Lecture #01: Faith and the Holocaust - General Introduction

  • Rav Tamir Granot




With the readers' permission, I would like to begin this series of classes in an unconventional manner.


Many factors motivate rabbis, teachers and researchers to immerse themselves in particular issues: expertise in a certain field, curiosity, spiritual or intellectual interest, the demands of the organization that employs them, or even the pull of tradition (the study of the weekly Torah portion, for instance).  Only rarely does the "teacher" identify so completely with the subject that teaching it becomes a personal journey.  In such a case, the act of teaching provides the teacher with an opportunity to broaden his personal horizons, to probe them deeply, and to reflect upon certain experiences and memories.


I belong to the "third generation" – namely, those whose grandparents survived the Holocaust - and I have never even set foot in Poland or Germany.   Nevertheless, I find that an opportunity to grapple with the spiritual, psychological and ideological aspects of the Holocaust is one of those rare occasions where teaching also becomes a personal journey.


I will share one of the most meaningful parts of this journey with you.  When I celebrated by twelfth birthday, my grandfather, R. Tzvi Greenstein, z"l, phoned my father, ylch"t, and told him that he had decided to buy me tefillin for my bar mitzva.  My father was surprised at my grandfather's alacrity, and mentioned that doubtless my other grandfather, R. Yosef, ylch"a, would also want to buy me tefillin, because I was the oldest grandson on both sides of the family.  Remonstrance was of no avail: Grandfather Tzvi forced my father and everyone else to comply with his wishes.  His insistence bore fruit, and several weeks later he purchased the tefillin.


My grandfather knew what he was doing.  He did not merit to attend my bar mitzva.  Shortly before my bar mitzva, he died peacefully in his sleep, kissed by God.  He suffered no prior illnesses; he was seventy-two years old.  In his drawer, we found two envelopes: one contained a standard will, and the other contained a piece of paper with the heading, "My Heart's Desires."  I will now share the latter with you:




Tzvi Greenstein, Kiryat Motzkin, 23 Harav Kook St.


My help comes from the Lord,


My Heart's Desires!


a.      Do not, under any circumstances, perform an autopsy upon my body.

b.      I sincerely importune you to bury me next to an upright, God-fearing individual.

c.      I request that you do your utmost to bring me to burial on the day I die.

d.      I request that you place the head-tefillin (sitting in the clothes closet, next to my prayer shawl and tefillin, in a special case) in my grave, next to my head, so that it will bear witness that under the most trying conditions I risked my life to perform the commandment of laying tefillin, which have [inscribed on a parchment] within them His oneness and His unity, may His name be blessed in the world.

e.      I request that you place a very modest and simple headstone upon my grave, and engrave upon it the words attached to this letter.


I accept upon myself the yoke of the heavenly kingdom unreservedly, with no remorse or desire to repent of my decision.  I believe with complete faith that You, God, are true and Your Torah is true forever, unto eternity.


Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.  God reigns; God has reigned; God shall reign forever and ever.  Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom, forever and ever. 


Your faithful and devoted servant,

Tzvi Greenstein

Son of Shemaya and Sara Pesil, z"l, Hy"d (May God avenge their deaths)


These moving words were written by a Jew whose entire family – except for his brother Shelomo, ylch"t – was wiped out by the Nazis: both his parents, four of his brothers, and, above all else, his first wife and his only son.  His wonderful declaration of faith at the end of the letter was neither a theological conclusion arising from the Holocaust nor even a decision arrived at in spite of it.  This spark of faith, as I understand it, is the real reason he survived the trials of the Holocaust and had the strength to start a new family in Israel.


My grandfather's request regarding the tefillin was the surprising part of the letter.  We had not known about the old head-tefillin he wrote about, which indeed was sitting in his closet.  My grandfather spoke about the Holocaust a lot, but not in the first person.  The story completing the picture, which was told only after his death, was that he had smuggled these tefillin into Auschwitz, and later into Buchenwald, where he was imprisoned during the war.  Risking his life, he had put them on every day.  Near the end of the war, he had been caught wearing them during his prayers, hiding behind one of the barracks.  An S.S. officer began strangling my grandfather with the straps, and he would have completed his task, had God not been with my grandfather, for at that moment an air raid siren sounded warning of incoming Allied bombers.  The German left him alone, and the head-tefillin had remained in his possession ever since.


