God is love?

Good questions are always more challenging than the answers. Once at Limmud, (I’m a great fan and haven’t missed a conference for twenty years) I was asked: “what’s the difference between the statements ‘God is love’ and, simply, ‘God is’”? The questioner was not being facetious, clever, or merely curious; she meant it. The question has stayed with me ever since.  

Over the years I’ve sometimes thought that the two sentences were really the same. Don’t say ‘God’s mercies extend to the bird’s nest’, the Talmud instructs us; don’t use labels like ‘love’ and ‘mercy’ about God. Otherwise, what will you do when you see something cruel? God just is. No adjectives.   

But the question has come back to me yet again, in a week which has taken from cemetery to house of mourning, to wedding feast, then to hospitals, painful anniversaries, and back to the house of mourning. Is God, does God, love?

Yes. Sometimes it’s almost palpable. One knows it in the way that young woman looks at the man she loves as she walks seven times round him beneath the marriage canopy, in how he puts his hand on her shoulder, lightly, for just a moment. One feels it how this mother weeps for her child while, side by side in her heart as if they were both yesterday, stand the moment when she brought him home, a tiny baby, to their house, and the hour they carried him away, all covered up. One senses it in the way the woman says ‘I miss him so terribly much’ and weeps, and someone puts her arm around her, and in that gesture is all the courage and helplessness of compassion. Then you go outside and the sun is shining and someone says ‘It’s a beautiful day’ and there’s a kind of consolation in the way the light falls across the autumn leaves.

Sometimes one thinks to oneself: where does it come from, that love which flows through the human heart and gives such power to tenderness and passion, which fosters such companionship and devotion, which attunes the heart with such acuity to wonder and to beauty, and which sometimes bleeds into the great emptiness of grief? Is that not the very spirit and force of God in us, what Dante recognised when, at the end of his long journey through hell and heaven, he breathed once more the ordinary air and stood outside beneath the sky and felt again power of ‘the love that moves the sun and the other stars’. Love moves everything. God, if God is at all, must surely be this ceaseless, unfathomable vitality of love which animates all being.

No. It’s not possible to say ‘God is love’. We are not entitled to ignore life’s cruelty and injustice. The disease which killed her, the earth into which we laid her, the sorrows which now ensue,- these too, if one believes in God, must be part of God’s doing. God permits such things too to be, together with war, hunger and disasters. God isn’t loving. God isn’t even in any obvious and apparent way good. The best one can do, if one dares say anything at all, is simply to leave it at ‘God is’. No attributes. God is the entire and incomprehensible energy within the unfolding of all processes, both those we experience as constructive and creative and those which destroy and kill. God meimit umechayeh, God brings death, as well as life. God is, and leave it at that.

Yes; no. Yes, God is love. No, God simply is.

The truth of the one statement does not negate the truth of the other.

Human life is stretched between them like a polar bear with its front paws on one ice flow and its rear paws on another and the currents of a mighty ocean driving the freezing water between. Can we manage to reach across? Can we turn what is, however harsh, into something better and kinder, into love? If God is in the courage and goodness which drives so many people to use their lives to do precisely that, to try to transform suffering and cruelty into compassion and understanding, then perhaps God is love after all.

The ultimate desecration

There is no date on which we refer to ‘the God of life’ and ‘God who delights in life’ more than on Yom Kippur, the very day on which we contemplate our mortality, wear shroud-like white, and neither eat nor drink. Nothing can constitute a more powerful affirmation that we are here in this world to respect, nurture and reverence life, and that all life belongs to God.
 
The terrible murders in the brutal attack on worshippers saying shacharit, the daily morning prayers, at a synagogue in Har Nof in Jerusalem this Tuesday remind us of this fact: those men were only doing what every Jew, and every person of faith should do each day, – remind him- or her-self that we are servants of the God of life.
 
As Jonathan Freedland wrote, there is something particularly vile about killing in a synagogue, or in any place of prayer: ‘People of all faiths – and even of none – will find something especially appalling about this act of violence. Any place of worship is meant to be a sanctuary; that much is understood universally.’ Maybe the ‘is’ in the last sentence needs to be replaced by ‘should be’, a responsibility incumbent on all humanity.
 
Judaism regards any murder as the ultimate desecration, the destruction of God’s image as expressed in the irreplaceable sensitivity and potential of a unique human being, and the flooding of the hearts of those who love that person with pain, fear and grief. This is true whether the victim is Jew, Christian, Muslim, famous or known previously to none but family and friends. 
 
