The Jewish cemetery at Kosice in Slovakia, a country once home to a thriving Jewish community.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As a rabbi, a student of history and an essayist, I often wish I had the God-given ability of early prophets such as Elijah and Elisha to resurrect the dead. This is especially so at this time of the year, a period when we invoke the merits of our ancestors to find favor in the eyes of God. Since I do not possess such powers, I am left with an attempt – as the hassidic master the Kotzker Rebbe put it – to “resurrect the living.”
I have always believed that writing essays was not simply an intellectual endeavor. As Emerson stated, “the idea is the ancestor of the action.” With those words firmly stated, I would like to revive the memory of a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbi who was a true hero of Judaism and the Jewish people: Yissachar Shlomo Teichtal. Teichtal’s writings – and his life and death – are a testament to the vibrancy and relevance of the ideas and theology of ultra-Orthodox Jewish rabbis who were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators during the devastating events of 70 years ago.
Teichtal was born in Hungary in 1885, and headed the Moriah yeshiva in Slovakia – an endeavor he considered to be of the utmost importance to the future of Judaism – and was the author of a volume of responsa published in 1924. Teichtal, like most Orthodox rabbis of his generation, was anti-Zionist.
The secularism of the growing movement and of the pioneers, and their refusal to wait for the Messiah to build a Jewish state, posed a threat to most traditionalists, with the great exception of visionaries like Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. Yet, Teichtal’s life and thought were radically altered and transformed by the Shoah. During World War II, he emerged as a seminal proponent and passionate advocate of the Jewish return to Eretz Yisrael.
Teichtal, while on the run from the Germans and in hiding, penned Eim Habanim Semeichah in 1943. This work embodied Teichtals’s heroic realization that the Shoah was a unique series of events in Jewish history that demanded a unique response – a response rooted in God’s will to uproot the Diaspora and return His people to their homeland.
Eim Habanim Semeichah – which is taken from Psalms and means “a joyous mother of children” – is a bold work. In it, Teichtal does not simply promote aliya to Israel as a positive mitzvah to be carried out by the individual Jew. He writes that “the prime Advisor, Planner and Mover of all that is formidable and awe-inspiring, has seen fit to cause all our Gentile neighbors to persecute us with oppressive decrees. It is no longer possible to remain here among them. Every Jew would now consider himself fortunate if he could return to our Holy Land. He would surely respond to the summons for aliya with love and affection.”
While Teichtal’s theology should be debated, there is no doubt that he understood that the Shoah was a unique phenomenon in Jewish history, unlike any previous persecution. Teichtal understood that the Zionists were prophetic in calling for a return to the Land of Israel. Furthermore, Teichtal, while ardently defending Jewish tradition and advocating a return to faith among the Zionist pioneers, realized that the work they carried out embodied unity and holiness.
Whether this analysis of the events of his time qualifies the author as a Religious Zionist in the mold of Rabbi Kook is subject to scrutiny. When all is said and done, however, Rabbi Teichtal emerges as a realist who cannot simply ignore the terrible events happening around him. He is a witness to a new world and a new reality and must reach into the depths of his soul to transform his understanding of God, Israel and Zionism.
Yissachar Teichtal was not alone in the world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism 70 years ago. Other haredi rabbis understood that the traditional responses to the Shoah were deficient and wanting. I think in particular of two rabbis in the Warsaw Ghetto – Kalonymus Shapira and Menachem Ziemba – who were daring in reformulating traditional responses in the face of mass murder. Shapira, after years of suffering in the ghetto, transformed our understanding of Jewish theodicy; Ziemba mandated an end to the traditional Jewish understanding of martyrdom, advocating instead resistance and a will to defy the enemy and live.
These haredi rabbis were the exception rather than the rule. But to deny the transformation of such rabbis in the face of unprecedented persecution is to rob them of their originality and vitality. The haredi world is not simply static and ossified, as its detractors contend. At the same time, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community must confront the reality that its own leaders challenged basic assumptions still ruling and guiding the haredi world. We do not know what place Teichtal would have assumed in the Jewish state – he was murdered in 1945 and did not live to fulfill his mandate.
Who “owns” Rabbi Yissachar Teichtal? Is he the “property” of the haredi world? Is he simply a Zionist ideologue? These questions are absurd. What right did Martin Buber have to reconfigure hassidic tales to suit his form of religious existentialism, ripping them away from their original context? Was great Yiddish writer Isaac Leibish Peretz violating the meaning of the lore of Eastern European Jewry by transforming it into stories that reflected his humanistic understanding of Jewish life? What right does Elie Wiesel possess to present the hassidic tales for an English-speaking and -reading audience in his classic Souls on Fire? Professor Gershom Scholem wrenched Kabbalah from its original religious context, reinterpreting it within the realm of the academy, giving it a new place in our understanding of Jewish history – is that forbidden? The freedom to interpret the past is a basic freedom.
The freedom to interpret our texts, we hope, if rooted in the rigor of great scholarship, great art or great theology, is a basic freedom. Interpretation – sometimes in the most daring of manners and in the face of historical transformation and upheaval – is the lifeblood of a living people, a living tradition, and a living culture.
Let us never forget that.The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.