One cold December evening, I walked into my father’s book-lined study to light the Chanukah candles, which were placed beside the window that overlooked a high street in North London.
My father was seated in his armchair surrounded by the red glow of the crackling log fire, and in the chair next to him, wearing a flowing red robe and white skull cap, sat Sir James Parkes, the renowned Christian theologian and author.
I hesitated and backed away.
“Stay and light the candles,” said my father.
Gingerly, I approached the menorah and with flame in hand, I mumbled the blessings under my breath so that Sir James would not hear.
“Amen,” responded Sir James loudly, and I felt a sense of pride that Sir James had acknowledged our faith, mixed with shame that I had tried to hide it.
My father never hid it. He believed that God and His Law served as the province for all mankind and was in no way reserved for the Jews alone. From its very inception, universalism was axiomatic to Judaism. The Hebrew Bible begins with the story of Man, not with the story of the Jew. God chose the Jews to carry the message of monotheism until the dawn of the Messianic era when all the nations of the world would at last acknowledge Him.
The purpose of designating the Jews as the Chosen People is clearly outlined in the leitmotif of the Rosh Hashanah prayers, namely to fulfill the wish “that every creature know that God is its Maker and proclaim that the God of Israel is King and his Kingship rules over everything.”
If the Jews were to isolate themselves in a ghetto and shun the secular world, such a goal would never be achieved. For my father, there was an intimate connection between the position of Israel as the Chosen People on the one hand and the Messianic unity of mankind on the other. To maintain one’s identity as a separate religious and ethnic group and yet work loyally for the whole community of mankind was, for him, no contradiction.
Consistent with this thinking, my father believed that religion should embrace the whole of life in its personal, economic and social aspects and that it was a fundamental mistake to try to localize God in a House of Worship. God is either everywhere or He is nowhere and the Law of God either rules supreme in all aspects of life or it rules nowhere at all.
According to my father, the origins of the Holocaust could be traced back to the emergence of the Renaissance era with its separation of God and State, and its insistence that God Himself and the Divine origin of His Torah be proven in the courts of human reason. God, imprisoned by the Renaissance in the House of Worship, was the first displaced person of Europe and into the vacuum created by His expulsion rushed the demons of Machiavellian sovereignty, bringing death and destruction in their wake.
Mankind’s inventiveness and destructive energy had run amok and were charging headlong with atom bombs and nuclear armaments toward the precipice of universal self-destruction with none of the precepts and boundaries of religion to keep them in check.
* * * * * As a student of the works of Immanuel Kant and a disciple of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, my father believed the Torah could address all its critics, including the “wise men” of higher criticism, which he, together with others, dubbed “higher anti-Semitism.”
His premise was that God and the Divine origin of the Torah lay beyond the reach of human reason, which can neither prove nor disprove them because, to use the language of Kant, they are not “phenomena,” not part of this world, but “noumena,” beyond this world. Nevertheless, they are facts, to the same extent that nature itself and the soul of the human being are facts.
They exist, without doubt, even though we do not fully comprehend them. One cannot analyze the soul through a microscope, scan God through a telescope or view God speaking to man by using the spade of the archeologist. To deduce from this that God and the soul do not exist would be rather like the fisherman who claims that water does not exist because his net never captured it. Accordingly, to my father, the only way to perceive God is through the observance of the mitzvot, which he called power stations that generate holiness.
About the Author: Raphael Grunfeld’s book, “Ner Eyal on Seder Moed” (distributed by Mesorah) is available at OU.org and your local Jewish bookstore. His new book, “Ner Eyal on Seder Nashim & Nezikin,” will be available shortly.
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