By: George S. Belasco
We begin this week’s newsletter with an astounding sermon from the late minister of the Montefiore Endowment Synagogue in Ramsgate, England, George Belasco.
I first learned of him a few years ago when I read the excellent book Think and Thank which contains a wealth of information on the subject of the Montefiore Endowment:
Sadly, Reverend Belasco is not at all known today:
His brilliant book of sermons The God of Our Fathers, published in 1908, is rooted in the noble tradition of Sephardic Jewish Humanism and remains as fresh today as when it was first published:
It is unfortunate that the British Sephardim have completely lost this intellectual tradition.
In spite of the continued existence of the Montefiore Endowment, the community is currently led by Rabbi Joseph Dweck who previously served in the Brooklyn Syrian Jewish community as part of a corrupt rabbinate that cares more about money and power than about Torah wisdom and traditional Jewish morality. He has been one of the most vicious of the bottom-feeders in Brooklyn, arrogant and callous in his demeanor. I have been informed that he intends to bring a SHAS-Lithuanian “Da’as Torah” orientation to British Sephardim and remove what little is left of the classical Sephardic Heritage.
It is a lamentable situation that can only be rectified by a study of the past and knowledge of figures like Belasco.
The Belasco sermon is an excellent example of classic Sephardic Derasha which uses the Tabernacle as a model through which to process Jewish history.
– David Shasha
In the tabernacles ye shall dwell for seven days; all that are homeborn in Israel shall dwell in the tabernacles.
The sacred festivals which mark the progress of the religious year consecrate at one and the same time important occurrences in our religious history and certain events in the pastoral life of our fathers. The Feast of Tabernacles recalls to our mind the care of the Divine Providence which guided our ancestors in the desert, and it also marked the harvest of the vine and the oil. The chief feature, however, of the celebration of the festival to-day is the erection of the Succah, and the dwelling therein. The Succah is one of the most charming features of Jewish religious life, and sad it is to think how frequently people neglect to erect the little booth. But just now let us turn our thoughts to another tabernacle, of which we and all Israel are parts, builders, and defenders.
The “Congregation of Israel” is the Tabernacle of the Lord of Hosts. Let us watch its growth from its earliest appearances until the present hour. In the far-off days, of which the Bible supplies the scantiest records, the foundations of the Tabernacle were laid, and under the watchful eye of God the walls were reared. In the patriarchal age the edifice was begun, in the lives of obedience and days spent in search of God. Inheriting the sublime traditions which it was believed represented the message of Heaven deposited with the earliest human beings, the fathers of our race discovered, little by little, the path of life and the wish of God. Abraham’s faith, Isaac’s self-surrender, Jacob’s chequered career, the rectitude of Joseph, traced the outline of the building in times of a civilization long since dissolved. Of those remote generations but few remnants remain. The Pyramids lift their heads in mystery, the ruins of temple and palace, the inscribed brick buried beneath the dust of centuries, these defy time, and with them the Tabernacle of God, the living faith of Israel. Having accomplished their work of preparation, the patriarchs were gathered unto their fathers, and shortly after there appeared upon the stage of the world the master-mind and chief builder of the Tabernacle of God, whose name and influence remain alive among us to-day – Moses, the son of Amram. Born in days of persecution, hidden by his parents and discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter, educated in all the learning of the Egyptians and not wanting the influence of a mother’s care, an exile and a wanderer – around the name of Moses, legend, uniting admiration and gratitude, has woven its fairest flowers. Moses is the soldier, the poet, the statesman, the orator, the leader and shepherd of Israel. His prayers secure pardon; his raised arms recall victory. He outlines the legislative code of his people; he teaches honesty, mercy, thoughtfulness to man and beast; he inculcates justice between man and man. He outlines the nation’s ideal, and his feet stand ever upon the rock of immutable fact. Moses was qualified, if ever man was, to set forth in fitting language the duty of man, the claims of righteousness, the condition of life, the sources of happiness, and the way that leads to God. In the wilderness, then, Moses erects his tabernacle. That frail structure is endowed with a life that shall continue as long as humanity exists. It is the Tabernacle of God, the symbol of the congregation of Israel – “Keneset Yisrael” – one day to embrace all men. Bezaleel, the arch-craftsman, superintends the work; the gifts of the princes of the tribes are brought in overflowing measure. Under the eyes of Moses, Israel gains