Two miracles

Everyone knows: Chanukkah is about the miracle of the oil which should have burnt for just one day but lasted instead for eight. Truly, though, there’s not just one miracle of Chanukkah; there are two.
To my mind the first miracle is the greater, even though there’s nothing supernatural about it at all. It’s simply that the Maccabees took the vial of pure olive oil which they discovered amidst the ruins of the Temple, poured it into the lamps of the Menorah, and lit it.
Why should they have bothered? The war was far from over; they hadn’t yet captured all of Jerusalem; the Temple was a tip, the Holy of Holies a desecrated ruin. Was this a scene to light up? ‘Yes, it is’, they decided. ‘No’, they determined, ‘We’re not going to wait until the situation is better, until everything’s perfect, until we’ve got plenty of oil and everything else which people think we need. We’re going to light that Menorah right now’.
Of course, the story of the oil is only a legend; it’s found just once, in the Talmud. But that’s its strength. The power of legends lies not in the literal, but in the deeper, truths they convey.
I’ve experienced that first miracle of the oil countless times. I see it every time I meet one of those people whose smile, or posture, or words, say, ‘Life is not a burden but a blessing; let’s make the most of this day!’ A moment before the world seemed like a week of November clouds; now it’s the red and gold of those glorious autumn leaves, and the spring in the new buds beneath them.
I’ve met people like that in hospital wards, both among those who are ill and those who care for them; I’ve met people like that in classrooms, among both teachers and pupils. I’ve met people like that who’re over a hundred (‘Bored by life? Bored? I don’t know the meaning of the word!’) and people like that who’re eleven. I’ve met people like that among the cleaners outside the synagogue at 7.00am when it’s dark and cold, ‘Good morning, rabbi; enjoy your prayers!’ I’ve met people like that among priests, rabbis and imams. I count them all my teachers.
‘When I struggle’, said a lady to me at a conference on Ageing and Spirituality, ‘I remember what a monk taught me: “Don’t let any day end without reminding yourself of five good things which happened”.’ I recalled the story of Jacob who, after fighting all night with an angel, refused to let his opponent go ‘unless you bless me’.
Sometimes we have to wrestle to turn life’s difficulties into blessings; then even a brief victory is a victory. Sometimes joy and gratitude just flow. E E Cummings was right:
I thank You God for this most amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
That’s where Thanksgiving and Chanukkah really meet.
The second miracle of Chanukkah is that oil sufficient for just one day ignited a flame which lasted for eight. (Eight represents transcendence: the week plus one; the natural cycle and more.)
I’ve witnessed this miracle too. One person inspires another; one person’s courage illumines another person’s hope; together they bring light to a whole new group of people whom, usually without even knowing it, they enable to find their own strength and creativity.
True light is never completely extinguished. Even when everything seems dark, a spark of light will have travelled underground, secretly and unseen. Somewhere it will shine out and yield its inspiration.
In igniting the Chanukkah lights, we connect our lives to this unquenchable flame of hope, faith and illumination.


‘It was in 1901 that my parents brought me from my home town of Erfurt to study in Berlin’; wrote my grandfather in his autobiography, prefacing the chapter on his student years with lines by the 19th century poet Friedrich Rueckert:
From the days of my youth, from the days of my youth
A song sings constantly within me;
Oh, how can it be so far away – what once was mine?
There were – of course – two rabbinical schools in Berlin, the orthodox Hildesheimer Seminar, based on the philosophy of Samson Raphael Hirsch that one could be both strictly Torah observant and at the same a full and equal participant in the life of one’s country, and the Hochschule fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums, the College for the Science of Judaism, which embraced the critical-historical method of scholarship. Both were situated on the same street, the Artilleriestrasse. Apparently, the more liberal establishment was referred to as ‘the light artillery’ and the more orthodox as the ‘heavy artillery’. I have good reason to argue for balance; whereas my maternal grandfather studied at the former, my father’s grandfather both studied and taught at the latter institution. It wasn’t until forced to do so by the Nazis that the two establishments amalgamated their resources in the same building. In 1942 the doors were shut for the last time and the remaining faculty and students were sent to those places where all Jews went.
Who would have thought there would ever again be a rabbinical seminary in Berlin, and even – something Willhelminan and Weimar Germany rejected – a department of Jewish theology? Hadn’t the leader of German Jewry, Leo Baeck, declared upon Hitler’s rise to the chancellorship in 1933 that the thousand-year-old history of German Jewry was over?
And yet…I was there this Tuesday at the opening of the School of Jewish Theology in Potsdam University, just twenty minutes from Berlin. It followed the celebration two days earlier of the creation of the Zecharias Frankel campus, a Masorti track at the Geiger College for the training of rabbis. My grandfather would have wept, then rejoiced. He would have quoted Isaiah: ‘Grass withers, flowers fade; but the word of our God endures forever’.
‘This is the day God has made’, declared my friend Rabbi Brad Artson, who, alongside Professor Rabbi Homolka and Jewish, academic and political leaders in Germany, had put so much work into the creation of these institutions. For what stood out was not the effort but the joy. We were witnessing something not entirely dissimilar to the discovery by the Maccabees in the ruins of the Second Temple 2,000 years ago of a vial of oil which had survived the desecration and despoliation of the bitter years of war and persecution, and which could now be illumined to give light to the sacred for centuries to come.
‘We need theology’, insisted guest lecturer Professor Margot Kaessman, ‘We need debate, encounter, knowledge, scholarship, questioning, argument, reason alongside faith’. Who, besides an entrenched fundamentalist, would disagree?
Of course, there were the questions of guilt and reparation. It was rightly said that nothing could ever make good, or undo the evils, which were committed here. But does that make it wrong to work for the sake of the future?
My grandfather died in 1975. But I felt his presence this week, and not ‘so far away’. I could see him, crossing the street just a century ago between the horse-drawn cabs, on his way to the lecture halls. A hundred years is nothing, in the margins of Torah.


