Lecture #10: The Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenberg's Sermons on Zionism after the Holocaust

  • Rav Tamir Granot



A.        Sermons for Purim: The Dialectics of Redemption


The festivals afford rabbis and teachers opportunities to discuss ideological and moral issues stemming from each holiday.  The festival of Purim is the story of redemption from a terrible decree, and it is celebrated with joy.  However, the story takes place within the historical framework of exile, and the redemption that happens is only a partial one.  Indeed, Chazal explain that Hallel is not recited on Purim because "we remain subjugated to Achashverosh" (Megilla 14a).


The question of the status of this partial redemption is at the core of the Purim sermons by the Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenburg.  His sermons focus on two main questions.


a. What lies at the heart of the argument between Mordekhai and Esther, in chapter 4 of Megillat Esther, as to what action should be taken? More specifically, how are we to understand Esther's refusal to approach the king as Mordekhai proposes? The Rebbe's homiletic assumption, in keeping with the generally accepted approach, is that it is not simply a matter of Esther being fearful.  Rather, her objections are substantial and meant "for the sake of heaven;" thus, we must try to understand the real reasons for her refusal.


b. The ritual and ceremonial elements of Purim differ from those characterizing other festivals.  For example, there is no prohibition on productive labor (melakha), which in itself signifies that Purim is not a "real" festival;[1] furthermore, the standard expression of thanksgiving for a miracle – the recitation of Hallel – is similarly lacking (Shefa Chayim, Purim, p. 160).[2] Most obviously, there is the requirement, unique to this festival, to "drink to the point where one is unable to distinguish between 'cursed is Haman' and 'blessed is Mordekhai'" (Megilla 7b).  This is not a regular commandment to be joyful; it denotes a joy that has its source in the clouding of one's senses.


The Rebbe's interpretation of the festival connects the dispute between Mordekhai and Esther to historiosophical questions surrounding the exile and redemption of the Jewish people:


According to the above, we may understand the verses in Megillat Esther where Mordekhai orders Esther to go to the king, "to plead before him for her people" (Esther 4:8), and she sends word to Mordekhai, telling him that "any man or woman who comes to the king, to the inner courtyard, without being summoned – there is one verdict for him… and I have not been summoned to come before the king for the past thirty days" (ibid. 11).  It is surprising that Esther is not willing to endanger herself and appear before the king, contrary to proper etiquette, for the sake and salvation of all of Israel, and that she is not willing and ready, at any given moment, to sacrifice her own life for them.  The text itself even testifies that "that which Mordekhai said, Esther would do" (ibid. 2:20) - but here she is not willing to fulfill Mordekhai's command! This is most surprising.


Esther's argument was that if salvation was going to come about through her actions, such that it would appear to have happened naturally and it would not be clear that God had caused it, then she did not want to go, for this would not lead to a sanctification of God's Name in the world.  Therefore she asked that the Jews engage in complete repentance, and ask of the blessed God that He perform visible miracles, and that God should go out and wage war against the nations, such that those who were far removed would hear and come close to God, and everyone would know that God was Sovereign.  It was for this reason that she had no wish to take an active role, since the Jews were already in danger of annihilation, heaven forefend, but God would not forsake His nation, and He would certainly help and defend them – hence, why should she involve herself in this? It would be better that the Jews pray, and that the blessed God would fight for them Himself, and the glory of God would thereby be multiplied.(Shefa Chayim, p. 161)


Esther presents an absolute, miraculous perception of redemption – a perception that cannot accept a partial, gradual redemption that is initiated by human action.[3] These three elements are interconnected: a redemption that comes about through human action cannot be complete owing to the very fact that it is a human endeavor.  It can solve only some of the problems, while others will remain.  Furthermore, it is clear that even if the Jewish nation is redeemed through human action, the Divine Presence may still remain exiled, as it were.


