Amidst the recent rise in European Anti-Semitism there is a basic need for many religious people to explain "Why?" even if only to help us cope with the misery.  Confronted with anti-Semitism during the Holocaust, some of the greatest sages of our era reached understandings that may be helpful for us today better grapple with hate. 

 Emerging from the misery of the life in the Jewish Ghettos of Poland in the 1940’s, the arts became a venue where Jews could express their suffering.  Ghetto preachers did exactly this within the confines of shuls, community centers,  and behind the bima.  From the Ghettos of Poland, two preachers emerged as prolific preachers from two different ends of the Jewish cultural spectrum. One, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapiro, or the Piaseczner Rebbe, came from the ultra-orthodox Jewish rite.  The other, Zalman Kalmanowicz, came from a Yiddish secularist background.  Both men emerged from the catastrophes besieging Jewish life in Poland and were men of great learning, eloquence, and moral suasion.  Each man differed from the other in regards to his theological response to understanding the Holocaust and exploring Hashem’s pathos, one came from a more traditional rite, the other more secular.  Despite their differences in approach, they reach similar theological conclusions.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapiro, the Rebbe of Pianseczor, was a Talmudic scholar and scion of two Hasidic dynasties.  He gave sermons from his home, which he converted into a soup kitchen to assist starving Jews in the Ghetto. The Rebbe of Pianseczor routinely gave D’var Torahs and translated them into Hebrew, rather than Yiddish.  He hid his work during the war; today known as Esh Kodesh.

His writings from Esh Kodesh offer a new window into understanding the Holocaust, centered around a new concept; the concept of divine suffering.  His theme of “G-ds suffering with Israel and his participation in Israel’s exile" has been formative in much rabbinical literature. 

His philosophical expressions may contradict earlier Jewish philosophers who traditionally attempted to remove increasingly anthropological conceptions of Hashem, especially following the 15th centaury.

He restored passages from earlier philosophies and Jewish theologian, many of who, described Hashem in anthropological terms.  He then, added to them with “a new notion of the infinite magnitude of G-d’s suffering; though the contemplation of His suffering, the human being could loose his attachment to his own."

In other words, Rabbi Shapiro pictured the world poised to the brink of destruction, one spark of Hashem’s pain could destroy the universe. 

The Piaseczner Rebbe developed an anthropomorphic expression of Hashem, by his explanation of the Holocaust, via the concept of a Human-divine partnership in suffering.  This is described as Hester Panim (divine hiddenness, the eclipse of G-d).  Hashem’s limited presences or even absence in the face of the calamities that befell us for the following reason: G-d’s desire to mourn in privacy from even earlier calamities.  A person can choose to join Hashem in morning and thereby become a source of renewed strength

Rabbi Shapiro’s last contribution to understanding the Holocaust came with one of his last sermons.  In it, he “redefined the traditional theology of suffering by reformulating the concept of Kiddush Hashem – Kiddush Hashem was not, as previously believed the consequence of martyrdom, the surrender of ones life in a trial of faith that testifies to the glory of G-d, but rather, its origin.

In other words, G-d was the primary object of attack by the Nazis, and because of G-d’s association with the Jews, the chosen people, we suffered.

The War on Europe’s Jews and destruction that befell 6 million was a war against Hashem.  Our suffering was not occurring because of any sin we committed but instead because of our association with Hashem.

This was a radical departure from earlier traditional belief.  The anthropomorphic concepts are difficult to cope with; beyond this, the dominant Jewish belief at the time, blamed sin among the Jewish people for the Shoah itself.

Zelig Kalmanovitsh, on the other hand, came from totally different assumptions from the Piaseczner Rebbe.  Despite the differences in approach, he arrived at similar theological conclusions as Rabbi Shapiro.

Kalmanovitsh’s background was philologist, historian, and cultural activist.  He came from a mostly secular background, however later in life developed a more rigorous Jewish identity.

He reached a similar conclusion as Rabbi Shapiro “that the Nazi onslaught aimed at more the Jewish bodies; it was a war against the sacred triad, Israel, Torah and G-d.

He was well known as early as 1939, for correctly prophesizing a bleak future for the Jewish people in the few years to come.  He was considered widely within the Warsaw Ghetto to be a prophet, for his ability to see the destruction of Eastern European Jewry.

While in the Ghetto he became increasingly religious, writing in both Yiddish and Hebrew.

“He occupied a central place in the Yiddish cultural life in the Ghetto: he helped establish and run the Union of writers and artists and he was the person principally consulted by the “Paper Brigade” as to what books and manuscripts should be smuggled into the ghetto."

In response to the Holocaust, he maintained a central tenet: We will not be destroyed.  So long as the Jews affirm their place in the sacred triad, the Germans may be capable of destroying one arm of the triad, our bodies, but they would never prevail against moral law, and the creator of the universe.

Emerging from the misery of the life in the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto of Poland in the 1940’s, from the catastrophes of the Holocaust, there were these two prolific preachers.  Each man differed from one another in regards to their theological response to understanding the Holocaust and exploring Hashem’s pathos.  Despite their differences in approach, they understood the outcomes of the Holocaust similarly.  It was a war against G-d, and his chosen people, the Jews. 

            The attempts of both Ghetto preachers to find meaning in the Holocaust were aimed at different audiences.  In the case of Zalman Kalmanowicz, he would have appealed to the larger non-Chassidish communities, while the Piaseczner Rebbe, while behind the bima, would have a more traditional audience.

            Both offer approaches that find meaning out of the calamity besieging the Jewish people in the 1940’s.  Despite similar, out of the box explanations to Jewish suffering, each had very different backgrounds and approaches.  

            Despite the consistency of both preachers in explaining the Shoah, it is difficult to understand the Holocaust with Judaism alone.  There is a whirlwind of Rabbis, all offering different spiritual approaches to explaining the Holocaust.  The readings by Bialik and other Zionists offered the best insight into explaining the chaos.  Order from the chaos must be maintained by realism paired with spiritualism.  Israel and Zionism has in some ways, offered both a spiritual and secular explanation for the Holocaust harping on texts such as Ezek: 36:16-38 “G-D will vindicate his honor” and Ezek 37 with “The Valley of Dry Bones.” 




Sources cited from Roskies, David G. The Literature of Destruction: Jewish Responses to Catastrophe. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1988. 504-505. Print.


Relevant to your professional network? Please share on Linkedin
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position or viewpoint of The Jerusalem Post. Blog authors are NOT employees, freelance or salaried, of The Jerusalem Post.

Think others should know about this? Please share