Reflections from the Warsaw Ghetto

Despitemy father's pain he remained a genuinely pious man committed to his God and his people.

Ghetto uprising monument in Warsaw 370 (photo credit: wikimedia commons)
Ghetto uprising monument in Warsaw 370
(photo credit: wikimedia commons)
Recently I celebrated the anniversary of my father’s death, the yahrzeit that drew me back to the synagogue pulpit to lead the prayers as I had done so religiously for the year following his actual passing.
That role was never one I felt wholly comfortable with, but as with many of us kaddish interlopers in the synagogue, I persisted out of a mixed sense of, in order of escalating importance, social pressure, duty to my faith, guilt at not having been a dutiful enough son, respect, and, far more importantly, profound love for a man I truly mourned and missed.
Conspicuously missing was any interest in extolling the greatness of God, which happens to be the exclusive concern of the kaddish prayer. There is not a single word in it relating to death or the deceased on behalf of whom it is recited. It therefore not only failed to express any of the feelings that motivated its monotonous repetition, but was a constant reminder of how alienated my mouth was from my heart, how divorced my body was from my spirit.
My father was a Holocaust survivor who immigrated to North America after suffering unimaginable loss and devastation.
Despite his pain he remained a genuinely pious man committed to his God and his people. Being a Jew for him resonated with the dual spiritual and physical dimensions that constitute Jewishness as an expression of both religion and peoplehood. His experience confronting the brute horrors of physical decimation transformed every act of ritual observance from a mere private form of worship into a tangible affirmation of the continued physical survival of the Jewish nation. His Judaism integrated body and spirit. And so, the incongruence between my own body and mind in commemorating my father’s life was acute and at times exceedingly unbearable.
Leon Wieseltier’s solution to his own similar existential predicament which ultimately crystallized in his magisterial book Kaddish inspired me to exploit the kaddish prayer as a recurring reminder to explore how other serious thinkers responded to catastrophe, particularly that which my father endured. The most remarkable I encountered among these struggles to come to grips with that which will forever remain incomprehensible are the sermons of Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, the hassidic master known posthumously as the Warsaw Ghetto Rebbe.
His collection of sermons, published as The Holy Fire (Eish Kodesh), were delivered in the Warsaw ghetto between the fall of 1939 and the summer of 1942, when he was finally murdered. They were transcribed, buried and retrieved, and are no less a fierce and heroic form of resistance than the armed uprising that has unfortunately overshadowed all others and monopolized the popular imagination since. They were not simply flashes of virtuosic Torah learning, but intended rather to combat despair in desperate circumstances and to shore up his followers’ physical and spiritual stamina, when the body and the spirit were fast dissipating. They thus represented the integration of spirit and body I felt my father’s spirituality drew on, and perhaps could help to mend the alienation I had experienced between my own spirit and body.
On the annual commemoration of my father’s death, I revisit The Holy Fire as my own form of ritualistic tribute to his memory. This year I studied a sermon delivered in mid-March of 1942, one of the last before his deportation, on the occasion of his own yahrzeit for his father. Its core teaching is the critical role of the physical dimension for Jewish existence. Focusing on the words of the Torah and the sages that, for the rabbinic mind, can never be superfluous, he seizes on the midrash that when living Jews suffer, their deceased righteous forbears suffer along with them in their graves. The lesson is that the body and its empathy with other bodies are crucial to the development of the spirit. Thus it is precisely the physical remnant of righteous lives, their remains in the grave rather than their souls in the Heavenly Yeshiva, which are tormented by the physical anguish of their Jewish compatriots.
He then cites a teaching in the name of his father, which strikingly speaks from the grave to the recent legislative efforts by the Knesset to redress the inequity of religious exemptions from military and national service.
Without delving into the halachic technicalities and fine distinctions of its post-biblical rabbinic formulation, the Torah allows for limited exemptions from serving on the battlefront, among which the yeshiva student is glaringly absent. Included are those who are “fearful and disheartened,” meaning those terrified to enter the theater of war.
They are discharged from active duty because their fear would only demoralize the troops. The Talmud defines “fearful” as “afraid of his sins.” The rationale is that the potential conscript, in his worldview suffused by God’s hand, worries that his sins might render him vulnerable to injury or death on the battlefield.
R. Shapira then zeroes in on the phrase “his sins” to suggest a contrast with one who has a fear of others’ sins.
In other words this exemption targets only those whose devotion to God is in fact self-centered. The one who fears only the consequences of his own sins reflects a sorely deficient religious life absent the compassion for others that ideally it should comprise. The corollary is that those who fear both for their own and their comrades’ in arms sins are not exempt because their spiritual life encompasses both spirit, or subservience to God, and body, or commitment to their fellow countrymen.
They are precisely the ones who qualify best as warriors because their concern for others is what is essential for the physical self-sacrifice that war so often entails.
When afforded the opportunity of escape from the ghetto R. Shapira refused to abandon his followers, sacrificing his own future to do whatever he could to sustain their bodies and spirits. In March of 1942, when this sermon was delivered, starvation, disease and death were the defining features of ghetto life. 5,000 people were literally dying in the streets monthly; the deportations to liquidate the ghetto of its remaining living dead were in the offing; and, in a short while Adam Czerniakow, the Jewish leader of the ghetto, would commit suicide at the prospect of having to provide the daily quota for those deportations. Yet, R. Shapira persisted in his sermonic resistance not because he feared his own sins but because he feared for others and for the physical integrity of his people.
Since Israeli law exempted haredim from military service, and since the basis of that exemption did not correspond to any of the other Torah exemptions, the only Torah category that could accommodate it is “the fearful and disheartened.” Claiming the exemption then ironically qualifies their very membership in the group called haredim by a “trembling” before God out of a fear that fails to extend beyond the self, a fear that is symptomatic of an impoverished spiritual condition which disqualifies one from the battlefield. Only those who care for others are privileged to serve their country.
It would be difficult to find a more devout, halachically stringent, and learned man than the Warsaw Ghetto Rebbe, and yet he surely would not have claimed such an exemption. His altruistic “trembling” before God emerged out of a magnanimous fear that transcended his own person provoking an overwhelming care for the spiritual and physical well being of others. In their rejection of service haredim exhibit only a concern for what they consider the spiritual dimension of existence to the total disregard of the equally important dimension of the body.
Ironically, they are oblivious to the full connotations of the very Hebrew term they proudly adopt as their moniker, which embraces both facets of the human condition.
Isaiah 66:5 does indeed designate those who are consumed with obedience to “the word of the Lord” as haredim.
However, in 1 Samuel 13:7 that very same term depicts the zeal of those who followed King Saul into battle, in defence of their nation against mortal enemies, in stark contrast to the fearful who remained behind and “cowered in caves, tunnels, and cisterns.”
The author is the Joseph & Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Waterloo, Canada.