Therefore, Esther's argument to Mordekhai says the following: I can go to Achashverosh, and then one of two things will happen. If I fail, they will say, "God cannot save us;" if I succeed, they will say, "We have a sister in the king's house" (Megilla 15b), and it is she who brought about our salvation.  If, on the other hand, we do nothing, but rather pray to God, then He will surely redeem us since the decree is to destroy all of the Jews, and then the redemption will be complete.


Indeed, the redemption that Esther brings about is really nothing more than a return to the previous situation.  The exile and subjugation and exile of the Divine Presence remain as they were.  What reason, then, is there for such great rejoicing?


Mordekhai, in contrast, insists on active human initiative.  In his view, it is important to save whatever can be saved.  He is prepared to accept a redemption that is partial and incomplete; the main thing is that Jews should not be harmed, even if this will involve a postponement of the complete redemption.  He does not accept the idea of "all or nothing."  For him, life within an historical situation that is "bediavad" is also worth something.


The Rebbe (Shefa Chayim, p. 154) also frames the argument in terms of the tension between faith in God and human effort: Mordekhai is in favor of making the effort, while Esther favors absolute faith, even in the face of clear mortal danger.


B.        The Dispute Between Mordekhai and Esther as a Prototype


The Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenburg regards the dispute between Mordekhai and Esther as a paradigmatic one, and he points to two similar debates concerning the redemption of the Jews at other times in history.


The first goes back to the time of the exodus.  Moshe Rabbeinu, according to the Midrash, justifies his refusal to go and redeem Israel from Egypt with the argument that he knows that the Egyptian exile is not yet complete, and even though Bnei Yisrael are suffering, it is clear to him that a redemption at this time will not be final; it will leave their "exile account" open.  "I want this to be the final redemption," says Moshe.  But God does not accept his position: suffice it that Bnei Yisrael are now suffering beyond their ability to bear it (Shefa Chayim, p. 164).


The second argument described by the Rebbe takes place thousands of years later, during the Napoleonic wars.  The dispute takes place between Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rimanov, on one side, and Rabbi Naftali of Ropshitz and Rabbi Yisrael of Kozhnitz, on the other.[4] The former hoped for a Russian victory, since he believed that this would bring about a complete salvation very quickly.  The latter rabbis supported France, believing that a French victory would improve the situation of the Jews.  This debate was conducted on two levels – the spiritual and the moral/existential.  On the spiritual level, the latter pair argued that many Jewish souls had not yet achieved repair and perfection, and therefore it was not proper to "hasten the end [of days]" and to act for an immediate redemption that would be to the detriment of many Jews.  Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rimanov, in contrast, was not seeking a mere physical or politico-economic improvement (which everyone predicted would result from a French victory).  He wanted a complete spiritual and historical redemption.[5] On the moral, existential level, the Rebbe had the following to say:


It would seem that [Mordekhai and Esther's] dispute prefigured the well-known debate between Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rimanov and the Rabbi of Ropshitz, of blessed memory, in their time.  The Rabbi of Rimanov declared that he would agree to them proceeding from Lemberg (Lvov) to Rawa,[6] ankle-deep in Jewish blood, so long as the Messiah would come, while the Rabbi of Ropshitz insisted that "we will not hear of a third or a quarter" – i.e., if even a third or a quarter of a Jew would be missing, we do not want to hear of redemption.  When I was a child, I asked my revered father and teacher,[7] may his memory protect us: Was Rabbi Menachem Mendel not correct? We have anyway suffered many evils and troubles from that time until now! But my revered father and teacher rebuked me: That which you know, the Rabbi of Ropshitz knew even better.  For he surely saw, with his Divine spirit, all the decrees that would befall Israel up until the coming of the Messiah; the dispute is an ancient one. (ibid., p. 221)


In other words, apparently there is more to the conflict than the will to halt the bloodshed and the suffering, on the one hand, and a longing for the complete redemption, in the absence of which the Jewish nation will anyway continue to suffer, on the other.  It is also a moral question: if there is suffering going on in front of our eyes, and we are now able to alleviate and save at least some people, are we not obligated to do so, without any further discussion? Does ignoring the suffering – even for the sake of anticipating the true and complete redemption – not represent immoral insensitivity?


