Confronting the Holocaust

  • Harav Yehuda Amital


Confronting the Holocaust as a Religious and a Historical Phenomenon

By Harav Yehuda Amital



"On the Ninth of Av, both the First and Second Temples were destroyed" (Mishna Ta'anit 4:6). Indeed, our mourning for the burning of God's House stands at the center of the fast day of Tisha Be-av. Yet there is a tragedy worse than the destruction of the Temple. We read in Tehillim (79:1-3):


A psalm of Assaf: God, foreigners have come to Your inheritance; they have defiled Your holy sanctuary - they have made Jerusalem into ruins!

They have given the corpses of Your servants as food for the birds of the heavens, the flesh of Your pious to the beasts of the land.

They have spilled blood like water around Jerusalem; but no one buries.


Concerning the heading of this psalm, the Sages comment (as cited by Rashi, Kiddushin 31b, s.v. Istaya):


"A psalm of Assaf?" It should be "a dirge of Assaf!" Rather, interpret it thus: Assaf sang over the fact that God spent his fury on the sticks and stones of His House, and thereby He left a remnant of Israel; otherwise, there would not be a survivor left. Thus it says: "God has spent his fury, for he has ignited a fire in Zion" (Eikha 4:11).


To add any explanation to this midrash would merely detract from it.


A short time ago, someone said to me, "I have gone through a great deal of Holocaust literature, and I now find it difficult to recite the Kinot of Tisha Be-av or to read the book of Eikha. Everything described there pales in comparison to the Shoah!" I replied to him: "Is this a problem? On the contrary, this is exactly how Tisha Be-av should be. If one does not feel that Eikha and the Kinot pale in comparison to the Shoah, the only explanation is that he is suppressing the memory of the Shoah."


To our great distress, we are witness today to the widespread suppression of the Holocaust from our religious consciousness. Admittedly, it is difficult to deal with the Shoah. One of the ways of dealing with it, which certain people have employed, is simply removing it from our minds, ignoring it - not in the historical sense, but in the religious and spiritual sense. I am not speaking of the pernicious phenomenon of Holocaust denial, which maintains that the Shoah never happened. Rather, I am referring to the absenting of the Shoah from the public memory and from our religious awareness, whether consciously or unconsciously - particularly here in Israel.




When people use loaded words like "Auschwitz," "Majdanek," "Nazis," etc., to describe other phenomena - serious though they may be - we find a belittling of the Shoah. Using terms derived from the Shoah to describe acts of terrorism will cause future generations to come to a point where only the historians among them will be able to differentiate between the Holocaust and Israel's wars. The carelessness of such speech is bound to bring us to a future where the term "Shoah" itself will come to be a general term for a disaster to the Jewish people, and perhaps "World War II" will be a synonym for the German destruction of our people.


When Jews use against Jews terms borrowed from the world of Holocaust images, they too belittle the Shoah. Whether it is leftists calling Israeli soldiers "Judeo-Nazis," or rightists shouting "S.S." and "Gestapo" at police officers - both belittle the Shoah, even if the ultimate intent of their protests is good and their aim is for the sake of Heaven.




A more serious phenomenon is the suppression of the Shoah from our religious consciousness. We stand silent before the enormity of the Shoah, and we have no answer. "And Your faithfulness in the nights" (Tehillim 92:3) - even when it is darkest, we believe that God is faithful to us. This is one of the tests with which God tries us. Despite everything, we continue to cling to God, echoing the ironic lament: "We fled from You to You." But as for a reply, there is none.


Certain groups and certain rabbinical authorities presume to provide an explanation for every tragedy and disaster; they know how to answer, for example, why a certain number of children were killed in an accident. Many times, they attribute this to the sins of others. Let us imagine: if we asked one of those rabbis, "You have before you two scenarios: here a million and a half children were killed, and here ten; now explain this" - what would he say? "I have an answer for the ten, but none for the 1,500,000?" Hardly. Thus, the compulsion to provide an answer for the deaths of ten children compels us to remove the Shoah, a tragedy on a scale that we cannot begin to comprehend, from our collective religious memory - for one who has not done so can never claim, for any tragedy, "I have an answer!" I do not even speak of the educational implications of such an approach - if there is an "explanation" or a pat "answer" for everything, what will you tell your child when he or she asks: "Why did the Shoah happen?"


In the National-Religious camp as well, which sees the rebirth of the Jewish people in its land as part of a process of redemption, there are those who disregard the Shoah. The claims are familiar: "The redemption process began in the time of the aliya of the students of the Gaon of Vilna and continues to our day, like the morning star's light shines forth and grows ever brighter." They thus ignore, in pragmatic terms, the Shoah.


