On an early Friday afternoon in November of last year, I spoke on the topic “Zionism and the Renaissance of Judaism” before a senior condominium community in Delray Beach, Florida. In the past 17 years, I have presented many lectures on topics in Jewish history and thought for many adult education programs, but this particular presentation stays in my mind.
Before lecturing, I was approached by an older Jewish man who confided in me: He was a soldier in the American Army in World War II who was one of the first liberators of the Dachau concentration camp near Munich. What he witnessed at Dachau – the sight of human skeletons, the piles of bodies and the stench of thousands of corpses – destroyed any faith he had in God and left him an atheist. I told the gentleman that, while I was a man of faith and a rabbi, I could not judge him for his rejection of God. Had I been in his shoes, perhaps my response would have been the same. I did tell him that my father was also a liberator in the American Army in World War II who confronted the horrors of the Holocaust – including his discovery, in one German town, of a synagogue that the local population had padlocked and converted into a garbage dump – but I chose the path of service to my people and my faith that was the hallmark of my Dad’s life.
More than 50 years ago, Yoel Teitelbaum, the most powerful rebbe of the Satmar Hassidim and a survivor of the Shoah, came to a conclusion regarding God and the Holocaust that was radically different than that of the Dachau liberator I met last year. The Holocaust did not weaken Teitelbaum’s faith, but confirmed and strengthened it. The Satmar Rebbe wrote in 1961 that “the heretics and nonbelievers” – the Zionists – drew the majority of Jews to their “impure idea” of not waiting for the Messiah before settling the Land of Israel as a nation, bringing down God’s wrath on the Jews of Europe. While most Jews – including most Orthodox Jews – reject Teitelbaum’s explanation of why six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators, the only merit in the Satmar Rebbe’s outrageous, disturbing and wrongheaded theology is that it is consistent. The concept that suffering and persecution are God’s punishment of Jewish sinners has its roots in Jewish tradition, specifically the prophecy of the Hebrew Bible.
This does not mean, as I will explain, that there are no alternatives to respond to the Shoah as a Jew of faith. Indeed, theology and Halacha are not of one voice on the nature of Jewish and human suffering.
Teitelbaum’s fanatical logic, unlike the response of the Dachau liberator, represents the worst in human arrogance and a dangerous divorce of Jew from historical and empirical reality. I sometimes share the doubts of the atheists, although I reject those doubts in the end. My father’s response in 1945 was to walk into the homes of German civilians to billet American troops and eject the locals while carrying his rifle, making sure to tell those he was evicting: “I am a Jew.”
If religious Jews are compelled to commemorate the Shoah on traditional fast days – Asara Betevet or Tisha Be’av – I respect their observance. In fact, there is no doubt that the Jews of Europe could not have been murdered in the millions had it not been for the hatred of Jews as “Christ-killers,” which was a part of European life and thought for centuries.
In some ways, the Holocaust was a culmination of old hatred of Jews in both Christianity and, to a certain extent, in Islam. The danger of isolating the Shoah as a unique series of events in Jewish and human history is the danger of mythologizing the horror and disengaging it from the realities and causes of history. Yet there is something terribly troubling about the commemoration of the Shoah on traditional Jewish days of mourning. The theology of Tisha Be’av is the theology that Jews suffered exile and persecution because of their sins. The theology of Tisha Be’av is one that elevates martyrdom to a supreme value. These theological templates disturb me when applied to the events of 1933-1945. I say this not as a rabbi of a Conservative synagogue or as a rebel against tradition, but as a student of some of the great Orthodox rabbis who lived and died in the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira emerged as one of the most important Jewish theologians of the past century, despite the fact that his great sermons – embodied in the collection titled “The Holy Fire” – have been ignored by most scholars. What makes his work so unique is his approach to theodicy. Initially, at the beginning of World War II, Shapira explained to his followers in Warsaw that their suffering was a chastisement of God. But as this suffering in the ghetto became unbearable, the hassidic rebbe could no longer present that rationale to his flock. In his sermons, he painted a portrait of a God Who suffered with His people. Shapira’s approach cannot be summarized in a few words. But it is remarkable how different this theology is from that of Teitelbaum. Taking his writings into account, we must ask if we can commemorate the Holocaust on Tisha Be’av, a day that declares that persecution of Jews was a punishment for their sins.
