Lecture #03: "Da'at Torah" and Faith in the Sages – The Orthodox Perception of History in the Wake of the Holocaust

  • Rav Tamir Granot





In the previous lecture we examined some of Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman's statements prior to the Holocaust.  In his view, corresponding to every historical situation there is a biblical source relating to it. We must formulate our positions within a religious, halakhic perspective, and during the period of exile, which still continues, our responsibility is to engage in teshuva and in Torah study, in both happy and difficult times.


By the middle of the Second World War, questions were already being asked about the path chosen most of the leading Orthodox rabbis, who had called upon their followers to remain in Europe, or at least had not actively promoted aliya to Eretz Yisrael.  Such questions, and certainly the direct criticism with which they were sometimes formulated, represented a most uncommon phenomenon within Orthodox religio-social reality.


Over the past year, we in Israel have been engaged in questions concerning the responsibility of our country's leadership for the debacle of the Second Lebanon War.  For us, a failure on the part of the leadership does not represent a cultural cataclysm – nor even a great disappointment.  The question is approached on a very concrete level, with a view to clarifying the conduct and personalities of the leaders whom we wish to lead our country in the coming years.  The acknowledgment of the mistakes or failures of a political leader is an integral part of the public discourse and conduct within a democratic country.


Within Orthodox society,[1] the situation is fundamentally different.  The rabbinical leadership – including Roshei Yeshiva and Admorim (leaders of different Chassidic sects) - is not considered leadership in its own right.  The guidance set forth by these rabbis represents "da'at Torah" (literally, "the opinion of the Torah").  Da'at Torah implies that the position that is adopted does not rest upon human understanding, but rather represents the genuine instruction extracted from Torah and from the writings of the Sages – i.e., the will of God – as expressed in the excerpt from the Chafetz Chayim that we cited in the previous shiur.  A Jew who seeks to act in accordance with God's will can ascertain what he should do by asking Torah sages.  If, for example, he is deliberating on the basis of regular human considerations whether to remain in Europe or to move to America or to Eretz Yisrael, he is thereby considered to demonstrate secular behavior.  Instead, he should seek rabbinic guidance, based on the belief that what they say must be correct, by virtue of their wisdom and their learning, by virtue of their righteousness, and by virtue of the Divine inspiration that guides them and the special Divine aid that is extended to them.


However, any decision made on the basis of human considerations can stand the test of reality.  If a person acts on the advice of his rabbi and invests money in a certain business, and that business then fails, he may ask himself: is my faith in the absolute correctness of my rabbi's advice justified? Similarly, by 1944 it was manifestly clear that European Jewry had been almost completely annihilated, leaving no significant trace of Jewish life on the continent, while at the same time the small Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael had been saved, almost unharmed.  If there is any moment in Jewish history concerning which we may claim that the laboratory of history supplied clear proof of the correctness of a particular view, it was that time.  Those who had called for aliya had been correct; those who had instructed Jews to remain in Europe had been wrong.  Worse still, they bore unintentional responsibility for the terrible results.


This very question was addressed in 1944 to Rabbi Dessler, one of the greatest "mussar" masters and ideologues of Orthodox Jewry, and someone who, in his later years, was very close to Rabbi Kahaneman of the Ponevezh Yeshiva and to the Chazon Ish.


Rabbi Dessler's View of Emunat Chakhamim and History




Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer (Lazer) Dessler (1892-1953) was born in Libau, Latvia, to a successful timber merchant in Homel who was also the disciple of one of the greatest of the "mussar" masters – Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv (the "Alter of Kelm").  Until the age of 14 he studied with private tutors.  Thereafter he joined the yeshiva of Kelm, headed by Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Braude (son of the founder of the yeshiva), and forever afterwards regarded himself as bearing the influence of that institution.  In Kelm he came to be known as a prodigy, and he was granted rabbinical ordination by his uncle, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky, the spiritual leader of Lithuanian Jewry.  (Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky did not generally ordain rabbis at all, and this unusual instance testifies to his special love and esteem for his nephew.) In 1920 Rabbi Dessler married Bluma, the great-granddaughter of Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv.




