Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Rabbi Sidney Brichto’s Unexpected Day Trip to Florence

My wife and I were enjoying a dinner with friends at an Italian restaurant. Our host was called to the phone. On his return, he announced that due to a cancellation he had a spare seat on a private jet which had been hired to take him and his team from London to Florence to order fabrics. They would be leaving at eight the next morning and returning the same night. My wife hesitated, but I jumped at the opportunity to see some of the greatest art in the world for the first time.

It was a sunny day, and after we landed I made my way to the city by taxi, spending the morning walking over the cobbles by the Ponte Vecchio, seeing statues by the unbelievably powerful Michelangelo, gasping at the glories of the Uffizi Gallery and enjoying lunch in a simple restaurant. Next I walked to the Duomo, but as I entered that great cathedral I was overwhelmed with emotion. Normally I visit churches as a tourist. This time, I sat in one of the side chapels and looked in amazement at the crucifixes, images and sacred stories depicted in stained-glass windows, watching petitioners lighting candles which, clustered in their hundreds, glowed eerily in the darkened cathedral. People kneeled in prayer to the sound of Gregorian chanting.

All I could think of at this moment was my sudden overwhelming awareness of human suffering, and it occurred to me that no synagogue, no matter how ancient, could convey such a sense of the tragedy of existence. I imagined the millions who in the course of history had poured out their hearts to the images of Jesus and Mary, pleading for salvation from their grief, and for a sign that they were forgiven. I could barely believe the tears that were running down my cheeks, and knelt inwardly at the altar of human suffering and of the evil that caused it. I asked myself how people could be evil to others, or could kill people with faces as human as their own.

Perhaps the Christians are right, I felt, and humanity’s sinfulness is so great that it is irredeemable except by miraculous intervention and divine transformation. Could the laws of Judaism ever hope to change the human heart, or are they only palliative, keeping evil in check ? Is it like a police force, detecting only a small percentage of the crimes committed ?

The paradox struck me. Here I was, one of a people for whom suffering is not merely a matter of individual fate but also a consequence of being Jewish : for over centuries, this accident of birth has been an invitation for persecution, humiliation and even death. Yet Judaism has no prominent symbols of suffering or sinfulness. Christians however have eloquent images for the feeling that life is a vale of tears from which the only refuge is faith : they have a God, a Mother of God and even saints to understand and share their suffering.

I tell you this to show that there are aspects of Christian faith which can touch Jews, just as there are aspects of Jewish faith which can touch Christians. The faces of the Jewish and Christian Gods may be different, but their hearts are the same. The heart of God with which we all seek to commune wants a happier world which all of us can enjoy.

Source: Sidney Brichto’s “Funny, you don’t look Jewish” Pilkington Press (1994)

Thanks to Barrie Hibbert for passing this story my way.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: “I walked to the Duomo, but as I entered that great cathedral I was overwhelmed with emotion.”