The Word of the Rabbi
Devar Thora for Englisch Speakers
By: Rabbi Dr. Moshe Navon, Hamburg, Germany:
Parashat EKEV 5778
Many of us were born and raised in the Soviet Union. Many of us saw in that period posters with the picture of a field full of wheat – and on these posters stood the slogan ''A man does not live from bread alone.''
Soviet propaganda explained this statement in the sense that the Soviet people would no longer need to live only from bread, but would also have meat. Meat was a symbol for riches and peace after the years of the Second World War, after many years of suffering and hunger!
But how many of us knew at that time that this statement was in fact a shortened citation from a particular book? It was impossible to find this book in a bookshop or a library. But this book was linked directly with us, with our history and our fates. This book is known as the Torah. Yes, it is Our Torah, a foundation for our ancestors for three thousand years. The Torah tells us about ourselves over many generations. And it teaches us not only how to live here and now, alone, but also how to live together with others. So, what does this quotation mean, ''A person lives not from bread alone, but from everything that the Eternal One has said'' (Dtn 8,3) - in its natural context? Our prophet Moshe comforts his people, who are worried by the long journey through the desert, who have at last come all the way from Egypt, from slavery, to the borders of the Promised Land of Israel. Now they have another, new fear – that of crossing this border! Therefore Moses says that God had planned to give the People of Israel this forty-years test, in order to enable them to gain experience so that afterwards in this fertile land they will trust only in God.
''And think on the entire way that the Eternal your God led you for these forty years in the wilderness, how he humbled you and sought to find out what was in your hearts, whether you would keep his commands or not. He humbled you and let you go hungry and then fed you with Manna, that neither you nor your ancestors had ever known before; in order to demonstrate that a person does not live from bread alone, but from everything that the Eternal has said.'' (Devarim 8:3.)
No, in those days it was not possible for us to know our own culture and history, and our old mother tongue, in which the Torah is written, nor to learn from our great teachers and experts at school or in the universities.
The Soviet State had, unlike any other state in the world, supported the most diverse national identities – all of them, with but one exception. Yes, our name was at that time the exception! We were described in Soviet passports as ''Hebrews'', but it was specifically not desired that we should live as ''Jews'', or speak the Jewish languages, and communicate with other Jews throughout the world!
The Jews in the Western world called us 'The Jews of Silence' – but we did not stay silent. We screamed inside, within our inner selves. Our souls wept silently because we were suffocating in the ''internal exile''. It was a dreadful torture for each Jewish man and woman, because they could not know who they really were. Like a child who grows up amongst a pack of wolves, who adapts oneself instinctively to be like a wolf among wolves – and yet one is not a wolf. No, we could not sit still, we each searched for the ''I am who I am'' but each for themself and alone and in their own way. Each one fought for justice alone, in order to be a free, self-assured person. Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer – ''the Baal Shem Tov'', ''the one who has a good name or reputation'' - as Moses did before him – would tell a story, 250 years ago, that fitted well to the Soviet-Jewish tragedy:
''A King once had an only son, who was the apple of his eye. He wanted his son to go and learn much and get to see many different cultures; therefore he sent him out with a large amount of gold and silver to a distant country. But the son wasted all the money, until he was totally penniless. In his desperation he decided to return to his father. After many difficulties he stood at last at the gate to the castle garden. But as so much time had passed by he had forgotten his own mother tongue and the guards did not recognise him. Finally in his despair he began to cry out, and the King recognised the voice of his son and ran out to embrace him and kiss him and bring him back into the palace.''
Dear friends, I wish to say something on the basis of my modest experience: It is on the one hand unique, but on the other hand perhaps too individualistic. Each brave Jewish man or woman experienced and survived the Soviet Union in their own way.
I was born in Stalinistic exile in Siberia, following the war, following the Shoah. My father Tobias wanted to give me the name 'Michael', but a Soviet official said to him, sarcastically, ''Why do you, the Jews, want to hide behind Russian names?'' This Soviet official, an ignorant man, did not realise that 'Michael' is also a Jewish name. In Hebrew it means 'Who is like God?' And so my father, Tovia ben Pessach, answered with anger: ''Then write this down as the name of my son. His name is Moijssei!'' Mojessei – Moses – Moshe – is the name of the greatest of Israel's prophets, who led his brothers and sisters out of the house of slavery - out of the land of the Dictators and those who hate Israel.