But close connections bring these murders nearer home. Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Goldberg had lived in Golders Green. Rabbi Moshe Twersky was the son of the great scholar Isidore Twersky whose course on Moderation and Extremism in the works of the great rationalists Aristotle, Maimonides and Aquinas, was attended in the final year he offered it by over 200 people. He was known for his capacity for intuitive silence.
 
These murders also remind me of the murder of my father’s uncle, Professor Alfred Freimann, a scholar in Jewish jurisprudence who was working on key constitutional committees for the State of Israel which was about to be born when he was killed in the infamous attack on the convoy of scholars on their way to the Hebrew University on Har Hatzofim in April 1948.
 
What makes the murders this week especially frightening is that we know that they come at a time of increasing tension and frustration, growing since the terrible summer, and experienced by both Palestinians and Israelis. In this atmosphere of fear, violence and intimidation, we must pray for wisdom and restraint, especially from all our leaders. As Simon Lichman wrote to me from Jerusalem this morning: ‘we are all in this struggle together, no matter where we have placed ourselves geographically, – a struggle to keep that voice of reason heard, that glimmer of doubt in the minds of those who find it difficult not to be turned to an out and out hatred that blinds them to the humanity in their opponents and/or enemies by the barbarous actions of these times.’ Our prayers are for the welfare of Israel, of all its people, and for peace.
 
But is there anything we can actually do? ‘I feel helpless’, one young woman wrote to me. ‘I wish there was something I could do’.
 
I wished I had better answers. Just as we must not be filled with hate towards anyone because of their faith or nationality, so we cannot afford to be foolish and naïve about the power of the angers at loose in our world. We must pray for wisdom, restraint and understanding, especially from all our leaders.
 
But what can we actually do? The only direction I can think of is to respond to every deed of violence and desecration with an act which enhances life. Whenever someone seeks to destroy another life, we should contribute to the preservation of life. Whenever someone tried to cause injury, we should give towards healing. Whenever a person is wilfully denigrated, we should act to uphold the universal dignity of the human spirit. Ample channels exist throughout the Jewish and the wider world to enable us to express such fundamental values.
 
This is the deepest teaching of our Judaism and of all faith, for God is present in all life.    
 

Har Nof

On behalf of all our congregation I want to express our horror and anguish over the appalling attack on and murder of worshippers at the synagogue in Har Nof in Jerusalem this morning.

Our thoughts are with the families of those killed, and with the wounded and their nearest and dearest.
 
In these frightening times we should have in our hearts the daily prayer: ‘Our brothers and sisters in all the House of Israel who are in peril and distress, whether on land or sea  - may the All Present God have mercy on them and lead them from danger to safety, from darkness to light and from subjugation to redemption,  now and speedily, Amen.’
 
We pray that God should guide the world away from violence and towards understanding and restraint: ‘May God, who makes peace in the high places, make peace for us and for all Israel’.
 
We will include special prayers in our services this Shabbat.
 
I will send our thoughts to His Excellency the Israeli Ambassador Daniel Taub on behalf of our congregation.

For your tomorrow

We stand between Armistice Day and AJEX Shabbat, the Sabbath prior to the annual parade of Jewish Ex-Service-men and –women, which takes place tomorrow at the Cenotaph at 2.30pm. This year the reviewing Officer is Admiral of the Fleet Lord Boyce KG  GCB  OBE  DL.
 
The first parade took place in 1928 when the wreath was laid by a 97-year-old Corporal (retired) H. Jessel, a veteran of the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War.
 
It was during the First World War that Jews began to serve their country in large numbers. 55,000 joined up or were conscripted into the British Army, of whom five were awarded the Victoria Cross. Even greater numbers served in the German Army, and many won the Iron Cross for valour. Jews fought in the ranks of virtually all the lands of Europe, defending their countries with patriotic fervour against armies which similarly included their co-religionists. The words with which the Jewish Council of Notables responded to the questions put to them by Napoleon were ironically born out:

The love of country is in the heart of Jews a sentiment so natural, so powerful… that a French Jew considers himself in England as among strangers, although he may be among Jews…  During the last war French Jews have been seen fighting desperately against other Jews, the subject of countries then at war with France.

 It’s a further irony that many of the very Jews who enlisted in 1914 and risked their lives for Kaiser and Fatherland were driven from their country, interned or murdered less than a generation later.
 
