Address at Temple Shalom
May 10th, 1985 @ 7:30 PM
ADDRESS AT TEMPLE SHALOM
Dr. W. A. Criswell
5-10-85 7:00 p.m.
Rabbi Saul Besser, Rabbi Mark Goodman, and the distinguished presidents in days past of this wonderful congregation, and the dear friends that we have intimately known as we have met together in our dear church out here at the Temple Shalom. Out of all the things that have ever been offered to me in all of my life, none is sweeter or dearer than the conversation with Dr. Saul Besser, Rabbi Saul Besser, when he said, "You pick out the Sabbath day in which we shall have the service of my retirement, and you be the speaker." I was overwhelmed by his loving thoughtfulness. And for me to be here this evening is an incomparable blessing and encouragement to my deepest soul.
Seated by him just now, he said, "Do you remember being here when the hour came for the bar mitzvah of our son, Ethan? And I said, "Rabbi, not in a thousand lifetimes could I ever forget that beautiful evening." And the boy, as handsome as he was then, is better looking now; and he’s going down to Texas University to outshine his illustrious father in every distinguished category.
I would like to speak of him and of you this evening in four different ways. The first concerns Rabbi Saul Besser, the man. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, concerning a man that he didn’t admire, "What you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you say." But Rabbi Saul Besser is the opposite of that characterization:he is somebody wonderful to me. One of the members of his congregation, one that you greatly admire, said to me this week, "I have never known a finer man." In his broad sympathies and his love and outreach – and that includes me – he has done a remarkable thing in our city and in my own life. "For the love of God is broader than the measure of man’s mind, and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind" [from "There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy" Frederick William Faber, 1862]. And Rabbi Saul Besser represents that fine, loving, compassionate interest in all of us, as few men that live in this world today. I love him personally; have for the years that he’s been here, and have never been more honored in my life than thus to be invited to share this evening with you.
Could I speak of him and his family? Could you ever find a more beautiful family than Rabbi Saul Besser’s; his precious wife and those two marvelous boys? There is a reason why Judaism has lived as a vital force of human life for these thousands and thousands of years. Decimated, destroyed, buried in the nations of the world, the religious faith of the Jew has continued to shine like the sun, like the brightness of the heavens. Why? The answer lies in the Jewish home. You quoted, this solemn evening, from Deuteronomy chapter 6:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord thy God is one Lord:
And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all of your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
And these words, that I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart:
And thou shalt diligently teach them to thy children, and thou shalt talk of them when thou walkest by the way, and when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.
The teaching of the faith of the one true God in the religious home of the Jew has been the reason why the religion has continued unabated through every holocaust, through every persecution, through every decimation; and will live thus and forever. I look upon the beautiful home and the dear family of Rabbi Saul Besser, with the humble prayer in my heart that it could be emulated by every married couple and every family in the earth.
And now could I speak of his faith, your faith, our faith? The faith of the one true God revealed to us in the writings of the Torah, the writings of Moses, have withstood the most amazing confrontations in human history. When the law of God was given to the children of Israel, human sacrifice was universal. It was a characteristic of the Canaanite in the Holy Land. It is the abiding tragedy of the civilization of the Aztecs and the Incas here in the continents of America. When you look at those great towering pyramids in Central America, in Peru, in Mexico, why were they built? For human sacrifice! It was almost universal. But at the same time that human life was poured out in a vain oblation that they might appease the gods, at that same time, in the holy writings of the Jewish people, under the prophecy and inspiration of Micah, we were taught these words:
Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow down myself before the High God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
Shall I offer these dearest in my life to make appeasement before God?
He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?
After these thousands of years there has never been a higher ethical preachment than that. And the Jew confronted the cannibalistic world.
In the days of the great pagan civilizations and conquests of the earth, Judaism still lived brilliantly and magnificently. It’s a strange and almost unaccountable thing that as the Assyrian decimated the Northern Kingdom, and Babylon destroyed the Southern Kingdom, and the people as all other ancient tribes conquered by those great emperors and generals of these empires that now lie in the dust, Judaism flourished even more gloriously and triumphantly in a foreign land than it did in the homeland.
