Lecture #12a: Jewish Identity and the Significance of the Holocaust in the Teachings of the Rebbe of Slonim (Part 1)

  • Rav Tamir Granot





Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky, the Rebbe of Slonim zt"l and the leader of Slonim chassidut in Israel during the decades following the Holocaust, passed away only several years ago in 5760.  His series of books, Netivot Shalom, has achieved widespread popularity; aside from their Chassidic following, they are commonly found even in the batei midrash of religious Zionist yeshivot.  His clear language, devoid of the kabbalistic and homiletic weight that characterizes many Chassidic works, his modern Hebrew, and especially his deep educational and human insights, have all contributed to this success.


Among his many works on the weekly Torah readings, the festivals, and other subjects, there is a booklet entitled Ha-haruga Alekha, which is devoted exclusively to the subject of the Holocaust.  It is a collection of discourses and sermons, some delivered during the period of the war itself.  Most were delivered on the special memorial day commemorated by the Slonim chassidim.[1] These sermons develop a systematic philosophy concerning the Holocaust.  This is a rare work; to the best of my knowledge there is no other book – or even a chapter in a book – written by any Charedi rabbinical leader that is devoted entirely to the Holocaust.


In the previous lecture, we saw how the Holocaust served to mold the perception of Jewish identity and the attitude towards secular and "heretical" Jews in the teachings of the Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenburg.  Now we shall examine some of the teachings of the Rebbe of Slonim, who, as we shall see, addresses the subject from a different angle: the idea of "the sanctification of God" and its meaning within the Holocaust.


A.        Biography


Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky (14th Av 5671-7th Av 5760, Aug.  8, 2000) was the Rosh Yeshiva of Chassidut Slonim, the Rebbe of one branch of this Chassidic group, and the author of Netivot Shalom.


Rav Berezosky


 He was born in the town of Mosh, close to Slonim, to Rabbi Moshe Avraham Berezovsky.  He married the daughter of the Rebbe of Slonim, Rabbi Avraham Weinberg.  He moved to Palestine in 1935 and played a decisive role in rehabilitating Slonim chassidut following the destruction of the community in the Holocaust.  In Cheshvan, 5702 (end of 1941), with the establishment of the Beit Avraham Slonim yeshiva near the Mea She'arim neighborhood in Jerusalem, he began teaching there, and a few years later became the Rosh Yeshiva.  He served as a member of the directorate of the "independent" (ultra-Orthodox) school system in Israel and on the Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Israel, as well as in the presidency of the Committee of (ultra-orthodox) yeshivot.  He authored the Netivot Shalom series and published many of the works of the previous Rebbes of Slonim chassidut.


Some of the Slonimer chassidim accepted Rabbi Berezovsky as their leader already during the final years of his father-in-law, the Rebbe, and their communities are to be found mostly in Israel – in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Kiryat Gat, Beitar Ilit, Elad, Chazon Yechezkel, and Immanuel.  When he officially became the Rebbe, several dozen chassidim seceded in protest against the offense of his being appointed during his father-in-law's lifetime and out of opposition to his ideological approach.  Slonim chassidut is therefore divided into two groups: one is headed by the Berezovsky dynasty (Rabbi Shmuel, son of the Netivot Shalom), the other by the original Weinberg dynasty (under the leadership of Rabbi Avraham Weinberg – the family name of most of the Rebbes of the dynasty.)[2]


B.        Sanctification of God's Name (Kiddush Hashem) in the Holocaust


In one of the first lectures in this series, we raised the issue of the uniqueness of the Holocaust.  Was the Holocaust yet another catastrophe, of greater magnitude than anything that the Jewish nation had ever experienced in exile, but essentially the same suffering, or was it a qualitatively different phenomenon, such that new categories of thought are needed to address it?


The question of the sanctification of God's Name in the Holocaust provides a meaningful perspective on this question.  The ideal of "kiddush Hashem" is raised by Chazal in the context of the religious decrees promulgated by the Romans at the time of the Bar Kokhba revolt.  There were certainly Jews whose martyrdom preceded this period, such as Chanania, Mishael and Azaria, but the concept of "kiddush Hashem" acquired systematic halakhic and philosophical formulation only in the generation of Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues.  The opportunity and obligation to sanctify God's Name by giving up one's life arises when gentiles demand that a Jew convert or transgress God's commandments.  In such a situation, a Jew sanctifies God's Name by refusing and giving up his life rather than acceding to the demand.


It is difficult to overstate the importance of this commandment of "sanctifying God's Name," which became a central ethos in Jewish existence throughout the generations.  The Jewish nation suffered an unending history of persecution and catastrophes without number.  Long years of dispersion brought about a reality in which, in many instance, Jews were powerless to either defend themselves against the decrees or to escape.  They coped with the decrees that forced them to choose between apostasy and death by virtue of their faith in the supreme value of "kiddush Hashem."  If they had no right to normal life, or to life at all, then at least they had the right to die valiantly, in sanctification of God's Name.


