I am often surprised in these interviews, but no one has surprised me more than Rabbi Ervin Birnbaum. Rabbi Birnbaum is the retired Msorati Rabbi of Netanya, Israel and the father of my dear friend, Dani Birnbaum. I thought it would be interesting to interview him because I vaguely knew that he survived WWII in Hungary. What I heard instead was the compelling journey of a young boy, schooled in Chasidic thought, who rejected religion in favor of socialism, communism, and marxism, and who was on The Exodus, the infamous boat of illegal immigrants to British Mandate Palestine.
Rabbi Birnbaum openly speaks about being an atheist rabbi for many years until an encounter of the scientific kind, with the plight of the Mariner explorer to Mars, that led him to believe that there is an order to the universe, that there is a God. Rarely do we get to know one of our friend’s parents so deeply, and rarely do we get to understand the long term journey of any individual. Ervin Birnbaum served the community of Netanya for many years as one of its leading progressive rabbis, and it is such a blessing to understand the complex path of faith that has been his journey.
“I survived the war, and when the war was over… I couldn’t believe in God. With all my yeshiva training and a Jewish home and the Hassidic background there, whatever, I could not accept the fact that there can be a God who would tolerate the death of innocents that we experienced. I joined a Zionist organization: Hashomer Hatzair. That’s very very left wing. In those days it was actually Communist. I studied Leninism and Stalinism and of course Marxism, and then I returned to Budapest I told my parents ‘I’m going to Israel.’ And my parents said ‘What are you doing? You’re not going to Israel. How many families survived where you have father, mother and all the children? You can’t do that now. Now we are together, we go together wherever we go.’ And I said ‘I’m sorry but I am going to Israel.’ And my father said ‘If you are going to Israel I will not recognize you as my son.’ And I told him ‘I hope you will change your mind because I really believe that I am acting here as a Jew should. I don’t want to stay in Europe, too much Jewish blood here. I don’t want it here.’
My group was on the boat the Exodus, ok? It wasn’t planned that way. I mean, I didn’t know. No one in my group knew that it’s going to be the Exodus. The ship was brought back to Europe. But the British put us over onto three British cargo boats and they tried to unload us in France where we started out from, but… people wouldn’t leave on their own. Then they took us across Gibraltar to Hamburg and there they forced us on two boats. They had to take two soldiers for every person by hands and feet to take them off the boat. Because the claim was by the passengers that we want to go to Eretz Israel, to Palestine. So we wouldn’t get off anywhere else. So then we were in that detention camp, back in a camp in Germany.
I became a rabbi who was really an atheist. The truth is, I must tell you, that I felt very strange about it. I wouldn’t even have gone into the rabbinate if not for practical reasons. I was in a congregation in New York in Queens in an area called Rosedale, when NASA sent up a satellite to Mars. It was called the Mariner. And the Mariner reached Mars and then the contact with the Mariner ceased. It didn’t function. And for days there was despair in the scientific circles and I followed this avidly… because I was more involved in science than I was with religion. And then that morning I was supposed to be at the doctor. Dr. Rosenthal. And that morning before I leave the house I find out that signals are now re-established. With commands from the Earth they succeeded in making the apparatus there workable, and is beginning to transmit signals. And what hit me–I remember that that was a great revelation to me–the same law that operates on the Earth must operate there in space. And that this planet, now Mars, millions of miles away… A signal sent out from Earth will catch on there and will cause it to transmit information here. So there is one law which embraces the universe.
I get to the doctor and I get into his office. I told him ‘Doc, today I really had a revelation. I learned…’–from there I gave him the story of the Mariner–’that there is one law that functions in the whole universe.’ So he looks at me and is without a kippah and looks very secular and he says ‘Ervin, you need to turn to the Mariner and to Mars to find out that there is a providence that functions, that guides the universe? Look into yourself. Look how the heart, and the lungs, and the kidneys, and the bowels. Look how they are put together. Look what harmony there is. Look what perfection there is in this apparatus that is in you. You carry it with you wherever you go. Doesn’t that show you more that there is some sort of a power that functions?’ And I remember that came to me like a sledgehammer hitting me on the head. And here a secular person, a doctor, tells me who is in the rabbinate for several years, that the apparatus that we can believe in shows us that there is a God, that there is a providence, that there is some sort of order that is in the world.”