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.

    Toronto, on the other hand, had, by 1929, a large and vibrant Jewish population, and Holy Blossom was the only Reform congregation in town and one of only three in Canada. The majority of Toronto Jews (including many Holy Blossom members) came from Eastern European, Yiddish speaking background, and they were fervent in their Zionism. (Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, one of Rabbi Eisendrath’s successors at Holy Blossom, recalls in his memoirs that, when he came to Toronto from Minnesota in 1961, he was astonished to discover that members of his Board still made jokes in Yiddish.) The congregation that Maurice Eisendrath addressed on November 1, 1929 was quite unlike those of Charleston, Muskogee, Cincinatti, or even his hometown of Chicago.

    It is in these circumstances that on Friday evening,  November 1, 1929, Rabbi Eisendrath formally accepts the call to Holy Blossom Temple. [1] He begins by referring to the story of the prophet Hosea and his faithless wife, Gomer. He calls the story (with which he presumed all his listeners were "fully familiar") “the immortal saga of an all-consuming love.” The story, he points out, is an allegory of the love between God and Israel: “God ... in his all-consuming love would ever pursue Israel through whatever depths of degradation she might wander and return her unto himself in never-ending love.”

    The rabbi likens the connection between Hosea and Gomer, and between God and Israel, to the connection between rabbi and congregation. “What then,” he asks, “is the purpose of this solemn and impressive service if it mark not the sacred betrothal of congregation and rabbi in bonds of unbounded love and selfless devotion one to the other?” He quotes the words of Hosea often repeated at wedding ceremonies:  “I shall betroth thee unto me in Truth and thou shall love the Lord.”

    The rabbi does not extend the parable so far as to imply to his congregation that they, like Gomer and like the people of Israel are faithless, but he does suggest that the rabbi’s task is to bring his people to faithfulness to the ideals of their religion. His task as a rabbi is to proclaim “not the passions, prejudices, and predilections of men, but the ideal as the prophet Hosea and his contemporaries, by virtue of their religious genius were privileged to observe it, the ideal of perfect justice, perfect truth, and perfect goodwill, insofar as I may be blessed to see it.”

    The next part of his address is both a compliment to the free pulpit of Holy Blossom and the right of the rabbi “to champion unpopular though righteous causes,” and a consideration of just how difficult it is for a rabbi to do this in the face of opposition and temptation.
I know that in your midst there are those who will never permit this ideal of Holy Blossom to be besmirched and to be drageed into the mire of mere opportunism and pleasant compromise. Some there will be, no doubt who will urge the easier way, who will tempt us to temporize and plead with us to please, to tickle the ears of the multitutdes and tread upon the whims and caprices of none. But such will we, who are entralled by the prophetic vision of Justice, of Truth, of Love, we, who will have burned into our memories this sacred betrothal night, such will we ignore, notwithstanding the bait, the rewards with which they would lure us from our cause: inceased budgets and membership, lowered mortgages and cheap acclaim.
    We do not know if this remarkable passage refers to an actual event in which the economic consequences of the rabbi’s views were discussed with him. It is certainly a reference to the controversy that had erupted regarding the rabbi’s pacifist musings in the Canadian Jewish Review on September 20, 1929, and there can be no doubt that  his congregants that night understood that he was referencing this. [2] He had written in that article
Soldiers, cannon, bayonets, and military law, however, will not permanently remedy the situation [in Palestine]. It were well that we who, throughout the ages, have flaunted at our adversaries the prophetic dictum, ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit’ heed the selfsame injunction.
    This editorial was written in opposition to the efforts by some members of the Toronto Jewish community “to press the British into accepting a brigade of young Canadian Jews as part of a proposed Jewish Legion to safeguard the Jews in Zion.”  [3] In writing this the rabbi had, as he recalls in his memoirs, “… committed … the most unpardonable sin in Toronto. I supported the so-called ‘Magnes line,’ the course urged by Judah Leon Magnes, renowned American Reform rabbi who was then President of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He and his group, known as the Ichud, advocated reconciliation with the Arabs and a binational (Jewish-Arab) state in Palestine.” 

    The rabbi, according to Rabbi Eisendrath, must first decide and then proclaim the truth. He is not a shoddy imitation of the parish priest “hired to carry censers and to ooze sweetness.” Nor is he to be “merely a great preacher ... to flatter and placate the paltry demands of his petulant parishioners ...” He must, rather, courageously preach the truth no matter the consequences. He must make the synagogue a house of prayer for all people and, like Hosea, extend mercy to all the children of God.

