, when you think of the Divine Image in every human being, you are reminded that only the highest respect for others (as well as for yourself) is acceptable. Thus the principle of the Divine Image teaches us the quality of the way we should treat others; the Golden Rule teaches us the equality with which we should apply that principle to all our fellow men and women.”

With such a foundational platform to consider a major political event in our country this week, that sees many still rubbing the dust, tears of joy or sadness from our eyes, It was to John’s Principles of Jewish Ethics I turned. In Political Ethics, there are comments on Rulers must rule righteously and Democracy is the only acceptable form of government. But our new government settles, I was drawn to his comment on our role as citizens.

Fittingly to cite on the occasion of the centenary of his birth, in Principle 100, John suggests that citizens must contribute to society:

He quotes (Jeremiah 29:7): “Seek the wellbeing of the city where l have exiled you, and pray to God on its behalf, for in its wellbeing you will find your wellbeing’. It should be added: not only out of enlightened self-interest but because the wellbeing of the society in which we live is a good in itself. Citizens, especially in a democracy, must accept a share of responsibility for what is done in their name by their country. Therefore, if it commits a wrong, they have an obligation to protest against it and to seek to rectify it. The principle, You shall not stand idly by… (Leviticus 19:16), cited above (§ 20), applies here too. Likewise, they should seek to make a positive contribution to the economic, social and cultural life, as well as the moral ethos, of their country.”

This week I wrote to our local MPs to congratulate them on the honour of service. Their responsibility is formal and so, as Rabbi Raynor states is our responsibility.

On this Shabbat: let me conclude with the prayer of the LJS’s first Rabbi, Israel Mattuck that John included in Service of the Heart in a section titled, National Service.

We humbly ask You to bless our country. Give us, and all who dwell here, understanding to work for its true welfare. Quicken our sense of responsibility as citizens, that we may together seek to remove all evil, and labour for the victory of goodness. Teach us Your Law, and show us how this nation, and all nations, may be united in the endeavour to fulfil Your will and to establish Your kingdom.

Keyn Y’hi L’Ratzon – may it be God’s, our MP’s and our will.


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