Reflections on Emunah


By Judith Grunfeld

How can I write about emunah? I do not feel competent to deal with so great and deep a subject. I only know that our people have been rooted in emunah like a sturdy, weather-beaten tree that is firmly rooted in solid ground, constantly shooting out plants alive with growth.

But I have been asked to draw upon “any personal events which challenged . . . faith or played a crucial part in solidifying it.” This touches a cord. Where have I experienced emunah?

My mind travels back many years. Pictures of long ago stir and come to life. I am a sixteen-year-old girl. Life is peaceful and unharassed in those days at the beginning of the century. I love sunshine, the beauty of summergreen and the reflection of idealistic romance. And then something happens. My brother, age eighteen, has caught the flu which is sweeping Germany. My parents, by his bedside, storm the heavens with their prayers and supplications. To no avail. He is laid to rest on erev Shabbos, a beloved son, a pure soul, a part of the strong fabric of our solid family unit and my first encounter with death. The world had suddenly become dark for me as never before and my mother’s tears burnt wounds into my hitherto idealistic, cloudless existence. And then—but a few hours later, we all came to the Shabbos table. The silver was shining, the challos were presiding, zemiros were sung, light filled the room, the golden soup was shared—the Shabbos Queen had shed her radiance unaltered. We filed into togetherness and the pain, which should have reached its peak, was prevented from rising to the top. Shabbos had triumphed, had smoothed us into harmony and had dipped our hearts into the radiance that flooded the room. This happened over seventy years ago and while I write this down, having since gone through a number of tribulations—including the terror of the world’s worst human catastrophic time—I feel the tears still rising . . . in reverence of this long past experience that my parents in their emunah had given me. Something of this experience has never left me, it forged my inner triumphant strength that stood by me all along through many a difficult period of life.

30th1992BSo how is emunah defined? Is it in the quiver of the heart when grappling with the infinite or is it in the glitter of the tears that well up when we humbly accept our unfathomable destiny?

In our mundane, everyday life, we sometimes encounter moments of elation and mental inspiration. We then reach beyond the banality of our routine and feel confronted with a super individual vision far beyond our temporal experience. I remember such moments (which appear as ordinary happenings when I try to recall or retell them) and their impact was so strong that something of it accompanied me through life.

Why should I now, after the passage of sixty years, so vividly and clearly remember sitting on the green grass of the Carpathian Mountains next to a woman twice my age, whom I have only just met after coming from Frankfurt to Poland? While listening to her plans for women’s education, I feel overcome and lifted up to a height of vision—a vision which has not lost its magic momentum even today, so many decades later.

This woman was the then unknown Sarah Schenirer, and while she spoke to me, initiating me into her plans, the radiance of her presence was strongly communicating itself to me. I became a part of the magic web that embraced her and wider spheres beyond her. From that moment onwards, I handed myself over to the task of weaving the net of education spread out before me, and I have seen it spread out into a world-embracing and widely acknowledged blessed movement. The sensation of this experience, so sudden, so far reaching and so sincerely presented has never left me. I have lived and relived this encounter countless times, and every time it touches me anew in its incredible power of sincerity. The basis of it all—emunah, strong, unshakable and solid.

How can I write about emunah? I do not feel competent to deal with so great and deep a subject.

It seems that the seedlings of emunah are not just private sensations, not just personal gifts. They are slumbering in us and may remain unrecognized and unknown until they are touched by the kiss of an event or an encounter with fate. Words from a pure source may serve as a magic key to unlock those sensations. Inbuilt genetic disposition may also contribute, as a gift of grace. We may not be the beginners of emunah in our hearts—it may have been passed on to us from beyond time and some may be more richly endowed with it than others.

Can we define emunah? Can we define a colour? We can only point at it and say “this rose is red.” This is something that is positive to the eye, it is refreshing, it is attractive, it is loud—but it will never be possible to define any colour. To a blind man there is no way of presenting it—there is no bridge of understanding to one bereft of sight.

