Listening to Dietrich Bonheoffer’s Life – Part V


The last two years of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life were spent in a Berlin prison. His writings composed during that time were smuggled out and published under the title, Letters and Papers from Prison. In this collection of writings, Bonhoeffer considers the secularization of the world and the departure from religion in the twentieth century. In his estimation, dependence on organized religion had undermined genuine faith. In a rare combination of thought and action, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also formulating the ethical basis for participation in extreme actions as a moral responsibility while actually in the process of attempting to overthrow the Third Reich in a bloody coup d’etat that included the assassination of Adolf Hitler.

In Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer pens this brief, poignant passage that epitomizes his effort to come to grips with how moral human beings summon-up the necessary moral courage to behave bravely in terrifyingly evil times, such as those he lived in:

“Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God — the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God. Where are these responsible people?” [1]

One can hear the frustration and disappointment in Bonhoeffer’s voice, searching, it seems, for reasons why the German Christian population – indeed, why all moral, caring human beings – had not risen up against the aggressive obfuscation of human rights being foisted upon the Jews and others by the Nazis. One can almost hear the something that is missing by way of Bonhoeffer’s pointing-out of the spiritual anemia of the Christian Church—to include even the Confessing Church—as the dark, ominous clouds hanging over Eastern Europe continue to grow and define themselves as a storm of unimaginable proportion.

While in the midst of listening to different views of Bonhoeffer’s life, I was introduced to a book published by Vine of David, a publishing arm of First Fruits of Zion, containing the thoughts of another believer, named Paul Philip (Feivel) Levertoff, a deeply spiritual Chasidic Jew who came to faith in Jesus of Nazareth as the Jewish Messiah in Belarus about one hundred years prior to Bonhoeffer’s life. With the sound of Bonhoeffer’s voice fresh in my ears, I couldn’t help but speculate and compare the underlying assumptions that seem to shape the characters of the two voices.  Titled, “Love and the Messianic Age,” the book’s opening pages present a brief biography of a man who also “gave up his former life” to live-out his personal convictions concerning Jesus Christ:

In 1887, a nine-year-old Chasidic Jew named Feivel Levertoff was trudging home from cheder (a Jewish day school) when a discarded scrap of paper caught his eye. It was printed in Hebrew text. Supposing it was a leaf from a prayer book or other sacred volume, Feivel picked it out of the snow…. He quickly read the piece of paper. It was a page from a book he had never read before. It told the story of a boy like himself—not much older either—whose parents found him in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, expounding the Scriptures and learning with the great sages of antiquity.”

The scrap of paper was a page of the gospel of Luke,[2] written in Hebrew. In December of 1896, Levertoff took the Christian name Paul Phillip and was baptized into Christianity. In this brief but luminous look at the New Testament contour of thought as seen through the mystical eyes of a Chasidic Jew, it seemed that, at the very least, echoes of timeless Jewish thought lay exposed and accessible to me, something, it turns out, that enlightened, revitalized and revolutionized my view of what it means to be a follower of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The following paragraph written by Levertoff is part of a larger discussion of the Chasidic view of legalism wherein he describes two different types of person, or souls. As I read along the more mystical Chasidic contour of Levertoff’s thought, I slowly began to sense the different rise and fall inherent to Bonhoeffer’s contour of thought, even if it was in many ways also similar to Levertoff’s in other of his writings. I stopped and re-read Levertoff’s word picture, as if at a place, like a wood filling with snow, that I wanted to come to know more intimately:

“Some souls, it is said, are like birds. Their movements are graceful, their flight, easy, in the rare atmosphere above earthly things. They are not bound by laws that govern those who must plod below. Others are like those angels, representatives of the cosmic forces, whom Ezekiel symbolizes as having the faces of oxen and lions.  That is to say, those souls are naturally heavy, dull, or fierce, but by their close contact with God are enabled to overcome their original nature and gain the power of flight, but not in so easy and natural a manner as the first. So, to some few men because of their whole-hearted love for God, it becomes natural to live in harmony with the divine will, independent of the Law. The majority of Israel can only attain this high spiritual experience by unceasing effort and unquestioning obedience to the Law. The law of love is derived from the love of God.  The more we love Him, the better we will love men. We must look at man with the eyes of God and love him as God loves him.”

The grace and the fluidity, not just of Levertoff’s words, but of the character of Chasidic thought behind Levertoff’s words, speaks to me of things intensely relational, utterly dependent, and exquisitely intimate in substance concerning man’s relationship with God… Levertoff’s flow of thought speaks of things that, when faithfully attended to, seem to have the luminous capacity to guide a dedicated seeker to right conclusions even in the most dire of circumstances. His voice, once one catches the underlying current moving beneath it, becomes a kind of respiration, a calm form of breathing with every breath attuned to rhythm of the breath of Heaven.

Bonhoeffer’s voice, at least in this instance, reflects the tremendous stress present in his life at the time. Being pushed to the limit of physical and spiritual endurance, I hear the sound of an inner striving to explain what should drive an individual to action when experiencing the presence of evil. In the apparent absence of action on the part of those around him, his voice seems to have become dominated by a desperate call for the use of the force of man’s will upon the extreme circumstances of oppression rising up around him. I hear, and understand, his frustration, which is in keeping with the difficult spiritual and socio- political circumstances he’s operating within. While other writings of Bonhoeffer speak of the human spiritual-experience-in-general in more mystical, relational terms, of the human soul’s seeking of “a complete fusion of the I and Thou,” [3] here he’s riveted upon man’s lack of response to the call of God to “Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter.” [4]

And yet, despite the apparent differences in time, place, and setting, I was determined to find something instructive and logical according to Western dualistic standards in the comparison of the two voices: Bonhoeffer’s voice reacting to his imprisonment while others suffer innocently at the mercy of an evil empire, and Levertoff’s joyful, equally intense, descriptions of spiritual life, captured in the resounding eloquence of his Chasidic background, as it relates to his finding the one whom he ‘d come to be convinced, was the Jewish Messiah. Did I detect something in Levertoff’s voice informing me of what Bonhoeffer saw as missing, perhaps not in his own spiritual life, but in the spiritual lives of those in the Christian community around him?

I think I did.  And do. But only if I listen very closely to hear the authentic voice of Heaven in all things, and not the voice of men speaking of Heaven.

Part VI … To what purpose compare Bonhoeffer to Levertoff ?

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Letters and Papers from Prison”

[2] Containing 2:45-47: “Failing to find him, they returned to Yerushalayim to look for him. On the third day they found him—he was sitting in the Temple court among the rabbis, not only listening to them but questioning what they said; and everyone who heard him was astonished at his insight and his responses.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Life Together,” Harper & Row, 1954, p. 33.

[4] Proverbs 24:11