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Hasidim anew hisory;Hasidism Confronts Jewish Atheism. “Christianization” of the Holocaust? (Redemptive Suffering in Judaism). Joy AND Ascetism

jan peczkis|Sunday, January 21, 2018

This magisterial work is a single-volume encyclopedia on Hasidism. It traces the history of Hasidic Judaism, and highlights the unexpected post-Holocaust rebirth of Hasidism in places such as Brooklyn, New York, and the State of Israel. Owing to the comprehensiveness of this work, my review is limited to certain issues surrounding mostly-recent Jewish-Polish and Jewish-Christian relations. The issues discussed are topical, not chronological.



REDEMPTIVE SUFFERING IN JUDAISM? THE AUSCHWITZ CARMELITE CONVENT AND CROSS CONTROVERSY

By way of introduction, influential Jews once raised a big fuss about Polish Catholic nuns praying for the souls of the Jewish dead at Auschwitz. We heard that Christians had no right to pray for the Jewish dead because Christians in times past had persecuted Jews. What’s more, the convent and crosses were a “Christianization” of the Holocaust, and, worse yet, this “Christianization” featured the “imposition” of a Christian understanding of suffering (that is, redemptive suffering) that is foreign to Judaism. According to these critics, Auschwitz must scrupulously be maintained as nothing more than a needless, obscene tragedy. Some Jews went even further, demanding that no one pray at Auschwitz, because (in their opinion), God was soundly disproved there, and so there should be a perpetually empty sky over Auschwitz.

Authors Biale et al. inadvertently discredit much of the “basis” behind the ultimately-successful effort to bully the Polish nuns into leaving. They show that there were aspects of Hasidic thinking on the Shoah that overlapped, if not coincided, with the so-called Christian notion of redemptive suffering (though, of course, within a Judaic framework). First of all, God was not absent at Auschwitz: He was (according to the likes of Kalonymos Kalman Shapiro) suffering alongside with, and even more strongly than, His people. (pp. 660-661). Some Hasidim thought of the Holocaust as a martyrdom that constituted the “birth pangs” (HEVLEI MASHIAH) that will usher-in the Messiah. (p. 659). Interestingly, Yisakhar Shlomo Teichthal (1885-1945) abandoned his earlier anti-Zionism, and came to believe that the Holocaust served to weaken the KELIPPOT (the husks of evil materiality), thus causing the gates of the Land of Israel to open. (pp. 662-663).

JEWISH SINS: THE HOLOCAUST AS GOD’S DISCIPLINE

In terms of generalizations about the Hasidic response to the Shoah, Biale et al. conclude, “However, most thinkers embraced the traditional idea that God’s hand must be present in the Holocaust. In its most simplistic form, this tradition led to a search for the sin (or sins) for which the Holocaust was a punishment or, alternatively, to see the suffering as a goad to repentance. The most common sin identified was assimilation or secularization, although some targeted Zionism.” (p. 659). (Note the irony of a few Poles being excoriated for suggesting that the Holocaust was God’s punishment for Jewish sins, when some Jews correspondingly thought the same thing!)

ASCETISM NOT ONLY CHRISTIAN. JOY AND ASCETISM: A FALSE DUALISM

Critics of Christianity as diverse as Enlightenment rationalists, Hitler, and some Jews, had called Christianity a religion that rebels against the joys of the senses. Although ascetism (e. g, monasticism) was more prominent in traditional Roman Catholicism than in Hasidism, it definitely existed in the latter (e. g, pp. 715-on). Furthermore, the joy/ascetism dichotomy is an artificial one to begin with, as the authors stress, “Again, however, we must ask whether the opposition between joy and ascetic renunciation is not more an outsider’s view than an accurate depiction of life as seen from within. The renunciate (Franciscan or Buddhist as well as Hasidic) might feel great joy in the closeness to God he has achieved precisely by successfully living up to calls for sexual abstinence and control of appetites.” (p. 811).

POLISH-JEWISH RELATIONS CENTURIES AGO: CONFRONTING ANTIGOYISM

The authors avoid the usual black-and-white narrative of the innocent Jew and the villainous Catholic Pole (e. g, the Crucifixion of Christ, and deicide). They recognize episodes of amiability as well as hostility, moreover having gone both ways, between the two communities. (p. 31, 452). And, although they express uncertainty as to how it affected everyday Jewish conduct, Biale et al. are candid about the anti-goyism that is part of the Jewish religion, and the efforts of some Jews to repudiate it.

With reference to the SHIVHEI HA-BESHT (hagiographic stories of the Ba’al Shem Tov, first published in 1814: p. 17), the authors comment, “The ‘theoretical’ Gentile was a monolithic, threatening character and, in the Kabbalistic tradition that formed much of Polish Jewish culture, even demonic…Stories in SHIVHEI HA-BESHT attest to significant encounters between early Hasidim and Gentiles. The same collection also suggests that SOME wanted to moderate the demonic image that Jewish folklore and Kabbalah assigned to Gentiles, mandating instead relations based on ethical considerations. This would seem to be the implication of a few tales that assert that cheating Gentiles is a sin before God.” (p. 31; Emphasis added).

POLITICAL CORRECTNESS: WHO HAS THE “RIGHT” TO MENTION JEWISH ATHEISM?

