The Holocaust and Jewish Morality: The Views of a Survivor

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

The Holocaust and Jewish Morality:

The Views of a Survivor, Rav Yehuda Amital

By Moshe Maya[1]

Translated by Kaeren Fish


I. "Blessed are You ... Who Has Not Made Me a Gentile"

As an educator and a survivor, Rav Amital has frequently addressed the implications of the Holocaust. The question of Jewish identity, for example, has been greatly affected by the legacy of the Holocaust:

I believe that in our times, the ABC of Jewish identity is identification with these two events: the Holocaust - in other words, Jewish fate - and the State of Israel, as the continuation of Jewish fate. Although there is no balance between these two events...

I say identification with the Holocaust: identification that is conscious; identification out of will; identification with the family of the murdered, and not with the murderers.

I think I have never recited the traditional blessing, "Who has not made me a gentile" - in other words, "Who has made me a Jew" - with the same emotion as I did in the days when I saw myself amongst the family of the murdered, while on the other side the entire world belonged to the family of the murderers - whether they were active murderers or people who stood silently by while children were killed. I believe that this must be demanded of every Jew, with Jewish pride. On the other hand, one must also see in the revival of Israel the unique Jewish fate, the continuation of the prophecy of "a nation that dwells alone" (Numbers 23:9), and I think that that is indeed a moral definition [of Jewish nationhood], but because of its morality, it does not seem harsh to me.[2]

I never said the blessing, "Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who did not make me a gentile," with such fervor, as I used to recite it during those dark days. Specifically during those days, especially during those days - despite everything, I was proud to be counted among the murdered and not the murderers.[3]

Rav Amital invests the blessing "Who has not made me a gentile" with new content and meaning:[4] It is the dividing line between the family of victims and the family of murderers. The use of the word "family" to connote group identity is not coincidental. The family is the primary source for identity definition. The fact of belonging to the family of victims is itself "Jewish pride." This is not pride in an active deed, not even an act of self-defense, but rather pride in something that the Israeli ethos denied, for many years, as a source of pride.[5]

In a lecture delivered on Holocaust Memorial Day, Rav Amital sharpened this point over and over. After speaking about the fact that the explanation and significance of the Holocaust were completely unintelligible to him, he claimed that there was one point that did have significance for our times, and that was the single clear meaning that we can learn from the Holocaust period:

If there was a single point of light in the Holocaust, it was this: there were two camps there; on one side the camp of the murderers, and on the other side the camp of the murdered. Happy are we that we belonged to the camp of the murdered. The heavens and earth can testify on our behalf: if the nation of Israel had been given the opportunity to reverse roles, the nation of Israel would have said that it is preferable to be among the murdered than among the murderers. This is a historical point of light that cannot be overshadowed.[6]

Sensitivity to human life and fear of moral corruption are strengthened and sharpened by the memory of the Holocaust. What is generally perceived as a "universal message" of the Holocaust is considered by Rav Amital to be specifically its "Jewish message." In contrast to those who distinguish between the Jewish message of the Holocaust and its universal significance, Rav Amital identifies these two messages as a single one.[7] The internal obligation of moral behavior is what characterizes the Jewish national identity.

2. Moral Foundations - Cornerstone of our Concept of Nationalism

a. "All the World on One Side, and He on the Other Side"[8]

In a discourse dealing with the demand for morality even in relation to the enemy, not out of halakhic obligation but rather out of internal moral conviction, Rav Amital stated:

We are familiar with the nations of the world and their hypocrisy, we see now their denial of all that happened to Jews in the extermination camps... We owe them nothing. We owe it only to the Holy One, who entrusted us with a certain mission, to sanctify the Name of Heaven.[9]

This loss of faith in the nations of the world appears elsewhere, too, sometimes also in the context of the Holocaust. In a lecture after the Yom Kippur War, Rav Amital stated that the war had undermined some of the assumptions that had anchored the previously prevalent optimism. One of these assumptions was that "the countries committed to a heritage of human culture - whose conscience still troubles them over what happened to the Jews during the Holocaust period - would not allow Israel to fall prey to the Arabs."[10] This assumption, in Rav Amital's view, was proven false: "As to the aid that might have been expected from the 'cultured Christian world,' we may as well not waste words. The picture that was revealed to us is clear, explicit and harsh in all its cruelty."[11]

