Rabbi John Rayner

Leader of British Liberal Judaism and a prophetic preacher of brutal honesty
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The Independent Online

John Rayner was the leader of Liberal Judaism in Great Britain, the more radical and innovative wing of Progressive Judaism in this country, established in 1902, and a worthy successor of its early leaders Israel Mattuck, the Hon Lily Montagu and the scholar C.G. Montefiore. Shaped by his childhood in Berlin and the towering figure of Rabbi Leo Baeck, the leader of German Jewry, he was deeply rooted in the critical rationalism of the liberal progressive wing of German Jewish life and thought.

Rayner's contributions to Anglo-Jewish life became a foundation of contemporary Judaism. While American Reform Judaism had an impact, particularly in the rabbis who came to Britain and formed the British Progressive tradition - indeed, John Rayner himself studied at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati - Rayner adopted his own approach, which owed more to Europe than to the United States. His rationalism and universalism never permitted a parochial stance, and he became deeply involved in the interfaith dialogue.

He was born Hans Rahmer, in Berlin in 1924, and arrived from Germany on one of the last Kindertransports in 1939. When it became almost impossible for Jews to attend German schools, he had attended the secular Jewish Theodor Herzl Schule in Berlin - two of his rabbinic colleagues in London were fellow students (Harry Jacoby was one and I was the other). Hans was sent to Durham School and lodged in the holidays with a Christian clergyman, William (later Bishop) Stannard. His parents, meanwhile, were killed in the death camps. Stannard encouraged his religious avocation and encouraged him to go to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he read French and German, then Philosophy, then Hebrew and Aramaic. He changed his name to John Rayner in 1943 when he joined the Durham Light Infantry, leaving the Army four years later with the rank of captain.

Ordained a rabbi by Rabbi Israel Mattuck in 1953, he found his first congregation in the Liberal Synagogue in South London (1953-57) before establishing himself at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John's Wood, first with Rabbi Leslie Edgar and then from 1961 until his retirement in 1989 as its senior rabbi and as the leader of Liberal Judaism.

Rayner's impact upon Progressive Judaism at the end of the 20th century may be seen in three distinct areas: in its theology, history, philosophy, liturgy and ethics; as a leader within the Jewish and general society; and as a prophetic preacher who confronted his community with sometimes brutal honesty. When, in October 2003, his Yom Kippur sermon on the topic "Ashamnu", "We Have Sinned", expressed his belief that the Israeli government had strayed a long way from the prophetic teachings of justice and compassion, some of his closest friends and members attacked him fiercely. Rayner did not retreat an inch.

When one rabbi noted that the prophets were also nationalists in their time, Rayner used the American philosopher A.N. Whitehead's concept of the fallacy of misplaced concretion: one must not over-use one strand of the totality to express the totality. The universality of prophetic social justice reached well beyond peoplehood and endured through the ages. Rayner's own commitment to the State of Israel was evident before the State came into being. He stood alongside Israel's voices for peace, such as Judah Magnes and Martin Buber, striving to unite all the inhabitants of the land within that vision.

Rayner's special areas of instruction at the Leo Baeck College/Centre for Jewish Education were liturgy, rabbinic codes and history. Here, he stressed the importance of the biblical and rabbinic tradition, but emphasised that the Emancipation in Europe had a parallel impact upon Judaism as the Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE:

The superstructure needed to be substantially modified. The time had come once more for a paradigm shift. The post-Emancipation age requires a new kind of Judaism.

John Rayner brought this insight into the total rewriting of the Liberal liturgy. In due course, he realised that there had been a similar "paradigm shift" in Jewish thought after the Holocaust and this became part of the new liturgy: Service of the Heart (1967), Gate of Repentance (1977) and Siddur Lev Chadash (1995) were jointly produced with Rabbi Chaim Stern but clearly the expression of Rayner's belief. In due course, through Rabbis Stern and Sidney Brichto, they also helped shape the American Reform liturgies.

For decades, Rayner remained silent about the tragic dimension in his own life before publishing any autobiographical material. Nevertheless, the centre of his texts is a strong universalism, an emphasis upon reason, and a re-statement of a tradition which moves from Kant to Hermann Cohen and to Leo Baeck. His most recent texts summarise this: An Understanding of Judaism (1997), Jewish Religious Law: a progressive perpective (1998) and A Jewish Understanding of the World (1998). These books stress that Progressive Judaism is the way to the future. They challenge traditional Judaism which cannot see that Halacha - Jewish law - does exist in Progressive Judaism. Liberal and Reform Judaism cannot just pick and chose from the past; the structures of the old tradition continue to exist in modern Jewish life. However, as Rayner's exposition of Jewish history also shows, they fuse together with modern Jewish insights and create a pattern of faith in God and the creation of new customs and ceremonies.

This vision guided his work as a leader of Anglo-Jewry. It explains his role in helping to establish the Leo Baeck College and serving as its Director of Studies, Lecturer and then Vice-President from its beginning in 1966 to the present, shaping its curriculum and influencing each new generation of rabbis. Initially, a parallel theological college had been set up within the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, and Rayner supervised its merger with the Leo Baeck College in a very short time.

The Liberal movement saw him as its intellectual leader, and he eventually became the Life President of the ULPS (Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues). He also served as the Chairman of the Conference of Liberal Rabbis and chaired the Council of Reform and Liberal Rabbis. In his interfaith work he was the co-chairman of the London Society of Jews and Christians, and also played a significant role in the Council of Jews and Christians. The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, describes him as "a man of deep integrity and ethical principles who followed his conscience with determination and courage".

He was, too, a prolific writer. His other books include The Practices of Liberal Judaism (1958), Guide to Jewish Marriage (1975) and Judaism for Today (1978, with Rabbi Bernard Hooker); an excellent history written with Rabbi David Goldberg, The Jewish People (1987); and a wide variety of lectures in the fields of Zionism, history, theology, the Bible and Commentaries, and related topics.

John Rayner was the soul of kindness and a stern man of dialogue who permitted no errors in others or in himself. Any texts submitted to him were subjected to an exacting grammatical examination alongside the demands for intellectual clarity. The love for humanity and for his people and faith were combined in him, and he followed the words of his great teacher Leo Baeck:

We have too little Judaism . . . the greater Judaism is our special strength. Judaism must not stand aside when the great problems of humanity are at stake . . . we are Jewish for the sake of humanity.

Writing at the end of his life about the benefits of old age, Rayner noted that

there are compensations. Negatively, we become accustomed to our mortality and less afraid of dying - although, like Woody Allen, we should still prefer not to be there when it happens. Positively, though we have less to look forward to, we have more to look back on.

The great teachers of Jewish life are seen within a shalshelet ha-kabbalah - a "chain of tradition" where the past flows through the present into the future. In that sense, John Rayner continues as an important part of the Jewish future.

Albert H. Friedlander

Rabbi Albert Friedlander died 8 July 2004