At my home community of Beth Immanuel Messianic Synagogue, we ordinarily gather on the eve of Rosh Chodesh Av to celebrate the life and legacy of Paul Philip Levertoff.
It’s another of our long-standing customs that will not be observed this year for the sake of precautions over the transmission of Covid-19. Rosh Chodesh Av is the first day of the fifth month on the biblical calendar and the beginning of a time called “the nine days,” which concludes with a solemn fast on the ninth of Av (Tisha b’Av). The ninth day of Av is the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple. During the nine days, religious Jews observe a variety of heightened mourning customs that include abstaining from meat and wine. For that reason, Rosh Chodesh Av already has a sober quality, but it’s also the yahrtzeit of Messianic Jewish pioneer Paul Philip Levertoff. Paul Levertoff’s books Love and the Messianic Age and The Religious Thought of the Chasidim are available through FFOZ.
Remarkably, Levertoff first fell ill while conducting “the three hours” in church on Good Friday of 1954. He never fully recovered, and he died on the first of Av. The seeming coincidence of the two significant dates reveals the hand of divine providence at work. In his suffering (on Good Friday) and his death (on the first of Av, the beginning of the Nine Days), Levertoff became a symbol for the death of Messiah and the destruction of the Temple, two events which share an inseparable link.
To honor that luminary and teacher, we ordinarily gather on Rosh Chodesh Av, sing some traditional Chasidic melodies together, tell some stories about Levertoff, and read some of his writings. This year, we will not be gathering. Instead, I will share with you the story of Levertoff’s last days as told by his wife Beatrice Levertoff as the account appeared in the missionary quarterly The Church and the Jews. A short version of the account appears below, but Levertoff fans will enjoy reading the full version of the narrative here.
Notes from Mrs. Levertoff on the Death of Her Husband
In July last, I prepared the Quarterly for my husband, who was in bed watching me do it and giving me his counsel, ill though he was. Even then, it did not seem likely that by the end of the month, he would have gone out of that racked body from which he was, at that time, longing to be free. On the 31st of July, in the very early hours, saying to me his last words, which were “Good-bye,” he left me to go with glad relief from pain, into the waiting outstretched arms of the Lord he loved so utterly. There were such volumes of prayers going up for his recovery, when I was preparing that last number under his guidance, and he felt that “life was sweet” still. When the Quarterly arrived, he took a number to read. He was still sitting in the garden in the sunshine, and for the moment, free from acute pain. I left him to see to some household task. When I came back, he looked at me sadly, and said: “I find it so difficult to read.” “Why, dear?” I asked, “Can’t you see it properly?” “Oh yes, I can see, but somehow I take so long to read it. I have only managed to read this one page all this time.” He looked so puzzled, not understanding his failing powers of concentration. Gradually he could not even bear being read to. It was too much for him. Then he began to say, “This is no life.”
His mental powers never died. His thoughts were constantly with heavenly things; the things of the earth became of no moment. In delirium he spoke only of spiritual things, of God, of his desire to express his love for God adequately. To everyone who came to see him he soon turned every talk to such matters. At such moments he would rally to such an extent that, even to the last, those who visited him could hardly grasp the frail hold he now had on earthly life. He had faced death long before when he went to the hospital; we had faced it together, and that had not to be gone through again.
There came a moment when he asked me not to pray for his recovery, begged me to ask all the friends to desist. Then, when he still lingered, he wondered why God kept him here; he seemed to see no reason for it. I, oddly, had to turn counselor to him. I suggested that to die was easy; to live was the thing that needed courage and endurance. Probably God had some task still for him, if it was only to teach him this last difficult lesson of the physical suffering of his Lord. He accepted it in all humility. He set out to live again in all his pain—and how he bore it all—so gallantly—he who hated and feared pain so much! He never complained, only wondered at it. There came several to assist him in these his last days, and he was given such power of mind and speech that they were astonished, and oh ! so blessed. So there was truth in what I had so gropingly said in my effort to comfort him. Jews and Gentiles, Christian and otherwise, were helped in ways that they have told me they will never forget. He was permitted to give them something out of his own deep stores—in life, and death.
The word “death” comes haltingly to my pen in connection with him. Only to his racked body does this word apply; and, even then, that body recovered its loveliness so marvelously as to move us all. All trace of pain left him and he smiled, serene and sure in a way that convinced all who looked on him that he was not just at peace, resting from his pain, but had attained his heart’s desire—to magnify Him as he really would wish. One Jewish man seeing him, murmured brokenly, “He was a Saint.” His great learning was all forgotten in his goodness, his loving-kindness, his wise, good heart. I had always been proud to be chosen to be the companion of such a rare, great scholar and rejoiced in the appreciation accorded it; but now I rejoice oh so much more to have had an even greater privilege.
Paul Levertoff was brought up in a Chasidic atmosphere. This means that Judaism was a spiritual thing, not just a legalistic religion. When, by chance, this child one day found flying about the street of the little Russian town, some leaves torn from a book that had been printed in Hebrew, he was amazed to read something that seemed to him Chasidic; but so strange, for it related in detail an account of the Messiah who had been crucified. It was parts of the Gospel according to St. John. Young as he was, he feared to show it to his father; but he pondered it in his heart and long years after when he read again those very words in Delitzsch’s Hebrew New Testament. They brought conviction and he gave himself, heart and soul, into the keeping of the Messiah Jesus with such enthusiasm that nothing could restrain him.
With the impetuosity of youth, he left his home and his people there, because he could not prevail upon them to agree with him at once. What was now to him so clear did not so appear to his parents. This filled him with such anguish that he fled, penniless. In later years he regretted this impetuosity. He often felt that if he had been wiser he would have gained his father, for he realized how near the kingdom he was. He dedicated one of his books to his father - “an Israelite in whom there is no guile.” To his father, his grandfather, and to his mother’s uncle, the famous Rabbi Shneur Salman, he felt he owed his own preparation for, and understanding of the teaching of Jesus. In his last hours he talked with them and assured me that they were now “of the kingdom” and awaiting his coming.