[ by Charles Cameron — of fire and light ]
Since Zen tweeted a link to my own Armistice Day, Veterans Day post from last year and posted his own The Vietnam War at Fifty today, I’d going to skip back a day or two in my own calendar this time, and commemorate the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, which fell on the night of November 9/10, 1938.
I believe this is a photo of the Hannover synagogue burning:
I don’t know how we even begin to think about this.
George Steiner famously said “We know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning” — and also observed, “The world of Auschwitz lies outside speech as it lies outside reason” — and Adorno: “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric”.
Contemplating that photo of the burning of the Hannover synagogue, then, I am thrown back on a story told of the rabbi — a disciple of Rabbi Gershon — who came to visit the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidic Judaism, and to whom that great master first revealed his spiritual station:
In the night the rabbi found no sleep. It seemed to him as if here and now the wonder of the far and the wonder of the near must flow together. In the middle of the night the command came to him, soundless and without form. He arose and went. Then he was already in the other chamber and saw: The chamber was filled with flames up to the height of a man. They rose dull and sombre, as if they were consuming something heavy, hidden. No smoke ascended from the fire, and all the furniture remained uninjured. But in the middle of the fire stood the master with uplifted forehead and closed eyes.
The rabbi saw further that a division had taken place in the fire which gave birth to a light, and the light was like a ceiling over the flames. The light was twofold. Underneath it was bluish and belonged to the fire, but above the light was white and unmoving and extended from around the head of the master unto the walls. The bluish light was the throne of the white, the white rested on it as on a throne. The colours of the bluish light changed incessantly, at times to black and at times to a red wave. But the light above never changed, it always remained white. . Now the bluish light became wholly fire, and the fire’s consuming became its consuming. But the white light that rested on it did not consume and had no community with the flame.
The rabbi saw that the head of the master stood entirely in the white light. The flames which leaped upward on the body of the master turned to light, and every little while the amount of light increased. At last all the fire became light. The blue light began to penetrate into the white, but every wave that penetrated itself became white and unchanging. The rabbi saw that the master stood entirely in white light. But over his head there rested a hidden light that was free of all earthly aspects and only in secret revealed to the beholder.
It was thus that the Baal Shem Tov become known to the wider world.
If I might draw the moral here, suiting my tale (quoted from Martin Buber‘s The Legend of the Baal-Shem) to the occasion — there is fire that destroys, and there is light indestructible.
We choose, always we choose.