My name, which I received from my father (he was just 24 years old at the time!) has become like a compass needle guiding me along the winding pathway of my life. Now I am an Israeli rabbi from HUC. Hebrew is my second mother tongue. The Torah is for me the bread from heaven. God, the God of Israel, the father in heaven, has been my main partner since my childhood.
We are who we are, like the prince in the story of the Baal Shem Tov. I would NEVER have come with my Israeli-Jewish family, with my sons, who were born in Jerusalem, to Germany if 200,000 of my Jewish brothers and sisters had not sought refuge here from their antisemitic past in the former Soviet Union.
I know that there is bread to eat on their tables – thank God! But we also know that our souls need more than bread, they need our own secure identity, our ''I am who I am'', like the children of Israel, the children of the father in heaven.
We are who we are, just like the Prince in the Baal Shem Tov's story, even if we were raised in the Soviet, atheistic system, and if we never had the chance to learn Hebrew.
During the past ten years I have served in several different Jewish communities in Germany. I have acculumated experience in ultra-orthodox 'Unified Communities' as well as in liberal Jewish communities. And now at last I have understood: There is no future for the sons and daughters of Israel in a place where there is no freedom for a person to develop their own identity. We do however have the chance to enjoy this freedom to form our own identity within the Liberal Jewish Community of Hamburg, for there are still people who come to enter the community, who speak indeed different languages and have indeed different mentalities, but at the same time know how to value their own worth and freedom and that of their fellow human beings.
We have all learned and we understand: There is no freedom without risk, not even in a country where the Torah is accessible for all people.
Let us not now become once again 'The Jews of Silence' amongst other European Jews, and especially not amongst those who have suddenly decided that they are now for us the deaf guards standing at the gate of the Palace garden' – at the doorway to the Torah! Let us call out with the loud voices from our souls, until our Father in Heaven – the Strength of Israel and Israel's eternal helper – hears us! Even if no person wishes to hear us, God will hear us, as God heard the voice of my father Tobias in the icy wastelands of inhumanity.
Rabbi Moshe ben Tovia and Rachel Navon. State Rabbi for the Liberal Jewish Community of Hamburg.
Comments from the Rabbi at Pesach 5777 (Rabbi Dr. Moshe Navon)
Pesach (“Passover”) is one of the core festivals in Judaism. It recalls the exodus from Egypt and the liberation of the people of Israel from slavery there. Telling the Passover story (Haggadah) at the Passover Seder links every new generation of Jews with their history as a people. Pesach is also known as Zeman Cheruteinu – the Season of our Freedom. The desire for freedom is the basis of our existence as a people and our religion. The oral Torah says: Said Rabbi Joshua the son of Levi: Every day, an echo resounds from Mount Horeb (Sinai) proclaiming and saying: " And it says (Exodus 32:16): "And the tablets are the work of G-d, and the writing is G-d's writing, engraved on the tablets"; read not "engraved" (charut) but "liberty" (chairut)---for there is no free individual, except for he who occupies himself with the study of Torah. And whoever occupies himself with the study of Torah is elevated, as is stated (Number 21:19), "And from the gift to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to The Heights."
Can we also assume that there are still ways hidden in the Torah that can serve to increase our freedom? Do we let these ways speak to us? Many Jews in Germany have lost their way to the synagogue because they “don’t have the time”, but the Torah, which is at the heart of synagogue life, says to you: “You don’t have time for yourself, for your own development, and that’s why you have lost your way to the synagogue and to the Torah!” Pesach, or Zeman Cheruteinu, still encourages us to find our own freedom again! The story of Passover in Hamburg also includes the history of the israelitischen Temple of Hamburg. This synagogue moved away from the theology of sacrifice, which had been the focus of the old temples 2,000 years ago, and developed a theology of inner renewal and self-realisation. 400 Jewish children visited this reform Temple during the Nazi era. As the contemporary witness Eva Stiel says: “Like the first Liberal Jews, we gained our faith at a time when the world was filled with doubt. In challenging the past, we learned how to see and how to reason. Each new step requires independence in our thinking and decision-making. If we were to give up this independence and, instead, just give into tradition without a second thought, we would be giving up the very best of ourselves – that is, our inner vitality and honesty. We only want to take on those elements of tradition that we can actually put into practice as people of understanding and compassion”…
After Shoah liberal Jews tried to return to Hamburg to resume the way as whole people with mind and heart. Whoever studies Thora with open eyes knows that the
way to personal freedom unfolds through human relations. This is the reason why we need a vivid liberal Jewish community in Hamburg!
