Lecture #11a: The Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenburg's Teachings on Love of Fellow Jews and Relations with Irreligious Jews in the Wake of the Holocaust (Part 1)

  • Rav Tamir Granot




In the previous lectures we saw that, in the wake of the Holocaust, the Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenburg changed his opinion regarding Zionism and aliya to Israel. In this lecture, we will address his attitude towards those who stray from the way of Torah - the "apostates" and "heretics" who have appeared among the Jewish nation in modern times, and from whom ultra-Orthodoxy has separated itself. It is well known that the Nazi murderers made no distinction between one Jew and another; in the ghettos and camps the righteous suffered and died along with the wicked; the religious along with the non-observant; Chassidim, Bundists, Zionists – in short, anyone who had Jewish blood. Did this common fate leave any lasting impression on the religious view concerning the various sorts of Jewish heretics and apostates? In this lecture we will address the teachings of the Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenburg in this regard, and the next lectures we will elaborate further.


A. Love of Fellow Jews in Chassidism – The Various Stages


The ideal of loving one's fellow Jew was a central element in Chassidic ideology and leadership from the outset. The element of this love that is emphasized in its Chassidic form is the appeal also to "the sinners of Israel" – that is, those who deviate from the straight path. This definition applies to a broad spectrum, stretching from simple Jews who are ignorant and uneducated to those who have consciously thrown off the yoke of Torah and the commandments. In the writings of the founding fathers of Chassidism, there are many teachings that develop this value and award it a place of great importance in the hierarchy of religious values.


Among the great Chassidic masters, there were some whose dominant virtue was their love of fellow Jews – including Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel of Apta, and Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov.


"Love of fellow Jews," in the early days of the Chassidic movement, rested upon several foundations:


1. A metaphysical assumption concerning the unique status of all Jewish souls - even if it is not openly manifest, the "Jewish spark" exists. In other words, the root of the personality of the Jew is good, and the deviation is by definition an external phenomenon; it is only "skin deep," it exists only in the "shell." This concept is also known as the idea of the "pintele Yid."[1]


2. Justification and Defense – One should always strive to achieve a favorable judgment of the other person, arising from both a complex view of his personality and motives, and for the sake of one's own character development. Seeing the good in others is a "positive attribute" in itself, just as seeing evil in someone else reflects on the seer.[2]


3. From a tactical point of view, as well, the Chassidic leaders believed that it would be possible to return estranged Jews to their tradition and to bring them to repentance by means of social and emotional outreach.


At the end of the 19th century we find a significant retreat from this principle; this finds expression both in practical conduct and on the ideological level. The Chassidic leaders began to adopt a separatist stance, rejecting any closeness to those who had abandoned the path of Torah, were permissive in their observance of the commandments, or who were of any sort of secular persuasion. Some of these leaders offer some very harsh statements concerning Jews who have separated themselves from "faithful Jewry," concerning their leaders, and – especially – concerning their views.[3]


This disavowal unquestionably arose out of its social and spiritual context. From the end of the 18th century onwards, new streams appeared among European Jewry that brought about a renunciation, on various levels, of wholehearted faith and full commitment to Torah and the commandments, and certainly of rabbinical authority. This process led to a change in the approach towards "straying" from the path, as well as in the self-awareness of Chassidism.


The "love of fellow Jews" of the beginnings of Chassidism addressed the individual deviant from the path of Torah, the Jew who had been ensnared by his evil inclination, who had been drawn after the gentiles, or whose troubles had weakened him, causing his commitment to falter. The straying individual, according to chassidut, is deserving of pity and understanding, and there is always the chance that he may once again return to being a normative Jew.[4] But the "deviants" of the end of the 19th century were no longer individual exceptions; rather, they were identified, for the most part, with ideological movements. This was not a matter of people being tempted by their evil inclination; the motive was not a personal one, but rather the fact of belonging to a different system. In other words, it was no longer possible to isolate the individual wayward Jew and to bring him back to his tradition, because he himself was not the source of the problem; the chances of success with him were very small now that he enjoyed ideological backing that actively promoted his deviation. At this stage some of the Chassidic leaders were convinced that it would no longer be possible, either strategically or tactically, to realize the great ideal of loving all fellow Jews.


This, in turn, entailed another great change in Chassidic self-awareness. From a revolutionary movement, Chassidism became, to a considerable extent, a reactionary movement whose main objective was to save at least its own members. At the first, revolutionary stage of its appearance, chassidut strove to draw all Jews to its path and believed in its ability to bring estranged Jews back to their Father in heaven. When the revolutionary spirit turned defensive, the Chassidic movement understood that its strategy needed to be directed inward (that is, towards the Chassidic community), and not outward.[5]


This change in consciousness had several results, including cooperation between different Chassidic courts and the establishment of large Orthodox bodies with a common stance, or at least addressing a common problem. Of particular importance, for our discussion, is the recognition that the approach of separating from the community at large – thereby relinquishing the ideal of appealing to all Jews – was essential for the success of the Chassidic defense. In this regard, Chassidism operated in the same way as most of Orthodoxy. At a time of spiritual storm and upheaval, mingling and mixing with Jews who have abandoned Torah and the commandments may bring more damage than blessing.[6]


B. Apostasy and the Hiding of God's Face


As we saw in the previous lecture, the Rabbi of Sanz-Klausenburg perceives the significance of the era as a reflection of the prototype set forth in Megillat Esther. The issue of the proper attitude towards those who stray from Torah is likewise treated in his Purim sermons. We shall examine one of them (Shefa Chayim, Purim, pp. 113-116).


