Does Halacha approve of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising?

Are military actions likely to result in death 'brave', or should the preservation of life take priority?

Captured Jews pulled out of Warsaw Ghetto bunkers are led by German Waffen SS soldiers to 'Umschlagplatz,' the assembly point for deportation.  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Captured Jews pulled out of Warsaw Ghetto bunkers are led by German Waffen SS soldiers to 'Umschlagplatz,' the assembly point for deportation.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In a previous column, we discussed a debate between rabbis Shlomo Goren and Moshe Tzvi Neria regarding the propriety of the mass suicide that allegedly took place at Masada by Jewish rebels to avoid capture by the Romans. Whereas Goren saw this as a case of laudable bravery, Neria condemned it as going against the Jewish ethos of always trying to preserve life and allowing survivors to transmit Judaism on to the next generation.
Hovering over this particular debate, however, was the ongoing discussion within Israeli society over the legacy of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the question of fighting in futile battles that will inevitably be lost.
In the early years of the state, many Israelis saw this rebellion as exemplifying the “new Jew,” brave and fierce. The calendar date chosen to remember the Shoah, significantly called Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day, was chosen because it was close to the date of the outbreak of the ghetto rebellion.
Even then, however, some did not see the revolt as a model to emulate. The poet Natan Alterman, for example, argued that any quixotic mission that did not save lives was wrong because it deprived ghetto residents of any opportunity to survive, as others did in other locations.
One might say, in fact, that Alterman’s argument was in line with the model of R. Yohanan Ben-Zakai, the famed first-century Sage who surrendered to the Romans and revitalized Judaism in Yavne, in contrast with the zealots who died in Jerusalem and Masada.
As Yechezkel Lichtenstein and Hava Eshkoli have separately shown, even during World War II, rabbis in Palestine were divided over the wisdom of the rebellion. Rabbi Moshe Blau, one of the leaders of Agudath Israel and an anti-Zionist, deemed the rebellion an act of mass suicide. He further condemned the ghetto fighters for issuing a death sentence to other ghetto residents who may have held out hope for salvation. His passionate statement was issued in response to another Agudath Israel activist, Binyamin Mintz, who expressed dismay over the lack of open support for the brave rebellion.
Religious Zionist circles were more sympathetic to the rebellion and certainly joined with others in mourning the loss of these Jews. Nonetheless, some expressed reservations about a trend of turning death in battle into the only model of sanctifying the name of God (kiddush Hashem). Many rabbis were insistent that those who died passively were no less holy martyrs than those who died in rebellion. Neria, furthermore, expressed concern that some residents of the ghetto could have survived the war, which would have been of greater value to the Jewish collective than everyone dying in defiance of the Germans.
The concerns of figures like Alterman and Neria notwithstanding, this criticism seems misplaced. It is true, as Rabbi Yehuda Gershuni has argued, that there is no requirement to fight a hopeless battle. This was claimed by the medieval commentator Gersonides, who noted that biblical figures would not initiate battles unless they believed they’d be victorious. Nonetheless, the members of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, who had already seen 300,000 residents deported to Treblinka in 1942, reasonably feared that they would share the same fate. Two of the few survivors, Simcha Rotem and Marek Edelman, later told a prominent Holocaust historian, “Death was a given. How to live was not.” Accordingly, the dilemma in their eyes was whether to die passively or actively. It is undoubtedly correct that being killed by passive resistance does not make one’s death any less glorious. Standing up as a Jew, in life and in death, is always meritorious. Nonetheless, the uprising was a significant event because it created (or rejuvenated) another model of martyrdom: fighting against the enemy until one’s death.
Today we know that this sentiment was expressed by the leading Torah scholar within the Warsaw Ghetto, Rabbi Menachem Zemba. As Dr. Chaim Shalem has shown, leading intellectuals and rabbis in the ghetto debated the merits of the revolt, with many, secular and religious alike, against the rebellion. Several still believed that it was more appropriate for Jews to die passively or, alternatively, to somehow get miraculously saved. However, Zemba, among others, argued that it had been a mistake for Jews to have let the Germans so easily transport them to Treblinka from the Umschlagplatz (collecting point). At this stage, the remaining Jews needed to fight, which, as he noted, was a new model for “sanctifying the name of God.” Zemba’s position was one of the more influential in convincing the group to fight. While doomed to failure, the rebellion served as a source of inspiration for Jews to take their fate into their own hands.
Good perspective on this question was provided a decade later by Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg, who was sent to the Warsaw Ghetto but survived because he was interned alongside Russian prisoners of war. Weinberg strongly chastised those who criticized those who were taken passively, contending that these critics greatly underestimated the physical terror and psychological warfare employed by the Nazis. He further lauded those who were killed after horrific suffering yet had remained stalwart in their faith. At the same time, he saluted all of those brave fighters who somehow found the strength and fortitude to fight back, thereby restoring a sense of national honor.
This perspective avoids the excesses of Zionist bravado, exilic passivity and Masada’s suicidal resolution. While recognizing that all of these martyrs died for our holy religion, it reminds us that when all hope is lost, it’s best to go down swinging.
The writer directs the Tikvah Overseas Students Institute and is a postdoctoral fellow at Bar-Ilan University law school.