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, to the Australian Masonic Tour of Israel, 8 November 2010.I am honoured to be tonight’s speaker and to be able to greet both of my Masonic communities: my friends and brethren from Australia and their families, and my friends and brethren from Israel and their families.
My subject is King Solomon and the Freemasons. Solomon was of course a legendary figure in ancient history. He strode the stage of the political life of the Middle East. His name was attached to remarkable works of literature. His wisdom was acclaimed and proverbial. Some might ask how a man could have so many wives and still be called wise, though in fact his matrimonial associations were part of an imperial strategy. His Temple was described as the most magnificent building of its time and place. In Freemasonry he is admired, revered and quoted. No-one else has his cachet.
Yet none of this impresses the revisionist historians. Actually no-one is ever safe when revisionists are at work. They will tell you for example that Moses never existed, nor did Jesus, and that Jerusalem was never the Jewish capital. They say there never was a Jewish Temple, so none was destroyed by the Romans. To them the seminal events of Jewish history simply didn’t happen, not the 2000-year exile, not the Holocaust, nothing.
And the revisionists are not just anti-Jewish. They are anti-everybody. No-one is immune from them. When they decide to turn their attention to Australia, they will assert that there never was a Gallipoli, there was no Fall of Singapore, there was no Dismissal. Ned Kelly never was, and probably not Tom Keneally either – or WM Hughes, Bob Menzies, Bob Hawke, Don Bradman, or even Phar Lap.
There is good money to be made from revisionism, and if it isn’t money they want, they enjoy pulling down the tall poppies and shaking up the traditions and ideas that are part of our heritage.
But on an evening when a Masonic historian is due to speak on King Solomon and the Freemasons, how are some people going to react to the news that Solomon was not a Freemason, that Worshipful Masters or at least Grand Masters do not occupy King Solomon’s chair, and that Freemasonry arose out of the European culture of the 17th and 18th centuries?
Don’t these claims place a lecturer fairly and squarely within the ranks of the revisionists? The answer is a decided No. There is a well-known phenomenon of disguising something new so that it appears to be venerable and traditional. It happened to King Solomon in literary history, and it happened again in the early days of Freemasonry.
Several Biblical books bear King Solomon’s name but whether he actually wrote them is less important than the perception that he did. To gain credibility it was an accepted usage to attach a famous name to a book that seemed to be in the great man’s tradition. The book gained status because it was attributed to a historical giant. And thus it was with Freemasonry.
The craft borrowed its culture and terminology from the operative masons of the Middle Ages but its real aim was to be a broadminded ethical movement determined to reconstitute European civilisation. The purpose was admirable, but it could not be separated from a political and intellectual milieu featuring thinkers such as John Selden who found wisdom in Biblical precedent, rabbinical commentary and scriptural teachings. Freemasonry, when it came into being, largely adopted these teachings and attached a name to them. That name was King Solomon.
The beginnings of the craft are still a matter of dispute. There are three main theories.
One – the “time immemorial” theory – looks back to the early Biblical age, seeing Adam, Noah and Nimrod as Masonic pioneers, with Solomon and Hiram culminating the age of glory. A second theory focusses on the Middle Ages, when the builders of the cathedrals and castles became a fellowship and talked about their trade. The third theory sees the craft as the creation of high-minded scientific and political thinkers, often involved in the Royal Society, who were part of the making of modernity. Unfortunately the source material is scarce up to the time of the premier Grand Lodge in 1717, so we have to use a certain amount of conjecture.
The third theory has two sectors of society converging – a workmen’s fraternity that was grinding to a halt and needed new members and a new impetus, and a relatively intellectual group that had ideas for social progress and perhaps a political platform, but needed nomenclature, a format, and perhaps even a disguise.
There are still many questions, especially about the relationship between groups that must have been disparate in origin, education, ideology and socio-economic ethos. We know of a few early speculative masons but are not sure how they were received and whether they were a trickle that became a flood, whether operative Masonry realised it was becoming a network of gentlemen’s clubs, and how Solomon and his Temple, which had received minor attention in early Masonic charges, came to supply the movement with a fabric of myth and metaphor. Yet the end result was that Solomon became the role model. His throne suggested a grand seat for a Masonic leader; his Temple offered a paradigm by means of which to construct the moral man and the just society.
