The Word of the Rabbi
Comments from the Rabbi at Pesach 5777
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