In almost every book on Polish-Jewish relations, Polish Cardinal August Hlond is berated for his 1936 pastoral letter on Jews as freethinkers, vanguards of Bolshevism, and a bad influence on morals. How terrible Catholic Poland must have been! As elaborated below, authors Biale et al inadvertently show that Hlond was entirely correct in his understanding and appreciation of Jewish atheism--as a real, significant, and relevant development. (Of course, and contrary to the mendacity of some, Hlond never said that all Jews were atheists. Far from it.)

The fair-minded reader, regardless of how he/she feels about atheism, can appreciate the double standard that exists: It is just awful for a Catholic leader to broach this subject, but it is perfectly fine if a religious Jew does so. It is high time that Jewish authors get off Hlond’s back. Let us now examine how the Hasidim wrestled with Jewish atheism.

THE GRAVITY OF THE SELF-ATHEIZATION OF POLAND’S JEWS: A HASIDIC VIEW

With reference to the timeframe encompassing Cardinal Hlond’s statements (post WWI), Biale et al comment, “Ever more Jews, especially younger ones, were abandoning old customs, traditional dress, and lifestyle. Jewish society rapidly embraced modernity, including secularism, and Hasidism began to lose its followers…For a great many people, this meant abandoning Hasidism and embracing political movements such as Bundism, territorialism, Zionism, anarchism, and even Bolshevism.” (p. 588).

Interestingly, the authors, after discussion the wrongs that Jews had (actually or supposedly) experienced in interwar Poland, nevertheless relegated them into a secondary position relative to the growing atheization of Jews, which they found crucially significant, “Yet the primary challenge for Orthodox Judaism and Hasidism in Poland was the abandonment of religion, especially by the young, who embraced secular movements such as Zionism and socialism in UNPRECEDENTED NUMBERS. Accelerated secularization affected not only ordinary Hasidic families but also the houses of tsaddikim.” (p. 597; Emphasis added).

APOSTATE HASIDIM ENHANCED THE MILITANT ATHEISM OF SOVIET COMMUNISM

Biale et al. say it all, “Many Orthodox Jews, including Hasidim, were swept up by the revolutionary atmosphere, abandoned religion, and joined the Bolsheviks. Some even enlisted in the secret police [Cheka, then NKVD]; the head of the Kiev branch, for example, was Arkadii Twersky, of the Chernobyl dynasty. Others joined the Yevsektsiya…For most of its existence, the Jewish Section was led by Semion Dimanstein, a former student of the Lubavitch, Telz, and Slobodka yeshivot…The presence of former Hasidim in the ranks of the Yevsektsiya would prove useful in identifying which institutions should be attacked…In some places, the yeshivah, the Jewish study hall, and rites like circumcision were ‘put on trial’ by Jewish Communists who wanted to demonstrate they were more Communist than anyone else.” (p. 590).

FOR FURTHER STUDY

To learn more about the modern Hasidim, see my reviews of:

REBBE: THE LIFE AND TEACHINGS OF MENACHEM M. SCHNEERSON, by Telushkin

REAL JEWS, by Efron

DEFENDERS OF THE FAITH, by Heilman

THE WAR WITHIN, by Elizur and Malkin

A LIFE APART: HASIDISM IN AMERICA, narrated by Nimoy and Parker
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. 1 comment| 2 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Report abuse| Permalink   Comment Jan Peczkis6 hours ago Report abuse .
YES, VIRGINIA, JEWISH COMMUNISTS WERE STILL JEWS

The notion that Jewish Communists are not really Jews, or were rejected by the Jewish community, are old and still-common exculpations, but are totally false. Nor is it true that Communism was something marginal among Jews.

The following links are solely to Jewish sources, reviewed by me:
.

I. The Jewish over-involvement in Communism was a direct outgrowth of Jewish cultural and literary traditions:

Jewish Radicals and Radical Jews

II. The Yiddishist movement was strongly tainted with Communism--a taint that went far beyond formal affiliation with Communist movements:

The Tragedy of a Generation: The Rise and Fall of Jewish Nationalism in Eastern Europe

Jewish Schools in Poland, 1919-39: Their Philosophy and Development

III. Communism was widely seen, in the Jewish community, not as a rejection of Judaism, but as a secular fulfillment of Jewish messianism:

The Old Country: The Lost World of East European Jews

Dreams of Nationhood: American Jewish Communists and the Soviet Birobidzhan Project, 1924-1951 (Jewish Identities in Post-Modern Society)

IV. Many Soviet Communist Jews practiced circumcision, kosher, etc. To them, Judaism was an ethnicity, not a religion:

Becoming Soviet Jews: The Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk (The Modern Jewish Experience)

The Shtetl: New Evaluations (Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies Series)

V. Jewish Communists who did not observe ANY Jewish practices lived and thought in terms of an alternative Judaism, not a rejection of Judaism:

The Non-Jewish Jew

VI. Even the most unconventional and militantly anti-religious Soviet Jewish Communists (the Yevsektsiya) were buried in Jewish cemeteries:

The Jews of the Soviet Union: The History of a National Minority (Cambridge Russian, Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies)

VII. The State of Israel freely welcomes Jewish Communists as valid Jews. For instance, U. B. (Bezpieka) murderer Salomon Morel was exempted from facing justice for the torture and murder of thousands of Poles:

An Eye for an Eye: The Untold Story of Jewish Revenge Against Germans in 1945
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