November 22, 2013 admin


‘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.

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