Speech held by Rabbi Stein
at a celebration to honor the person and work of Rabbi Professor Dr. Nathan Peter Levinson
”Moses received and understood the teaching at Mount Sinai, and passed it on to Jehoshua; Jehoshua passed it on to the elders of the Israelite tribes, and the elders then to the prophets. The prophets passed it on to the men of the Great Assembly.”
On this special occasion of conferring honor on the person of Rabbi Prof. Dr. Nathan Peter Levinson and appreciation of his lifework, let us look back at the SHALSHELET HAKABALAH, at the long and uninterrupted chain of receiving, accepting, carrying, developing and passing on our traditions and our way of life – at this chain of tradition which once began at Mount Sinai, as the above mentioned Mishna-text tells us, and of which we are the present link here and now.
But looking back into the past should not only teach us what the Word, the Law, demands of us in some small, particular situations. Much more, we should learn to understand how one can and ought to live as a Jew, as a human being. Although the old faith of Mount Sinai and of the desert has developed in such a way as to be scarcely recognizable, the fundamental demands in respect of religion, ethics, morals, justice and humanity nevertheless remain unchanged.
But above all: Who were these men who bore responsibility in the chain reaching far back into our past? What kind of men were they, who knew how to save the old Israelite heritage not only in seemingly hopeless situations, but also, to develop it to its highest state in the face of sheer insurmountable difficulties, against all expectations and perhaps also against all hopes of the people around.
We today, as heirs and bearers of their teaching, their tasks and their yearnings should respect their example at all levels of our lives. In particular we should always set our sights on their example in our behavior as individuals and as a community and in all that we do.
Their characteristics, their ideals, their demands upon themselves, upon their own person, will therefore serve us here as a basis for some – hopefully correctly understood – thoughts voiced aloud.
It was a long and slow process of development and unfolding which brought us here. But compared with the thousands of years in which our people developed, the so-called Rabbinic Judaism is comparably young.
As far as we know, it was in the generation after Hillel, that is around the beginning of our calendar, that the title or mode of address ‘Rabbi’ – the best translation is ‘my teacher’ or ‘my master’ – came into use for the wise men in EREZ ISRAEL.
At first, this title was only given to men ordained and appointed by the Sanhedrin itself. Basically it was an authorization to act as judge, as decision maker. There was a special title, ‘Rabban’, for the chairman of the Sanhedrin.
In the other great and very important Jewish community of that time, the Babylonian one, the slightly simpler title ‘Rav’ was used.
So we learn that at the beginning three different titles were used: Rabban and Rabbi in the country, Rav in Babylonia.
But in their humility, the rabbis had already learned at the time of the Talmud that what matters is not the title, but the studies – the studies, the knowledge, the integrity of the bearer. And so we read: ”Rabbi is greater than Rav and Rabban is greater than Rabbi, but simply the names of the very early wise men and teachers without any title, Hillel an Shammai and their predecessors, were even greater than Rabban. But please, that should not encourage any of you to address the rabbi today by his first name!
The rabbi in the Talmud era could act within the community in different capacities. He could even become Nassi, that is, the president of the whole community, which is a political office. He could act as a judge or he could, through his studies and his knowledge, be a teacher and an example to the community – an example in his behavior, his good works and his moral way of life.
The Nassi had to be elected by the community, for all authority came from the community. A rabbi was appointed to be a judge by his colleagues, but the most important thing, the third, was the obligation towards the teaching itself – the teaching which he had received and studied and which he must now explain, pass on, put in concrete terms and, most of all, live himself.
All his offices were voluntary and a payment was only permitted if the rabbi had to give up the job completely, in which he earned his living, for the public well-being and benefit. See Tract Shabbat 115a of the Bab. Tal.
Almost without exception the rabbis had a job with which they earned their living. Hillel was a woodcutter, Shammai was a bricklayer, Rabbi Joshua – who was elected Nassi – was a blacksmith, Rabbi Ishmael was a tanner. They were shoemakers and tailors and much more. Rav Chuna, the chairman of the academy in Surah, from which generations of great scholars came, was a water bearer. Indeed these men set an example.
The rabbi had to be beyond reproach in everything he did. Even his outward appearance should instill respect. Rabbi Jochanan said: He had to appear as pure as an angel.
But we must also not forget that the rabbi was respected to an even greater extent than elderly people. The older in knowledge deserved more honor than the older in years. (Kiddushin 32b)
As we know, times have changed. The rabbi of the past is scarcely recognizable in the rabbi of today. Too often there is a lack of understanding and commitment, of the readiness of our wise men to make sacrifices. Sometimes, yes, sometimes there is even a lack of study. But most of all, the spark of divine inspiration, which the wise men possessed, is missing.