However, when we consider the suffering and destruction of the Holocaust from the perspective of "kiddush Hashem," we encounter a perplexing problem:


Insofar as the entire history of the annihilation and destruction is a riddle without a solution, our puzzlement grows even greater when we regard it through the lens of kiddush Hashem.  On the one hand, you have the incredibly great panorama of six million martyred Jews who attained the lofty level of being killed for the sanctity of His Name, may He be blessed, and about whom it was said, "Gather to me My devout ones, those who make My covenant by sacrifice."  Yet, on the other hand, every thinking person is deeply pained by the fact that Divine Providence saw fit that the vast majority of those who were annihilated had no idea they were being killed to sanctify His name; nor did they merit to offer themselves for His sake because they were never given any alternative to being killed.  Anyone of Jewish origin was killed.  Most of the victims had no opportunity to reflect at all as they were being killed.  How can this be considered kiddush Hashem?  Throughout the generations, the vast quantities of Jewish blood that were shed were frequently related to a test, to an opportunity to choose to die for God and thus attain the level of kiddush Hashem.  But this was not the case here; kiddush Hashem was not an option for those who were annihilated. (Netivot Shalom, Ha-haruga Alekha, pp. 52-53)


The anti-Semitism developed in Nazi ideology presented a new sort of challenge.  The fathomless hatred, the desire to murder every Jew simply because of his race, the non-religious context of this hatred, the inability to escape the Jewish fate by converting, the persecution of pious and righteous Jews together with assimilated Jews – all of this created a new spiritual and existential situation.  If a Jew was put to death against his will simply because he was Jewish, could he thereby have been sanctifying God's Name?


Let us consider this problem.  Seemingly, a Jew who gives himself over to be killed in order to preserve his faith in God and His Torah sanctifies God's Name because his self-sacrifice proves that his love for God is greater than his love for his own life.  The voluntary choice of remaining loyal to God, even though this means that he will die, testifies to the extent of his faith and his love; it is an expression of honor and exaltation of the Master of the world, for Whose sake the Jew is giving up his life.  However, Jews were murdered in the Holocaust in the absence of the conditions that would award their deaths the significance of kiddush Hashem:


  1. Lack of choice – there was no possibility of choosing between dying as a Jew or living as a gentile.  Thus, death could not be an expression of love or loyalty to God, since they were dying in any event.[3]
  2. Lack of consciousness – there was no opportunity to even think about death; it came suddenly, in the midst of panic.  Can there be any kiddush Hashem in such a situation?
  3. Lack of will – millions of Jews were far removed from God and His Torah.  Had they hypothetically been given the opportunity to choose or to think about sanctifying God's Name through their death, they would not have done so; it would have had no meaning for them.


Had it been the case that only the element of choice (1) was missing, perhaps we could still speak of kiddush Hashem in describing Jews going to their deaths uttering prayer, "Shema Yisrael," filled with holy thoughts and pride that they were Jews and servants of God.  This situation is reflected in Rabbi Dessler's description of the deaths of the martyrs of Kelm and Kovno who, while not having chosen to die, nevertheless transformed their final journey into a majestic act of kiddush Hashem:


Deep are the ways of Truth, exceedingly deep; who can find them? And therefore they are not known to many, only to select individuals, people of Truth.

Many have asked and wondered – what profit was there in the death of these? Had they died as a result of a decree of forced conversion, and given up their lives for the sanctification of God's Name, then we would not question it. But these murderers did not demand [that these Jews adopt a different] faith; rather, they wanted to annihilate, kill and destroy – believers and heretics alike – and to put them all to death for having been born Jewish. What is the point of this? Even the opportunity of sanctifying God's Name was denied to the victims! And this being so, what was it all for? A great question…

But the people of Truth knew what it meant. This was not intended as a test of forced conversion, nor of sanctifying God's Name in the eyes of the nations. Rather… it was something more difficult; the most difficult thing of all… an incomparably enormous service… The test was to see who was true in his heart; who would sanctify God within his own heart, and turn his whole heart towards the blessed God, bar nothing, and truly rejoice in the terrible suffering of death… and experience complete joy at the contentment of cleaving to God. This is the most supreme purpose, this is… the service of the "birthpangs of the Messiah." Even the supremely holy Tannaim and Amoraim were fearful that perhaps they would not properly fulfill their obligation in the service of the "birthpangs of the Messiah." Concerning this they prayed, "Let him – the Messiah – come, but let me not [live to] see him." (Mikhtav me-Eliyahu, vol. 5, p. 348)


Rav Dessler proposes a new concept here: "inner kiddush Hashem."  Outwardly, the death is indeed meaningless; what meaning can there be to an act that does not proceed from will or choice? Still, we must ask what a victim was thinking while taking his final steps towards the gas chambers or the pits. Did he accept God's judgment? Was every step infused with the love of God? This is an inner test, with no outer signs of valor.  It lacks the heroics of an outward display of kiddush Hashem, the satisfaction of this ultimate victory.  All that it offers is the inner truth in one's heart, and for this reason, explains Rav Dessler, it is even greater than the classic kiddush Hashem.