    Rabbi Eisendrath closes his sermon with this uncited paraphrase of Deuteronomy 29: 13-14: “Not alone with you standing before me this day did I seal this covenant said God unto his people Israel—but likewise with those who are not in your midst this day—yea every living creature would he bring into this divine and holy bond.”

    Is the rabbi suggesting that “every living creature” is part of the covenant between God and Israel? A more usual interpretation of the text is that the covenant is between Israelites standing on Mount Sinai and their as yet unborn descendants. What the rabbi more likely is suggesting is that he sees himself as ministering to everyone in the community in which he lives, Jews and non-Jews alike. He pledges that he will be an or l’goyim: a light to the nations.

    Rabbi Eisendrath returns at the very end of his sermon to the marriage metaphor, saying, “I betroth thee unto me this night, I betroth thee unto me, my already beloved congregation, in justice and righteousness, in kindness and love, I betroth thee unto me in truth, as companions, as friends, as devoted brothren, as lovers in very truth… ,” and he asks the same commitment from his congregants.
    We have no recorded testimony from the congregants of Holy Blossom of their reaction to this installation address. We do know that Rabbi Eisendrath remained with them for the next fourteen years. Many people vocally disagreed with the rabbi’s opinions, particularly on Zionism, but his congregation (and many others, Jew and non-Jew) attended his Sunday morning lectures, and he had the respect and admiration, if not always the agreement, of everyone in the community.

    Rabbi Eisendrath, for his part, was grateful for the opportunity to speak his mind. As he writes in his memoirs, referring to this controversy surrounding his first days in Toronto:
The august board of Holy Blossom Congregation would not be panicked, nor would its members be so unprincipled as to jeapordize a rabbi’s entire career because of a single unpopular statement. That was the first of many evidences that the members of Holy Blossom Congregation would invariably support a ‘free pulpit.’
     We have heard a few installation addresses from Rabbi Eisendrath’s successors, both senior and junior rabbis, but none like this! These addresses tend to be short and appreciative of the opportunities given the rabbi in his or her new congregation. They are not occasions for the rabbi to chastize the congregation. Nor is the new rabbi likely to compare the relationship between him or her and the congregation to a marital union. Rabbi Eisendrath, however, was never one to avoid controversy, even on a celebratory occasion such as his installation.

[1] The rabbi’s installation was in fact a weekend-long event . The other speaker on Friday evening was Dr. Felix A. Levy of Emanuel Congregation, Chicago, Rabbi Eisendrath’s childhood rabbi. The Saturday morning sermon was given by Rabbi Harry J. Stern of Temple Emanu-El, Montreal (who served that congregation from 1927 to 1972). Ironically, given the controversy surrounding Rabbi Eisendrath, Rabbi Stern was a life-long follower of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Revisionist Zionism. The speaker on Sunday morning was Rabbi Eisendrath’s predecessor at Holy Blossom, Rabbi Ferdinand M. Isserman, then of Temple Israel, St. Louis.

[2] Another evidence of Holy Blossom’s free pulpit was the board’s willingness to permit its male members—and especially the rabbi—to worship bareheaded. Unlike almost all American Reform synagogues, Holy Blossom (which, when Rabbi Eisendrath arrived, had been officially Reform for only about eight years) had retained the custom of men’s wearing yarmulkas during prayer. One of the rabbi’s first acts on his arrival, just before Rosh Hashana, with the far from unanimous approval of the board, was to make the wearing of head coverings optional for congregants, and, to the shock of its members, to himself lead services on the holy days without a yarmulka. He notes in his memoirs that, by Succot, all but a few of the men had abandoned head coverings.

    We are not sure if the rabbi would be amused or annoyed by the fact that today at Holy Blossom, all but a few old-time members wear kippot, and many also wear tallitot. (Many women also wear kippot and tallitot.) Our clergy have worn both since the late 1970s. We even have a few regular attendees of weekday shacharit services who don tefillin, a practice that would be totally foreign to Rabbi Eisendrath.

[3]  Quotes not otherwise identified are from Rabbi Eisendrath’s memoir, Can Faith Survive?, pages 52-53.


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