In Babylon, where the people were carried captive, the one hundred thirty-seventh Psalm is this:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
There is an undying commitment in the heart of every Jew who ever lived to the Holy Land of God. No matter where he is, no matter in what culture he’s been educated, no matter in what community he makes his business, no matter in what nation his life is joined, the Jewish heart, anywhere in the world, is somehow identified with the Holy Land.
I remember one time going into the store of a silk merchant in Panama, and as I talked to the man and was buying some silk to bring home, I said to him, "You’re Jewish, aren’t you?"
He said, "Yes, I am."
Well, I said, "I have just been to Israel."
"Oh?" he said, "You’ve been to Israel?"
"I’ve just been to Israel."
He asked me, "How is it?"
And I began to describe to him the Israeli in Israel, what they were doing, gathering up those rocks and plowing up the land, making it fertile and productive, building those great irrigation projects, and making the very Negev blossom like a rose; those beautiful citrus orchards and the cities that are rising toward the sky. And to my amazement, as I talked to that Jewish silk merchant in Panama, who’d never been to Israel, as I spoke to him of what was happening under the hands of the Israeli in the Holy Land, as I talked to him, the tears ran down his face, and dropped unbidden on the floor. Every Jew in the world is like that. There is a devotion to the land, there is a devotion to the Book, there is a devotion to the great high God that is irrepressible, that is immortal and everlasting.
May I point out, if I can, just one other confrontation in Jewish history? This is by far the greatest, the vilest war: the confrontation between Judaism and heathenism. And as decimating as it was, the confrontation between Judaism and the empires of the ancient past, by far the greatest threat to Jewish faith was Hellenism and Greek philosophy. Greek philosophy literally overcame the entire civilized world, and does today. Just recently I read where a scholar said, "Everything we know, we learned from the Greek." In Oxford University and its several colleges, to this day, now, there are more than two hundred courses taught concerning Aristotle and Aristotelian philosophy alone. And when Alexander the Great conquered the world, and his mighty generals became the leaders of the Mediterranean Sea and the nations that crowded around it, they made Greek the language of the Roman Empire, and they made Greek philosophy the basis of all learning and all culture. And in that attempt to Hellenize the entire world, there was a Greek emperor of Syria by the name of Antiochus Epiphanes. And he took upon himself to destroy the faith of the Jew and his one true God and to force the Jew to become a Greek.
And the story of that vain attempt is brilliantly recounted in First Maccabees. That’s one of the finest pieces of literature in the literature of the world. And every Jew in this earth ought to know every syllable and every sentence in it. And Second Maccabees is no less magnificent, though not as beauty in its expression and as historical in its descriptions as First Maccabees. And the story is known by all of us who’ve ever read. Antiochus Epiphanes failed ingloriously trying to make Greeks out of the Jew, and trying to make Hellenistic philosophy the religion of the nation. And as you know, Judas Maccabeus rose up by the power of the Lord God, and brought to his nation, to the Jewish people, their independence. He reconsecrated the temple. And every middle of the December that comes, we, you, celebrate that marvelous victory over Hellenism, over Greek philosophy and Greek learning: you celebrate it with what you call Hanukkah, the Feast of Lights, the Feast of Dedication. Judaism lives.
One time, in Israel, I was in the King David Hotel, and David Ben-Gurion and his wife were there, and when he found that I was present, why, he asked for me. And I went over there to visit with him and his wife. She was from Brooklyn and she talked more "Brooklyn-ese" than I’ve heard in all my life put together. And we had a riotous time. David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of the new nation of Israel, was as brilliant a man as has lived in the twentieth century: educated, learned, scholarly – as witty as Bob Hope. Where did he live? And what did he do? David Ben-Gurion was a farmer. And in one of the kibbutzim down there in the Negev by Beersheba, he lived in a small community, farming. Not in all the world will you see a Jew plowing the land, tilling the soil: they are professional people. But in Israel, chances are the Israeli there is close to the soil. He lives near the ground, the land. It’s an astonishing thing, a miracle to me, that the Jew and the Holy Land are somehow always one: in their love for it, in their cultivation for it, in making it blossom like a rose.