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Rabbi John D. Rayner 1924 – 2005

Allan C. Brownfeld
Winter 2006

For more than thirty years, John Rayner was, according to The Times of London, “the foremost Progressive rabbi in the United Kingdom and Europe.” He was also a close friend of the American Council for Judaism and a regular contributor to Issues. We mourn his loss at the age of 81 on September 29, 2005.  

He was born Hans Sigismund Rahmer in Berlin in 1924 and came to England in August 1939 with one of the last of the Kindertransports that brought some 10,000 Jewish children to safety. Educated at Durham School, where he excelled academically and in sport, he won an open scholarship to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, which he took up in 1947, after serving for four years in the Durham Light Infantry and attaining the rank of captain. As an “enemy alien” his original request to join the Army Intelligence Corps had been refused. On the way to the recruiting center he had passed an optician’s shop called Rayner, and Anglicized his surname accordingly.  

Ethics Above Ritual  

According to The Times, “Rayner spent six years at Cambridge, reading modern languages, philosophy, Hebrew and Aramaic, and gained first-class honors. Coming from a secular background, he became interested in Judaism at the Zionist school he was forced to attend after the 1935 Nuremburg Laws barred Jews from state education. Already critical of Orthodoxy, he found in the two clergy homes that took him in as a refugee an example of liberal, ethically imbued Christianity, the counterpart of which he sought in his own religion and was to discover in Liberal Judaism. Liberal Judaism ... emphasizes ethics above ritual, principle above conformity, and as a result has a pioneering influence out of proportion to its numbers.”  

In 1953, Rayner was ordained into the Liberal Jewish ministry and took up his first pulpit at the South London Liberal Synagogue. Four years later, he was invited to become associate minister at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, St. John’s Wood, known as the “cathedral” of the movement. In 1961 he became senior minister and was given two years leave to study as a Graduate Fellow at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.  

In 1976, an article in Harpers & Queen magazine on England’s best preachers, featured Rabbi Rayner along with Robert Runcie, then Bishop of St. Albans, later to be Archbishop of Canterbury.  

Leo Baeck College  

Rabbi Rayner served as chairman of the Rabbinic Conference of the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues; chairman of the European Region of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the largest religious association in world Jewry with approximately 2 million members; as joint chairman of the London Society of Jews and Christians, and three times as chairman of the Council of Reform and Liberal Rabbis. He was associated with Leo Baeck College for more than 35 years, first as honorary director of studies, then as vice-president, and continuously as lecturer in liturgy and rabbinic literature. The Times notes that, “It was due in large measure to his vision, energy, and organizational determination that a ramshackle training college for rabbis was turned into a serious academic establishment, the largest of its kind in Europe.”  

With Rabbi Chaim Stern he co-edited Sabbath and Festival (1967, 1995) and High Holyday (1973) prayer books for the Liberal movement. His other writings include the ULPS Passover Hagadah (1981) and The Jewish People, with Rabbi David J. Goldberg, published by Viking Penguin (1987), and three collections of sermons and lectures.  

In 1993, he was appointed Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for his interfaith work. At the time of his death, he was working on the proofs of his latest book.  

Universalism and Ethical Values  

In his many contributions to Issues, John Rayner set forth a Judaism imbued with the universalism and humane ethical values that stimulated the early reformers. He was concerned with the influence nationalism had upon Jewish life, particularly the willingness of some to ignore the ethical implications of the actions of the State of Israel. He believed that if a state were to call itself Jewish, it was obligated to adhere to Judaism’s highest moral standards. While his concern for Israel and its future was intrinsic to his own concept of Judaism, he understood that the object of worship was God, not any political entity or human group.  

This writer and his family was privileged to meet John and Jayne Rayner in London several y ears ago and to visit the Liberal Jewish Synagogue at St. John’s Wood. All of us extend our condolences to Jayne and to Rabbi Rayner’s children and grandchildren. His loss will be felt by many, but his books and other writings will live on, as will the influence he had upon so many through his teaching, preaching, and other civic endeavors.  

As Rabbi Alexandra Wright, Senior Rabbi at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, said at a memorial service, “John Rayner contributed to the transformation” of Reform Judaism “into a liberal, humane, just, compassionate, inclusive and rigorously ethical religion. ... John Rayner was a man of integrity, humility, great learning and courage. His death is an immense loss, not only to Anglo-Jewry, but to all those who fear the silencing of a liberal and human expression of religion.”  

— Allan C. Brownfeld  

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