Berlin’s Old/New Reality

Berlin’s Old/New Reality

When I agreed to teach Jewish law at Humboldt University in Berlin — the only European law school to offer such a course — I assumed I could be reasonable and objective about Germany. I was naïve. No American, certainly no Jew, comes to Germany clean. There are too many memories, too many inherited cultural images and prejudices.

Consider this: My wife passes through passport control at Tegel airport in Berlin. The tall blond border policeman looks to her like a Nazi. Actually, she believes that all these German police are Nazis. I reassure her that they are not. They are only German border guards. They weren’t even born until long after the war. She still isn’t comfortable. And I too admit that when I first came to Berlin, in the back of my mind, I imagined nervously these same people asking me, “Papiere, bitte.”

As we walk through Berlin, my wife and I argue about the intertwined red and black circles we see on some wall posters. She says that are Nazi symbols, swastikas in disguise. I insist they are merely stylistic. I remind her that the swastika is illegal in Germany, but she has the last laugh. They turn out to be advertisements for the German version of “The Producers,” and because the swastika is illegal, the usual ads for the musical must be redesigned. They came up with these interlinked red and black rings because they make people think of Nazi-era symbolism.

Here is the paradox: What we are looking at both is and is not a swastika. There is no single clearly defined picture of reality. After entering Germany, everything we experience, like the design on the poster, is both what it is and what it is not.

I am now in Germany, in Berlin. What does it mean to enter this land? I am “in transition,” leaving behind an old picture in order to discover a new, more realistic one. But the old-new distinction proves misleading. What is old and what is new does not remain so sharply separated. I am finding a new reality, but it does not erase the old one. I keep my images of Germans and Germany, but they are colored and subtly altered by my experience here.

Here I am at Humboldt Law School, once a place where most of the professors were Jews and once the site of a famous book burning. For probably the first time since 1934, German law students will write monographs and doctorates on topics in Jewish law. Hundreds of German law students will study the broad contours, specific content and jurisprudential thought of this more than 2,000-year-old system of law. They will learn its profound wisdom and hopefully come to appreciate its underlying values.

I am also here to teach Jewish thought and religious literature to Protestant theology students. And I teach the Hebrew Bible and its commentaries to anyone, Jewish or not, who finds value my approach to making sense of its narratives and laws —I synthesize history, rabbinic thought, Jewish mysticism and the insights of contemporary psychological research. I am one more voice that speaks for Jewish wisdom tradition. Berlin has the fastest growing, and perhaps largest Jewish community in Europe. How could I not be here?

My students find it paradoxical that an Orthodox rabbi teaches that Jewish law has a profound appreciation for ambiguity. Can a system of law really have texts filled with so many differences and disputes?

One of my students stops by to tell me I have inspired him. He had become worn out memorizing answers and afraid that, even if it was a good way to make a living, law was really not about anything important. “You made us ask why, and see that in the Jewish legal tradition, good questions are often of more value than the answers.”

He’s right. I have come to Berlin with more questions than answers, trained to appreciate the profound ambiguity inherent in life and therefore in law. The study of Jewish law, the engagement with Jewish thought and literature, and even the immersion in the Bible reveal the many ways we can understand our experience. They force us to encounter the many paradoxes that make up our endless attempt to understand the vast pluralist social space within which we live.

One thing I have learned from entering this land is that for me, and for many Jews, it is meaning-making not landscape, that is the voice of reality. And that voice, like the Voice at Sinai, cannot stop speaking in many voices at once. I, we, have learned to hear all those voices and thus live in a world that defies a single answer. The new Berlin will not erase its past. But the past will not define the present either. I am once again part of a world of mixed meanings, a world in which what is not supposed to go together nonetheless does. And, like my student, I am inspired. Although it pains the philosophical rationalist in me to admit it, life will be what it is and what it is not.

Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard is director of organizational development at Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Meyer-Struckmann Professor of Jewish Law at Humboldt University Law School in Berlin.

read more: