The Ninth of Av: Business as usual?

Should Jews commemorate the Holocaust on the Ninth of Av? The Israeli Knesset mandates a memorial day for the Nazi genocide of the Jews – Yom Hashoah.

July 14, 2013 22:24
4 minute read.
Cars halted on TA J'lem highway on Holocaust Remembrance Day

Holocaust cars stopped370. (photo credit: LAHAV HARKOV)

The Ninth of Av is a traditional day of mourning and fasting on the Jewish calendar.

On Tisha Be’av, Jews around the world remember the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, the Roman razing of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and the fall of Betar—the last stronghold of the Bar Kochba Revolt – in 135 CE.

Other disasters, as well, occurred on the Ninth of Av in Jewish history.

On the eve of the Ninth of Av, Jews read from the Book of Lamentations, a literature of mourning for a fallen Jerusalem ascribed to Jeremiah. In our recent history, on the Ninth of Av we remember the Holocaust and the “holy martyrs” who died in that worst of persecutions.

Should Jews commemorate the Holocaust on the Ninth of Av? The Israeli Knesset mandates a memorial day for the Nazi genocide of the Jews – Yom Hashoah.

But that commemoration is the creation of a parliament of a modern Jewish democracy. Yom Hashoah does not confront the theological ramifications of the Holocaust. Within Judaism’s ultra-Orthodox camp, traditional fast days like the Ninth of Av have also been days to commemorate Jewish martyrdom during the Shoah.

But can we truly include the Nazi war against the Jews within the framework of traditional Jewish fast days? Is the Holocaust similar to previous tragedies in Jewish history? Is there not something about the Holocaust that is essentially unique, that in no way can be compared to the destructions of the Temples in Jerusalem commemorated on the Ninth of Av? Are traditional categories of catastrophe being God’s punishment for Jewish sin relevant to the Shoah? My thesis is that even Jews living during the Holocaust hell realized that a new response was required to respond to evil that had not been broached in tradition before the 20th century. The most important defenders of this new theology are a select group of rabbis who lived and died in the Shoah. We must heed their voices emerging from the rubble of the 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 Shapira’s 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 Yoel Teitelbaum, the most formidable Satmarer Rebbe, who claimed that the Shoah was a punishment engineered by God to punish European Jews for the sins of the Zionists. Shapira was far more humble and humane. Taking his writings into account, we must ask if we can commemorate the Shoah on the Ninth of Av, a day that declares that persecution of Jews was a punishment for their sins.

The Ninth of 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 “Sh’ma” on their lips in the gas chambers of Treblinka.

“Halachah 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 of 1943, only a few months before the ghetto revolt.

Joining Menachem Ziemba in the rejection of centuries of idealizing traditional matrydom was Rabbi Yitzhak Nissenbaum. At the revolt’s start, Rabbi Nissenbaum advocated that Jews sanctify life rather than die as martyrs in the flames of the ghetto. Nissenbaum wrote, “This is a time for kiddush hachayim, the sanctification of life, and not for Kiddush Hashem, the holiness of martyrdom. Previously the Jews’ 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 – halachah and Jewish theology demanded a new response in the shadow of genocide.

I would argue that these Warsaw Ghetto rabbis, if they had survived, would have rejected both the idea of the Shoah as “punishment for sin” and would not have wanted us to idealize martyrdom in the post-Shoah epoch. Yet, we ignore them. We continue to go along with “business as usual” on the Ninth of Av. If only the day of commemoration of the Holocaust – Yom Hashoah – were a religious commemoration that confronted seriously the events of the past century, perhaps we could formulate a liturgy and theology that properly honors Rabbis Shapira, Ziemba and Nissenbaum. If this Ninth of Av we simply go on as if nothing has happened, we desecrate the memory of these great rabbis.

The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.

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