By Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, Past Deputy Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales & the Australian Capital Territory.
My Mother Lodge in London was the Lodge of Israel, No. 205, founded in 1793. It was or is one (another was the Lodge of Judah) of a number of so-called Jewish Lodges, so called because most of the members were Jewish and the meetings avoided the Jewish Sabbath and festivals and took place at venues that provided kosher catering. In Sydney I affiliated to Lodge Mark Owen, which, named after a leading member of the Jewish community, has a high proportion of Jewish members though a lesser degree of commitment to Jewish observance. Certain other Australian Lodges follow the same pattern, but all have a significant number of non-Jews as members.
In theory there should never have been “Jewish” Lodges. But apart from considerations of religious observance, some of the early Freemasons in England were still dubious about admitting Jewish members and in many cases their minutes made a point of identifying a newly initiated brother as a Jew. As early as 1732 at the Rose Tavern, Cheapside, “Mr. Edward Rose, of the said tavern was admitted of the fraternity, by Mr. Daniel Delvalle, an eminent Jew snuff-merchant, in the presence of several brethren of distinction, both Jews and Christians.” If Daniel Delvalle (the name may possibly need to be corrected to Delvaille) admitted the new member it indicates that at least one Jew had risen high enough to be or act as the Lodge Master. A Masonic periodical in 1737 remarks, “How artfully they (the Jews) have dispersed themselves in different Lodges through all parts of the Kingdom”. This may be an exaggeration, but there was clearly a perception that Freemasonry was attractive to Jews. Probably the first English Freemasons, whose names are listed in a register from 1725, were Israel Segalas of Solomon’s Temple Lodge, Hemming’s Row, and Nicholas Abraham, of the Golden Lyon Lodge, Dean Street.
Nonetheless, some Christians resented the omission of Jesus from the new Masonic structure, though New Testament passages continued to be part of the ritual of the craft degrees and in some jurisdictions still are. There was a feeling that Jews were outsiders in general society. Jewish political emancipation was delayed in Britain until 1858, though social integration by the more prosperous elements was under way long before this date, and Jews saw Freemasonry as one of the avenues of acceptance into gentile society. We know that some Continental Jews appear to have come to England to become Freemasons; Baruch Schick of Sklov (c. 1740-1812) “travelled to London to study medicine and there joined the Freemasons”.
But it was not plain sailing. In 1793 the members of Lodge No. 244 (later the Lodge of Tranquillity No. 185) “agreed… the better to avoid imaginary insult if any of them inadvertently should recommend a Jew, that he could not be admitted as a Brother on any pretence whatever in future”. Did they fear that the presence of a Jew would insult the Christian principles of other members, or did they have experience of Jews taking offence at antisemitic remarks? Mount Moriah Lodge No. 31 (apparently not a Jewish Lodge despite its name) resolved in 1796 “that no Israelite should become a Member of the Lodge”.
Who were the Jews who formed the Lodge of Israel? Few if any were sophisticates or intellectuals, attracted by scientific or philosophical discussion. The older-settled section of the Jewish community, the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation, did have some highly educated members, and at least one of its rabbinic leaders, Rabbi David Nieto, was a scientist and philosopher who evoked controversy with an anti-deist sermon defining the relationship of nature and God. The newer section of the community, the Ashkenazim (“German and Dutch Jews”), had hardly any culturally-cultivated members, though it did have its Talmudic intelligentsia. Both congregations were relatively recent – the Sephardim dating from the 1650s and the Ashkenazim a few decades later – and not all their members could yet speak passable English. Few of the Jews, from either section, showed any wish to join intellectual clubs out of fear of exclusion.
They were also diffident about involvement in political or quasi-political activity because of a continued sense of insecurity. The Sephardim were even reluctant to sanction sermons in the vernacular, out of a fear that the preacher might be perceived as involving his community in non-Jewish concerns. Yet some eight or ten members of the Sephardi congregation are listed in 1730-32 as members of Lodge No. 81 at Daniel’s Coffee House, Lombard Street, and two of them were Grand Stewards in 1738-39. We are not certain whether the taverns and coffee houses made any special provision for Jewish dietary sensibilities.
In his history of the Lodge of Israel, John M Shaftesley lists the early members as merchants, tailors, peddlers, carpenters, glaziers, watchmakers, jewellers, shopkeepers, cigar-makers, innkeepers and even an orange merchant. There were a few doctors and lawyers and later mariners and shipbuilders. There were few Jewish clergy. Freemasonry had a growing appeal for Jews everywhere in England. Cecil Roth found Masonic records valuable in his researches into the history of Jews outside London; in at least one case a former synagogue became a Masonic meeting place.
As time went on, the Lodge of Israel, together with Lodges everywhere in the British Isles, attracted a broad cross-section of a now integrated Jewish community, and Jews played a significant role in the craft and rose to eminent rank. When I was interviewed by a committee of the Lodge of Israel, I knew very little about the craft, but instinct told me – and later experience confirmed – that I would be comfortable as a Freemason. I was certainly awed by the large membership of the Lodge and the highly impressive ambience of place, people and proceedings at its meetings.
For more articles on Freemasonic issues by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, visit his Freemasonry webpage.