Tisha Be’av is also a commemoration that idealizes martyrdom. We recite kinnot – liturgical poems – that commemorate those Jews who killed themselves and their families rather than submit to the torment of their persecutors and abandon Torah. But two rabbis who lived and died in the hell of the Warsaw Ghetto explicitly rejected the theology of martyrdom. Rabbi Menachem Ziemba of the ultra-Orthodox Agudas Yisroel exhorted the remnant of the Warsaw Ghetto’s leadership to fight the Germans rather than die with the Shema on their lips in the gas chambers of Treblinka. “Halacha demands that we fight and resist to the very end with unequaled determination and valor for the sanctification of the Divine Name.” Those were the words of Rabbi Ziemba in January 1943, only a few months before the ghetto revolt.
Joining Ziemba in the rejection of centuries of idealizing traditional martyrdom was Rabbi Yitzhak Nissenbaum. Nissenbaum advocated that Jews sanctify life rather than die as martyrs in the flames of the ghetto. He wrote, “This is a time for kiddush hahayim, the sanctification of life, and not for kiddush Hashem, the holiness of martyrdom. Previously the Jew’s enemy sought his soul, and the Jew sanctified his body in martyrdom. Now the oppressor demands the Jew’s body, and the Jew is obliged therefore to defend it.”
The concept of martyrdom was no longer an adequate response to a unique situation in which the Nazis would allow no Jew to live to emulate martyrs. Rabbis Ziemba and Nissenbaum were clear: Halacha and Jewish theology demanded a new response in the shadow of genocide.
MY APPROACH to crafting a liturgy for Holocaust Remembrance Day, which falls next Monday, is modest. While I recognize the brilliance of previous attempts to confront the Shoah liturgically – Prof.
David Roskies, Abba Kovner, Elie Wiesel and Rabbi Albert H. Friedlander have composed original, complex and multi-layered services that deserve recognition – I cannot follow in their footsteps. I do not tamper with the morning service, except to introduce the Torah reading from Leviticus 10. This chapter tells the story of the death of Nadab and Abihu, two of Aaron’s sons, whom God struck down for bringing an “alien fire” into the services of ritual sacrifice. At first, Aaron remains silent in the face of this personal tragedy. Later, he breaks his silence and addresses Moses, reminding our greatest prophet that he and his surviving sons cannot consume the purification offering that Moses has demanded because the high priest’s family is in mourning.
This portion of Leviticus, while not an exact parallel to the events of 70 years ago, is significant for two reasons: First, Aaron’s silence embodies shock, resignation, humility, but also defiance; second, Aaron breaks his silence to tell Moses that a tragedy has occurred and there cannot be liturgical “business as usual.” Nadab and Abihu represented the best that the Israelites had to offer, as did the Jews of Europe before the Shoah. Their deaths demand silence and not arrogance, a silence grounded in both humility and defiance. Aaron finally breaks his silence and, like the rabbis of the Warsaw Ghetto, reminds us that traditional liturgy and practice cannot go on as if nothing happened. We must confront a new and horrifying reality in a meaningful way. We carry on with the service of God – but reality and the covenantal relationship will never be the same after the tragedy.
Following the end of the morning service, I will break a morning fast with a siyum, a completion of the Book of Job – a text that I have studied in depth. The morning fast is not atonement for sin, but a recognition that, at least for a moment, normal life cannot resume in the face of horror and genocide. The Book of Job provides an alternative to the theodicy of Jeremiah and is grounded in Jewish tradition.
The text censures Job’s “comforters” for trying to persuade Job that he is suffering as a punishment from God for sin. Furthermore, while the Book of Job demands human humility in the face of a God we cannot comprehend, Job does encounter God in the “whirlwind.” Following the lead of Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, I truly believe that we can reestablish the covenantal relationship after the Shoah – despite our anger, protests and questions.
The establishment of a Jewish state only a few years after Auschwitz is not just a political response to the Holocaust, but a watershed event of great theological importance and affirmation.
Finally, our synagogue will collect food to feed the poor – not an attempt to instill a sense of “social justice,” but to positively impact the imperfect divinely mandated world in response to hunger – and I will read a letter my father wrote to my grandparents on the day of the Allied victory in Europe. My father witnessed Jewish suffering and survival in the last days of World War II. His words transcend the kitsch and comfort that are the staple of American popular culture in addressing the Shoah.
This attempt at formulating a “Zachor Liturgy” is the only way I know how to continue maintaining my faith in Hashem in a meaningful way that is rooted in Jewish tradition and history while acknowledging the reality of the events of 70 years ago.
• The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.