I recently read Yoram Hazony’s review of Eric Nelson’s book, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (Harvard, 2010), though I have not seen the book itself.
Hazony says it tells the true story of “the birth of the modern West” in the 17th century and rejects the theory that the Bible had no real influence on the creation of Western modernity.
The leaders of thought of the time knew and acknowledged the influence of Hebraic sources. Some could handle the Hebrew texts. They were not religious fanatics, but nor were they secularists enthroning human reason in place of God. They were thinkers and pragmatists seeking excellence, especially in political structures.
They found in the Bible the pattern of a perfect republic in which authority would rest in the people, private ownership would be limited, man would be considered essentially benevolent, and religious toleration would allow all views to be heard. This “political Hebraism” is analysed in Fania Oz-Salzberger’s esay, “The Jewish Roots of Western Freedom” in the Summer 2002 issue of Azure.
This suited the purposes of the formulators of the Masonic constitution, especially James Anderson. They built Freemasonry upon Scriptural texts and rabbinic legends, though the material underwent distortion and become self-contradictory. The craft, though not a religion, was certainly religious, and it regarded atheists with disdain. It was humanist but not secular: it implied, “We have been looking for wisdom, and found no source to be better than the Bible”.
Anderson – in spite of his confused view of some Biblical narratives – was one of the thinkers of the age, and Freemasonry became a major component of the emergent modern way of thinking. By filling the craft with Biblical allegory, they reinvigorated the Solomon story and enriched civilisation.
One of the problems of the era is its apparent dechristianisation of the craft, though it did give saints’ names to a number of lodges. It is possible that Anderson as a Presbyterian Protestant wanted to diminish denominationalism so as to protect the nonconformists from being swamped by the Anglicans, or maybe he was trying to urge tolerance towards non-Christians by advocating “that religion to which all men agree, leaving their particular opinions to themselves”.
The second option has much to commend it, since there were other groups who were working on similar lines. An example is the so-called Brethren of Asia, who, beginning in Berlin or Vienna about 1780, adopted a mixture of Jewish, Christian and Muslim ideas and ceremonies with the apparent aim of promoting religious tolerance.
We wonder what they and the early Freemasons would have said about William Blake’s words in “The Divine Image” (in Songs of Innocence):
And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew.
Where Mercy, Love, & Pity dwell,
There God is dwelling too.
Blake may have understood “Turk” as “Muslim”, in which case the Freemasons may have read the second line as “Christian, Turk or Jew”.
Why wasn’t more Christian material put into the craft degrees, even if it might create problems for non-Christian (largely Jewish) aspirants for Masonry? I am not sure, but it may be that Anderson and the Masons perceived in the Old Testament and its rabbinic commentators such a comprehensive pattern of practical ethics, including the maxims of the Book of Proverbs attributed to Solomon, that there was no need to look further.
It is also possible that for all his loyalty to Christianity as a superior form of theology, Anderson saw Christian ethics as less original and more derivative than those of the Hebrew Bible. Christian teachers argue that Jesus had a better ethical sense than many of the rabbis of his time, but they do not always see that he was teaching as a Jew and often echoing various groups within early rabbinism.
Anderson may thus have opted for a form of ethics that was aligned with the Judaism in which Jesus had been brought up. I am not certain, but I could be right in this explanation of why Freemasonry seems to be grounded in the Old Testament and not the New.
I would also like to know where Anderson and the other formulators of the ritual derived their knowledge of the rabbinic tradition, even though they reshaped it to suit themselves. Were they Hebrew scholars, or did they rely on translations into European languages? More puzzles, more perplexities: more room for continued Masonic research and writing.
But back to tonight, and to King Solomon. Thanks to Solomon and his symbolism, Freemasonry has become a rich vein of ethical treasure, allowing the members of the movement to find immense inspiration in the craft. As a former Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales used to say, “Freemasonry is good. Let’s talk about it!”
THANKS: I thank Joe Haffner, Clive Kessler and Leon Zeldis for their input, though the responsibility for the views expressed in this paper is mine.
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.