 Rav Dessler

Rabb E. E. Dessler

Rabbi Dessler turned down an offer to serve as dayan in Vilna, choosing instead to join his brother in business.  In 1928, following the death of his step-mother, he was forced to accompany his father to England for medical treatment.  He never returned to Lithuania.  In England he took up a rabbinical position (first in the East End and later in Dalston), and for a time he was also the private tutor of the children of the Sassoon family from Bombay.  His wife and daughter joined him in England three years later. 


Rabbi Dessler's classic work, Mikhtav me-Eliyahu, comprises five volumes of sichot (discourses) and letters of mussar, revealing psychological and philosophical depth, extensive familiarity with all levels of Torah literature, including Kabbala, and some degree of familiarity with philosophy.


In the early 1940's Rabbi Dessler was appointed spiritual leader of a Kollel which had been established at Gateshead.  He regarded this opportunity as offering greater potential to influence young men than anything he could do in London, as well as the possibility of engaging in yeshiva-style, in-depth Gemara study.  Rabbi Dessler invested both financially and personally in the development of the Kollel and its curriculum.


Towards the end of the 1940's he accepted an invitation by Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman to serve as mashgiach ruchani at the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, and here too he enjoyed great success.  His mussar talks and his personal example were inspiring and had a profound influence on the students.


Rabbi Dessler died suddenly from a heart attack on 24th Tevet, 5714 (1953).




Rabbi Dessler's letter concerning faith in the sages (emunat chakhamim) opens with criticism of the questioner:


From your words I see that you believe that all the great ones of Israel, all of whose deeds were for the sake of Heaven, who combined intellectual genius and heroic righteousness, whose judgments and decisions were without doubt made with the participation of Almighty God – such as, in the last generation, the Chafetz Chaim of blessed memory, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky, of blessed memory, Rabbi Chaim Brisker, of blessed memory, Rabbi Baruch Ber of Kamenitz, of blessed memory, and so many more, whose smallest deed was greater than our comprehension; and still more in the generation before that, such as the saintly Gaon of Israel, Rabbi Yisrael of Salant, of sainted and blessed memory, and the other great tzaddikim of his generation who were with him – all of them are supposed to have made a terrible mistake.  God forbid that such a thing be in Israel! It is forbidden even to listen to words like these, let alone to say them.  Were it not that I understand that you must have picked up these ideas from other people who call themselves benei-Torah but reject their teachers and desecrate God's name, I would not have replied to you at all.  But knowing that you are basically straightforward and have only heard expressions of this sort from outside sources, and bearing in mind our close friendship, I have resolved to turn night into day and give you a clear reply.[2]


This introduction gives us a fairly clear idea of the question that had been posed to Rabbi Dessler.  Since the letter is dated 1944, the issue was a burning, fraught one: at this very time the annihilation of Jews was proceeding at full speed.  News of what was going on in Europe was circulating, but precise information had still not made its way to many places.  Thus, for example, further on in the same letter Rabbi Dessler speaks of Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman in the present tense, while in fact he had been murdered three years previously. Rabbi Dessler sets forth his reply as follows:


First of all I want to tell you that I had the merit to know several of these great ones personally, and I have observed them at meetings on matters concerning Klal Yisrael; such as the Chafetz Chaim of sainted memory, Rabbi Chaim Brisker of sainted memory and Rabbi Chaim Ozer of sainted memory; and I can tell you with all sincerity that the amazing agility of their minds could be perceived even by puny intellects such as ours; the depth of their wisdom penetrated down into he very abyss; there was not the slightest chance that anyone like you or me could follow completely the crystal-like clarity of their understanding.  And more: whoever was present at their meetings could see with his own eyes the extent and depth of the sense of responsibility with which they approached these matters; it could be seen on their faces, when they deliberated for the sake of Heaven and devoted their minds to considering the problems of Klal Yisrael.  Anyone who did not see this has never seen feelings of responsibility in his life.  Whoever had the merit to stand before them on such an occasion could have no doubt that he could see the Shekhina resting on the work of their hands and that the Holy spirit was present in their assembly.  One could certainly make the blessing "He Who separates between holy and profane" on the difference between their meetings and the kind of meetings we are used to nowadays.