Limmud, the word means simply ‘study’ or ‘learning’, probably deserves more credit than any other organisation for the revitalisation of British Jewry over the last twenty years. It is also a wonderful export, reaching Istanbul, Colorado, the Galilee, and now even the pages of the Jewish Tribune. Limmud is a marvellous celebration of Jewish life and learning. It facilitates every form of Jewish expression, or almost; it puts its stamp of exclusive approval on none, except to include them loosely within the complex, contradictory, and inspiring currents of contemporary Jewish life.
I’ve kept out of the debate concerning the Chief Rabbi’s decision to attend. There are two obvious reasons. I don’t think I represent a useful ally for him, though when I next see him I will certainly tell him how warmly I respect his stance. Secondly, it’s hard for me to wax lyrical about how courageous it is not to refuse to talk to people like me. But patiently to face out criticism from within one’s own community, criticism which may be intellectually unfounded but which is nonetheless liable to creep under one’s skin and hurt, – that does indeed represent not just courage but strength of character, conviction and, I imagine, a gift for equanimity. I am glad Rabbi Mirvis is coming to Limmud; though I don’t think this should completely over-shadow the efforts and achievements of those who have worked for decades, almost all as volunteers, to inspire and fashion what Limmud has become, from patient helpers at the long queues for lunch (also a test of character) to teachers, musicians, and those who come promptly to the aid of incompetent presenters who can’t get their own Power Points to work.
Many from within Orthodox Judaism have come to Rabbi Mirvis’s defence. It’s always chastening to recall, if tempted from the outside to think that other peoples’ arguments are out-of-touch or petty, that few of us don’t have our own absurd contretemps. They are usually about fear, power or insecurity. To stand above them is easier said than done.
More important is the reference made to the dictum ‘These and also these are the words of the living God’. With this conciliatory sentence the Talmud determines that the views of both the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai are to be validated. Wherever the final legal decision may lie, both Schools are credited with the sincere endeavour to understand God’s will. The Talmud itself may therefore be hailed as ‘pluralist’, a constant discord of competing arguments united by the respect for the search for truth through Torah. It’s a great model for Limmud.
Actually, I’m not sure how embracing the ‘pluralism’ of the Talmud really is. There aren’t many women’s voices for a start. Also, it’s well known, and they themselves admit it, that the scholars had little respect for the unlettered. Sometimes I wonder if ‘These and also these’ is little more than the equivalent of the concession by a university don that, though a Cambridge degree is to be preferred, a good 2:1 from Oxford might also be acceptable.
But the sentence itself is remarkable. What are the ‘words of the living God’? In the first instance, they include the expression of all those who with heart, soul, mind and conscience sincerely try to apprehend the sacred and what it demands of us on earth. The labels attached to such persons mean almost nothing; the integrity of their quest is everything.
Where are the words, where is the voice of the ‘living God’ right now? In the pleas for help from the Philippines; in the streets in our world similar to those which made Isaiah proclaim two and a half thousand years ago that piety was vapid unless it fed the hungry and freed the bound, – the trafficked child, the woman sold into the power of thugs; in what Hans Jonas called ‘The outcry of mute things’, those forms of life which do not have the power of articulate speech and which in so many places our civilisation torments and kills.
In my view, anyone who sensitises us more deeply to these ‘words of the living God’ and helps us change our lives accordingly has a place at Limmud.


‘I went once more to the Westend-Synagogue to take my leave of the House of God which, almost a generation earlier, I had helped to consecrate. From the outside, no sign of destruction could be seen. But inside there presented itself a picture of terrifying devastation. The great chandelier lay on the floor in a thousand fragments. The pews, the prayer desk and the pulpit at which I had so often stood…were burnt. The Holy Ark was broken and the Torah Scrolls stolen’…

Thus wrote my grandfather in a deposition after the war about life in Germany under Nazi rule. It was a sight which haunted him until, eleven years later, he was invited to return to the Synagogue and offer the address at its rededication. 