In World War 2 over 60,000 Jews fought for King and Country. It was with huge admiration that I learnt at the memorial service for him that the gentle Alfred Shields, who for so many years was Shammash, supervising the smooth organisation of services at the New London Synagogue, had flown on bomber missions for the duration of the war. Often when I ask people of a certain age, ‘How did your parents meet?’ they answer: ‘My father was on leave and heard there was a dance at the town hall. My mother was doing war work and was taken along by a cousin. My parents-to-be took a shine to each other at first glance’.
 
Among the most eager to enlist in the British Army were refugees from Germany who sought little so much as to play their part in the defeat of the regime which had destroyed the lives of their families. Once the British Government came to understand that nobody could be more devoted to the Allied cause than these men and women, their continental accents notwithstanding, they became in the affectionate phrase ‘His Majesty’s Most Loyal Enemy Aliens’ and entered the ranks of all the Forces.
 
I’ve wandered many times between the graves in the war cemeteries of Normandy, looking for a Magen David among the crosses, reading the inscriptions, puzzling over the meaning of the moving words ‘Known Unto God’.
 
The wars of Europe are prominent in our minds at this time, with this year’s centenary commemorations of the start of World War 1 and, in 2015, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camps and of VE and VJ Days.
 
I’ve asked members of our community about relatives who gave their lives. There are many, and if you would like to send me details of those in your family (before Shabbat) I would appreciate it. My wife’s father’s brother was a navigator in the RAF when, on a mission to drop supplies to the French resistance in 1944, they lost height due to a faulty altometer and crashed into the hillside in central southern France. He is buried in the cemetery of Epimac-les-Mines.
 
This Shabbat, in special prayers in all our services, we will remember those who died fighting for their country and gave their lives for those freedoms which we readily take for granted:

Tell them when you go home
For your tomorrow we gave our today.

Kindertransport

This is the text of my introduction to the performance of Carl Davies’s composition, The Last Train to Tomorrow, at The Roundhouse on 9 November 2014, to mark the 76th anniversary since Kristallnacht (see http://www.roundhouse.org.uk/whats-on/2014/last-train-to-tomorrow/).

On this date of 9th November 1938, 76 years ago, came Kristallnacht. The full violence of the Nazi regime broke forth; Goebbels recorded in his diary with a glee one can still sense today the growing number of synagogues in flames. Jews were beaten in the streets, tens were murdered, and tens of thousands sent to the concentration camps.

The onslaught, which Goebbels described as the ‘boiling spirit of popular feeling’ had been carefully orchestrated. The shooting in Paris of Ernst von Rath by Herschel Grynspan, in revenge for the misery of his parents who had been dumped with thousands of other Jews at the Polish border at Zbaszyn to starve, was a convenient pretext. Foreign governments had shown at the Evian Conference on refugees how little interest they had in taking in more Jews. The Nazis therefore felt they could act with impunity.

The following day, my grandfather who’d served as a rabbi in Frankfurt all his working life, was summoned by the Gestapo to come with the keys to the synagogue on the Boerneplatz. As he walked through the crowd of onlookers, he heard it said that in the city’s beautiful Westend-Synagoge, the inside of which had been destroyed, the Eternal Light remained burning. This was taken as a sign from God.

Though many lights were shattered on Kristallnacht, others began to burnt more strongly. In Frankfurt, the wife of the British Consul, Robert Smallbones, telegraphed him in London saying that the consulate was full of desperate people to whom they were giving refugee. ‘Do something’, she urged. His actions led to the scheme under which thousands of temporary visas were issued, on condition that the applicants would not seek work in Britain. On the promise of such a visa many, including my grandfather, were released from Concentration Camps.

In Britain, the spirit of appeasement was largely over. Parliament debated the fate of Germany’s Jews. “Here is a chance of taking the young generation of a great people, here is a chance of mitigating to some extent the terrible suffering of their parents”, noted the Home Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare. Permission was given for an unlimited number of children to enter the country. Lord Baldwin, the former Prime Minister broadcast an appeal to the nation: ‘They may not be our fellow subjects, but they are our fellow men. Tonight I plead for the victims who turn to England for help.’

