Thoughts to Ponder Number 67

9 Kislev, 5761; December 6, 2000

Finding One's Neshomeh:
Franz Rosenzweig and the Berliner Stiebl

We suggested last week that Israeli leaders, academicians and the Israeli public should find their way back to the synagogue and re-discover their neshomehs. But this is easier said than done. Many have entered and left without sensing any spiritual significance. In fact, many have entered and have been discouraged.

To come to synagogue is an art. One has to come with a sincere urge to discover one's Jewishness, to reconnect with the Jewish people and with one's inner being. To enter the synagogue is to hope for a metamorphosis in one's soul and a transformation of one's personality.

When Franz Rosenzweig (Germany, 1886-1929) decided to leave Judaism and to be baptized, he enacted this resolution by attending the High Holiday services in a iiistiebl, a small orthodox synagogue in Berlin. This was a kind of final farewell to his former religion with which he never had any relationship. Arguing his case he wrote: "We (Jews) are Christians in everything, We live in a Christian state, attend Christian schools, read Christian books; in short our whole culture rests entirely on Christian foundations. Therefore if a man has nothing to hold him back, he needs only a slight push...to make him accept Christianity." (1)

To his utter surprise, inspired by the services, he underwent a deep religious metamorphosis and left the small synagogue with such a love for Judaism that he did not only call off his decision to become a Christian, but decided to become a religious Jew. Consequently, he made a very intensive study of Judaism, wrote some remarkable works about his newly found religion and turned into one of the most important thinkers of Judaism in modern times. (2)

What happened to Rosenzweig within those few hours in that small synagogue? What turned his whole life around and transformed him into a deeply religious Jew? How is such a metamorphosis possible, especially to a man of great intellectual perception? Rosenzweig, after all, had spend years contemplating the possibility of becoming a Christian. He had discussed this with many of his friends who had encouraged him to do so. Still, within a few hours he decided to disregard his earlier decision and turn into a committed Jew!

The solution to this problem may be found in a highly significant midrash which tells of a Jewish apostate by the name of Joseph Mechitha who helped the Romans destroy the Temple.

"When the enemies (the Romans) desired to enter the Temple Mount, they said, 'Let one of them (the Jews) enter first.' They said to Joseph Mechitha, 'Enter and whatever you bring out is yours.' So he went in and brought out a golden lamp. They said to him, 'It is not fitting for a common person to use this, so go in, and whatever you bring out is yours.' This time, he refused. Said Rabbi Pinchas: 'They offered him three years taxes, yet he still refused and said, "Is it not enough that I have angered my God once that I should anger Him again?"' What did they do to him? They put him into a carpenters clamp and sawed him and dismembered him. He cried: Woe to me that I angered my Creator!" (Midrash Rabba, Bereshith 45:22) (3)

Rabbi Joseph Kahaneman, the famous Ponivicher Rav, once commented that this Midrash conveys the mighty impact which the Temple used to have on human beings. The moment that Joseph Mechitha entered the Temple he underwent a spiritual metamorphosis. He suddenly realized that he was a Jew and that he had been deeply touched by the unique atmosphere and the symbols he found there. He still "managed" to take out a golden lamp but once outside he realized that he could no longer enter the Temple for the second time. His new-found neshomeh did not allow him to do so. Even when the Romans offered him great amounts of money and threatened to torture him to death, he could not get himself to defile the House of God again.

In his weekly parasha commentary, Rabbi Yisachar Frand (4) suggests that this midrash somehow explains Franz Rosenweig's sudden transformation when he entered the small synagogue in Berlin. Once he saw Jews in prayer, talitoth over their heads and in deep concentration, his neshomeh awoke, and his Jewishness was restored.

This, however, needs further explanation: In what way do a synagogue and Jewish prayers suddenly awaken a Jewish soul which was totally removed from anything Jewish? What was there in the Temple which made Joseph Mechitha realize its overwhelming spiritual power so that he could not enter a second time? As suggested above, it relates, first of all, to the kind of attitude one has iiibefore one enters the Temple or a synagogue. After all, many entered and were disappointed or even discouraged. Others even defiled the sanctuary and did not show any remorse; Titus entered the Temple and had intercourse with two harlots in the Holy of Holies. (Gitin 56b) But, still, iii even when one enters with the right approach, what makes this experience into a religious metamorphosis?

Here we enter into the world of Jewish symbolism. According to kabalistic thought, the physical symbols in the Temple such as the altar and the menorah, are tangible reflections of the En Sof, the infinite Divine stuff, which, like a kind of fog, descends into this world. These symbols are not fully comprehensible, since their essence belongs to the metaphysical world. They are, however, identified by the subconscious which itself has its root in the Divine, since man was formed in the Divine image. Consequently, they invoke in man an overwhelming recognition of the higher world which gives him the unique feeling that he is looking into his own soul. This is the apperception of the neshomeh. The Temple was the representation of heaven on earth and its symbols caused the soul to hear a perpetual murmur coming from the waves of a fantastic seashell far beyond man's reach. Such a divine manifestation would ultimately lead to the metamorphosis which Joseph Mechitha experienced when he entered the Temple.

In a similar way, Franz Rosenzweig discovered his own neshomeh while attending the service in the stiebl in Berlin. Once he saw the symbolic objects of which the interior of the synagogue is so rich (representing the Temple) and simultaneously heard and read the prayers of the High Holidays, he entered into the heavenly realm which had been all the time hovering within his soul. It revolutionized his inner being and brought heaven to earth. This did not come from observing what took place in this small synagogue but from a desire to penetrate and become part of a highly significant religious experience.

This is what we suggest all secular Israelis try to accomplish, to enter a small synagogue filled with dedicated and passionate worshippers and, thereupon, to remove all external and artificial components from their souls. To penetrate into the surroundings in which they find themselves and to "let go." This indeed requires great courage, but the sudden feeling of "belonging" which will result in an encounter with what we call the world of the neshomeh will be of unexpected blissfulness. It will be a "homecoming" and save the Jewish world from a great amount of self-imposed harm.

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

Reproduction of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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