Kristallnacht, the night of 9th November 1938, seventy-five years ago tomorrow, was decisive in the lives of German and Austrian Jews, and for others branded as political enemies or as genetically undesirable according to the Nazi myth of the superiority of the Aryan race. After Kristallnacht the violence was out. It had always been there, but half-masked by lies and pretences at legality. It had been kept in check by the top Nazi leadership until the German economy was on a sufficiently strong a war footing that the Jewish contribution no longer mattered, and until it was scarcely relevant any more what foreign governments might think. Anyway, hadn’t they all recently said at the conference convened that summer in Evian by President Roosevelt that they didn’t want any more Jews either?

From now on one could no longer entertain the weak hope that maybe things would get better, that perhaps it would all pass. It was evident that there were only two options, escape or the tightening noose which would deprive its victims of breath in ways even the regime had probably not at this point imagined. But where could one go? Earlier that year Jews had been required to hand in their passports. Travel documents would only be issued to those about to emigrate. The queues of desperate people at foreign embassies and consulates grew longer. They were composed mainly of women, courageous wives, daughters and mothers; the men in their thousands were now in Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen.

Kristallnacht engendered great evil. Hitler and Goebbels removed the bounds of law that prevent so many of us, perhaps even virtually everybody, from committing evil, and then incited and intimidated them into doing the worst of which they were capable. Alas for the land ungoverned by law, or where law-making is in the hands of the wicked.

Kristallnacht also inspired great courage. Pastor Karl Immer in Wuppertal read out the Ten Commandments in Hebrew and invited his congregants to help him offer help. The British Consul in Frankfurt, Robert Smallbones, persuaded his Government to issue temporary visas and cajoled the Gestapo into accepting them. Letters of promise of such visas could obtain release from the concentration camps. He and his staff worked night and day to prepare them. There were small, but courageous, acts of kindness and defiance by Christians and Jews, Germans and peoples of many nationalities, about which we shall never know. Britain offered homes to indefinite numbers of refugee children, and parents across Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia sent their children alone across the seas to safety and went back home to their thin hopes and their heartbreak.

But the seventy-fifth anniversary of Kristallnacht is not just about memory. It is also about now. How can we be aware of and care for those for whom these and similar events were formative not just of their youth, but of their yesterday and today?

What other such days is humanity even now brewing for its minorities, its victims, in our great capacity both for good and also for evil?


It’s moving to read in the Torah how Abraham describes himself. When speaking with the Hittites, from whom he wants to purchase a burial ground, he refers to himself asger vetoshav ‘a stranger and sojourner with you’ – even though he has resided among them for almost a hundred years. When arguing with God about the fate of Sodom, he calls himself afar va’efer ‘dust and ashes’, a phrase used only once again in the entire Hebrew Bible, by Job, overwhelmed by the power and wonder of God’s creation. There is a great humility, coupled to a quiet assertiveness – ‘I’m not just a stranger but also a sojourner and live here’ – in how Abraham understands his place on earth.
Such an attitude should guide us in our relations to other groups, in how we regard our rights, and their rights, to be where we are.
The van sponsored by the Home Office and driven round several London boroughs, including Barnet, for a trial week in the summer urging illegal immigrants to ‘Go home or face arrest’ has been in the news again. The Advertising Standards Agency, which received many complaints, has determined that the message used misleading statistics, but, extraordinarily, cleared it of being offensive and irresponsible. I hope the van will not appear again on the streets of Britain. It seems the Home Office itself regrets using them.
The realities facing millions of people in their native countries are extraordinarily bitter. Countries blessed with prosperity and benign governments based on democracy, equality and freedom, are faced with extremely difficult decisions. There is a moral obligation, ratified through the United Nations, to offer asylum to those with a well-founded fear of persecution. Every country needs a just and humane system for responding to refugees. The idea behind the vans is to offer help to go home for those not allowed to stay in Britain, as an alternative to the horror of forcible repatriation. But there should be no place in our societies for incitement to xenophobia and racism. Jewish experience tells us that these are extremely easily aroused.
I hope none of the asylum-seekers who attend our centre saw those vans. How terrifying that would have been! There are many in our communities who well remember what it felt like to be informed by placards, shouted it at in the streets, or cold-shouldered by neighbours, with the message that ‘You don’t belong’.
In Israel the Knesset is about to debate the Prawer-Begin bill concerning the Beduoin population of the Negev. The Bedouin are recognised as full citizens of the country; many have land claims going back to the Mandate or pre-Mandate period. Many have served in the army. It has been acknowledged for decades that legislation is needed to resolve unsettled issues, and there have in the past been many discussions with Bedouin communities. But the present bill gives cause for worry. Rather than recognising key Bedouin villages, so that they can access the basic amenities of water and electricity from the national grid, it threatens to move as many as tens of thousands to settlement towns which have proved socially and economically unsuccessful. Polls suggest that most Israelis do not favour the plan. It does not seem like a way forward rooted in those Jewish values of universal equality and dignity so courageously described in Israel’s remarkable Declaration of Independence.
It’s chastening to remember, with Abraham, that we are all temporary residents before God on earth and that we have a primary obligation to treat each other with respect, understanding and kindness.

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