Rav Amital utters his sharpest statements against the nations of the world where he places the entire world on one side - the murderers and their assistants, and the nation of Israel on the other side - the victims: the days when I saw myself amongst the family of the murdered, while on the other side the entire world belonged to the family of the murderers - whether they were active murderers or people who stood silently by while children were killed.[12]

This is one of the most important lessons of the Holocaust:

Are you really speaking of a lesson? You want to ensure Jewish survival. What took place in the Holocaust - its foundation and basis - was that we stood against the world; all the world on one side, Abraham the Hebrew and us on the other side. This basic situation continues to exist.[13]

In a sermon built on several layers of midrashic interpretations, Rav Amital describes Israel's isolation, which is - as it were - an image of the isolation of the Master of the Universe. And He, the Holy One, is the "grandfather," as it were, whose attributes are passed down to His grandchildren:

Jacob stands facing a hostile world and battles alone against the prince of Esau (Gen. 32:25), who represents all the physical, brutal power in the world. If he had any friends, they were on the other side of the river. Jacob is forced to fight alone, and our Sages see a parallel and similarity here to the "Grandfather," the Holy One; just as He is alone there, so he (Jacob) is alone here...[14] At the time when Jacob remained alone, it was specifically then that the strength of His God is revealed - it is then that "God shall be elevated (nisgav) alone on that day" (Isaiah 2:121) is revealed. It is then that it is revealed to Jacob himself that his strength is not of the same sort as that of Esau. It is not measured by the number of weapons that he possesses; his advantage lies in "the God of Jacob, Selah"... "It is a nation that shall dwell alone, it shall not be counted among the nations" (Numbers 23:9)![15]

These words were uttered immediately after the Yom Kippur War. Where does the story of Jacob end, and the war begin? Where does the latter end and the Holocaust begin? Where does the verse end and its exposition begin? And where does the exposition of the Sages end, and that of Rav Amital begin? All are intertwined. Let us pay attention to a few lines that follow after the above excerpt:

Indeed, in this situation of Jacob fighting alone, there is an exaltedness that contains something of the Divine exaltedness. It is not a loftiness of this world. The inner power that is revealed inJacob at the time when he remains alone is a sort of Divine strength. The power of God alone being exalted.[16]

A view of the upper world as reflecting the lower world (and vice versa) fits in well with other statements by Rav Amital, not only concerning the solitariness and loneliness of God and of the nation of Israel, but also concerning the content of this unique status. Rav Amital claims that the universal destiny of the nation of Israel is a life of moral behavior that assumes that "Beloved is man" - every man - "for he was created in God's image," [Mishna, Avot 3:14.] and that man is required to cleave to God's attributes of mercy.[17]

b. "The Way of Israel"

The term "Jewish morality" is used by Jews to express the entire spectrum of moral views and commandments that, to their minds, are to be found in the Jewish religion and in Jewish tradition.[18] This term, as employed by both religious and secular Jews, is a function of Jewish self-image. The self-image of "merciful people who perform kindnesses" is what defines their moral obligation. Thus we find that Maimonides, for example, goes so far as to cast aspersions on the genealogy of one who does not behave in this manner, and there can be no clearer definition of identity than this:

Anyone who has within him brazenness or cruelty, who hates others and does not perform kindness towards them, is greatly suspect of being a Gibeonite, for the signs of Israel, the holy nation, are that they are bashful, merciful and perform kindnesses.[19]

It is prohibited for a person to be cruel and not to be appeased; rather, he should be easy to appease and slow to anger... this is the way of the seed of Israel and their sound heart.[20]

This image creates an obligation to act in accordance with the "measure of piety" (middat hasidut) - even if the law does not explicitly require such behavior. Ehud Luz[21] notes the fact that, according to Maimonides, the full significance of the self-image contained in the expression "Israel’s way" creates a moral obligation in a place where no halakhic obligation exists.[22]

Rav Amital claims that moral obligation is part of the national identity of the Jewish People, the identity of a nation whose kings are merciful kings [I Kings 20:31.] and perform many kindnesses. These principles arise in Rav Amital's teachings over the course of many years and, as we have seen, they are accentuated and strengthened against the background of the Holocaust.[23]

