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    Focus on the role of freemasonry as the oldest “Jewish” lodge in Britain celebrates its bicentenary

    The following article by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Raymond Apple appeared in the Jewish Chronicle (London) on 7 January, 1994.

    The Lodge of Israel, the oldest “Jewish” masonic lodge on the register of the Grand Lodge of England, has just celebrated its bicentenary. Its leaders and members have always included an array of distinguished Jewish citizens and communal leaders.

    These past 200 years represent a significant chapter in both Anglo-Jewish and masonic history.

    Regular meetings of the Lodge of Israel have been studded with personalities. Although it has had many distinguished non-Jewish members, as a “Jewish” lodge it avoids meetings on Shabbat and festivals and respects the requirements of kashrut. And those members who so desire keep their heads covered during lodge meetings – indeed, it used to be a masonic custom for all members, regardless of their religion, to keep their hats on.

    The Jewish component in English freemasonry generally is considerably higher than the percentage of Jews in the population would suggest. A high proportion of Jewish masons have progressed through the elective offices of their lodges, and some have reached grand lodge rank.

    Significantly, many leading rabbis, including the later Chief Rabbi, Sir Israel Brodie, have held high office in freemasonry. Sir Israel’s silver-tongued orations at masonic gatherings remain in the memory of his audiences. In Australia, I have met elderly masons who still recall masonic addresses he gave 60 years ago during his Melbourne ministry.

    All this clearly indicates that Jews have not found freemasonry to be incompatible with their Judaism.

    Why Jews feel at home with the movement includes the requirement that a mason must believe in God, and the fact that the Bible occupies a place of honour in the lodge room.

    Masonic ritual is based largely on biblical words, events and personalities, and the overall emphasis is on ethics, friendship and good works.

    Admittedly, some of the Hebrew words that figure in masonic ceremonies are mispronounced and the references to biblical events occasionally get their history wrong, but these are regarded by Jewish freemasons as incidental issues.

    No major challenge to Jewish faith is seen in being a mason or in promoting its ideals.

    It has often been otherwise among Christians. For a long period, masonry and the Roman Catholic Church lived in a state of conflict or, at best, of uneasy truce, though the Catholic position is now increasingly positive.

    In recent years, however, the Church of England has taken up a critical attitude to the movement, both in Britain and elsewhere in the Anglican communion.

    In 1988, the synod of the Anglican Church in Australia declared freemasonry to be “basically incompatible with Christianity.”

    The Christian problem with freemasonry is both general — the movement seems to be a rival religion — and particular, in that it makes no reference to Jesus or the New Testament, at least in the basic three degrees through which most masons progress.

    Masonry responds by insisting that it is religious without being a religion, that it fosters a generally religious attitude to life, but has ho theological doctrines, mandatory interpretations or modes of worship.

    Its self-definition is of “a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.” It is not a church or synagogue; it does not compete with church or synagogue; and it urges masons to be fully committed and practising members of whatever faith group they adhere to.

    The omission of Jesus and the New Testament is implicit in the fact that freemasonry is open to men of all faiths. Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others are as welcome as Christians. But each comes to masonry with his own religious beliefs and commitments, and when he hears the word “God” in lodge ritual, he attaches to it his own theological interpretation.

    A Jew will understand the divine name in terms of the pure, indivisible monotheism of Judaism; to him, “God” is HaShem. A Christian is free to import into the word “God” his own Christian concepts and understanding.

    The history of freemasonry suggests a major and tragic paradox. In parts of continental Europe, especially 19th-century Germany, there were major objections to Jewish membership of the movement. Antisemitism was then endemic in sections of German freemasonry. Yet the antisemite was never rational or consistent, and before long freemasonry was regularly attacked as “too Jewish,” and therefore dangerous to society.

    Accusations of Jewish-masonic plots to undermine and control the world played a role in the Dreyfus affair. They surfaced in that notorious forgery, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” And the German right wing and the Nazis added similar accusations to their antisemitic armoury.

    To Jews, the right to join freemasonry became a touchstone of religious liberty, an agent of emancipation and social integration. Hence, in the free atmosphere of British countries, Jews were well represented in lodge memberships, and the leaders of the community, including its rabbis, were prominent masons.

    Whether masonic involvement is growing or declining among Jews is difficult to tell; statistics do not exist, though it could be a useful subject for research. But whatever the numbers, Jewish masons are proud of their contribution to freemasonry, and proud of the friendships and ethical inspiration they have gained from the movement.

    For more articles on Freemasonic issues by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, visit his Freemasonry webpage.


    Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple’s book on the history, symbolism and teachings of Freemasonry, enlivened with personal reminiscences and humour.

    Order the paperback or Kindle edition from Amazon or the paperback from The Book Depository to receive free shipping. Selections from the book can be previewed on Google Books.

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