Address 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, at the Brisbane Synagogue, 1 June, 1986.
As the priest of ancient Israel used to say as pilgrims entered the Temple in Jerusalem, Achenu, batem leshalom: “Brethren, we bid you welcome!”
What a wonderful privilege you have given me, to preside and preach in this historic sanctuary which for a hundred years has been part of the townscape and tradition of Brisbane, at a historic service which is the first of its kind ever held in this State.
In Queensland, as everywhere, Jews have felt consistently comfortable in the Masonic movement. For many, Masonry has become an almost addictive lifelong passion. For some, exemplary service to the Craft has been crowned with high Masonic honours. For every one of them membership of Masonry has never presented any problem of religious conscience.
It is a point which I think needs to be made. For we still hear suggestions from time to time that Masonry and religion are incompatible: some even accuse it of posing as a rival religion. Because there are those who misunderstand the truth, I believe a word of explanation is appropriate.
Masonry is not, nor does it claim to be a religion. Adherents of many religions are among its members, and there is hardly a religious group that raises objections to its believers being Masons. Even some who once opposed the movement have taken up an increasingly positive position towards it.
A Mason must profess a belief in a Supreme Being, but the movement has neither theological tenets nor denominational rituals. It is religious, but it is not a religion. Its ceremonies celebrate ethical principles with allegories and symbols deriving from Biblical characters and events which are part of the cultural heritage of western civilisation, but it completely avoids drawing any theological conclusions from the Biblical material it utilises.
Masonry and religion are not rivals or adversaries, but systems which have much in common and congenially reinforce one another.
The name Masonry hints at a historic connection with the medieval stonemason’s trade. Masonry today, however, is not usually involved in stoneworking and building in a physical sense, but philosophically, metaphorically. Drawing its terminology and symbolism from the builder’s craft, it ponders on the principles upon which man can build, not a building but a Utopia.
Because so many Biblical stories are familiar to Masons – they are certainly second nature to Jews – let me recall that there is a Biblical episode on the theme of building which was part of the childhood upbringing of all of us, namely the story of the builders of the Tower of Babel:
“And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed east, that… they said one to another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly…’ And they said, ‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name…’ And the Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is what they begin to do: and now nothing will be withholden from them, which they propose to do. Come, let us go down and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth, and they left off to build the city.”
What a strange, puzzling story. What did they do wrong? Wanting to build, to be united, to share a common language, to leave a monument behind – surely fine, noble, worthy objectives! What would we not give to have a world today, or tomorrow, where there was such unity of purpose and understanding!
And yet the Bible disapproves in terms that nobody can possibly misconstrue. Swiftly, dramatically, God comes down and frustrates the plan and sends the builders packing.
One of the explanations proffered by the ancient Jewish sages says their set of priorities was all awry. In their haste to build a building, they lost sight of humanity and human values. Whilst the work was in progress, members of the building team sometimes took ill or even dropped dead.
Nobody took any notice. It was just a passing nuisance. But if one of the bricks dropped and broke, that was a different matter, a full-scale catastrophe. “Where will we get another brick from?” they all agonised.
That’s what was wrong with the builders of Babel, says the Midrash, the ancient anthology of Jewish commentary: men didn’t matter, lives were dispensable, concern and compassion went by the board. In the Biblical view, every man is precious in the sight of God. To Masonry too, nobody is a nobody. A Masonic meeting begins with the Master of the Lodge checking that every member of the team is in position, even the lowliest and most junior. And the meeting is likely to end with news of brethren who are ill or in difficulties, so that the Lodge can discreetly express its concern and be of assistance.
The preciousness of every man is beautifully summed up by Abraham Joshua Heschel, who says:
“Our way of seeing a person is different from our way of seeing a thing. A thing we perceive, a person we meet. To meet means not only to come upon, to come within the perception of, but also to come into the presence of, or association with, a person. To meet means not only to confront but also to agree, to join, to concur.”
And yet people so often make gods out of things, serving, slaving for possessions and status symbols – and at the same time, they hardly ever see their families, they miss seeing their children grow up, they have no time for friendship, they don’t know what it is to be human. To those who so feverishly worship results, achievements, possessions, or bricks and mortar, nobody is anybody. No wonder God disapproved of the builders of Babel, for to God, everybody is somebody.
A second interpretation of the Babel story: The builders all spoke the same language. Where’s the sin in that? you ask – until you start thinking the thing through, and then it dawns upon you that it’s too good to be true, to have everybody, absolutely everybody, in such unanimous agreement that no-one, apparently, has any doubts, there is no dissension, there is not even a hint of opposition or a breath of criticism.
