Seeing the faces of those who bring light to others
Published in The Times, 19th June 2010
I am sometimes asked, Where did I find God? The answer is surely different for each of us, and this is mine.
I found God, first, as a mystery when I was very young. For the first three years of my life we lived with my mother’s parents as part of a large extended family in Finsbury Park, north London. My grandfather did not serve as a rabbi but he had his own small synagogue (Jews call this a shteibel), and the services there are among my earliest memories.
What fascinated me was the Torah scroll. Clearly there was something special about it. When the ark (the cupboard in which the scrolls were kept) was opened, everyone stood. As the scroll was carried through the congregation, everyone touched it reverently with the fringes of their prayer shawls.
When it had been read from, and it was bound and made ready for its return to the ark, I as the rabbi’s youngest grandson was given the privilege of putting the silver bells back onto the handles of the scroll.
Had I known the word, I would have said that the Torah scroll was holy. That fascinated me and still does. The Koran calls Jews the people of the book. That is an understatement. Jews are a people only because of the book, the record of their covenant with God thirty-three centuries ago at Mount Sinai. Not until much later did I understand quite how radical this is. Jews find God in words, a text, a document.
Language is holy, because only words can connect us in our finitude with God in His infinity. Those early memories of the Torah scroll were my first signals of transcendence.
Another, much later, came after I completed my undergraduate degree. It was a landscape: the view from Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. In one direction you could look down on the Mount where the Temple once stood. I was standing where, almost two thousand years ago, Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues stood looking at the ruins left by the Romans when they destroyed the Second Temple. It remains, for Jews, the holiest place in the world, though all that remains is the Western Wall.
In the other direction lay the Judean hills. The sun was setting and the hills had turned a burnished gold as if they were lit by a strange, unearthly inner fire. Jews tend not to speak about “religious experiences” in the way my Christian friends did, but this was unmistakably a religious experience. I thought of King David lifting his eyes to the hills, “from whence cometh my help”. I thought of the lover in the Song of Songs: “The sound of my beloved: Look! Here He comes, leaping across the mountains, bounding over the hills.” Elsewhere you read the Bible. In Jerusalem you see, feel, touch the Bible. I felt brushed by the wings of eternity.
But mostly I found God in people. The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges has a story called The Approach to Al-Mutasim, in which he imagines someone coming across a stranger who has something about him – an unlikely tenderness, an exaltation – that doesn’t belong, that seems to be a reflection of someone else. “Somewhere in the world there is a man from whom this clarity, this brightness, emanates.” He searches for this mysterious presence entirely by following his reflection in others. That is how I have searched for God.
And that is where I have found Him, in holy people and ordinary people, in lives lifted beyond themselves, in serene grace and holy argument, in acts of quiet courage and improbable reconciliation, in gentle wisdom and soaring imagination, in forgiving eyes and gestures of love. There is something in these people that cannot be explained in terms of evolution and the struggle to survive, rational behaviour and the pursuit of self interest. They have been touched by the Divine Presence. They have breathed the breath of God. When you see it, you know it.
God lives in people, and they are rarely the most successful or even the most overtly religious. Religion, when it leads to self-righteousness, can become a barrier separating us from God. Like Borges’ searcher I have spent my life looking for the God from whom this clarity, this brightness, emanates. And that is where I have found Him: in the faces of those who bring light to the lives of others.