This is the man who took it upon himself to restore and glorify the tomb, on the banks of Lake Tiberias, of Rabbi Meir Baal Haness, also known as the miracle worker, one of the principle figures who recorded the Talmud, in the 2nd century A.D.
This is the man who, in honor of Shimon bar Yohai, this other saint and master, the probable author of the Hidden Book, the Zohar, created one of the most beautiful institutes of Jewish studies in Israel, (and the world), on Mount Meron, the highest mountain in Israel, near Safed.
This is the man who, in 1967, after the Tsahal overcame a coalition of armies bent, once again, on its destruction, decided to reconstruct, exactly as it once was, the Porat Yossef yeshiva, one of the most ancient of the region. Built in the old city of Jerusalem, opposite the Wall of the Temple, the Arab armies had razed it to the ground in 1948, at the moment they refused to accept the plan for the partition of Palestine.
He is one of those who, in the latter half of the 20th century, probably commissioned, had made, and installed in the most famous and the most obscure synagogues of the planet the greatest number of Sefer Torah, Torah scrolls. It is said that a Jew who writes or has written just one of the 304,805 letters that, on the appropriate parchment, with a pen prepared for the task, make up a Sefer Torah has earned sainthood. What can one say, then, of this Jew who, from Florida to Rome, in Naples and New York, but also from Rhodes to Budapest and Manilla to Kinshasa, devoted his life to vitalizing the sacred letter?
To my knowledge, he is the only man who, as early as 1990, undertook to evacuate the children of Chernobyl and ensure their medical care; he was the promoter of a children’s hospital in Tel Aviv, the majority of whose patients are Palestinians. He was the organizer of innumerable meetings destined to promote peace, between Imams and Rabbis, men of faith and men of doubt, from all over the world.
In recognition of his lifelong work to promote Jewish studies and the spread of their genius spark, and in recognition of all that his widow, Lily, continues to accomplish, he is the man whose name has been given to the legendary Enio, this little Parisian school that was Levinas’s center of studies and which, for men of my generation, remains connected to his memory and to his work.
This man is named Edmond Safra.
When he died, absurdly, twelve years ago, asphyxiated in a deliberately and criminally set fire in an apartment that was, paradoxically, too well reinforced, the newspapers had a field day of human interest stories.
The history of finance would count this citizen of the world, scion of a very old Syrian Jewish family whose caravans of camels already criss-crossed the Ottoman Empire, among the great bankers who predated the era of rating agencies, crazy money, and rampant speculation.
Last Monday, at the Grande Synagogue of Geneva, I chose to honor the benefactor, the philanthropist, the descendant of the Adolphe Crémieuxs, the James de Rothschilds, the Moses Montefiores, these sons of the Jewish Enlightenment who understood that philanthropy is not a matter of charity but of justice, and that the purpose of this work of justice is the reparation of the world, its Tiqqun — this humble and glorious word that means the double refusal of the order of things, on the one hand, and of a Revolution that, on the other hand, only renews the most tyrannical procedures of the order it believes it has overthrown.
And, moreover, I am trying to paint the portrait of a Jew of a complex nature, one who drew on all sources, who delved into every memory, sometimes seeming to strive to attract to himself all the most varied of traits — he would have said, as in his beloved Zohar, all the broken slivers — of a Tradition, all of whose aspects seemed equally familiar to him: Study, but also Knowledge (isn’t this disciple of Shimon bar Yohai also the man who offered the Museum of Israel the first Einstein manuscript, on the theory of relativity, in 1996?); intense piety, but also the extension of the moral code of the Torah to all areas of experience and human suffering (in the final analysis, isn’t that what the name of Levinas stands for, the one now forever associated with his own?); a spirit of resistance (Rabbi Akiba) and of caution (Rabbi Meir), such that they are rivals for the souls of those who, to this day, have meditated and still meditate on the grandeur and the tragedy of the Jewish revolts of the early centuries of the Christian era.
In a word, a sort of a total Jew. Or, in the literal sense, an absolute Jew. Or, to quote a saying of my friend Benny Lévy, only twisting it a little, a true «Jew of the century», weaving the threads of a common memory into a singular cord whose equivalent I scarcely know.
Honor to this man, may his name be praised. In this year of sound and fury, this year marked, as never before, by the debate over just war and the aporia of violence, this year in which the name Jew finds itself (along with others, but more than others) taken in collateral by a History that is rich with as much promise as omens of disaster, I am not unpleased to end it upon this note.