Obituary: Chaim Raphael

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The Independent Online
Chaim Rabinovitch (Raphael), civil servant, scholar of Jewish studies, writer: born Middlesbrough 14 July 1908; Adviser, British Information Services, New York 1942-45, Director (Economics) 1945-57; OBE 1951, CBE 1965; Deputy Head, Information Division, HM Treasury 1957-59, Head 1959-68; Head, Information Division, Civil Service Department 1968-69; Research Fellow, Sussex University 1969-75; married 1934 Diana Rose (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1964); died London 10 October 1994.

CHAIM RAPHAEL had a multifaceted career as a scholar, civil servant and novelist, but nearest to his heart was his lifelong involvement in Jewish studies, where he combined accurate and objective knowledge with personal identification with the history and values of Jewish civilisation.

He was born Chaim Rabinovitch in Middlesbrough in 1908, one of seven children of Orthodox parents (his second name was Hebraised by deed poll in 1936). His father officiated as chazan (cantor) of the local synagogue. Chaim seemed destined for the rabbinate, and embarked on rabbinical training at Aria College, Portsmouth, where he was awarded a scholarship to study at Oxford University. Here he read Philosophy, Politics and Economics. The philosophy deprived him of his Orthodox religious faith, but the politics and economics eventually led to a distinguished career in the Treasury.

Though an agnostic, Raphael never lost his deep attachment to the Jewish religious classics and to the fascinations of Jewish history. At Oxford, he took a post-graduate course in the academic study of the Bible. He became a lecturer in post-Biblical Hebrew Literature at Oxford (1933-40). After his career with the British Information Services and the Treasury, he returned to Jewish studies as lecturer at Sussex University (1970-75).

Despite his fine academic record, Raphael always modestly denied that he was 'a real scholar'. He regarded his role as that of a populariser, who was able to communicate the latest results of Jewish scholarship with warmth and grace. To this end he produced a series of works that have become indispensable to every Jewish library, whether public or private. His great gift as a historian was his ability to infuse his own personality into historical enquiry in a way far removed from mere self-centredness; it was rather an analysis of Jewish history through the problems and divisions of himself. Its end-product, his autobiography, Memoirs of a Special Case (1962), is a masterly account of the development of a historian; and his historical works are never entirely removed from autobiography.

Raphael's master-work of scholarship was his The Walls of Jerusalem: an excursion into Jewish history (1968), a study of the destruction of the Temple (AD70) and its effect on the Jewish imagination and culture, especially as evinced in the classic work, the Midrash on Lamentations.

His most widely read work, however, was his A Feast of History: the drama of Passover through the ages (1972), a highly individual and charming book on the Passover Haggadah, the liturgical work which arose to fulfil the precept of annually relating the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Another work in this genre was A Jewish Book of Common Prayer, a study of the Sabbath Eve Service.

In A Coat of Many Colours: memoirs of a Jewish experience (1979), he wove together his concerns as a historian and his personal development. He was conscious of his identity as a distinctive type of Jew: one who derived from the analytic intellectual tradition of the 'Litvaks'. Yet one of his most interesting undertakings was to write a history of Sephardic Jewry, The Road from Babylon (1985), in which he explored a Jewish culture very different from his own. In The Springs of Jewish Life (1982), he gave his personal evaluation of the role of Judaism, as a well-spring of vitality deriving from the consciousness of shared history.

Raphael, out of his rich experiences, had a fund of wisdom and of good stories. He will be much mourned by all those who experienced his unfailing kindness, and his cheerful appreciation of the quirks and contradictions of life.

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