Student Rabbi Peter Radvanszki’s Speech in Finchley Reform Synagogue

As most of you know, I am a third year rabbinical student at Leo Baeck College. I am more than grateful to be able to be in London and to learn here. I can continue my dream, and the dream of so many of us in Hungary, who believe that Judaism can be reborn and live again after the Shoah and 41 years of Communism.

However, I have to tell you that my thinking is sometimes regarded as ‘problematic’ in the academic world.

Last week, I received the examination results from my essays of our first semester. At the end of one of my essays, in which I wrote about the prayer “Asher Yatzar”, I wrote about how the strength of a prayer can be personally experienced, even if one no longer believes in supernatural wonders.

One of the examiners made a note at the end of my essay, saying:

“This is possibly rather problematic… You are almost saying that this prayer ‘works’ in a magical way.”

I would not be concerned if the examiner were not speaking in the name of so many people in the Progressive movement. Very many times, I have experienced more-or-less awkward comments about my beliefs and customs. Through these experiences, I now clearly see one of the core problems of modern Judaism in Britain: The exclusivity of the academic approach has in fact displaced the place of spirituality. Academic scholarship has taken the place of theology in Progressive Judaism, and scepticism has taken the place of beliefs. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that criticism and scepticism have no place in religious thought. They are in fact the core of Progressive thinking, which differentiates it from other Jewish movements. The greatness of the Progressive Movement lies in its inclusivity. We, both sceptics and believers, all have a place in it. Rather, I am asserting that the exclusive usage of critical approaches actually undermines faith. Yes, I believe that one CAN experience the strength, sometimes even the magical power, of a prayer. I say this because I have experienced it.

Let me talk a little about the prayer ‘Asher Yatzar’, which I’ve mentioned. This prayer talks about personal distress towards our bodies. Many of us have experienced the terrible feeling that the functions of our bodies are uncontrollable. This distress can be so overwhelming, that we can think about nothing else. To us, in those moments, the concerns of the outside world disappear. One American rabbi in a very high position, working in the world’s largest Jewish communities, once told me that he is so worried about his bodily functions during services, that he takes pills to calm himself. That same rabbi once told me the following advice on my future in the rabbinate:

“Whatever you will do, your community will support you. Your mistakes will be taken as right decisions. You will be God to them.”

I can tell you one thing. I don’t want to be God. Oh, and something else: I think it is impossible to be God. Because we wake up every day in this thing called the human body, which defines our everyday life, and sometimes causes so many personal worries and problems.

But the prayer ‘Asher Yatzar’ says: “Don’t worry. The functions of your human body are holy. Your body was planned by God. “

The wording of ‘Asher Yatzar’ alludes to a vision of Ezekiel, which compares the human body to a holder of gemstones. In this vision, the human being is placed in the Garden of Eden, where the gemstones adore the human being, who is in its ideal state of its existence. Anyone who says this prayer can experience this state. The hypnotic effect of this prayer is so powerful that, in Hassidic circles, it is regarded as a healing prayer that has helped the lives of thousands of people. We can take this as self-hypnosis, yet many people have experienced that it works.

One of the key words of this prayer is ‘hochma’, wisdom. It says: God created the human being in wisdom. In our parasha, Betzalel is filled with the spirit of wisdom, in order to build the desert tabernacle. Hochma is our driving force of our creativity. It is fantastic to see how it works in reality.

Two weeks ago, the new synagogue of our community Sim Shalom in Budapest was inaugarated. I am really grateful that I had the opportunity to be there in that moment. It took so many years of work, often in adverse conditions, to reach this moment. Thanks to the creative work of our chairperson (my brother) Gabor Radvanszki, our rabbi Katalin Kelemen, and the contribution of generous donors and volunteers, the Pesach of 5770 will be truly experienced as a new Exodus from Egypt, a true celebration of freedom, for our community in Budapest.

When we create something new, we all model ourselves on the deeds of Betzalel. The building of the desert Tabernacle is the archetype for creativity. Betzalel in fact can stand as one of our most important role models, as he created a holy structure from a collection of wood and metals. For me in my life, sometimes the primary driving force is the belief that a better, holier world can be created. For my community in Budapest, the power of prayer and spirituality has been essential to reach this moment of its existence, and to build a new home, a new tabernacle. My grandmother, a survivor of Auschwitz, lit the ner tamid of our new synagogue. In that moment, we experienced a wonder. Let’s not intellectualize it or explain it. It was a wonder.

Delivered in March 2010, in Finchley Reform Synagogue

by Peter Radvanszki, student rabbi, Leo Baeck College

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