Rav Amital addresses the view that natural moral obligations are the cornerstone of national Jewish identity in an article on Rav Kook's statements about this issue.[24] This article is not a theoretical analysis of Rav Kook's teachings, but rather an attempt to clarify points that have modern and vital relevance.[25] Rav Amital selects a portion of Rav Kook's teachings "that seems to deal with a general problem which bears no connection to the realities of his day. Yet, after careful study, it becomes clear that it is anchored in his nationalist and Zionist perception, and it has great significance precisely in our time."[26] This statement indicates the importance of this subject for understanding Rav Amital's own ideology. In the article, Rav Amital highlights Rav Kook's view concerning moral obligations that are not codified in normative Jewish law:

Moral duties that we are accustomed to define merely as pious deeds, or beyond the letter of the Law, are thus found to be the essence of the Torah.[27]

Rav Amital explains that, to Rav Kook's view, these obligations have a certain advantage over obligatory laws:

... [I]t is desirable that these supererogatory deeds be performed out of an autonomous inner compulsion as a form of free-will offering and an expression of the love of kindness... [T]he ideal is to keep the Torah as the Patriarchs kept it, that is, out of a free, inner cognition, and not by strength of a heavenly command.[28]

This is not just a matter of individual awareness and conscience, but also a guiding principle in Jewish national destiny:

This great destiny ... is what gives meaning and significance to Jewish existence; it is planted in the depths of the Jew's inner consciousness; it is the source of his longing for redemption.[29]

In other words, it is specifically the moral obligations that are defined as "the measure of piety" and as lying "beyond the letter of the Law" that define the Jewish national identity. This is both an inner self-definition and an outward destiny:

In other words, if all the moral duties were to be turned into mandatory Halakha, it would be detrimental to Israel's mission of being a light to the nations. It is the very fact that the people of Israel reached, through the Torah's guidance, a moral way of life out of a free inner awareness, that will cause many nations to marvel and will inspire them to ascend to the mountain of the Lord. This is "the Torah [that] will go forth from Zion" and this is the "word of the Lord [which will emanate] from Jerusalem."[30]

Paradoxically, it is specifically the fact that the command to "love your neighbor as yourself," for example, is directed - according to its halakhic definition - only towards Jews, and specifically the fact that "the superficiality of several laws"[31] and of a few statements of the Sages appear to direct one's love of others to Jews only, that make the national morality directed towards other peoples into a mitzvah that arises from the ideal place from which a moral act should arise - the free, inner awareness, and not heteronomous Divine command. It is not defined by the boundaries of Halakha because "The love of fellow men must burst forth from the source of lovingkindness."[32]

Rav Amital emphasizes these components of Rav Kook's philosophy. The principle of universal, natural morality - morality that is directed by the Jewish people towards everyone, and which is required of everyone - stands at the foundation of Jewish nationalism. This is not a nationalism that limits goodness and kindness to itself, but rather one that brings goodness to all. It is unable to bear "any hatred or injustice, nor any limitation or shrinking of goodness and lovingkindness."[33] This natural morality is the crux of the Torah. And "when the people of Israel will succeed in bringing this message to the world, mankind will be healed."[34] These moral foundations are a cornerstone in Rav Kook's national and Zionist perception, and they are the reason for and destiny of Jewish national existence.

It should be emphasized that Rav Amital quotes one of Rav Kook's teachings which, at the time, was not accorded the proper weight and attention: "it is precisely in our days that we can understand them in all their depth and recognize their actual and vital significance."[35] Although Rav Amital does not provide an explicit reference in his statement as to the practical relevance and vitality of Rav Kook's words, he hints again and again at its significance throughout the article.[36] At the beginning of the article, Rav Amital points to a number of events that have exerted a great influence on our times, events which Rav Kook never foresaw. These include the Holocaust and the Israeli-Arab wars. From here Rav Amital goes on to examine how these two phenomena would have influenced Rav Kook's teachings. The parts of his teachings that have become especially relevant are the moral principles contained within his nationalist ideal, promising a nationalism that will not lead to moral degeneration and a belief in the use of force, belligerence and violence.