But also rabbis of today often work in congregations which have more or less lost contact with their and our past or even reject it, congregations with no desire to be taught how to follow this way which we as Jews, as bearers of traditions and duties, have to go.
The rabbi of today and what he represents is too often regarded as an unimportant relic of the past, of a past without much relevance for the present, something which is just tolerated out of anxiety or superstition, or maybe only to be on the safe side.
The facts however are totally different: the more complex and confusing the modern life gets, the more necessary the wise and well-tried teaching of the past becomes. The greater the demands of everyday life, the greater its enticements for people and for their integrity are, the more we have to try to confront them with our values, which we teach, present, make audible and visible. But all that must be done in an understandable, intelligent, acceptable, reasonable way, in a manner appropriate to the 21. century.
This Sabbath, we read about the incident of the ‘golden calf’ and its consequences. We hear how Moses, after breaking the tablets of Mount Sinai in justified anger about the conduct of the people, was called back by God onto the mountain in order to bring the words of the first tablets, which he had broken, to the people for the future. Ancient words in new forms. In the same way, it is an ever-new task to bring together the old traditions and the demands and requirements of each present day: ancient words in new forms.
It would be immodest arrogance if we were even to attempt to compare our abilities and competences today with those of our wise men; but we have a job to do and we are looking for example, guidance and instruction. For that, I know no better way and no more exemplary one than this long chain of our rabbis and teachers, who had the will, the ability and the inspiration with love and strength and unceasing patience, to develop Judaism from the good, old religion of Mount Sinai, of the desert and of the land, in such a way that it remains true to the tradition and in harmony with life in every era, every generation.
The tasks of the rabbis to judge and to seek justice, to learn and to teach, to argue and to reconcile, to interpret and then to put into practice – these are as relevant as ever and they have become our tasks.
The constructive pluralism, which has always existed in Judaism, should not be repressed but rather encouraged. Not innovation for innovation’s sake, not fashion for appearance’s sake is needed, but well considered and dignified action founded on knowledge and reason.
Rabbi Tarfon recognized the eternal task, the endless effort when he said nearly 2000 years ago:
The day is short and there is much work to do.
It is impossible for you to finish the work but you are not entitled to shirk it.
Rabbi Nathan Peter Levinson, whose person and life work – as has been said earlier – are being honored here this evening, is a personality who for more than half a century not only accompanied the so critical time of trying to rebuild the Jewish congregations in Germany, but was also one of those who basically shaped it. He held more than one single office as a rabbi at the same time – a demanding challenge. There weren’t any rabbis prepared to confront the challenges at that time. Personally I want to express my thanks for a conversation we had in early 1972. I was on a visit here from America and when I saw the sad state of rabbinic care and leadership – in so far as there was any – in my once so proud congregation, he said: If one looks at that and feels a legitimate sadness and sorrow, then one ought to, one has to do something about it. Within a fortnight, I – no longer a young man – enrolled as a student at the Leo Baeck College in London. The rest is history. Maybe the Jewish congregation in Berlin should be a little bit grateful to him for that too. He was a stumbling stone for this ”stone”, which is what my name means in German.
It is thanks to Mr. Baruch Tenembaum, founder of the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, that this celebration is taking place today. On the occasion of a commemoration ceremony here in Berlin, he met Rabbi Levinson and asked – as King Ahasueros has asked in the Purim-story: ”Mah naasah jakar ugedula” – what honor and recognition has he received for his works and deeds? How did the Jewish congregation honor him? Rabbi in Germany for fifty years!
Now – something is happening today.
We don’t have any decorations or Pour le Merit to award, but we do have words of honor, of respect and of contemplative memory, which will be spoken by friends and contemporaries. And even a medal of honor has been specially made for him. Yes, indeed, Pour le Semit.
The ancient wise men often finished their daily prayers with their own private thoughts or with psalm verses which at that moment were appropriate to their concerns.
We are humbly going to call on a word of the author of psalm 90. It is a request, that the work which Rabbi Levinson began and developed with faithfulness and constant endeavor will be furthered and will endure: the work of renewing and reviving a thinking, sensible, developing, outward looking Judaism in Germany.
Let the favor of the Eternal One, our God, be upon us,and prosper for us the work of our hands – O prosper the work of our hands!
Speech was delivered in German. Translation into English by Ann and Rolf Schreiter.