I expect you are aware of what Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman (may he live a long life)[3] relates concerning the spiritual power of his teacher, the Chafetz Chaim of sainted memory.  You must know, my revered friend, that Rabbi Elchanan is certainly very great, and it would be wrong to set aside his words, much less to reject them, because of what we puny people think that we see with our own eyes.  Our Rabbis have told us to listen to the words of the Sages "even if they tell us that right is left," and not to say, God forbid, that they must be wrong because little I "can see their mistake with my own eyes." My seeing is null and void and utterly valueless compared with the clarity of their intellect and the divine aid they receive.  No Beth Din can revoke the decrees of another Beth Din unless it is greater in number and in wisdom; failing this it is very likely that what they think they "can see with their own eyes" is merely imagination and illusion.  This is the Torah view concerning faith in the Sages.[4]


Rabbi Dessler's response adopts a virulent tone quite uncharacteristic of his writings in general.  He devotes his main efforts to describing the greatness and righteousness of such leaders as the Chafetz Chaim, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky, and Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman, who negated Zionism and discouraged aliya.  By virtue of their greatness, he argues, their guidance as leaders should not be viewed as the advice of mortal leaders; rather "the Holy Spirit is present in their assembly."  In other words, when such great and righteous Jewish sages gather together, it is impossible for their conclusions to be mistaken.


What is missing from Rabbi Dessler's response is any attempt to defend the actual position adopted by those sages, or even to interpret the events in such a way as to conform with their anti-Zionist ideology.[5] Admittedly, the letter was written in the midst of the war, such that Rabbi Dessler lacked historical perspective, but nevertheless the crux of his argument remains that religious faith, and all that it entails – i.e., a certain religious world-view that emanates from the religious leadership – cannot be disproved by historical experience.  In other words, the pseudo-empiricist methodology, seeking to criticize the tenets of an ideology in light of historical facts, is inapplicable and inappropriate with respect to a religious ideology.


We may formulate Rabbi Dessler's position in non-rabbinical language as follows. Religious ideology does not have its source in historical experience; rather, it is an expression of the deliberations of Torah sages concerning and in accordance with the Torah.  Their judgment is a priori, even though its applications are synthetic.  In other words, even though the statements of a religious ideology concern reality (i.e., they are synthetic), they are not derived from reality (i.e., they are a priori).  The attempt to undermine faith in the sages on the basis of actual historical events is therefore methodologically unsound.  Rabbi Dessler's response here applies to religious leadership of both the Chassidic and the non-Chassidic varieties, since in matters of ideology there is no real difference between the authority of the Lithuanian sages and that of the Chassidic leaders.


The publishers of Mikhtav me-Eliyahu could not resist addressing the historical dimension, and they added, in a footnote, that the questioner was referring to the salvation of Eretz Yisrael during the battle of El-Alamein, and that that victory over Rommel (commander of the Nazi division in Africa) was achieved through a miracle which no strategist could have foreseen.  Nevertheless, in their great enthusiasm they fail to notice that their comment merely strengthens the argument that they are trying to counter.  Their claim that the victory at El-Alamein was miraculous serves to reinforce the religious dimension of the Religious Zionist position, which argued that what God wanted was for Jews to re-settle Eretz Yisrael, and not to remain in European exile, and for this reason the battle turned out the way it did.


Religious Conservatism Following the Holocaust


The question that was addressed to Rabbi Dessler testifies to the questions that arose in the Charedi community following the Holocaust; in this case the question was directed inwardly, rather than being expressed in the form of an accusation.  Rabbi Dessler's response is an attempt to stem a process of turning the Holocaust into a springboard for ideological reevaluation.


What Rabbi Dessler feared most was a collapse of the status of the Torah sages as the leaders of the Jewish nation.  Further consideration of his words reveals their radical significance.