The tension between human, moral sensitivity, focused on the suffering going on in the present, and the longing for complete redemption, with a view to a perfect existence in the future, also arises from a dispute between God and Moshe that is recorded in the midrash cited by the Rebbe further on in the same sermon:


We may say further, in this regard, that the merciful God, may His Name be blessed, had indeed considered bringing the true redemption, and that for this reason Haman's decree was made.  However, when the righteous Mordekhai went – in accordance with the view of the Rabbi of Ropshitz – "and he donned sackcloth and ashes" (Esther 4:1), and "sackcloth and ashes were distributed to the masses" (ibid. 4:3), then "On that night sleep escaped the king" – meaning the King of the universe (Megilla 15b).  And in the midrash (Esther Rabba 9:4) we are told that the babies raised their voices and cried until their cry reached the heavens, and the Holy One, blessed be He, said: "What is this great noise that I hear, like young lambs and kid goats?" And Moshe Rabbeinu stood up before the Holy One, blessed be He, and said: "Master of the universe – they are not lambs, nor kid goats; they are the children of Your nation," etc.  On the literal level, we cannot understand the question that is asked by Him Who knows all secrets, before Whom everything is clear and open.  But in accordance with what we have explained, we may say that God asked: "Why are they crying out unknowingly, like lambs or kid goats? Is it not their own benefit that I seek [by means of Haman's decree]?" But Moshe Rabbeinu got up and said: "Nevertheless, since the are crying out in pain, and You take pity even on animals – as we know, avoiding causing pain to animals is a biblical command – let Your mercy overcome Your other attributes, and let their evil decree be annulled."[8]


This is a dialectical tension, with both sides being right: both Moshe and God (who, in different teachings, even exchange positions); both Esther and Mordekhai; both the lone rebbe and his pair of opponents.  One side aspires to the final, complete, one-time redemption in which God's glory will be revealed to us.  The other side desires to improve the situation of the Jews in the present, since we are unable to stand by and watch their actual suffering.


C.        Joy that is Not Conscious


The tension between the two perceptions of redemption set out above is expressed in the customs of Purim.


a. The celebration is partial and not complete, and most of it takes place in the night hours, rather than in daylight;[9] there is no formal "yom tov" (i.e., no prohibition on labor) and no recitation of Hallel.  All of this is meant to signify that our joy and thanksgiving for our salvation are tempered with the disappointing recognition of the continued situation of "hester panim" (the hiding of God's face) and the absence of a complete redemption; how, then, can we truly celebrate?


b. We are joyful through inebriation, as if to say that in order to celebrate we need wine, which helps us forget the true situation and the sorrow within the salvation itself.


The Rebbe also makes mention of the Sanhedrin distancing themselves from Mordekhai at the time, despite his heroic conduct (Megilla 16b), in order that his success would not be interpreted as a real redemption.  For the same reason, the Megilla is named after Esther, alluding to God's words – "I shall surely hide (haster astir) My face" (Devarim 31:18), hinting at Esther's view that rejects the sort of redemption that comes about through a hiding of God's face.


What of the present? The Rebbe writes: "However, we – who know and comprehend nothing of the dispute between the sages, and having no ability to know what is best for ourselves… therefore, our Sages commanded that we drink… to the point where a person cannot tell the difference" (ibid., p. 164, perhaps basing himself on Yisrael Saba, 56).  For in a sober state we cannot know if it is truly proper that we celebrate.  Or, to formulate it in more extreme terms: "But on Purim every Jew must elevate himself to the point where there is no difference in his eyes whether Haman's decree had actually been carried out or whether salvation had come about through Mordekhai; so long as there is still no revelation of God's glory, it is of no import to me" (Shefa Chayim, pp. 162-163).