Is redemption expressed only by the blossoming of the Land of Israel and measured only by the extent of our control over it? And what about the Nation of Israel? Is what happens to the Jewish People not tied to the concept of redemption?


Such a destruction never happened before to the Nation of Israel. Can this destruction truly be made to fit into the redemption process? Seeing the redemption process as continuous and unwavering, constantly gaining strength and progressing, implies ignoring the Shoah.


In 1996, I was asked to participate in a panel discussion. At one point, one of the participants asked me: "Is it still possible to refer to the State of Israel as 'the dawn of our redemption' now, after four cities were given over to the Palestinians as part of the Oslo Accords?" Immediately, a rabbi, one of the leaders of the National-Religious camp, stood up and replied, "It is an a fortiori argument: if, seventy years ago, Rav Kook in his correspondence could refer to the embryonic State of Israel as 'the dawn of our redemption,' certainly we can, all the more so, do likewise today!"


Yet, in my mind, a question remained: "All the more so?" Is that really true? Was not our world destroyed in the intervening seventy years? Did the most terrifying event not happen in the meantime?


This approach, found among some members of the National-Religious community, also ignores the Shoah, springing from a personal inability to deal with it. In the past, very grave opinions were expounded regarding the Holocaust: there were those who claimed that the Holocaust was a sort of price that the Jewish People had to pay in order that the Jewish State could be established. There are those that claimed that the State of Israel is the divine compensation for the destruction of the Holocaust. There were even those who claimed that the Shoah was the only way - or, at least in practical terms, became the impetus - to compel the Jews of Europe to make aliya to the Land of Israel. These are very difficult claims, approaches that I find hard to countenance at all. Moreover, these sorts of claims inspire a gut reaction, a natural aversion that causes me to worry less about them then about the historical and religious view that ignores the Shoah, disregards and omits it absolutely from our collective memory - which is infinitely more dangerous.




A third point I wish to address relates to the basis for our divine worship at the present time.


In "Chovot Ha-levavot" (Duties of the Heart), Rabbenu Bachya ibn Pekuda develops the notion that our service of God is based on gratitude to Him. "The Gate of Unity" and "The Gate of Distinction" precede "The Gate of Divine Service." In "The Gate of Distinction," Rabbeinu Bachya expands on the need to constantly think about God's kindness; the obligation of divine service thus springs from belief in His unity and recognition of His good. Rabbeinu Bachya addresses this at the opening of "The Gate of Divine Service" as well.


More than a few modern rabbis and preachers have continued to espouse the idea of gratitude as a basis for worshipping God. Such, for example, was Rav Dessler's approach, in the years preceding the Shoah (Mikhtav Me-eliyahu, Vol. I, p. 50). The question is, understandably: after the awesome devastation of the Jewish People in the Holocaust, how - if at all - can we still talk about our worship of God being based on gratitude or recognition of God's grace?


On my first Yom Kippur after being liberated from a Nazi labor camp, I prayed with other survivors in a cramped cellar. I cannot fully describe the storm of emotion that I felt then, but I will try to reconstruct some of that feeling.


I was young then. I had no children. My parents had been murdered along with most of the population of our town. Among the survivors in that small room, there were people who had lost their children, parents, spouses and siblings. They prayed, and I with them. Was their worship of God based on gratitude? Can a Jew who has lost his wife and children possibly serve God on the basis of recognition of His kindness? Can a Jew whose job was the removal of the charred remains of corpses from the crematoria of Auschwitz be capable of serving God on the basis of gratitude?


No, not in any way, shape, or form! But where, then, does that leave us?




The Talmud records (Yoma 69b):


Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says: Why were they called "The Men of the Great Assembly?" Because they returned the [divine] crown to its ancient glory.

Moshe came and referred to God as "The Great, Mighty, and Awesome God" (Devarim 10:17).

Yirmiyahu came and said, "Foreigners are prancing in His sanctuary; where is His awesomeness?" - so he did not call Him "The Awesome" (Yirmiyahu 32:18).

Daniel came and said, "Foreigners subjugate His children; where is His might?" - so he did not call Him "The Mighty" (Daniel 9:4).

[The Men of the Great Assembly] came and said, "On the contrary! This is His might, that he subdues His inclination and shows patience to evildoers; this is His awesomeness, for if God were not awesome, how could one nation [i.e. the Jews] survive in the midst of all the others?"

How then could [those prophets] have acted so and uprooted a Mosaic decree? Rabbi Elazar said: Since they knew that God is truthful, they would not lie to Him.