Jewish organisations, supported especially by the Quakers, had been urging such a response and were prepared. News of the Kindertransport spread quickly across Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. In thousands of homes a single bag was packed: How does a parent express with a picture, a prayer book, a cuddly toy, an unfathomable, measureless love? Partings took place in the foyers of railway stations; children saw the diminishing figures of their parents, often for the last time. They travelled across Holland, then by ferry to Harwich; at Liverpool Station they encountered the arms of strangers, some uncomprehending, many deeply kind. ‘Here you shall be loved’ Vera Gissing was told, when she reached her new ‘family’.

I sometimes wonder about those lonely walks home in Germany to flats or houses which must have felt desolate in their emptiness, a sadness born bravely because mothers and fathers knew that at least their child, to whom they had given life, now had a chance to survive.

Those children, many of whom are here today, embraced the future with courage and determination, creating lives and families of their own. But the heart, whether it surrounds memory with silence, or gives it words, does not forget. Nor must the world forget the pain, the courage and the generosity of the Kindertransport.

Ner Hashem Nishmat Adam: ‘A lamp of the Lord is the human soul’, says Proverbs. As we now light memorial candles, we think of the spirit of the parents who sent their children away to safety, of those children who ‘came alone’ to an unknown country, and of the dedication of all who helped them.

Eternal Light

My grandfather remembered how, on the night before he was finally able to escape Nazi Germany with his family, he

  • went once more to the Westend-Synagogue, to take my leave of the House of God at the dedication of which I had been present as a young man almost a generation earlier. From the outside there no sign of destruction could be seen. But inside was a picture of terrifying devastation. The great candelabrum lay in a thousand broken pieces on the floor. The pews, the pulpit at which I had so often stood, the table from where the services were led, the magnificent organ had all been burnt. The Ark had been smashed, the Torah Scrolls stolen. This image pursued me like a nightmare for many years.

This 9th November will be the 76th year since Kristallnacht, ‘the night of the broken glass.’ In Germany it is now referred to as Reichspogromnacht, ‘the night of the national pogrom’, in order not to confer dignity upon a term coined by the Nazis. But to Jews I believe it will always remain Kristallnacht, the night of terror as Nazis smashed the windows of thousands of Jewish businesses and homes and set alight hundreds of synagogues, rejoicing as the flames took hold. Goebbels noted in his diary with an exhilaration which still communicates itself today his excitement at the growing number of synagogues on fire.
 
For those of us who were not there it is impossible to imagine the fear such violence aroused:

  • At one point, the doorbell rang. The owner of the stationery store on the building’s ground level stood in the hallway, deathly pale and shaking: “Can you hide me?” he begged. I always remember his face, that absolutely horror-stricken face. (Tom Tugend: testament in The Jewish Journal)

Tens of Jews were murdered; tens of thousands of Jewish men arrested and sent to Buchenwald, Dachau and Sachsenhausen, my grandfather among them. It was now the women who, alone and with immense courage, queued outside foreign consulates, petitioned the Gestapo, desperately contacted relatives abroad, friends, former colleagues, anyone through whose aid there might be the remotest hope of obtaining a position, a visa, an escape-route from the death which had now broken from the shadows to encircle them. Meanwhile the postal service was delivering parcels, urns containing the ashes of Jews who had ‘regrettably’ died in detention; that is, they were murdered and their bodies subsequently burnt to conceal the cause of death. ‘We dreaded the approach of the postman’, my mother recalled.
 
One item in the Westend-Synagogue had not been destroyed, the Eternal Light, the Ner Tammid. ‘People saw this as a sign from God’, my grandfather recorded. Indeed, there were places where the power of this light began to burn more strongly as the darkness thickened all around. The British Consul General in Frankfurt, Robert Smallbones, overcame its reluctance and persuaded the government to accept refugees on temporary visas, provided they did not take jobs. Tens of thousands, including my family, were saved as a result of this scheme. The Home Secretary, Samuel Hoare, urged by Jewish and Quaker leaders, addressed Parliament on the pressing need to rescue the children:

  • Here is a chance of taking the young generation of a great people, here is a chance of mitigating to some extent the terrible suffering of their parents and their friends.

Soon afterwards there commenced in thousands of homes the packing of single suitcases, and partings at railway stations. At least, amidst their fear and loneliness, the parents would know that their beloved child was safe. And children walked from the trains at Liverpool Street Station ‘into the arms of strangers’ often loving, sometimes uncomprehending.
 
The Ner Tammid in our own synagogue was lit by a torch from the Eternal Light in Frankfurt. May it burn for us, as it burnt for those who opened their hearts to save and nurture helpless, destitute lives.

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