The sermon begins with a discussion of the formulations of the "cursed" and the "blessed" that are recited after the reading of the Megilla. In the Tur and in the Shulchan Arukh (590:16), the formula is "Cursed be all the idolaters; blessed be all of Israel," while in the printed version of the poem "Shoshanat Yaakov," we find "Cursed be all the wicked, and blessed be all the righteous." Our text of the Talmud Yerushalmi offers the same version as the Shulchan Arukh, but the Tosafot and the Rosh (Megilla 7b) quote the Yerushalmi as following the printed version of "Shoshanat Yaakov."


The Rebbe notes at the outset that it must be assumed that the original formula referred to "idolaters," and that the change to "wicked" was introduced out of fear of the censors. This historical explanation, while satisfactory on the traditional level – after all, this is the formula of the prayer with which we are familiar – certainly in no way nullifies the deeper significance of the differences. According to the version in the siddur, our intention is to curse the wicked among Israel along with the wicked of the other nations! The Rebbe also points out that cursing the wicked, according to strict halakhic standards ("One who violates a rabbinical enactment can be called a transgressor" – Shabbat 40a), would mean that almost every Jew would be cursed. And if the formula "cursed be the wicked" was an "evil custom," God would certainly have brought about a way to nullify it so that it would not be uttered as part of the prayer.


The Rebbe explains (ibid., p. 114) that the rigid definition of "wicked" applies only in an era where God's presence in history is unequivocal and irrefutable. Whether such a situation is a theoretical fiction or whether the Rebbe indeed believed that during the era of prophecy, for example, the manifestation of God's presence in the world was unequivocal, his teaching implies that in a generation of "hester panim" (the "hiding of God's face"), and in the absence of prophecy and of God's word, even if we claim that day is night (i.e., we are unable to distinguish between a transgression and the fulfillment of a commandment) – it is not our fault. There is no one in our generation who can properly be called wicked or a transgressor:


This is what our Sages taught concerning the verse, "And He called the name of the place Masa u-Meriva, because of the strife of Bnei Yisrael and because they tested God, saying: 'Is God in our midst or not?' And Amalek came and waged war against Israel in Refidim" (Shemot 17:7-8). Rashi explains: "The latter episode [concerning Amalek] is juxtaposed with the former [Masa u-Meriva], so as to say: I am always in your midst, ready to provide for all your needs, yet you say, 'Is God in our midst?'! By your lives, this dog will come and bite you, and you will cry out to Me and you will know where I am. This may be compared to a man who puts his son onto his shoulder and then sets off on the way. The son sees some object and says: Father – lift up that object and give it to me – and he gives it to him, and thus a second time and a third time. They then meet another person, and the son says to that man: 'Have you seen my father?' His father says to him: 'Don't you know where I am?!' He casts him down from atop his shoulder, and a dog comes and bites him."


And this is understood, because this was after Bnei Yisrael had left Egypt and had seen miracles and wonders, and they experienced a revelation of God, and Moshe and Aharon were with them. Since, despite all of this, they asked, "Is God in our midst or not?" therefore immediately "Amalek came and waged war against Israel," and they received their punishment. But in our times, darkness covers the earth, and a great hiding of God's face, as it says in the Gemara (Ta'anit 25a), "Levi said before Him: 'Master of the universe, You have gone up and taken up residence on High, and You do not have mercy on Your children.'  Therefore it is no wonder that Bnei Yisrael ask where their Father is – for from where shall they know where their Father is?!(ibid. p. 115)


In terms of our intention in prayer, then, every Jew is to be considered righteous, for it is impossible to define him as wicked; only non-Jews can fall into that category:


Therefore, it is clear that when we say, "Cursed are all the wicked," we can only be referring to non-Jews, … "and blessed are all the righteous" refers to all of Israel, who, on the basis of the quality of the generation, are all righteous, as explained above, (ibid.)


In social terms, the conclusion is that in our days there is no Jew whom we can curse. Once the element of brazenness is removed from the straying and heresy and deviance is understood as being the result of the hiding of God's face, we are speaking of the category of "one who is forced – he is exempt from Divine punishment." While up until the Holocaust one could still demand of a Jew that he believe or that he observe the commandments of the Torah, and leaving religion could be regarded as a normative or even moral deviation, the Holocaust changed this assumption.