The practical application of these ideas receives expression in a letter and a discourse originating in September 1983, relating to current events during the period of the Lebanon War:[37]

The fact that these thoughts[38] are inserted into verses, statements of the Sages and expressions borrowed from the style of Rav Kook, of blessed memory, ... makes me shudder.[39]

Amongst the public one gets the impression... that this world-view is based on the teachings of Rav Kook, of sainted memory. My heart is pained over the desecration of Rav Kook's honor; how great is the distance betthe light that shines forth from his teachings and the spirit that emanates from the above-mentioned utterances and publications. Anyone who is convinced, as I am, that an injustice is being done to the teachings of our masters and teachers who have illuminated the world - Rav A.Y. ha-Kohen Kook and Rav Y.M. Harlap, of sainted memory - may he be silent? And if he may, can he be silent? The Name of Heaven is desecrated, for our many sins; is it possible to be silent!?[40]

In a similar context, Rav Amital writes in a letter: "It pains me that such words emanate from a learned Torah scholar and are attributed, directly or indirectly, to Rav Kook, of blessed memory, and to Rav Harlap, of blessed memory."[41] Rav Amital points to sources where Rav Kook speaks about man's natural morality, upon which his fear of heaven should be based, and about the value of love of all of humanity.[42]

The emphasis on the moral dimension of Jewish identity and of the moral demands placed on the Jewish nation have assumed an increasingly central place in Rav Amital's thought. In fact, Rav Amital has gone so far as to reject the identification of the real State of Israel with Rav Kook's ideal state that is "the foundation of God's throne in this world,"[43] since the State of Israel fails to meet our moral expectations (as well as for other reasons). In other words, the centrality of Jewish morality does not sit well with the Religious Zionist ideology that relates to the State of Israel as "the foundation of God's throne in the world." The political and ideological significance of such a statement is clear. Rav Amital's stance in this regard is consistent, and has become increasingly strong in recent years.



[1] This is an abridged excerpt from Moshe Maya's book about Rav Amital's views on the Holocaust: A World Built, Destroyed and Rebuilt: Rav Yehuda Amital's Confrontation with the Memory of the Holocaust (Ktav, 2005).

[2] "A World Built and Destroyed and Rebuilt: A Television Panel Discussion," Yalkut Moreshet 22, 1977 [Hebrew], pp. 12-13.

[3] "Forty Years Later: A Personal Recollection," Alon Shevut Bogrim 3, 1994, p. 88;

[4] See Tosefta, Berakhot 6:18. There is widespread rabbinical debate as to the proper understanding of these blessings. For a partial review, see: Rav Y. Yaakovson, Netiv Binah, I, Tel Aviv 1964, pp. 89-90, 164 onwards [Hebrew].

[5] See: Amos Funkenstein, Perceptions of Jewish History, Berkeley 1993; Anita Shapira, Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force, 1881-1948, New York 1992; see also in the collection: Major Changes Within the Jewish People in the Wake of the Holocaust, Jerusalem 1993, esp. the articles by A. Shapira, Y. Gelber and D. Shaked. This statement by Rav Amital was published already in 1977, at a time when such voices were barely a whisper in Israeli public debate.

[6] "A Kaddish for the Martyrs of the Holocaust," Ot Va-Ed - Pirkei Iyun U-Meida, N.P. 1990, p. 8.

[7] Rav Amital states elsewhere that the messages emerging from the Holocaust are not the business of Jews only, but are rather of universal concern: "This was not a process that concerned only our nation. It was a universal process, an all-embracing dilemma. We must not consider only the individual, because especially in regard to this aberration of human endeavor, there is no individual without the whole" ("Forty Years Later," p. 85).

[8]Genesis Rabbah, Lekh Lekha 41, 8 (Theodor-Albeck edition, p. 414).

[9] Rav Y. Amital, "Matters of Obligation and Obligations of Conscience," Daf Kesher vol. 1, Alon Shevut 1988, p. 29; [Hebrew].

[10] HaMa'alot MiMa'amakim [The Steps from the Depths], Jerusalem and Alon Shevut 1974 [Hebrew], p. 34.

[11] Ibid.

[12] "A World Built," p. 12; also in similar wording in "A Kaddish," p. 8.

[13] "A World Built," p. 17.

[14] "Just as it is written concerning the Holy One, 'He shall be elevated alone (levado)' (Isaiah 2:11), so Jacob 'remains alone (levado)' (Genesis 32:24)" (Genesis Rabbah, Vayishlah 77, 1 [Theodor-Albeck edition, p. 910]).

[15] HaMa'alot MiMa'amakim, pp. 50-51.

[16] Ibid., p. 50.

[17] See Rav Y. Amital, "The Torah's Attitude Towards Minorities in the State of Israel," Daf Kesher vol. 2, Alon Shevut 1990, pp. 340-343; also printed in Judaism and Democracy: Lectures at a Day of Study, Jerusalem 1989; [Hebrew].

[18] See Ehud Luz, Wrestling with an Angel: Power, Morality and Jewish Identity, New Haven 2003, pp. 214-220.