possession of her first House of Prayer. But the work is not finished by Moses; indeed, it can never be completed by mortal hands. The waves will not be stilled at our bidding, nor will the thoughts of men remain stationary. The Tabernacle is to expand, develop; it is to grow, become wider, more spacious. For where in the wilderness hundreds stand, in Canaan thousands will seek admittance; later on, millions will demand a share. The Tent of Assembly gives place to Solomon’s Temple, and that to the Temple of Zerubbabel; but the changes are development, not violent revolution, an enlargement and strengthening, as the tree-trunk adds yearly to its girth to meet the requirements of age. Precedent moves to precedent and all is well. The psalms of David, the wisdom of Solomon, the lofty meanings of Isaiah, the tragic despair of Jeremiah, the imagery of Ezekiel, and the chorus of prophets – behold, how the Tabernacle grows! “How beautiful is Thy Tabernacle, O Lord of Hosts, my King and my God!” (Psalm 74:2) See! it welcomes the joy of the people; it accepts the cry of their sorrow; it has a place wherein to care for and guard the varying emotions of the heart. The years roll on, and men’s thoughts widen with the rising and sinking of the sun; and the holy building keeps pace. The Babylonian Empire has disappeared, Egypt is a conquered province, but the Tabernacle of God is endowed with everlasting life. Often does the scene change, but the old life continues, ever renewing its youth, like the eagle; becomes fuller, deeper, yielding a richer harvest. The Maccabean princes bring their offering of ardent patriotism and military skill. Who succeed them as guardians of the precious heritage, of the sacred fane? We have reached the age of study, the age of scholarship. Institutions and nations alter as they live, just as men do. We meet the scholars of Israel, the expositors – a wonderful company. Men of the pen have succeeded where once the sentinel stood armed with sword and shield. Intellect brings its offering, and the love of study has for evermore its honored place in the community of Israel. Now, however, the Tabernacle has burst beyond the confines of Palestine. It is no longer Asiatic only; it has reached Europe, where the world-battle is to be fought, and Africa also. It covers the shores of the Greek world; it is known in the chief centres of the Roman Empire. The builders are at work to fit the “Keneset Yisrael” to stand wherever men live. They are preparing it for that new life and civilization, and the new nations which are to rise upon the ruins of the empire of Caesar and Augustus. The legal maxims of Rome, the philosophy of Greece, the legendary lore of Persia and the East, are taken, examined, utilized in the holy works. The Midrashic poets appear. They invest old phrases with new meanings; they take the ancient ceremony, and show its modern value. Thus the Tabernacle lives, and because it lives, progresses, and adapts itself to all changes, to all men. It witnesses the destruction of Rome, the birth of new nations, the springing up of new religions, at whose hands it is to be used despitefully. The period of the Gaonim sheds a bright light, to be extinguished, alas! all too soon in the darkness of the coming persecution. For the keepers of the Tabernacle are as sheep led to the slaughter, none pity them. They must wear the badge of servitude; they live huddle in the narrow Ghetto. Nevertheless, there is no weakness. Love stronger than the grave guards the precious treasure from the devouring beasts of prey; scholarship, seeking its impetus within, is enabled to continue, and faith looks up to God. The mediaeval sage studies, the poet sings, and they bring to the Tabernacle the offering of their genius. The children of Spain hang upon the willows by the House of God the tokens of their exile. And so till this day.
We, Israelites, are the Tabernacle of God, wherein, as of old, the Shechinah dwells. The Tabernacle is wide enough to hold us all. The ancient and the modern, the dignity of age and the fire of youth, German scholarship, Russian martyrdom, English caution, American alertness, practical men and dreamers, Reform no less than Orthodoxy, all claim the Tabernacle as their Home. It is their Home. Let its doors never be shut in the face of a single Jew who claims admission. Each has his place therein: he cannot be spared. Let none seek to banish him: it is his heritage from his fathers. All that we want is there; what others seek is there also. Deny them not; open wide the gates of our Jewish brotherhood. “Lift up your heads, ye ancient Gates of the Tabernacle, that the King of Glory shall come in. Who is this King of Glory Whose coming we await? The Lord of Hosts, He is the King of Glory” (Psalm 24:9-10) and the Host of the Tabernacle. May He come speedily, and find us worthy, and revive the former glories of the Tabernacle of David, which is fallen!
Rev. George S. Belasco was minister of the Montefiore Endowment Synagogue, Ramsgate, England
From his book The God of Our Fathers and other sermons, J. Jacobs: The Bibliophile Press, 1908, pp. 47-53
Originally posted in the Sephardic Heritage Update on May 4, 2014.