Whoever has learned to treat his or her neighbours with love and dignity will be heard by
G-d: “Whatever we do for our neighbours is divine service” (Leo Baeck).
This is the basic principle of the liberal Jewish community in Hamburg. Yet this way is not easy these days: the anti-democratic powers in current society as well as among Jews try to enslave or even eliminate LJGH. That is not a surprise for us, when we observe the current situation unemotionally: the whole world is suffering from the terror of inhumanity trying to humiliate and to destroy human beings. Every home-made emperor of the various religious groups can use this wave to abuse religious feelings of people for his own political purposes. But the story of Pessach, and especially this story, that the children of the Hamburg Israelite temple tell, challenge us not to be fearful of small or big self-appointed ‘Pharaohs’ and instead “to go on with inner autonomy in relation to tradition” and thus protect our common dignity and freedom.
In these difficult times we shall treat our members of the LJGH with even more attention and
dignity in order to make a stand against the wave of inhumanity.
Dear friends, I visited Mr Gerhard Schmal before Pessach. He is a member of our community for more than ten years. Not everyone knows him, because he is very ill. Therefore I want to tell you his story again:
Herr Gerhard Schmal (Ben ben Rachel)
was born in 1946. He came into this world in extremely harsh conditions.
But he has preserved his life and kept his Jewish faith firmly until now. During his active life as a social worker he had done a lot for people who had been badly off like himself and he had fought for humane conditions for them.
Through his autobiographical telling and in personal conversations we learn how full of hardship and difficulties his life has been, until now.
His mother, Rachel Schmal, survived KZ Auschwitz. Rachel Schmal had seen so much cruelty and lived through many deathful experiences; nonetheless she raised her son with love as long as she was able to. As a result of the KZ imprisonment she died as a young woman. Her son was eleven years old then. She was a liberal Jew who had taught her son Gerhard never to give up his faith.
After her death young Gerhard was sent to a children’s home in southern Germany that was run by the Catholic Church. Gerhard Schmal had been treated badly there. They tried to force him into giving up his Jewish faith and to convert to Catholicism.
Even as a young boy he had to work hard. When he was old enough to leave the children’s home in a monastery they tried to deprive him of his right of decision. But in the end he successfully fought against it and started a training as a social worker. He liked this job very much and he devoted his work-life to people who had been released from prison, to young people and other vulnerable persons. He had been successful and been accepted in his profession.
Then he moved to Hamburg-Bergedorf. There I visited him a couple of times, as for the last three years he is suffering from cancer which is extremely difficult to treat. He is very skinny
and can hardly eat something. He gets big doses of morphine for his pains. And he is all alone in Bergedorf.
His mother had been talking to him a lot in Yiddish. At home he has his Kippah, his Tallit, his Tanakh, his Siddur and a number of Jewish-theological literature. He has broadened and completed his knowledge of the Bible and his Jewish Faith over the years. For his teachings he collected documentaries about Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Among them are
films that can hardly be bought anywhere. He presented parts of these films whenever he had the opportunity, mainly in schools.
Gerhard Schmal is an impressive Jewish man. His story and his whole life is a signpost for our lives. G-d gave him life, G-d is his father. HE gave him all the power and love and faculties to be committed for a humane world.
Gerhard wants to tell you something: his mother and he had been in a liberal community in Belgium once. It was a small humble community, consisting of only ten people, but they had an organ in the synagogue. The orthodox Jewish community there intended to shut down the liberal Jewish synagogue! But the liberal Jews stuck together and did not give up. That is what Gerhard wants to tell you today:
“Stick together! Don’t give up your faith!”
Do not allow our LJGH to be trampled on. We are not a “Russian Club” – this is what some people have been saying for years, people who like to spread Laschon ha-Ra among others.
We are liberal modern Jewish women and men from various countries with different languages and experiences, but we all have something in common. We have emerged from the pits of inhumanity and we will never go back to these pits again! Therefore we should stick together now and never ever give up our Jewish liberal faith!
Liberal Jews have returned back to Hamburg after the Shoah in order to continue on this path to religious freedom! The Hamburg Temple is the very first mother of all Reform Communities in the world. Today hope comes back. The Hamburg Reform Temple in Oberstrasse 120 will offer a space for Pessach-feasts als Zeman Cheruteinu - the Season of our Freedom.
Dear friends, I wish you a happy and free Pessach and I am glad to celebrate this Pessach-Seder with you and then call you to the Thora at Pessach-Schacharit!
Dr. Moshe Navon, liberaler Landesrabbiner der LJGH für Hamburg