The Jewish sages were not slow to notice this strange phenomenon. They read into the text, not devarim achadim – “the same words” – but devarim achudim, “chosen words, imposed words”. The ring-leaders had an idea in their minds; they were determined that their idea would rule, and they brooked no opposition. And what sort of human society is it when Big Brother regulates your thoughts and your words and you become a golem, an automaton, with no choice but to do what it is programmed to do?
Tragically, there are people who are more comfortable and secure when they don’t have to work things out and decide for themselves, when everything is mapped out and ordained for them. Yet Biblical thinking, inspiration of every form of democracy and of democratic movements such as Masonry, insists that no-one has the right to impose his views upon others, and no-one may abdicate his own decision-making, however hard it may be, or to surrender his mind to someone else and say, “Tell me what to think, it’s easier that way!”
In this rabbinic interpretation of the story of Babel, you see an almighty protest against thoughts and words ordained by others who move others around as pawns on a chessboard. When people cease to have the right or desire to be people, to be individuals with minds and mouths of their own, there you have the beginning of the breakdown of human civilisation. There are right and wrong moments, places and ways in which to express individuality; but individuality is the glory of being human.
And now, a third approach to the ancient story. Read the words again, and you see that the builders of the Tower of Babel were quite open and frank about their aim and purpose. Was the idea to provide a city where people could live contented lives, with a tower that would be a rallying point and source of security? Was the aim to erect something tangible that would be useful to humanity and history? No: The whole thing was an ego trip: “Let us build us a city, and a tower… and let us make us a name!”
Alright, it’s human nature to want to be noticed, to dream of being famous, to fantasise about having one’s name on everyone’s lips. And in its way, being known, appreciated and engraved upon the record of history, is by no means a bad thing. But to do a thing for the sake of the kudos is hardly the highest motive, nor is there any guarantee that one will not be disappointed, disillusioned and discarded.
Masonry, like every human activity, offers its rewards and confers its honours. We all have a streak of vanity in us, and we do get pleasure when our efforts are noticed. But the Biblical story rejects the notion that a task should be undertaken other than for its own sake. Indeed, if your overriding thought is your own honour and glory, who knows how unfair, selfish and irresponsible you may be and how much you risk ruining because of an overdose of ego!
There is so much to do in life, so many spots on earth to make greener and more beautiful, so many lives to make brighter and more optimistic, so many creative thoughts to think and articulate and turn into realities. If they’re good deeds they’re worth doing, even for mixed motives – but the best way is to do what has to be done even if no-one notices and there is no vote of thanks: let righteousness be its own reward.
In modern Israel, with its pulsating drama, its kaleidoscope of culture, a great national sport is archaeology. Israelis of all walks of life are addicted to the fascinating task of finding and restoring ancient monuments. Near one Kibbutz they found the site of an old synagogue from possibly two thousand years ago. One kibbutznik, after a long day in the fields, went off to the dig and helped to sift the earth by hand to uncover the mosaics on the synagogue floor.
A tourist was watching. He could not contain himself. “Tell me,” he asked, “What do you need this for after a long day in the fields when you must be absolutely exhausted?” And this was the reply he got from the kibbutznik: “Well, Mister, I am tired, and at the end of the day I haven’t all that energy. But what I do, I can’t help doing, because it makes me part of something beautiful.”
When you carefully, ethically, responsibly, generously, selflessly give yourself to any worthwhile task, and especially to the crucial endeavour to build human society on earth into the Utopia of God’s kingdom come true, the votes of thanks may never materialise, but you become part of something beautiful, and the righteousness is its own reward.
The Mason who, tired though he is likely to be at the end of the day, and tempted to stay home and not bother with his Lodge meeting, rarely fails to listen to his better self and go to Lodge, and mentally to sift through the symbols and ceremonies that all deal with building a better society. He too would be likely to say, “What I do in Masonry I can’t help doing, because it makes me part of something beautiful.”
May this service inspire and encourage members of Masonry in this State to continue to support their Order and let its teachings support them in their every endeavour.
May the Most Worshipful Grand Master and all who hold office in the Craft continue to find that their efforts for a worthy objective are their own reward.
And may God bless and uphold all who strive for the advancement of humanity, decency, morality and faith; may the pleasantness of the Lord on High be upon them, and establish for ever the work of their hands.
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.