In retrospect, I realized that, for my grandfather, the act of purchasing the tefillin completed the circle of his life: it was a joyous departure from the life that tefillin had imbued with meaning and force (and that, in the end, went with him to his grave).  He left his gift for me, his grandson and successor, confident and joyful in the knowledge that the Jewish life he believed in would be continued by his descendants. 


When I put on my tefillin, I have in mind not only the well-known kavvanot (mystical intentions) included in the "Le-shem Yichud" recitation, but also kavvanot and thoughts of continuity, gratitude to God, and remembrance and appreciation of my grandfather, z"l.  In so doing, I reaffirm his tremendously powerful faith.


My grandmother, Rivka, of blessed memory, his wife, was also saved from the fiery pit of Auschwitz.  My other grandparents fled to the Russian section of Poland, and they were also saved – some from water and some from fire, some from the sword and some from the storm and the plague – while essentially all the members of their families perished.  All of my grandparents - each on his own, and as couples who married after the war - decided to live lives dedicated to Torah, faith in God, and the Land of Israel.


This is not to say that life was simple for them, or that their beliefs were not shaken to their core.  Several years ago, I asked my other grandfather, R. Yosef Goldberg, the following question: "You have spent the last fifty years praying in a Chabad synagogue, using the Chabad formulation of the prayers, serving as a gabbai (sexton) and giving shiurim (classes); do you consider yourself a Chabad chassid?" My grandfather replied: "A chassid? After the war?! I heard what the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe (the Gaon, Rav Yosef Yitzchak) said before the war about leaving Europe, and what the other Rebbes said.  After the war, one can no longer be the chassid of a Rebbe …"


It is impossible to declare that my grandparents' decisions make more sense than the decisions of other Jews to stop observing the commandments, or to continue being Belz or Chabad chasidim.  However, these are the responses I was raised with, and which infuse my life.  They drive me to take the intellectual, spiritual and internal journey that finds expression in this course.


A. Preconceptions


There are many widespread preconceptions and unfounded beliefs regarding the issue of "Faith and the Holocaust." For instance, some claim that the Holocaust led to a massive wave of secularization, stemming from a deep, all-encompassing crisis of faith; others claim that no meaningful religious thought has been offered to confront the enormity of the Holocaust; and still others argue that the Charedi and Chassidic worlds have not confronted the Holocaust, choosing instead to repress its memory.


Neither scholars nor intellectuals have managed to avoid mistakes in dealing with the Holocaust, and at times they are guilty of intellectual dishonesty.  They occasionally portray the Charedi world as dogmatic and insecure in its dealings with the Holocaust; they present religious thought as powerless to help, and depict the memory of the Holocaust amongst the religious as weak and tenuous.


I try to give the benefit of the doubt to those who propagate such mistaken views, since the issue is an exceptionally sensitive one, and emotions are liable at times to prevail over self-criticism.  Historians and philosophers who are committed to thorough, objective and non-judgmental research are not always able to hold themselves back when the question at stake is as highly charged as that of religious life after the Holocaust.


Nevertheless, defending the purveyors of such views does not exempt us from the responsibility to present matters in their true light.  Historical justice, intellectual honesty, and sometimes also the honor of both the Holocaust victims themselves and of the Sages and the Torah all demand redress.


From the personal perspective which I presented above, I am especially interested in the grappling with the Holocaust undertaken by people of faith who retained their faith.  What I seek to know is whether, and how, the Holocaust influenced (1) their ideology (for example, their views on Zionism, redemption, non-observant Jews, etc.); (2) their religious experience or religious practice (prayer, trust in God, Chassidism, etc.); and (3) their theology (perception of Divinity, the concept of Divine Providence, etc.).


