Q. I am doing my PhD. in the field of Jewish Studies. In this connection I am interested in the history of Jews in masonic lodges. As – according to my knowledge – there is at least in the higher degrees of the Scottish Rite quite a lot of Christian symbolism, I wonder, if there is any halachic ruling concerning the membership of Jews in masonic lodges. Could you help me here?
A. Good question. Until now, I never really researched the significance of Freemasonry, but I must confess, that my father was a Mason, as were many of his Jewish friends. I was surprised to see that a number of my present synagogue’s congregants are also Masons. Even more remarkable is the existence of an Orthodox Synagogue in Westchester named Rosh Pina, whose membership consists of Jewish masons. Masonic lodges tended to help support the local businesses, and this was probably one of the main reasons these fraternies were so popular. The name Rosh Pina is based on the Biblical verse found in the Psalms: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22).
Despite the popularity of this international fraternity, there is no official or formal definition regarding what is a Freemason. Much of its history is shrouded in legend and ambiguity. Many of its members trace back its symbolism to the original builders of the Egyptian pyramids or Solomon’s Temple. The working tools of the Masons became a system of symbols for personal morality and initiation.
Most folks know the Masons are a charitable organization which has secret rites and symbols.
In religious terms, their behavior and traditions strikes one as an American civil religion. Tthe fraternity believes in rendering homage to the Creator, which they regard as the duty of each of its members. Although Freemasonry only began as an institution in the seventeenth century, it has generated a mythology, or legendary history, according to which its followers claims dates back to the biblical reign of Solomon and the building of the Temple.
Many of this country’s founding fathers were Masons. In this country and in Europe, Freemasonry was linked to various programs of political and religious reform, programs that emphasized freedom of thought, worship, association, and the press and contributed considerably to the French and American revolutions.
Some Masonic lodges found it hard to give up their old prejudices with respect to the Jews.. In Germany and Austria, Masonic lodges barred Jews from belonging. There is also another dark history to masonry. In the 19th century, American Freemasons, along with others of like mind, created the Know-Nothing party in the 1850s, the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War and again from 1915 onward, and the American Protective Association in the latter 1880s and early 1890s. All were even more anti-Catholic than they were anti-black or xenophobic, in addition to being anti-Semitic. In defense of the Masonic movement, these splinter groups did not reflect the values of the Masonic philosophy.
At any rate, Jews found the Masonic lodges to be open in a time when discrimination was rampant in Western society. The Masonic constitution held that any good or honest person, regardless of his denomination or persuasion, was to be admitted. The constitution obliged the member only to hold “to that religion in which all men agree, leaving their particular opinions to themselves,” a declaration of religious tolerance based on the current Deist trend, which postulated a Supreme Being who could be conceived of by any rational being. It remains a mystery whether Jews may have influenced the wording of the Masonic constitution, but its liberal doctrines made it easy for Jews to belong. A Jewish lodge, the Lodge of Israel, was established in London in 1793, and the Knights of Aphesis to this day, is a Jewish lodge in the Masonic movement. Indeed, I am told that there are many Jewish Masonic lodges all around the world.
Concerning Masonic lodges in the land of Israel had as many as 64 lodges with over 3500 active members consisting of Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Druze. The activities of the Grand Lodge and its several lodges include: a mutual insurance fund; the Masonic old age home at Nahariyyah; Masonic temples all over the country; and a museum and library. (Encyclopedia Judaica) . Israeli Masonic Lodges show the kind of healing power Freemasonry can produce in a society that is religiously divided. In fact there is a Jewish Masonic synagogue in New York called B’nai Boneh – Children of the Builders!
With respect to the rest of your questions, I would like to briefly examine some of the Masonic teachings and rituals.
Curiously, many of its rituals and symbolism draw its roots from the Kabbalah. In the Kabbalah, the interest in a knowledge of sounds, written letters, and words was intensified. Each sign was given a magical value that had a religious meaning and a numerical relationship. For example, the Hebrew letter alef became the symbol of mankind and the abstract principle of material objects.
Most importantly, Freemasonry taught that they are building a spiritual temple in heaven. Each member regardless of his religion must fashion himself into a perfect living stone to fit into the spiritual temple of God. Indeed, this idea bears considerable similarity to the Tikkun Olam “Repairing the world” which the Kabbalists stress, is every human being’s duty. This concept is reffered to as the “Common Gavel.” The common gavel serves as a metaphor for the breaking off the rough and superfluous parts of the stone, so as to be fit for the Supreme Architect’s use. Accepted Masons, are taught to make use of it for the more noble and glorious purpose of divesting their hearts and consciences of all the vices and superfluities of life: thereby fitting the Mason’s minds as living stones for that spiritual building. The Mason thus, makes himself fit for heaven by bettering himself through eliminating unwanted qualities. This spiritual lesson holds true for any Mason, regardless of his god or religious persuasion.
The Kabbalists also refer to this same process as “etcafiyah” – bending the material impulses to the service of the Divine.
Another one of the building instruments Masons use involves a trowel, which they use to spread cement. Here too, the symbolism represents spreading the cement of brotherly love and affection; that cement which unites people into one sacred band or society of friends and brothers, among whom no contention should exist, so that all people may work and exist in perfect harmony.
None of the rituals that I have seen violate any tenant of Judaism, and in fact reflects values that are healthy for any sane society. Since some of the lodges reflect more the religious tenets of that given faith, I would encourage you to join a Jewish lodge to avoid any possible Halachic problems pertaining to the role of Jesus, the incarnation etc.
Let me conclude with the following passage from the Talmudic tractrate Berachot 64a:
R. Eleazar said in the name of R. Hanina: The disciples of the wise increase peace in the world, as it says, All your children shall be taught by the Lord,and great shall be the prosperity of your children (Isa. 54:11) Read not banayik [your children] but bonayik [your builders]. Great peace have they that love Your Torah, and there is no stumbling for them. (Psa. 119:65)
Rabbi Dr. Michael Samuel