What is the here-and-now meaning of these sermons? The Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenburg is caught between the passive ideology of the Chassidic leaders who preceded him, who sought a complete redemption that involved no human initiative,[10] and Zionist activism, which also had some religious value, because it acted to change the historical reality in order to bring about the salvation of Jews, and because one could not sit by and do nothing while Jewish blood was being spilled.


The Rebbe's solution to the dilemma is ambivalent.  It is appropriate to be joyful for the salvation, but it is a limited joy.  The reservations as to the true value of the salvation that we attained will not allow us to celebrate – neither over our physical situation nor over our spiritual state.  This applies to the salvation in our times just as it does to the salvation in those ancient times.  The enormous pain over the spiritual and physical destruction of the Holocaust speaks clearly between the lines in the following passage, in which the Rebbe explains the obligation of becoming inebriated on Purim in order to be joyful:


In this regard we may explain quite simply the Sages' enactment that one should drink on Purim. My holy grandfather of Sanz, as well as my holy grandfather the author of Ateret Tzvi, as well as other supremely holy masters – may their merit protect us – used to fulfill this literally, for without this it would not be possible to rejoice.  It is told of the Vilna Gaon that he once asked his students which commandment in the Torah they believed to be the most difficult one to fulfill, and he said that in his view, the most difficult was the commandment "and you shall be only joyful" – meaning, not to allow one's mind to deviate from the joy of the festival throughout the eight days [referring to Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret]; thus far his holy words.  How much more difficult it is to celebrate on Purim, especially in a situation such as ours, where not a day goes by that is not more cursed than the previous one; how many millions of souls have been killed in our generation, and how many have left religion (and [it is well-known that] causing one to sin is worse than killing him)?  Are we then angels, such that we might rejoice in this generation? Therefore our Sages commanded that we drink and become inebriated to the point where we cannot distinguish between "cursed is Haman" and "blessed is Mordekhai."  In other words, a person should forget and have no knowledge of what is going on in the world, for then he can rejoice.  For in truth it is very difficult for us to rejoice, and we fall into the category of "one who is forced [into a situation] – God exempts him," and it is only You, God, Who have the ability to help the Jewish people, that they should experience the joy of Purim. (ibid., p. 174)


Drunkenness facilitates joy – a joy that is outside of consciousness, for consciousness will not allow for joy, because of what it sees.  Drunkenness also liberates joy from its terrestrial dimensions: even a small redemption, even a minor festival, is worthy of celebration.  From an ideological point of view, this represents recognition of the legitimacy of the activist Zionist position that acts to save Jews, even though it does not conform with the concepts of absolute trust in God and an absolute redemption.  However, at the same time, there is fierce opposition to viewing this redemption as a process that in any way resembles, or has any real relation to, the complete redemption.  This opposition arises specifically from the minor celebration of the Purim redemption. Purim is a prototype for the redemption in our times, in that it did not lead to real repentance on the part of the nation, nor to an end to the exile of the Divine Presence, nor even to a final end to the troubles and suffering of the Jews themselves.


In sum, the Zionist redemption is a redemption of the "Mordekhai" type, a redemption of saving lives.  It is for this reason that the Sanhedrin distanced themselves from Mordekhai – meaning that they remained on the sidelines and did not rejoice with him.  This was not because they did not recognize his heroism and his sensitivity to the problems of the Jews, or because they regarded this as justifying only a small celebration.  They acted as they did out of concern lest someone – anyone – be misled into thinking that this was real redemption.


On this basis, the ultra-Orthodox position is understood not as being in absolute opposition to the Zionist position, but rather as an attempt to purify it of its dross, as it were, or to put it into its proper perspective.  Zionism, believing that it heralds the complete redemption, is a megalomaniac movement.  In order to bring it down to its proper proportions, it is necessary to distance oneself from it.  We, the ultra-Orthodox, explains the Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenburg, are the Sanhedrin, distancing ourselves from Mordekhai (see ibid., p. 168)!


