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Theological and Halakhic Reflections on the Holocaust

jan peczkis|Sunday, April 20, 2014

This work includes the early-postwar testimonies of rabbis, and their lucid and moving description of the sufferings of the Jews. This included not only the brutal murders of 6 million innocent men, women, and children, but also the systematic destruction of centuries of Jewish civilization. The heartfelt descriptions brought me to tears.

The various authors touch on many different religious issues. For instance, Bet Shammai, writing in the Talmud, forbade divorce except in the case of adultery. (Rabbi Manuel Laderman, pp. 46-47). [The Christian recognizes the same teaching by Jesus Christ.]

Contrary to the title of this book, its focus is not solely on religious matters. It deals with American Jews and the Holocaust, and also contains seldom included information on the Holocaust of Sephardic Jews, which I discuss at the end of my review.


The religious issues raised are familiar. For instance, God sends trials in order to purify, sanctify, and elevate His people. (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, p. 56). Why is there evil? Perhaps God allows evil because He allows free will, and this entails the license not only to do evil, but also to harm others through one's evil choices. (Rabbi Abraham R. Besdin, p. 140; Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka, pp. 178-179; Rabbi Mark Kunis, pp. 250-251). Perhaps God "makes up" for the evil He allows through some compensatory blessing, such as the (inferred) miraculous restoration of the State of Israel (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, p. 69), or new family members that "replace" the murdered ones. (Rabbi Zevulun Charlop, pp. 193-194). Finally, what happens if evil has no answer? Perhaps God's ways are inscrutable, and beyond rational human understanding.

This book does not attempt to deal with certain religiously based questions about the Holocaust. For instance, why was God so lenient with Germany?

Perhaps as expected, this work attempts to link Christianity with Nazism. Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits goes further. (pp. 161-162). He repeats the nonsensical argument (ironically, stated earlier by the Nazis) that Christianity has a negative view of the human body, and that Christians have persecuted Jews because they are jealous of the freedoms that Jews have in this regard. [In actuality, Pauline theology, for example, took a middle course between the extremes of the ascetic legalists (who thought of human sexuality more or less as something evil) and the antinomians (who believed in unbridled hedonism).]


By way of introduction, this subject usually comes to public attention in attacks on Christianity and attacks on Poland. For instance, neo-Stalinist Jan T. Gross, and others like him, have cited alleged instances of (some obscure) Poles suggesting that God was collectively punishing the Jews for their sins (such as the crucifixion of Christ, or continued refusal to believe in Him). Interestingly, there were parallel teachings among influential Jews, based of course on Jewish theology. Normann Lamm discusses some of them, and I quote Lamm below except as indicated.

Let us first consider the late Satmarer Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Moshe Teitelbaum, (quote) ...(He) is clear and unambiguous...he decides that the Zionists were responsible for the tragedy of the six million. The arrogance of nationalistic self-determination in trying to build a Jewish state caused the great destruction. The fact that so many Zionists were secularists, nonbelievers, only made matters worse. They violated the injunction to remain passive, refrain from interfering in the divinely preordained plans of redemption, and to await the miraculous coming of the Messiah. Hence, the Zionists were guilty, and all the Jewish people suffered because of their sins. (unquote). (p. 121).

Another figure, Rabbi Emanuel Hartom, writing relatively recently, concluded just the opposite, (quote) The Holocaust is the punishment of our neglect of Erez [Eretz?] Israel. Our failure to participate en masse in the Return to Zion indicated a tragic defection from Judaism, a betrayal of the Promise to Abraham, and hence the unprecedented punishment we call the Shoah. That at least a portion of our people was spared is in itself a tribute to divine compassion for, having chosen to remain in exile, we implied our readiness to assimilate and thus turn our backs on God. (unquote). (pp. 121-122).

Finally, there was the case of Rabbi Avigdor Miller. Because he touches on multiple issues, I elaborate on his views separately in the next paragraph.


By way of introduction, Polish Cardinal August Hlond is nowadays routinely condemned for his 1936 statement on Jews as freethinkers. A quoted rabbi, Avigdor Miller, not only agreed tacitly with Hlond, but also went further. He suggested that the large-scale self-atheization of Jews in Poland was not only a reality, but also one that had provoked God's anger, bringing on the Holocaust. Rabbi Avigdor Miller wrote, (quote) "Because of the upsurge of the greatest defection from Torah in history, which was expressed in Poland by materialism, virulent anti-nationalism, and Bundism (radical anti-religious socialism), God's plan finally relieved them of all freewill and sent Hitler's demons to end the existence of the communities." (unquote). (p. 122).

The examples quoted by Lamm are hardly exhaustive. For instance, Eliezer Schach was another rabbi who believed that God was collectively punishing the Jews by bringing on the Holocaust (in this case, for abandoning the Torah).

It should be obvious to the reader that collective divine retribution is hardly limited to what some Christians believed about the Jews' fate. Some Jews, including educated ones, did likewise. When understood in broader context, the theme of collective divine punishment occurs commonly in the Bible. One can think, for example, of the Babylonian captivity, in which devout Jews were punished by God alongside the sinful ones. The latter point is important, as Lamm seems to miss the point about its collective nature. Thus, for example, children suffer alongside adults because of the sins of the latter, and religious Jews suffer alongside atheist Jews because of the apostasy of the latter.


Rabbi M. Mitchell Serels describes the complex situation that enabled the survival of Bulgaria's Jews. He writes, (quote) Either because of royal protection, Communist demonstrations, a strongly militant Zionist organization, Spanish interest, a fear of a Russian offensive, or simply a lack of anti-Semitic feelings, Jews from Bulgaria proper remained protected. Most likely it was a combination of these various factors which uniquely protected the Bulgarian Jews. Despite the benevolent relationship with the Bulgar people, the overwhelming majority of Bulgarian Jews emigrated to Israel when the war ended. (unquote). (pp. 324-325).

Now consider the fact that the mass emigration of Poland's surviving Jews is conventionally blamed on--what else--Polish intolerance, anti-Semitism, and pogroms. The absence, or near-absence, of such things in Bulgaria did not disincline most Bulgarian Jews from emigrating either!


Some chapters in this work touch on the conduct of American Jews during the unfolding Shoah. They commonly repeat the common exculpation that American Jews were afraid of speaking up for their brethren in Europe because they suspected that a more visible role would further the notion that Jews are influential, and thereby give rise to anti-Semitism. Others consider the inaction of American Jews as inexcusable. For instance, Rabbi Stanley M. Wagner quotes Chayim Greenberg, a Labor Zionist leader, who excoriated American Jews for their hardness, dullness, and moral bankruptcy, which is made worse by the fact that they are not even ashamed of it. (pp. 259-260).
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