Obviously, a person who is whole in his faith has no need for the Master of the universe to bring proof of His existence. But after the Holocaust, is it still possible to make any claim against a person who does not believe? After the Holocaust, should we still be astounded by heresy, or is it faith that is astounding? The Rebbe says, "We are compared to a blind man who has never seen light in his life, and he says of the day that it is night." In other words, in our state of blindness following the Holocaust, faith is something of a wager. A person who has never experienced a sense of God's closeness or revelation can not be forced to decide the wager in favor of faith.


In a different sermon, the Rebbe directs his great pain towards Heaven:


I am forced to say: Father, thus it is written in the Torah… Why are we deserving of punishment at a time when our eyes are unable to see, and our hearts are incapable of understanding? What will it help that we shout to him, "I am the Lord…" when he is blind and does not see? Is it possible to strike someone who is blind for not being able to see?!...

Our Father in heaven – why do You do this? Are they not of limited knowledge? And if You hide Your face from them, how can they run after You, when they do not know where the place of Your glory is…[7]


These words, directed towards God, are reminiscent of the powerful prayers of early Chassidim, such as Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. Two strong emotions come together here: a feeling of distance and hiding of God's face on the religious level, and a feeling of empathy and compassion towards all Jews who have left their religion on the social level. Clearly, the Rebbe is not seeking to encourage the conclusion that if our Father does not reveal Himself, we should not believe in Him. However, he does want to pray for those wayward Jews; furthermore, he wants to develop a different, more supportive attitude towards their negative religious state.


The view that seeks to remain apart, rejecting those who stray from inclusion in Am Yisrael – the position that was held by the great majority of Chassidic orthodoxy in Galicia and Hungary prior to the Holocaust – is quite understandable in the context of the anti-Enlightenment and anti-Zionist controversy and the battle waged by Chassidism to guard itself against these movements. But after the Holocaust, in the new social and religious situation that had come about, this approach was rejected in favor of a more unifying and accepting approach, returning to the "love of fellow Jews" that had characterized the beginnings of Chassidism.


The "accepting" approach also had halakhic ramifications. The halakha that permits indirect harm to one who has deviated from the principles of Jewish faith and tradition is nullified; as stated, we cannot come with claims against a person who has not succeeded in obligating himself to believe or to observe the commandments in a situation of "hester panim" (a hiding of God's face):


And because of this, in these times we do not carry out the verdict of those for whom our Sages prescribed that they be "lowered and not raised up,"[8] since there are no righteous people in this generation, and also they are not guilty for having degenerated and reached their situation…[9]



Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1]  See in this regard M. Piekarz, "The Chosenness of Israel in a New, Relevant Formulation – the 'Inner Spark,'" in his book, Polish Chassidism: Philosophical Trends Between the Two World Wars and During the Holocaust (hereinafter to be referred to as Polish Chassidism) (Jerusalem, 5750), 122-153. He cites several sources from earlier and later Chassidic writers. See also Y. Katz, below note 4.

[2]   See Degel Machaneh Efrayim, Parashat Shelach Lekha, concerning tzitzit, and the parable of the Ba'al Shem Tov ad loc.

[3]  See, for example, M. Piekarz, Polish Chassidism, 152. See also, M. Piekarz, Ideology vs. Reality: Humility, Nothingness, Nullification of Existence, and Cleaving to God in the Philosophy of the Chassidic Masters (Heb.), (Jerusalem, 5754), 187-189.

[4]  This is the classic "heretic" (mumar) referred to frequently in rabbinical literature. Y. Katz, Halakha Ve-Kabbala (Jerusalem, 5744), 262-263, demonstrates that in the Middle Ages, the term "mumar" referred to one who had actually abandoned Judaism in favor of a different religion, while in rabbinical literature the term simply denotes one who habitually transgresses the commandments (see Sanhedrin 26a; Gittin 47a; Chullin 4b-6a). Chazal (in the aforementioned sources) also draw a distinction between one who transgresses for the sake of some pleasure ("out of appetite") and one who transgresses out of principle ("to anger God"). Early Chassidism was familiar mainly with the first variety; the encounter with the Enlightenment introduced the second variety.

[5]  See Y. Alfasi, Ha-Chassidut Ve-Shivat Tzion (Tel Aviv, 1986), 91.

[6]  Piekarz and Schweid discuss the relinquishing of the principle of loving all Jews. Schweid, Between Destruction and Salvation – Responses in Ultra-Orthodox Thought to the Holocaust at Its Time [Heb.] (Tel Aviv, 1994), chapter 2, also shows that the right-wing branch of Chassidism even developed an ideology of hatred.

[7]  Shefa Chayim – Divrei Yatziv Le-Yareach Ha-Eitanim, part II (derashot from 5743), 41-42.

[8] See Avoda Zara 26b.

[9] Shefa Chayim – Divrei Yatziv Le-Yareach Ha-Eitanim, part II (derashot from 5743), 55-56. A similar view is expressed by the Chazon Ish in several places. See, for example, Chazon Ish - Yoreh De'a, siman 13-14. See in this regard B. Brown, "The Chazon Ish: Halakha, Faith, and Society in His Major Rulings in Eretz Yisrael (5693-5714)," Ph.D. dissertation – Hebrew University of Jerusalem, part II, (5763), 362-375.