The parallel passage in the Yerushalmi (Megilla 3:7) cites an even more strongly-worded answer to the final question:


Rabbi Yitzchak bar Lazar said: These prophets knew that their God is truthful, therefore they would not [hypocritically] flatter Him.


The term used here is particularly harsh - "chanufa," which refers to insincere flattery designed to ingratiate oneself with someone more powerful. This behavior is abhorrent to God, as the Korban Ha-eda (ibid.) notes:


They told the truth, "for a flatterer will not be allowed to come before Him" (Iyov 13:16).


Divine service must be built on truth, not on falsehood or fawning flattery. Therefore, the prophets who felt that attributes such as "The Great," "The Mighty," or "The Awesome" could not in their times be used accurately to describe God, refrained from using such terms - despite the fact that they realized that they were deviating from the Torah's language and from the text that Moshe had instituted.


This is true also of our issue. Within the era that saw the greatest destruction in the history of the Jewish People, it is impossible to base our divine worship on the foundation of "recognition of His good." Of course, we must always remain aware of God's daily acts of kindness, and must sincerely pray, "Modim anachnu Lakh" - "We thank You ... for Your wonders and kindnesses at all times, evening, morning and afternoon." But while gratitude should certainly constitute one component of our divine service, it cannot serve as the entire foundation of our worship.


Rabbeinu Bachya, in the tenth section of his Chovot Ha-levavot, "The Gate of Love of God," sets out a different path of divine service:


... One of the pious men would rise in the middle of night and declare: "My God, You have starved me, You have left me naked, You have set me to dwell in the gloom of night; and You have taught me Your strength and Your greatness. If You incinerate me in flame, I will continue only to love You and rejoice in You."

It is as Iyov (13:15) said, "Even if He kills me, I will still trust in Him," and to this idea [Shelomo] the wise man hinted when he said, "A bundle of myrrh (tzeror ha-mor) is my beloved to me, and he will sleep between my breasts" (Shir Ha-shirim 1:13). Our sages said, by way of derivation, "Though He constricts and embitters me (meitzer li u-meimer li), He will sleep between my breasts."


At the highest rung of religious development depicted in Chovot Ha-levavot, "The Gate of Love of God," Rabbeinu Bachya bases divine love not on gratitude but on faith, which persists even in an era of divine concealment.


The Mishna (Sota 5:5) states:


On that very day, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hyrcanus preached: Iyov served God solely out of love, as it says: "Even if He kills me, I will still trust in Him."


The gemara (Sota 31a) adds that it is only possible to explain the verse the way it is read, not according to the way it is written. Thus, the word "lo" in the verse "Hen yikteleni, lo ayachel" is to be spelled lamed-vav, yielding the translation above. It is impossible to interpret the verse as it is written, with the word "lo" spelled lamed-alef, yielding the translation, "If He kills me, I will no longer trust in Him."


This is also the explanation of the verse "Were Your Torah not my delight, I would have perished in my misery" (Tehillim 119:92). The verse is not directed only to the "delight" of Torah study in particular, but rather to the whole concept of clinging to God (devekut). We do not know how to explain this devekut, but it is a bond that lies at the core of our very being.


In the wake of the Shoah, to whom can we still flee? To where can we flee? The answer is clear: "We have fled from You to You."


I have recounted the following story many times. Shortly after I arrived in Eretz Yisrael, I visited Kfar Etzion and chanced upon a friend whom I had known during those dark days. When he saw me, he cried out, "Yehuda - is it you? You were saved? You, who always preached to us that we have no hope and should prepare to die as martyrs sanctifying God's Name - you were saved!?" His next question was: "Did you remain religious?" I replied, "Had I not stayed religious, would all of the questions have been answered? Would the whole phenomenon then be understandable?"


I once had a conversation with Abba Kovner, may he rest in peace. He was a leader of the revolt in the Vilna Ghetto and an important Hebrew poet. I said to him, "I don't know whose test was greater, mine or yours. Your banner was faith in man. After the Shoah, can you still believe in man? I believe in God, Whom I cannot understand. But man should be fathomable - so what do you believe in now?"


The verse "Were Your Torah not my delight, I would have perished in my misery" has a broader meaning. Knesset Yisrael wonders, "How could I ever have persevered without God?" How can anyone survive without God? Without God, one simply could not cope with all the problems besetting him. It is not in spite of undergoing a test of this magnitude, but rather because of it, that we need our faith in order to survive.


"bundle of myrrh is my beloved to me; he shall rest between my breasts" - although He constricts and embitters me, He shall rest between my breasts. (Shabbat 88b)



(Based on a sicha delivered in Av 5758 [1998].

Transcribed by Roni Goldenberg; translated by Yoseif Bloch; adapted by Rav Reuven Ziegler.)