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.
God does not command belief. He demands the observance of the mitzvot.
“Do you believe in God?” I once asked my father, during tortured years of adolescent doubt.
“No,” said my father, and my heart skipped a beat.
“I know God,” he said.
Perhaps he was conveying to me his life’s motto of “Know God in all that you do.”
As a follower of Rabbi Hirsch, he believed in the formula of “Torah im Derech Eretz,” which he defined as steadfast loyalty to Torah and tradition combined with participation in the social, economic and cultural life of the country where the Jew has been welcomed as a citizen.
My father passed on his teachings to his five children, Ann, Naomi, Joseph, Shemaya and Raphael.
Ann, a columnist for the Anglo Jewish press, is a psychiatrist. Naomi, whose remarkable classes on Torah topics are renowned, is fluent in multiple languages. She was a gifted lecturer in colleges in the UK and the U.S. Joseph spent his working life at the London Board of Shechita for many years. His passing left an irreparable void. He was loved and respected by all who knew him. Shemaya, a brilliant Talmud scholar, received semicha from former chief rabbi of Israel Rabbi Isser Unterman, studied with Rabbi Yechiel Weinberg (the Seridei Eish) and Rabbi Chaim Schmulevitch, the rosh yeshiva of Mir, and is a successful securities trader.
* * * * * My father slipped out of Germany late one night in 1933, after members of the National Socialist Party, many of whom my father had prosecuted as a young member of the Wurzburg Bar, made threats on his life. He was tipped off by a prominent Nazi official whom he had helped many years before during the German bar exam by allowing this man to copy some of his answers.
Newly arrived in the UK after a short stay in Israel, where he studied law at Hebrew University but was advised to go to England and qualify as a barrister, my father studied English and joined one of the Inns of Court where he read for the bar. But as the clouds of World War II gathered and the London Beth Din needed a qualified lawyer to interface with the British government, my father was asked by Chief Rabbi Herz to study for semicha and in 1939 was appointed a full-time dayan of Rabbi Yecheskel Abrambsky’s London Beth Din.
Alone in London after his wife, Dr. Judith Grunfeld, headmistress of the Jewish Secondary schools, had evacuated the Jewish children of London to the safety of the English countryside in Shefford, my father braved the blitz day in day out as he adjudicated cases of missing soldiers, agunot and other wrenching wartime issues at the Beth Din. Many years later he showed us his Shulchan Aruch, which was perforated with shrapnel, and the shredded kippah he wore as the Beth Din was bombed during a hearing.
After the war, the London Beth Din was the only one left in Europe and became a Jewish consulate for the whole continent. There were Jewish children to be rescued, relatives to be traced and a multitude of people seeking Jewish guidance.
It was during this time that my parents were asked by the British Colonial Office to travel to the internment camps in Cyprus to dissuade Jewish survivors, who had been pulled off boats sailing from Europe to Eretz Yisrael, from following through on their threat to commit suicide if they were not permitted to leave immediately for the Holy Land.
The rabbi referred to in Leon Uris’s novel Exodus who was involved in the Cyprus crisis was none other than my father.
An account of my father’s Kol Nidrei night sermon in the makeshift tent shul in which he persuaded the inmates to postpone their desperate plan as he negotiated with Ernest Bevin, the British foreign secretary, was related to me some fifty years later in New York by a survivor who, as a teenager, had attended the sermon, which saved his life. After much negotiation, my father was able to persuade the British government to allow the inmates safe passage to Israel.
From Cyprus my father went on to visit camps housing children who had been brought over to the UK by an inter-denominational hospitality committee from the liberated countries of Europe for a short stay of recuperation. The Catholic and Protestant authorities sent ministers of religion to the camp to tend to the religious needs of the 1,000 children who had arrived.
When my father inquired whether the religious needs of the Jewish children in the camp were in fact being attended to, the reply was that there was not a single Jewish child in the camp. My father was skeptical. He knew that Jewish children had survived the war by hiding in the houses of gentiles who had risked their lives to save them, and he dared to hope that at least a few Jewish children were among the thousand.
As my father walked through the camp he began to recite aloud “Shema Yisrael” and “Hamalach Hagoel.” All at once he was surrounded by hordes of little children. “Mama, Mama,” they cried. “Take us home to Mama.”
It was this experience that underlined for him the magnitude of the problem and so he went on to establish the Jewish War Orphans Commission, which led to an unrelenting campaign before the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations for the rescue of Jewish war orphans and their return to Jewry.
* * * * * The strain of the war years took its toll.
One Shabbat afternoon in 1954, at the age of seven, I was walking home from shul hand in hand with my father when he suddenly collapsed in the road. He had suffered a major heart attack.
He returned from the hospital six months later, gray and frail. When I asked him whether he would ever go swimming with me again at the seaside, I was taken from his side and swiftly ushered out of the room.
But my father’s extraordinary journey was by no means over.
A number of years after my father’s recovery, he told those present at his 60th birthday party that one night in the hospital he had received a “visit” from Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who told him that he would continue to live if he vowed to devote the rest of his life to disseminating Rav Hirsch’s writings.
It was at that party that my father vowed to do so.
From his small study overlooking the high street ensued a stream of his own publications on the laws of Shabbat, kashrut and Jewish inheritance as well as translations of the major works of Samson Raphael Hirsch that revolutionized Torah education for English-speaking Jews.
The pristine English style and syntax of this German refugee, the clarity of thought of the Torah scholar, the consummate draftsmanship of the lawyer and the universal reach of the philosopher all combined to produce these eternal classics of Judaism with which the name Dayan Grunfeld will forever be synonymous.
According to the rosh yeshiva Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, our great rabbis are remembered not only for their scholarly skill but also for their unforgettable acts of kindness. One day there was a knock on the door of our house in London. Outside, a man stood shivering in the doorway. My father saw that he did not have a coat.
My father had two coats. One was worn throughout the week and the other was worn only on Shabbat.
“Go upstairs,” my father said to me and bring down my Shabbat coat.”
I brought him the coat and he handed it to the man who took it and beat a hasty retreat.
Two years later, as I was walking with my father to shul, he suddenly took hold of my arm and steered me to the other side of the street.
I did not understand why. He was a man of discipline and habit and he favored that side of the street on his way to shul. Only then, however, did I catch sight of the man wearing my father’s coat, walking slowly, head down, on my father’s favored side of the road.
* * * * * Rosh Hashanah 1975 was a happy time. Our newborn son, my father’s grandson, was due to have his brit the next day.
My father had visited him and Daniela in the hospital a few days earlier and had stood over his hospital crib and blessed him.
During the Rosh Hashanah meal my sister asked if anyone knew what the baby’s name would be. My father was unusually curt. “Let not discuss it,” he said.
That night, when Rosh Hashanah was over, I called my father. I asked him how he was feeling. He had given a sermon in shul, davened before the amud and blown the shofar.
I told him I wanted to come to see him.
“No” he said, “your place right now is with your wife and your son. I will see you tomorrow at the brit.”
He died that night.
At the brit the next morning, our baby son was given the name Ishai, after my father.
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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