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.