Saturday, 20 July 2019

‘Measure out new liberties
so none shall suffer
for his father’s colour
or the credo of his choice’

‘Post proofs that brotherhood is not so wild a dream as / those who profit by postponing it pretend’ … a Menorah in a synagogue in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

I am still using the Service of the Heart, as part of my prayers since rediscovering this prayer book on my bookshelves some months ago, after I had thought it was lost in the moves between Dublin and Askeaton.

This prayer book, edited by Rabbi John D Rayner and Rabbi Chaim Stern, was published in London half a century ago by the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues in 1967, and the edition I have is dated 1969.

For 20 years, John Desmond Rayner (1924-2005) was the head of the Liberal and Progressive movement in Anglo Jewry, and his obituary in the Guardian said ‘some people took his Angloism to be a little too close to Anglicanism.’

Dr Chaim Stern (1930-2001), an American Reform rabbi, is regarded as the foremost liturgist of Reform Judaism. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, and studied in Orthodox yeshivot as a child. But the Holocaust caused him to become far more secular than his family.

An outspoken political activist, he travelled to Mississippi to fight for civil rights as a Freedom Rider in 1961. In 1962, he became rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London. Although Stern returned to the US in 1965, he was back in London in 1967-1968, lecturing at Leo Baeck College and serving as rabbi of Westminster Synagogue. He was a senior rabbi in Miami, Florida, when he died in 2001.

Chaim Stern co-edited a number of other prayer books, including On the Doorposts of Your House, Gates of Joy, and Shaarei Tefila: Gates of Prayer.

Both Service of the Heart and Gates of Prayer include the poem or prayer ‘Lord God of test tube and blueprint’ by Norman Corwin, which is from the finale of his On a Note of Triumph:

Lord God of test tube and blueprint,
Who jointed molecules of dust and shook them till their name was Adam,
Who taught worms and stars how they could live together,
Appear now among the parliaments of conquerors and give instruction to their schemes:
Measure out new liberties so none shall suffer from his father’s colour or the credo of his choice:
Post proofs that brotherhood is not so wild a dream as those who profit by postponing it pretend:
Sit at the treaty table and convoy the hopes of the little peoples through expected straits,
And press into the final seal a sign that peace will come for longer than posterities can see ahead,
That man unto his fellow man shall be a friend forever.

Norman Lewis Corwin (1910-2011) was a writer, producer and journalist. Although he was not an observant Jew, he infused much of his work with the ideas of the Hebrew Prophets, carrying the weight of time and hope for the future.

He once declared: ‘I believe in promise, just promise. Once we give up the sense of promise, we’re finished. I think that the future beckons us, that there’s a lot of work to be done. Right now, there’s cleaning up to do ... But any species that can weigh the very earth he’s standing on, that can receive and analyze light coming from a galaxy a billion light years distant from us, any species that can produce a Beethoven and a Mozart and a Shakespeare, and the extraordinary accomplishments of our species, scientifically and in medicine and in the humanities, there’s illimitable opportunity for promises to be delivered and met.’

Corwin’s best-known work is On a Note of Triumph, a celebration of the Allied victory in Europe, first broadcast on VE Day, 8 May 1945. Some years earlier, he produced a programme to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, We Hold These Truths, first broadcast on 15 December 1941.

In the 1950s, he was one of the victims of the McCarthy witch-hunts. He lived to be over 100, but his work is largely forgotten today. Yet his message is particularly relevant in an America that today needs to remember the principles that inspired the Bill of Rights and the evils unleashed by McCarthyism.

It is an America where a misogynist and racist President lies about the intention of his tweets instead of apologising for them, and basks in the racist chants of his supporters as if he were at a Nuremberg rally or a rally of the Ku Klux Klan where the crowd has replaced their white hoods with red MAGA caps.

During these weeks, I am working on reflections on the Prophets Hosea and Amos as resources for clergy and readers preparing sermons on the Lectionary readings. Although Norman Corwin is largely forgotten today, his words echo those prophets and have new relevance.

The ‘Monument to Tolerance’ by Eduardo Chillida, accompanied by a poetic text by Elie Wiesel, recalls the mutual tolerance in Seville until the ‘Catholic Monarchs,’ Ferdinand and Isabel, and the Spanish Inquisition expelled all Jews from Spain in 1492 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The full prayer in the finale of his On a Note of Triumph reads:

Lord God of trajectory and blast
Whose terrible sword has laid open the serpent
So it withers in the sun for the just to see,
Sheathe now the swift avenging blade with the names
of nations writ on it,
And assist in the preparation of the ploughshare.

Lord God of fresh bread and tranquil mornings,
Who walks in the circuit of heaven among the worthy,
Deliver notice to the fallen young men
That tokens of orange juice and a whole egg appear
now before the hungry children;
That night again falls cooling on the earth as quietly
as when it leaves your hand;
That Freedom has withstood the tyrant
like a Malta in a hostile sea,
And that the soul of man is surely a Sevastopol
which goes down hard and leaps from ruin quickly.

Lord God of the topcoat and the living wage
Who has furred the fox against the time of winter
And stored provender of bees in summer’s brightest places,
Do bring sweet influences to bear upon the assembly line:
Accept the smoke of the milltown among the accredited
clouds of the sky:
Fend from the wind with a house and hedge, him
whom you made in your image,
And permit him to pick of the tree and the flock
That he may eat today without fear of tomorrow
And clothe himself with dignity in December.

Lord God of test-tube and blueprint
Who jointed molecules of dust and shook them till
their name was Adam,
Who taught worms and stars how they could live together,
Appear now among the parliaments of conquerors
and give instruction to their schemes:
Measure out new liberties so none shall suffer
for his father’s color or the credo of his choice:
Post proofs that brotherhood is not so wild a dream as
those who profit by postponing it pretend:
Sit at the treaty table and convoy the hopes of the little
peoples through expected straits,
And press into the final seal a sign that peace will
come for longer than posterities can see ahead,
That man unto his fellow man shall be a friend forever.

‘Deliver notice to the fallen young men / That tokens of orange juice and a whole egg appear / now before the hungry children’ … breakfast in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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