Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath
We, Michael Cole and Howard Roger, are two members of Holy Blossom Temple, a Reform Jewish synagogue in Toronto, Canada. This blog records our observations, experiences and questions as we study a cache of manuscripts of the sermons of Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, rabbi of our synagogue from 1929 to 1943. 

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An early sermon -- Rosh Hashanah, 1927 (Charleston, West Virginia)

"The Call to Serve"

Among the sermon manuscripts found in Holy Blossom’s Tower is one that is undoubtedly one of the oldest in the collection. The manuscript is undated. It is clearly a Rosh Hashanah sermon. The very first sentence is, “We are at the gateway of another year.”

Temple Israel (B'nai Israel)
Charleston WV
Synagogue building
1894 - 1960
We know that this is not a sermon that the rabbi delivered in Toronto, because all those sermon titles are recorded in the Temple’s Bulletin, and this one is not among them. He refers to “the short year that I have been among you…” . Rabbi Eisendrath came to Charleston in the fall of 1926, so we know that this sermon was given on erev Rosh Hashanah of the year following. He had only that summer celebrated his 25th birthday.
Like many of Rabbi Eisendrath’s sermons, he begins with an extended recitation of metaphors:
We have just passed one more milestone upon the journey of life. The months just vanished have been swallowed by the ravenous maw of the grave; the year, now ended has passed into eternity, never to return. The chapter, already recorded in our Sepher Ha Hayyim, in our ledger of time, has been closed, never to be effaced.

March 23, 1930

This Nordic Nonsense

On Sunday, March 23, 1930 Rabbi Eisendrath delivered a sermon regarding the Ku Klux Klan. He was responding to events of the past month in Oakville, Ontario, a small town 20 miles west of Toronto.

What had happened in the Town of Oakville was this: Isabel Jones, who was white, and Ira Johnson, whom her mother and the Klan regarded as black (he was later to assert that he was part Cherokee, part white), were engaged to be married. Isabel’s mother was upset; she turned to the Klan for help. On the evening of February 28, 1930, between fifty and seventy-five gowned men arrived in Oakville. They planted a cross on a downtown street and set it on fire. They found the couple at the home of Ira’s aunt. Isabel was driven to her mother’s home and then taken and placed in the care of a Salvation Army captain. Ira was placed in a separate car and driven back to his house. A cross was nailed to the aunt’s home and set ablaze. Ira’s mother, who was present, was warned “that if Ira…was ever seen walking down the street with a white girl again the Klan would attend to him.”

The Divine Betrothal

Installation sermon, Friday night, November 1, 1929

Rabbi Eisendrath in 1930
    Although the occasion of his installation on a Friday night was not the first opportunity for his congregation to hear Maurice Eisendrath, it was an opportunity for them to hear just how their new rabbi viewed his relationship to them. Most of them would have heard Rabbi Eisendrath preach on the high holy days. They would already have seen and heard a tall twenty-seven year-old man with dark brilliantined hair parted in the centre, sporting a black moustache and rimless spectacles—and no head covering!-- lecture them on their materialistic behavior and their need to build a new synagogue. They would, doubtless, also be familiar with the community brouhaha that had arisen, even prior to their rabbi’s arrival in the city, over an article that he published in the Canadian  Jewish Review  prompting calls from some for him to be dismissed from the pulpit from which he had yet to preach. (More about that later.)

    If the sight of their new rabbi was a surprise to the members of Holy Blossom, Holy Blossom and Toronto must have been a surprise to the rabbi. Maurice Eisendrath was the son of a culturally assimilated German Jewish family in Chicago, and he himself was brought up in a Reform Temple. At age sixteen, he went to study for eight years at the University of Cincinatti and Hebrew Union College. Cincinatti was the heartland of the American Reform movement. One of his student pulpits was in Muskogee, Oklahoma, which was, in the rabbi’s own words, a “virtually non-Jewish milieu.” (It was there that he met his wife, Rosa.) Rabbi Eisendrath’s first pulpit was in Charleston, West Virginia, another town with a small Jewish population.

Charleston, West Virginia; Toronto and Chicago

Jesus and Christianity

In his memoirs, Can Faith Survive? Rabbi Eisendrath recalls the negative responses that he received from two addresses that he delivered on the topic of Jesus. The first was given at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto in 1934, and the second he delivered at a Biennial convention of Reform Jews in Chicago in 1963. Rabbi Eisendrath is particularly disheartened by the negative reaction to the latter address. He had hoped that in the more open society of 1960’s America, the era of Pope John XXIII and a revised Roman Catholic attitude towards Jews, Jews would be open to re-evaluating their attitudes towards Jesus.

"How long," Rabbi Eisendrath asked in his Biennial address,"before we can admit that [Jesus’s] influence was a beneficial one—not only to the pagans but to the Jews of his time as well, and that only those who later took his name in vain profaned his teaching?"

The rabbi goes on in his memoirs to encourage the teachings of Jesus in Religious Schools and synagogue services. "What conceivable objection could there be ... to including the majestic sentences of the Sermon on the Mount among the other post-Biblical readings in our synagogues?" Further, “... I would teach such moving stories and utterances [as the Good Samaritan] diligently unto our children along those of Moses and Hillel."

December 28, 1930

"If Jesus Came Again"

Page from Holy Blossom Pulpit, v. 1
On December 28, 1930, the Sunday morning after Christmas Day, Rabbi Eisendrath delivered a sermon entitled “If Jesus Came Again.” The rabbi’s Sunday morning sermons (or lectures, as he often referred to them) were attended as much by Christians as by Jews—such was the rabbi’s reputation as an eloquent speaker with something important to say. It would, then, take some courage to speak about Jesus and Christianity to such a mixed group. He could easily offend either Jews or Christians. (According to him, he succeeded in offending at least the Jewish part of his audience.)
He begins by referring to Jesus as “the rabbi of Nazareth … a prophet like Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.” The picture he goes on to paint of him is one of a person, like himself, who is an anti-materialist and a passionate pacifist. (“The rabbi of Nazareth” is a term that Rabbi Eisendrath frequently uses for Jesus—a usage that grates on the authors of these articles, although Jesus is addressed a number of times in the Gospels as Rabbi. Further, we suspect a bit of projection on his part in casting Jesus as anti-materialistic and a pacifist. He may also be reading the prophets selectively to suggest that were cast in that mold.)

The rabbi says that Jesus would be scorned and shunned by Christians today, especially in their churches, especially the establishment churches. He suggests also that Jesus would be uncomfortable in synagogues today: “In the Orthodox circles his iconoclasm and free spirit would be despised; in Reform Temples his uncompromising hatred of all injustice, luxury, exploitation and greed would be greatly feared even before his name be known.” The rabbi suggests that he would be feared even more after his name were known.

January 5, 12, 19 and 26, 1930

Four Sermons on Plays by Eugene O’Neill

Eugene O'Neill in 1924
In the winter of 1930, Rabbi Eisendrath delivered four Sunday morning sermons, each on a play by the American playwright Eugene O’Neill. These plays were: Strange Interlude (January 5), Dynamo (January 12), Marco Millions (January 19), and Lazarus Laughed (January 26).

Rabbi Eisendrath was a great admirer of Eugene O’Neill’s dramas, believing them to depict “man’s craving for life—a more abundant life.” It is noteworthy that, although O’Neill was already an established artist, with several successful plays to his credit, his most often produced plays were yet to come: Mourning Becomes Electra and Ah, Wilderness would come out in the next few years, while The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten would be written in the following decade. (Long Day’s Journey Into Night, perhaps the author’s most famous play, would not be performed until 1956).