Religion is not obliged to deal with history and ideology.  It is legitimate for a religious position to maintain that religious leaders have nothing to say on matters of politics or history.  They may advise in matter of prayer, repentance, proper personal attributes, or custom, but not in questions that pertain to reality and that require judgment in relation to it.  Such a position may assert that there is no such thing as a religious mistake, since religion does not come into contact with reality, and religious leaders are therefore always right because they have no dealings in matters where they may be proved wrong.


A different view, one that is more widely accepted in Jewish philosophy throughout the ages, would argue that religious rulings and decisions pertain to reality and history, too – but this position acknowledges that it is possible to be mistaken.  For example, if Rabbi Akiva criticizes Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai for his decisions at the time of the Great Rebellion, and argues that he should have asked Vespasian for Jerusalem and not only for Yavneh, then he believes that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai made a mistake.  The same can be said of Rabbi Akiva himself: his support for Bar Kokhba may be regarded, in retrospect, as having been mistaken.


If, on the other hand, our faith in the sages must be unequivocal, as Rabbi Dessler argues, then it is impossible for them to be mistaken. Therefore, there is no need to defend them on the level of historical analysis. This leads to the far-reaching conclusion that religious leadership has the all-encompassing authority to issue instruction in all matters pertaining to reality and history, but they are exempt from any criticism – including, apparently, even self-criticism. 


If everything is written in the Written Law or the Oral Law, and if da'at Torah with regard to history is protected from any mistake, then only the most conservative of world views can survive, since the two conditions that are vital for renewal and progress are missing:


a. varied and changing spiritual and intellectual resources; and

b. self-criticism.


The direction indicated here by Rabbi Dessler explains the rebirth of the world of yeshivot, and to some extent also of the Chassidic world, after the war.  Both of these parts of the Orthodox world were almost completely destroyed in the Holocaust, but very soon afterwards they began a process of rehabilitation.  How was this achieved? Had the Holocaust led to a reevaluation of ideological thinking, some second thoughts, a theological change or any other change, then we may assume that the Charedi society today would have been different.  However, the view that reaffirmed the positions held prior to the Holocaust, leaving no room for rethinking, led instead to the assumption that following this terrible catastrophe, our obligation is to rebuild that which was destroyed – ideally, perhaps, in Poland but since that is not possible, then in Eretz Yisrael or in America.


In other words, the new society was to be built precisely along the lines of the old one.  Any changes that would be noticeable would either arise from necessity, or would be coincidental, but not deliberate.  The leadership of the Torah sages, the yeshivot as central institutions, the Chassidic courts, the strong and closed community, negation of modernity and negation of Zionism, a passive approach to history – all of these old principles were reaffirmed after the Holocaust, and in spite of it.  From the position set forth by Rabbi Dessler there could arise no conclusion negating the exile, nor any call echoing the Zionist pledge, "Never again"; nor could any dramatic change of values come about.


This line of thought was given powerful expression in an address by Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner zt"l, author of Pachad Yitzchak, at the conference that officially inaugurated Holocaust studies at the ultra-Orthodox Beit Yaakov girls' seminary.  Rabbi Hutner devoted his address to the proper religious response to the Holocaust, and called for an avoidance of the use of the term "Shoah" in relation to the annihilation of European Jewry.  In his view, this was a Zionist term, expressing a perception of the events as having been fundamentally different from anything that had ever happened before, and therefore as mandating an ideological shift.  For us, declared Rabbi Hutner, the Nazi destruction is one of a long series of antisemitic massacres: the "Decrees of 4856” (=1096, the First Crusade), the "Decrees of 5408-5409" (=1648, the Chmielnicki pogroms) – and now also the "Decrees of 5700-5705" (1939-1945).  All of these events were part of the history of Jewish suffering, which is the result of the decree of exile: "Owing to our sins we were exiled from our land."  Why, then, should the Holocaust be singled out as a subject for study? Not because it causes a change in our world view, as the Zionist camp would claim, but rather in order to recall the faith and devotion of those who died in sanctification of God's Name. By recalling their devotion, we eternalize their memory and continue their path, and we reinforce our awareness that we have to rebuild, both spiritually and practically, that which our ancestors had, and which is now destroyed.


