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Book Review of The Silence of Dark Water: An Inner Journey, by Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

Words from a gentle friend
The reflections of a pioneering rabbi prompt Richard Harries to ask questions about the quality of his own living.
 
It is said that everyone has two books in them: a good book and a bad one. The good
book is the story of their life and the bad one is an account of what they believe.
However, this inner journey by Jonathan Wittenberg confutes that neat categorisation. For what he believes is rooted in his rich, personal story and that of his family, from which he draws in a way which is at once readable and illuminating.
 
The Silence of Dark Water: An Inner Journey
by Jonathan Wittenberg
260 page
Robin Clark/Joseph's Bookstore,
£17.95
 
Wittenberg is a Masorti rabbi who leads one of the congregations that broke away from the United Synagogue over the issue of scriptural authority. He has also pioneered an inter-faith ministry to a hospice, and his familiarity with grief, and his sensitive ministry to the bereaved, are important dimensions of his writing. He uses his Rabbinic learning lightly, but always interestingly.

Running through this book is the way that, as a human being and a rabbi, he is torn
between the beauty of the universe on the one hand and the unjustness and cruelty of life on the other. But, he pleads, it is essential to keep an open heart, and this leads him to feel both aspects with ever greater intensity. He loves nature and has a passion for walking half the night, just to look at the sky and sense the earth around him. He feels very close to animals. He quotes Einstein who, referring to what he called the mysterious, said: "It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapt in awe, is as good as dead."
 
Yet at the same time Wittenberg is acutely aware of the pain of the people around him, not least in his own family, most of whom perished in Nazi Germany: "I grew up with a world which wasn't there. The absence is immeasurable." This tension between his sense of awe and wonder for life, and his sense of outrage at its cruelty, cannot be reconciled intellectually. Every question we hurl at God confronts us with silence. The easy answers given in the past are often "obscene". But that silence contains a moral imperative, and leads us to love others, whoever they are, and see our life as an act of service. "We are the custodians of God's dreams. Just as it rests within our capacity to destroy them, so it lies within our power to bring them closer to fulfilment."

The mystery that lies behind, beyond and within existence meets us in every aspect of life. It sings in all things. It is a question of being open to it with both tears and joy, open to the experience of living. The implication of this, of course, is that if we live fully aware, impelled by both wonder and love, the tension between this and the unjustness of life will grow ever more intense, not diminish, for there are no satisfying intellectual answers as to how they might be held together conceptually in a universe created by a loving God.
 
Anyone of any belief, or none, who reads this book will be left asking questions about the quality of their own living, but there are two particular Jewish aspects which give it a distinctive dimension. The first is the importance of remembering the past.

There is a strong sense of the way the past is continually with us running through this
book which reminded me of Anne Michaels's novel Fugitive Pieces. Secondly, there is the importance of passing on good qualities from one generation to another. Everything is linked to everything else, and a person's lovely character, like a dye, can be traced from parents to children and on for ever.

In the end all are gathered into the oneness that is also a fundamental category for
Wittenberg. So the dead in some sense live on. But do they live on other than through memory and influence and the continual recycling of nature? Wittenberg agonises over this, and in places seems to suggest that, as in some forms of Buddhism, the "I" is an ephemeral coming together of various constituents which has no abiding reality. But the question remains unanswered.

From a Christian point of view this book is strong on the moral imperative, and
somewhat misty in its theology: but if this is a fault, it is certainly a fault in the right
direction. The tone is that of a gentle friend, and listening to him makes one want to go away for a few days and reflect seriously on one's own life. What are our memories and how can they nourish us to live with greater awareness and depth? How can we best cope with the personal negativities of isolation or bitterness?

The chapters are admirably short, and it is one of those books which is best read a few pages a day rather than straight through. I look forward to its coming out in paperback, for there is no one whose life would not gain greatly in quality by reading it.
 
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009 • Richard Harries is Gresham professor of divinity and an honorary professor at King's
College London. His most recent book is The Re-enchantment of Morality (SPCK). To
order The Silence of Dark Water for £16.95 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop

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