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.
The most commonly heard description of Freemasonry is “secret society”. Critics hurl it at us as an accusation. We use it ourselves, but in quite a different sense. So what should we say to the critics – and to ourselves? When a group of us some years ago discussed the question we all agreed that the assertion that we run a secret society was so loaded that whatever we said, we could not win. If, as usual, we issued a denial, we would be told, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire”. If we admitted it, we would be smeared even further.
The fact is that in every area of life there are legitimate secrets and there is nothing untoward about them. Banks do not reveal details of customers’ accounts. Professionals respect clients’ privacy. There is even a legal question as to whether priests can be compelled to break the confidentiality of the confession box. Businesses take steps to protect insider information from disclosure. Historically many groups had their secrets. In early Christianity, believers had private signs. A person who used the toe of his sandal to draw a shape in the sand was testing others to complete the sign in order to form a cross. In medieval Masonry, trade secrets were protected by grips and passwords.
There is nothing dangerous in all this. But modern critics imagine that Freemasonry is bent on world domination in the name of some sinister ideology. True, some early speculative Freemasons may have used the craft to disguise their political ambitions. But that is all ancient history, and modern Freemasons laugh at the thought that they have anything to hide or have designs on anyone’s government other than the hope that ethical principle can build a quality society. Our only secrets are a few words and signs by which Masons identify each other. And even these are more or less public property. Your local library is bound to have books on Freemasonry with titles like “The Unlocked Secret”.
Nonetheless, our ritual makes reference to lost secrets which are nowhere fully explained in craft Freemasonry, though the Royal Arch degree endeavours to show where and how to search for them. We presume they are esoteric truths about the world, or, more prosaically, indications of ancient or medieval building practices.
An old ritual, no longer worked, hints, however, at a secret which was lost with the death of the main architect/artisan of King Solomon’s Temple. The secret is hinted at by the abbreviation “In… Sh…”. The reference is to the insect (“In…”) known as the shamir (“Sh…”). The Old York Lectures reproduce a Jewish legend about the miraculous worm called the shamir which only needed to touch a stone to split it. Since Solomon could not use metal implements in building the Temple (Deut. 27:5), he followed the advice of the rabbinic sages and used the worm to cut the stones for the Temple. Old Masonic literature calls the worm the shermah, but this is a mispronunciation. Other ancient cultures, not only the Jewish Midrash, know of this remarkable creature. Maybe our Masonic forebears found in the legend the key to one of the great puzzles of antiquity – how massive edifices could be constructed without elaborate technology.
If this was the secret it only goes to prove how little things can lead to great achievements. It also shows how secrets can be so secret that they get lost on the way.
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.