While in the previous lecture we reviewed the Rebbe's soul-searching with regard to the ultra-Orthodox position (including his own) prior to the Holocaust, here the ultra-Orthodox position is reintroduced as one pole of a dialectic that has no clear and unequivocal conclusion.  He says, as it were: I belong to both poles.  From the traditional and family perspective, I belong to the "Esther" school, and to the Sanhderin that shies away from Mordekhai.  But history has taught me that, de facto, Mordekhai's course of action has proved itself, and therefore I accept his path, to a limited extent, while maintaining a critical stance.  To celebrate Yom Ha-atzma'ut – how could the Rebbe do that? It would lend the State of Israel a redemptive validity that it does not possess.  But to celebrate Purim while at the same time having in mind thanksgiving for the establishment of the State – this is both possible and worthy.


In the previous lecture, we noted that the opposition to Zionism on the part of the Chassidic leaders arose also from the fear of the negative influence of the secular, dominant majority.  But when the Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenburg was asked whether he really wished that charedim from all over the world would move to Eretz Yisrael, and whether he had no fear of the negative influence, he replied: "What I meant to tell the Jews of the United States is that if they want to be certain that their children will remain Jewish, they should hurry and pack their suitcases… there is no country so wonderful as this is all the world…."[11] In reply to a charedi journalist who noted, "But we hear not such good news about the state of yiddishkeit in Eretz Yisrael," he replied: "When Adam and Chava sinned in the Garden of Eden, did it cease to be the Garden of Eden?" In other words, the decision in favor of Eretz Yisrael, which we discussed in the previous lecture, is a strategic one.  All of the problems that represented obstacles to aliya prior to the Holocaust are now to be seen as challenges that must be met head-on, but which in no way affect the fundamental decision in favor of settling Eretz Yisrael. 


D.        The Status of Jerusalem and the Six-Day War


The startling success of the I.D.F. during the Six-Day War served to reawaken the ideological debate within the ultra-Orthodox camp as to the proper attitude towards the State.  "Should the events of the war not be viewed as a clear sign that God desires the existence of the State and its prosperity?" asked many among the charedi public.


This negative dynamic (from the anti-Zionist perspective, obviously) caused, for example, the Rebbe of Satmar to compose his second work, Al ha-Ge'ula ve-al ha-Temura, a continuation of Va-Yoel Moshe, in which he reiterates the principles of his anti-Zionist philosophy, this time in response to the Six-Day War.


The Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenburg addressed the war and its results on a number of occasions.  In a sermon in the year 5731 (1971), he discussed at length the status of Jerusalem.[12]  In his view, there is great significance to the fact that the Zionist success stopped at the gates of the Temple Mount.  Zionism is a legitimate movement only insofar as it acts solely to save Jews.  Conquest of the Temple Mount would have given the Zionist movement an opportunity to realize its cultural vision, too, or alternatively – had it indeed succeeded – it could have been viewed as a Divine stamp of approval for the movement's spiritual aspect, too.  The halt at the gates of the holy place represents the manifestation of the Divine attribute of justice (since our inheritance was given into foreign hands), but with mercy and kindness involved too, since the very thought of a secular Jewish conquest, leading to the construction of, for example, a theater on the Temple Mount, is unbearable.  Jerusalem is not in our hands because the secular hegemony is not worthy of it, and it is better that the place be desecrated by gentiles and not by those of our own nation who have thrown off the yoke of Heaven and the commandments:


Over this our heart is mournful… although it has been several years already that we are able to come to the holy city and to approach close to the holy place; nevertheless… it is desolate… On the other hand, we see how its glory would be cheapened were they to build theaters there, and therefore we accept the [divine] judgment… Nonetheless, in this we see clearly the prophecy and vision of the End of Days, that the cities of Judea will be settled by the children of Zion who are returning to their land, but Jerusalem and the Temple Mount remain desolate, and blessing will come [to Jerusalem] only when holy Jews settle it, not heretics and apostates…


In other words, yes to the building of the land as a national project of salvation; no to conquest of the Temple Mount, with its religious significance, by the secular State.