What is emunah? Emunah is when you are told to jump into the roaring sea, and that “it will be safe.” When all hesitated, Nachshon Ben Aminadav did the jump. He went down in history with this fearless jump where reason based on experience had abdicated. It was a jump of emunah—reality was overrun.

With emunah, we become sure that the unbelievable will happen and has happened in the past.

One feels Divine guidance, the hand behind the mechanics of life. Emunah will sprout in elite moments, may they be moments of joy or of helpless devastation. It has its bright chances when marriage under the sky is seen as enchanted immortalization of life itself. When two people are blended into a unit under the canopy, then continuation is handed over to the yet unborn. In the seven marriage blessings we have the visionary ecstasy of joining Gan Eden through the new couple, directly with the days of Mashiach. Thus emunah makes life transparent. Emunah is potentially an extension of the mundane life. Mundane life contains treasures of holiness which come out at sparking times and develop into a tapestry which, when woven tightly enough, gives us purpose of life, strength without strain, harmony beyond our planning and elevation without conscious effort.

Can we define emunah? Can we define a colour?

When a mother gives birth, she is not just a woman giving birth to a child, she is a descendant sliding gradually into ancestry. She is leading into further flowering, which in turn will bring the song and music of life, pointing far beyond the temporal moment. Deep down, the essence of it all is emunah. Emunah lifts us up, makes us ignore the stumbling block in our way, the thorns that rend our garments and our skin. It directs our glance towards a height we shall never really reach. It hurts and soothes at the same time. It must have been in Gittel (and in so many like her), the staunch Beth Jacob girl in the Kracow Ghetto, when she gathered her children around her, took them by the hand and said to them: “Do not be afraid my kinderlach, we go now together to Hashem.” And with confident step, her children by her side, she walked directly towards the commanding SS officer of the extermination squad. They were in the next group felled to the ground and no one ever saw the wings of bitachon on which Gittel had floated.

I have been told this account by a surviving eyewitness: how Gittel and her children walked towards their end. Gittel had been my student sixty years ago in Sarah Schenirer’s first Beth Jacob Seminary in Kracow. What is it that grips me now, some fifty years later, when I recount it, that I feel so totally humble, hinged to a sublime existence?

There is not much time for the ordinary person for holiness. We have to deal with so many mundane things, routine takes most of the time. But suddenly we feel there are moments that give their sparks and when I come face to face with those sparks, my feelings are all aglow. I am ready for the encounter and while I am aware of this readiness, all bent to hold on to it . . . it escapes me and I am a creature earthbound, fumbling for the security of earth. “My beloved eludes me” (Shir Hashirim 5:6). Is there a trace of emunah anywhere to be found? Maybe our sparks of emunah experience are linked to each other, one here, one there, one of the Ne’ilah hour, one of an encounter with hope or with disaster, and together they all form a mighty power, breaking in full force of ecstasy like lava breaks out of a mountain and floods all around . . . . How dare I analyze emunah, I can barely tentatively touch the surface, perhaps not even this.

Yaakov Avinu saw a ladder standing on earth, its top reaching to heaven. Our Jewish home is founded on emunah and it is the place on which the world hinges. The distance from the profane to the sacred is so small. It is incalculable. Our house was shaken to the ground, but it has proved its strength. The hinges never broke. It needed the raging hurricane to make us aware of its indestructibility and with it, the indestructibility of our people. Perhaps emunah are the rungs that lead from the earth to heaven.

Dr. Judith Grunfeld was an associate of Sarah Schenirer in the founding of the first Beth Jacob Seminary. She was later headmistress of the famed Jewish Secondary School of London. When some 500 foreign refugee children were evacuated from London to the countryside during World War II, she directed the reconstituted Jewish school in Shefford. She passed away in 1998. This article first appeared in the fall 1992 issue.

This article was featured in the Winter 2015 issue of Jewish Action.
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