These questions may be addressed from two different angles.  On the one hand, they are part of the more general question of how believing Jews deal with experiences of acute suffering and of existential absurdity.  Such experiences go back to man's earliest history, but during the Holocaust they were particularly intensified.


At the same time, these questions may be examined in the unique context of the Holocaust.  In other words, from the various responses to the above questions, we may learn much about how Jewish religious leaders, Jewish thinkers and Jewish communities comprehend the Holocaust.


I make no attempt to defend any of the positions to be cited, nor do I mean to judge their expositors.  My intention is to allow them to speak for themselves, and to clarify their respective positions when necessary.  I shall also attempt to place their views within a broader philosophical and ideological context, and to address the questions to which they give rise.


I do not believe that there is anyone who is able to identify fully and simultaneously with the views of the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, Rabbi Prof. Eliezer Berkovits, and Prof. Emil Fackenheim.  However, we may come to attain a better understanding of the foundations of each view, the psycho-religious framework that it reflects, and its stronger and weaker points.  I hope that this series will lead both to a fruitful understanding of various Jewish views and to an inner exploration of fundamental questions of faith.


B.  The Question of the Uniqueness of the Holocaust


A central question divides those who deal with the religious and philosophical meaning of the Holocaust into two main camps. One group perceives the Holocaust as a one-time, unique and sui generis event in human history. Therefore they believe that one must relate to the Holocaust in a manner fundamentally different from that in which one relates to any previous historical event.  In other words, in order to understand the Holocaust and to address the questions that it raises, we must adopt new categories of thought; we must demonstrate psychological and religious courage and be prepared for a new world-view.  Proponents of this approach argue that anyone who applies existing categories of analysis to the Holocaust is, at best, failing to grasp the essence of the Holocaust or, at worst, misrepresenting its memory and "desecrating" its significance.


The second view maintains that the difference between the Holocaust and other tragic events in Jewish and general history is quantitative, rather than qualitative.  In other words, the degree of cruelty, the number of victims, and the duration of the suffering do not essentially affect the nature of the suffering and our attitude towards it.  Those who follow this view apply to the Holocaust the same categories of explanation that characterize classic, age-old historical or theological discourse.  Thus, they perceive the Holocaust as one particularly terrible event within a great sea of terrible events that have affected the world in general, and the Jewish nation in particular.


The issue of the essential uniqueness of the Holocaust is not a challenge to religious philosophy alone.  It is also a challenge to historians.  May the genocide of the Jews of Europe at the hands of the Nazis be explained in the same terms that are conventionally employed in historical research (i.e., with reference to national, religious, economic or political conflict)? If so, then the Holocaust is ultimately an event that may be rationalized.  An understanding of the processes is not the same as a justification of them, but it allows us to conceive – at least on the intellectual level – of that which seems inconceivable.  Furthermore, the advantage of rationalization is that it facilitates the drawing of conclusions and lessons.  If, for example, the Holocaust can be traced to definable economic, political or social causes, then we may draw operative conclusions from it in order to prevent a similar scenario from taking place in the future.


Those who maintain the first approach argue that a rationalization of that which cannot be explained is not understanding, but rather the opposite: it is suppression, or negation.  As they see it, it is impossible to truly understand the motives of the Nazis, and the Holocaust demonstrates something which in fact has no scientific explanation.  It is a manifestation of "evil for its own sake" – an unscientific and inconceivable concept.  This position is supported by the fact that the brutal and systematic annihilation of European Jewry, as undertaken by the Nazis, did nothing to further any real interest of the German people or of their helpers.  On the contrary, at certain stages this endeavor significantly impeded the Nazi war machine, and prevented aid to military personnel on a large scale.


A similar problem faces religious thinkers and philosophers.  The religious rationalization says: At the end of the day, gentiles once again killed Jews.  Even if it was a very large number of Jews, and even if these were new ways of killing, the essence of the situation is the same, and therefore our reactions should reflect those old and familiar models handed down to us by our ancestors in the face of suffering.


On the other side stand a great many thinkers who insist that the Holocaust is not just another cycle of Jewish suffering.  In their view, the Holocaust represents a one-time phenomenon of acute suffering and extreme evil that must be approached with a new, unique understanding – or, alternatively, with the admission that it cannot be understood.