In the next lecture we will examine the influence of the Holocaust on the attitude of the Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenburg and other Rebbes towards irreligious Jews, heretics, apostates and Shabbat-desecrators.


Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1] This is also the case on Chanuka, but then the main commandment of the festival applies at night, when there is little melakha in any case.  On Purim, the specific commandments are performed mainly in the day.

[2] Henceforth all references to Shefa Chayim, a work by the Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenberg, are from the volume on Purim, unless otherwise indicated.

[3] See ibid. p. 160 for a discussion of why God's Name is not mentioned in Megillat Esther.

[4] The tradition that is familiar to the Rebbe is that of the founding fathers of chassidut from Galicia.  Other Rebbes also addressed the question of the war, including the first Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, who supported Russia.

[5] The argument that redemption is postponed so as to include, when it finally arrives, all of Israel, is one mentioned by other Chassidic masters, including Rabbi Elimelekh Shapira of Grodzinsk, who cites this as a tradition from his grandfather, Rabbi Yisrael of Kozhnitz (Divrei Elimelekh, Warsaw 5650, parashat Matot, p. 395), and Rabbi Natan David Rabinowitz (Ve-Eleh ha-Devarim Asher Ne'emru le-David; Jerusalem 5743, pp. 68-69).  See also: Rabbi Aharon Roth, Shomer Emunim, p. 8. See also Piekarz, The Chassidic Leadership, pp. 313, 325.

[6] Two well-known towns in eastern Galicia.

[7] Rabbi Zvi Hirsch of Rudnik.

[8] Elsewhere, the Rebbe expresses this ambivalence in the story about the Maggid of Mezeritch – the great teacher of all the tzaddikim that he mentions: "Once there was a terrible decree against the Jews, and the holy students journeyed to the grave of their teacher, the Rabbi of Mezeritch, where they wept greatly in prayer that he cause the evil decree to be annulled.  In the night, their holy rabbi appeared to them and he said: Did I not tell you that you should pray for me, that I should remain among you in this world, for then, when a person came crying to me about some trouble he was experiencing, and I could see with my mortal eyes that this was an evil decree upon him, then I could intercede with the blessed God for it to be annulled.  But now that I am in the upper worlds, where one sees that this decree (concerning which you are pleading) is in fact of great benefit for the Jews, how can I make an effort to annul it?" (The Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenburg recounted this story in a lesson on Chumash and Rashi, on parashat Re'eh 5742; cited in Divrei Torah, vol. 52, 5750.) The Rebbe who is alive, sensitive to the problems of the Jew standing before him, will try to annul the decree.  But from a "heavenly" perspective, which sees the Divine purpose behind the suffering, and the future good that is meant to arise from it – all is good.  From this perspective, the tzaddik does not wish to annul the decree.  This is a sort of encounter between a realistic, human position, represented by the living, sensitive Rebbe, and idealism, represented by the Rebbe after his death.  The advantage and disadvantage of each position is clear, and it is equally clear that this dilemma has no solution; see above.

[9] The prevailing custom among many Chassidic communities is for the Purim feast to begin near the end of the day, such that it is conducted mostly during the evening and night after Purim.

[10] See ibid., p. 170, recording a conversation between Divrei Yechezkel and the Rebbe of Belz, asking what they could do about the world and its deterioration.  The answer was: "Let his honor sit at home and recite a chapter of Tehillim, and I will sit at home and do the same, and the blessed God will help so that the world will achieve repair" – apparently based on Mikhtevei Torah 21.

[11] This reply was given in 1956, upon returning from the inauguration of Kiryat Sanz.  According to the account in Lapid ha-Esh, p. 529.

[12] Shefa Chayim, Selichot, derush 23, pp. 117-118.