[19] Maimonides, Laws of Prohibited Sexual Relations, 19:17. See ibid., 12:24, and similarly Laws of Gifts to the Poor, 10:2, where Maimonides applies this definition to "all of Israel and those who join themselves to them." See also Rav Jacob ben Asher, Arba Turim, Even ha-Ezer, 2.

[20] Maimonides, Laws of Repentance, 2:10. See also Maimonides's statement in Laws of Slaves, 9:8: "Cruelty and brazenness exist only in idolaters, but the seed of Abraham our father - and they are Israel, whom the Holy One, Blessed be He, has endowed with the favor of the Torah and commanded with righteous statutes and laws - they are merciful towards everyone."

[21] Luz, p. 217.

[22] Despite the tendency to include that which is "beyond the letter of the law" within the law itself. See: Rav A. Lichtenstein, "Does Judaism Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halakha?" in his Leaves of Faith, volume 2: The World of Jewish Living (Jersey City, 2004); Luz, p. 217-8.

[23] Rav Amital relates to moral behavior as characterizing and identifying the unique image of the nation of Israel even in the course of regular speech, in a sermon on an entirely different topic. See: Rav Y. Amital, "How Shall I Ascend to My Father, When the Boy is Not With Me..." (discourse for Shabbat parashat Vayigash 5759), Alon Shevut Bogrim 13, 1999, pp. 9-13. In this sermon, over the course of two pages Rav Amital mentions such concepts as "moral image," "the unique image of the nation of Israel" and so forth, interchangeably.

[24] "The Ethical Foundations of Rav Kook's Nationalist Views: On the Significance of Rav Kook's Teaching for our Generation," originally published in The World of Rav Kook's Teachings, eds. B. Ish-Shalom and S. Rosenberg, New York 1991; revised and corrected English translation in Alei Etzion 2 (1995), pp. 13-27. References are to the latter edition. Corrected translation is archived at

[25] Ibid., pp. 16.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., p. 23 (see Maimonides, Laws of Repentance, 2:10).

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., p. 18.

[30] Ibid., p. 23.

[31] RAYH Kook, Lights of Holiness, III, Jerusalem 1974, p. 318 [Hebrew].

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid., p. 349; Rav Amital, ibid., p. 18.

[34] Rav Amital, ibid.

[35] Ibid., p. 16.

[36] Elsewhere, in a panel discussion organized ten years later with the same title as this article, Rav Amital explains the point of contact between Rav Kook's words and our reality in terms of modern relevance: "Do you know what the most common word is in Rav Kook's writings? Not 'the Land of Israel,' you can check; it is the word 'morality,' which appears almost everywhere. And who speaks today about Rav Kook's morality? Nothing so important has yet been written concerning one's attitude towards non-Jews as we find in Rav Kook's writings. At the same time, Kahanists speak in the name of Rav Kook. Did you see the 'Death to the Arabs' graffiti sprayed all along the road to here? They all speak as though they are disciples of Rav Kook" (Alon Shevut Bogrim 8, 1996, p. 137). Another discussion of this topic is to be found in "Religious Significance."

[37] "A Political or an Educational Message?" Alon Shevut 100, 1982, pp. 34-54 [Hebrew]; "Letter," Alon Shevut 100, 1982, pp. 55-62 [Hebrew]. The Lebanon War broke out at the beginning of the summer of 1982. The discourse "A Politior an Educational Message" was delivered on October 6, 1982, and the letter was sent in September of the same year. They explicitly address the war and its events, the slaughter by the Phalangists in Sabra and Shatilla, the public debate concerning the entry into Beirut, and the reactions amongst the Israeli public, especially the Religious Zionist public.

[38] The reference here is to political stances that assumed a religious ideological basis ("We went to war in order to enforce order... the world order will be determined by us;" the obligation to enter Beirut without hesitation; support for the bombing of Beirut with no moral deliberation).

[39] "Political," p. 39.

[40] Ibid., p. 41.

[41] "Letter" p. 61.

[42] RAYH Kook, Lights of Holiness, III, Introduction, #11, p. 27 [Hebrew]; ibid., p. 318; also The Teachings of Your Father, Jerusalem 1971, p. 94 [Hebrew].

[43] "The State of Israel, the foundation of God's throne in this world, whose entire aim is that God should be One and His name one" (RAYH Kook, Orot Yisrael, p. 160) [Hebrew].