My father danced a Hassidic dance
the day before he died.
His daughters they were far away,
his wife was by his side. . .
He danced for Jesus his Messiah
who rose up from the dead
And left the tomb for the upper room
and was known in the breaking of bread. . .
Except you become as a little child
my kingdom you shall not see.
So he danced in his joy
as he did when a boy
and often he danced for me. (Olga Levertov – “The Ballad of My Father”)
Paul Phillip Levertoff is best known to the modern world as the Jewish believer in Jesus who helped translate the Zohar into English for Soncino Press, a leading publisher of Judaica. Less well known about Levertoff is the fact that he was a major pioneer in the Hebrew Christian movement of his time.
Paul Phillip Levertoff was born in Orsha, Belarus, to Saul and Batya Levertoff. When this happened is not entirely clear: one source states 12 October 1875, while another states 14 October 1878. His birth name was probably not “Paul Phillip.” In a letter in Hebrew from Paul’s father, Saul Levertoff, to Paul Levertoff himself, Saul Levertoff employs Paul’s Hebrew/Yiddish name, “Feivel” ‘” This was almost certainly his original Jewish name since “Paul Phillip” is a Christian name.
His family came from a Sephardic background who were Hasidic. According to more than one source, he was a descendent of Rabbi Schneur Zalman. He received a traditional education in the cheder (a Hebrew primary school). In one instance, Denise Levertov, his younger daughter and a distinguished poet in the USA, describes her father’s first childhood encounter with the New Testament and Jesus:
One day when he was eight or nine my father was walking home … As he trudged homeward my father’s eye was caught by a scrap of printed paper lying in the gray, trampled snow. Though he was a playful, disobedient boy like any other, he was also – like his playmates – a little Talmud scholar, respectful of words; and he saw at a glance, too, that this paper was not printed in Russian but in Hebrew. So he picked it up and began to read. Could it be a fragment of Torah? Never before had he read such a story: about a boy like himself who – it said – was found in the Temple expounding the scriptures to the old, reverent, important rabbis! [Luke 2:46-47] My father took the scrap – it was obviously a page from a book – home to his father. The effect was startling. … his father became angry – not with him, exactly, but rather with the text he had brought to show him. He tore it into pieces and thrust them into the stove. My father was vehemently told to avoid such writings, utterly, if ever he should again encounter them; but just what they were, and how to tell them from holy writ, was not explained. My father was awed to see written words destroyed – Hebrew words. It was not if it had been a mere scrap of Russian newspaper. Secretly, he wished he had not given up the mysterious fragment. Who was the wise boy in the story? “
The year this occurred was 1895 when Levertoff was only 17 or 18 years old. Predictably his “family was appalled” after he told them of his new belief. At this point, he seems to have had a major argument with his father – most likely over his new belief – that led him to abruptly leave home.
Without financial support from his parents, he had to go it alone. He was baptized on 11 August 1895 in Konigsberg. For the next several years he “…supported himself by tutoring and undertaking translations to and from the various languages he knew.” Seeking employment as a missionary on 11 December 1896, he applied for a position with the London Jews Society (LJS). He was accepted and soon worked full time in his new vocation.
We will examine in further posts his ministry career, pioneering scholarship, development of Messianic Jewish liturgy, influence in Jewish-Christian relations and the lives and careers of his daughters, Olga and Denise. But for today we remember his early life and call to ministry, for which we are grateful.
Prayer: Thank you Lord for this pioneering Hebrew Christian, who has given the modern expression of Messianic Judaism so much material and inspiration. Thank you for Feivel’s background, faith and early life, and for following the path you set him. Thank you for the creativity and theological insights that he brought, and for his living faith in Yeshua. Inspire us, we pray, so that we too may dance for joy in your presence. In Yeshua’s name. Amen
This post is adapted from Jorge Qunionez’s article
Paul Philip Levertoff and the Popularization of Kabbalah as a Missionizing Tactic:https://www.academia.edu/3331436/Paul_Philip_Levertoff_and_the_Popularization_of_Kabbalah_as_a_Missionizing_Tactic– Elliot R. Wolfson