Over the course of these lectures we shall see this fundamental question arising again and again, with great passion and power.


C.  Faith and Commandments during the Holocaust


These lectures will address, for the most part, writings that emerged after the Holocaust, from a retrospective view.  Some of the writers are rabbis, philosophers and intellectuals who are themselves Holocaust survivors; others are not survivors in the personal sense, but express their reactions to this national catastrophe.


There are also a relatively small number of texts of an exhortatory, homiletical or philosophical nature that were written during the Holocaust, within the actual ghettos and concentration camps.  Examples include Esh Kodesh, a book of teachings by the Rabbi of Piaseczno hy"d; Megillat Beit ha-Avadim Konin, by Rabbi Yehoshua Moshe Aharonson; Em ha-Banim Semecha, by Rabbi Yissakhar Teichtal hy"d; and the teachings of Rabbi Mordekhai of Bilgoraj, the brother of the Admor (Rebbe) of Belz.  These writings have special importance, in both human and philosophical terms, and we shall refer to them as well.


Philosophical creativity in the midst of the Holocaust was an almost impossible task – mostly for practical reasons, but also because of the psychological and existential proximity to the events, so detrimental to systematic philosophical reflection.  However, this in no way implies that Jews did not examine questions of faith and religious existence during the Holocaust.  On the contrary, there is evidence from many sources, both oral and written, that Jews deliberated matters of faith in the very midst of the suffering of the Holocaust.  Here too, the approaches are extremely diverse.


Primo Levi, speaking in the first person, describes the following situation:


Slowly, silence falls and then I see and hear, from the bed on the third level, how old Kohan is praying aloud, a hat upon his head, and moving his upper body forcefully to and fro.  Kohan is thanking God for not having been taken in the selection.  Kohan is crazy.  Can't he see, in the very next bed, the twenty-year old Greek who will be taken the day after tomorrow to the gas chambers, and who knows this, and who now lies on his back, his eyes glued to the light bulb above him, saying nothing and devoid of thought? Doesn't Kohan know that next time it'll be his turn? Doesn't Kohan grasp that today has become an abomination that no prayer for forgiveness, no pardon, no atonement for the guilty – in other words, nothing within the realm of human possibility – can repair? If I were God, I would spit Kohan's prayer to the ground.[1]


Levi cannot bear the naivetי of the old man's prayer, and its implicit denial of the real, all-encompassing significance of the events surrounding him.  Can a person thank God for the fact that, for some arbitrary reason, his bed-mate has been taken for execution and not himself?! Within a hell of evil, which God permits to exist and does not prevent, is praise to God not a trivialization of words? A lie?


Elie Wiesel describes a terrible scene in which the question of God's presence or absence during the Holocaust receives very direct expression.


One day when we came back from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. S.S. all round us, machine guns trained: the traditional ceremony. Three victims in chains — and one of them, the little servant, the sad-eyed angel.


The S.S. seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him.


This time the Lagerkapo refused to act as executioner. Three S.S. replaced him.


The three victims mounted together onto the chairs.


The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses.


“Long live liberty!” cried the two adults. But the child was silent.


“Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked.


At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over.


Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting.


“Bare your heads!” yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping.


“Cover your heads!”


Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive.


For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed.


Behind me, I heard the same man asking:


“Where is God now?”


And I heard a voice within me answer him:


“Where is He? Here He is — He is hanging here on this gallows...”


That night the soup tasted of corpses.[2]


The question "Where was God?" is an obvious one.  A person who believes in God's righteousness, His beneficence and His omnipotence, asks where He is when reality manifests wickedness and evil, and God does not prevent it.  But what is Wiesel's response? When he points to the hanging child, stating, "He's hanging there, on the gallows," is the young Wiesel declaring God's "death," heaven forefend? Perhaps it is a sort of elaboration on the teaching of Rabbi Meir, who explains that the verse "He that is hanged is accursed of God" (Devarim 21:23) means that when a person (who is created in the image of God) is hanged, it is a disgrace to the Divine Presence (Sanhedrin 46b)? Or perhaps Wiesel is proposing that God's beneficence and righteousness were not undermined for him, but that he can no longer believe in His power – in other words, quite simply, that God was vanquished? It is doubtful that any sense can be made of Wiesel's statement using conventional religious language, and it is questionable whether the young man who proposed the answer knew exactly what it was that he meant.  Perhaps the older writer already knew, or perhaps even he is still trying to work it out.