This understanding of the significance of Holocaust memorialization is central in contemporary Charedi society, and it characterizes the principal line of thought among that sector's leadership: the Holocaust did not create a spiritual crisis, but rather a loss.  Thus, for example, Rabbi Dessler writes to his students:


I am going to tell you a very simple and obvious thing; attend carefully, my dear children, and listen well.  Our generation is not like other generations.  It is a generation of destruction – for our sins.  Do we understand what a generation of destruction means? No, we can neither understand nor grasp it; we cannot even believe that it is possible; but… it is the truth.  The riches we once had are destroyed and gone.  The picture of that rich past is still vivid before our eyes – but it is nothing but a past which is ever receding from us.  In the present it does not exist… The present is a void! That spiritual wealth, that unique yeshiva atmosphere, that yearning for truth, that intellectual brilliance, that fear of God, that warmth – all these are no longer with us.  They are no more! Our holy ones have gone to everlasting rest, to a place where no destruction can ever overtake them.  But when they left this world they took holiness with them; warmth of heart has died with them.  The Shekhina has gone from amongst us… our children will not see it with us; and if we tell them what we have seen, experienced, it will be only a story, not a reality.  We still saw the Shekhina revealed in the heart – but how will they see it?[6]


Interim Summary


According to Rabbi Dessler and many Charedi leaders, the memory of the Holocaust should focus on two main issues:

a.       prior to the Holocaust – the memory of the world that was destroyed, the Jewish life that once was; and

b.       the Holocaust – recalling and eternalizing the Sanctification of God's Name by the victims.


The ideological and operative conclusion arising from the Holocaust is that that which was destroyed – both physical and spiritual – must be rebuilt.


I offer the following two questions for thought; we shall hopefully return to them at a later stage.


1.  Aside from study of the Holocaust, which is undertaken mainly by the girls studying at Beit Yaakov, how does the Charedi community commemorate the Holocaust? Are there any ceremonies? What about special prayers?


2.  The issue of "Sanctification of God's Name" in the Holocaust is a profound and complex one, both halakhically and philosophically.  The emphasis on Sanctification of God's Name as the principal motto of Holocaust memory encounters a problem: most of the victims were never given any choice as to whether they wanted to sanctify God's Name or not.  The Nazi racial policy required that Jews be killed regardless.  What is the significance of Sanctification of God's Name where there is no opportunity to choose between dying for this principle and remaining alive (for instance, by accepting baptism, etc.)?


In Anticipation of the Next Lecture: A Reevaluation, After All


The views presented here reflect, in my humble opinion, a central consensus in Charedi life and experience, but we would be wrong in presenting it as the only Orthodox response.  Even Rabbi Dessler undertook a reevaluation some years later, with the establishment of the State of Israel.  In the next lecture we will examine his later opinion, and then discuss the teachings of the Satmar Rebbe.



(Translated by Kaeren Fish)


[1]  This term includes what has come to be known today as the "ultra-Orthodox" sector, but is not limited to it.  Part of our exposition here would certainly apply to the internal relations between rabbis and their students within the Religious-Zionist camp.  The scope of the discussion does not allow for further elaboration.


[2]   Strive for Truth (translation of Mikhtav me-Eliyahu by Rabbi Aryeh Carmell) (Jerusalem, 1978), p. 217.

[3]     As noted, when the letter was written, R. Elchanan's name should have been followed by Hy"d instead of shlit"a, but R. Dessler did not know this.

[4]  Ibid.

[5]  The second half of the response is devoted to a discussion of Megillat Esther, aimed at illustrating our historical short-sightedness in spiritual matters and hinting at the possibility that one day the questioner and those of a similar mind would accept, in retrospect, the vindication of the sages and the mistake of the Zionists.

[6]  "And it Came to Pass After the Destruction…," ibid., p. 205.