Sometimes the questions about God’s justice were raised by non-Jews or by assimilated Jews.  A famous dialogue raising this sort of challenge is recorded by the Rebbe of Zanz-Klausenberg zt"l, a survivor of Auschwitz:


During the horrors, I was sent to the Warsaw ghetto to perform forced labor with mortar and bricks… One day, as we stood at the top of one of the houses, a strong, driving rain suddenly hit us.  The wicked ones pressed us on: "Finish your work; don't stop."  It was almost beyond human ability… Then one of the oppressed ones, who knew me, turned to me and screamed: "Are you still going to recite 'You have chosen us' and rejoice as a member of the chosen nation?"

I replied that until that day I had not recited it with the proper intention, but that from then onwards, when I said 'You have chosen us from all the nations,' I would concentrate more and more deeply, and rejoice in my heart with no bounds… When I saw that he was astounded and bemused at my words, I explained further: "It must certainly be so, for if it were not that 'You have chosen us from all the nations,' then I too would become an oppressor.  Better that I remain in my present state than become like one of them, heaven forefend, and happy is my lot."[3]


This story brings to the forefront of the discussion the belief in the chosenness of Israel – one of the foundations of the Torah and of Jewish belief.  Does the rabbi's answer contain anything new? Does the Holocaust reveal that the choice of Am Yisrael is realized not in the nation's strength, but rather – specifically – through its weakness? These are difficult questions which are touched on in the story, but which require further development.


Let us conclude with a story recounted by S.Z. Shragai, who was sent as an emissary to Poland after the war and returned with the following testimony, summing up – in my view - the profound ambivalence the Holocaust forces upon the believing Jew:


When I left Poland the second time – it was in the middle of the night – old friends accompanied me to the train station in Warsaw, along with some Polish dignitaries.  At departure time, as I stood alongside the carriage in the station, a woman approached me with a request: she had a sister in Jerusalem, whose husband worked in Tenuva on Yechezkel Street.  Her elderly father was traveling to her on this same train, and she asked that I invite him into my cabin so that he could travel with another Jew.  Of course, I agreed.  I went into the carriage with her and we moved her father, together with his possessions – a meager collection – into my compartment.


When I later entered the compartment and looked at this Jew, I saw before me a face as yellow as wax, a white beard, melancholy eyes, and all of him a bundle of nerves.  When I questioned him – who and what and so forth – he was silent and gave no answer.


I, too, fell silent.  After some time he asked me to help him to open his suitcase.  Inside I saw a shofar, candlesticks, a havdala set, tallit and tefillin, some books and some garments, and a few other things.  He took out the book Noam Elimelekh, and started reading.  I did not try again to engage him in conversation, for I felt that he did not wish to talk.


Before lying down on the bunk to sleep (right after the war, Poland did not yet have upholstered bunks, nor sleeping coaches), I had something to drink and asked if he, too, would like to drink.  He nodded his head.  I poured for him.  After he had drunk, he began talking with me, and told me, in short, that he was a Belz chassid from Galicia.  He was old, and had suffered much hardship.  He told me about everything that happened to him under Hitler's rule, how he lost his wife and some of his children, how he was saved, and how he was now emigrating to the "Land of the Living."  Suddenly he stopped and was silent.  He would not continue.  He remained sitting, his eyes sad.  After this oppressive silence for a few moments, I left the compartment.  When I returned, I found him stretched out on his bunk.  I, too, lay down on the other bunk, but I could not close my eyes.  All my thoughts were focused on the man opposite me and all that I had heard from him.


At daybreak, I arose to pray before non-Jewish travelers would embark.  The man opposite me neither rose nor stirred, although he was not sleeping.  After praying I took something to eat and drink from my bag.  I asked if he wanted something to drink.  He gave no answer.  A few hours later I asked again, and he nodded his head to indicate that he was ready to drink.  And thus he drank a few times during the day, never uttering a word.  He looked at his book for a while, and sat.  His silence was terrible, and cast an awful depression over me.  I was tormented.


After midday he began to speak.  He said, "After everything I went through, and after everything that my eyes saw, with God having no compassion and no mercy – I shall not pray to Him.  I shall anger Him, too."


I was silent and gave no answer.  A sigh burst forth from my heart, but I said nothing.  He, too, resumed his silence.  Towards evening, when it was almost dark, I began to arrange my things for disembarkation in Prague (he was to continue to Paris).  Suddenly, he asked me to help him to take down his suitcase, and he took out his tallit and tefillin.  He wrapped himself in his tallit, donned his tefillin, and stood up to pray.  I was astounded at the sudden change.  However, I remained silent and said nothing.  After he finished praying, he said:


"Strictly speaking, I don't have to pray.  Still, is the Almighty not in need and worthy of pity? What does He have in the world? What is left to Him? And if He was compassionate towards me and left me alive, He deserves for me to show compassion towards Him, too.  That's why I got up to pray."


He finished speaking; tears rolled from his eyes and he began to weep.  "Woe… the Master of the universe also needs pity." I wept together with him.  I parted from him in tears and with the hope that we would see each other in Jerusalem and merit the coming of the Messiah.  That shocking scene will never be erased from my mind.  To this day, his words resound in my ears: "The Master of the universe also needs pity."

That is the power of faith.[4]


Before us, then, is a sharp existential paradox that sets the believing Jew oscillating between the inability to pray, which itself is the result of his profound belief in God, and the necessity of praying - arising from the very same belief, of which closeness to God and the experience of partnership with Him are a part.  The decision to pray because, ultimately, God too deserves pity is a return to the deepest foundations of our faith, from which both the obligation and the negation of faith arise.  Negation may arise from the disillusioning recognition that there are things in the world which God does not influence.  The obligation finds expression in the intimate closeness that remains, despite everything, and from within which a Jew decides that if he cannot ask God for mercy, perhaps he can grant mercy to Him.




In the next lecture I shall describe the situation of European Jewry prior to the Second World War, and the Jewish philosophy that preceded the Holocaust.


The following are some comments as to the manner in which the course is set out and its direction.


a.      These lectures will occasionally include scanned texts, with their analysis and interpretation.


b.      The biographies of thinkers, rabbis and spiritual leaders whom we shall cover will be borrowed from other sources, especially on-line encyclopedias, such as "Da'at" or Wikipedia, or websites that are devoted to the Holocaust or to those thinkers.  Obviously, I have no desire to violate the creators' rights, and I thank the writers, webmasters and others in advance, and openly declare my intention to make use of their material, with attribution.


c.      I have no doubt that among the subscribers to this series will be some whose comments – based either on unmediated familiarity with the personalities involved, or on their own knowledge, wisdom or experiences – would enrich the shiur.  I will be glad to add views or sources that are sent to me and which I find suitable, and I will certainly be glad to read and respond to comments.  The e-mail address of this course is [email protected].



(Translated by Kaeren Fish and Meshulam Gotlieb)

See the entire series here.



[1] The story is quoted here from the book by Thomas Rahe, Shma Yisrael: The Jewish Religion in the Nazi Concentration Camps, translated from German by Yitzchak Gonen, Jerusalem 5761.

[2] Elie Wiesel, Night (NY, 1960), pp. 61-62.

[3] There are different versions of this story.  This one appears in the official biography of the Admor: Aharon Surasky, Lapid ha-Esh, Bnei Brak 5757, p. 184, based on: Yekutiel Yehuda Haberstam, Minchat Yehuda vi-Yerushalayim, p. 252.

[4] S.Z. Shragai, "The Master of the Universe Also Needs Pity," Shana be-Shana 5737 (Heb.).