Here Rabbi Dessler gives meaning to the sort of death which, according to the traditional categories, would be devoid of meaning by reinterpreting the concept of kiddush Hashem.  Does his interpretation make sense? Perhaps it is better that we remain with the classic model of kiddush Hashem, which unquestionably acquired its meaning in a different historical arena, when the conflict between Jews and their adversaries was a religious one and the hierarchy of ideals was ordered accordingly.  Perhaps it would be more appropriate, in the context of the Holocaust, to speak of an inner test of faith or love.  Clearly, the use of the term kiddush Hashem brings some consolation, since it invokes familiar meaning within a reality that is clouded and absurd.  However, even Rav Dessler would agree that the description of death in the Holocaust as a "sanctification of God's Name" – even if effected only inwardly – can be applied only to a minority of cases, even if this number is still large.  Most of the Jews whose lives ended in the Holocaust died without the time or opportunity for any conscious choice.  Half, if not more, were not practicing or observant Jews; their deaths merely intensify our sense of emptiness and meaninglessness.


C.        Kiddush Hashem of the Individual and of the Community


The Rebbe of Slonim attempts to find meaning in the deaths of millions of Jews who were overcome by death suddenly and who had no religious intention in dying, even hypothetically.  He proposes that we think of kiddush Hashem on the national level, and not only in terms of the individual.  He bases this idea on a teaching of the famous Chassidic leader, Rabbi Zusha:


An anecdote that is related about the Rebbe Rav Zusha offers us an approach to this dilemma.  Rav Zusha had difficulty with a statement by the Tosafot in Chullin.  The gemara there (7b) states: "The Jewish People are holy: Some want but don't have, and some have but don't want." The statement is perplexing. It is perfectly reasonable to consider holy a Jew who wants but doesn't have; he wants to give, but he can't help it that he doesn't have.  But why consider holy the Jew who has but doesn't want? Tosafot write (s.v."ve-yesh she-yesh lo"), "They are nevertheless called holy because one invites the other to eat by him out of shame." 


This troubled Rav Zusha: What is the point of a Jew's giving if he only gives out of shame?  Even non-Jews sometimes give out of shame.  Why should a Jew be called holy for that?


            The author of that Tosofot came to him in a dream and told him that the gemara's statement means that the Jews as a unified entity are holy.  Every mitzva has a body and a soul – the body is the physical fulfillment of the mitzva, as when one invites his fellow-Jew to eat by him.  The soul of the mitzva is the good will of the Jew who wants to invite his fellow-Jew.  Neither segment is the mitzva in its entirety.  What is meant by the statement, "The Jewish People are holy," is that when they unite, they are collectively holy.  This one wants, but is unable, and his good will creates the soul of the mitzva.  The other one has, but doesn't want to invite his fellow-Jew, yet does so out of shame – from this, the body of the mitzva is created.  When these Jews combine, the collective holiness of the Jewish People performs the mitzva.  This power for unifying their actions exists only among Jews.  Non-Jews lack the power to unite and create spiritual wholeness. (Netivot Shalom, Ha-Haruga Alekha, pp. 54-55)[4]


Rabbi Zusha's teaching conveys an in-depth view of the significance of fulfilling a commandment and the relationship between the individual dimension of this fulfillment and the national dimension.  A well-known debate among the Amora'im (Rosh ha-Shana 27b) concerns the question of whether "[the proper fulfillment of] a commandment requires intent."  The ruling (adopted by chassidim as a general way of life) is that it does.  In other words, a commandment is fulfilled through the unification of the desire to perform it and the act itself.  A lower level of fulfillment is when there is no conscious desire to fulfill the commandment, but the act is nevertheless performed, either for some other reason or out of coercion.  On the other hand, it may happen that a person wishes to fulfill a commandment but is unable to do so.  On the individual level, there is certainly some value to this latter situation, since the good will to perform the commandment is admirable even if, in reality, the ability to do so is lacking.  However, it is more difficult to understand what value there could be in the actual performance of a commandment with no will or intention to fulfill it. 


Rabbi Zusha explains that, on the individual level, an act that is not preceded by the will to perform it has no value.  However, Judaism emphasizes the importance of the communal view, which perceives all individuals as different "limbs" of the same organism.  From the communal point of view, a Jew who gives (charity, for example) without any will to perform the commandment still represents a hand, while a different person, who wishes to give but cannot, may be considered the heart.  When we speak of a single organic entity, it is clear that the connection between the heart and the hands is of great importance.


In social terms, what the hand has to offer the heart is its actions, while the heart offers the hand its will.  Thus, a wholeness is created that envelops both parties.  The Rebbe of Slonim proposes that we adopt this model in thinking about kiddush Hashem during the Holocaust.  The actor whom we should consider is not the individual Jew, nor even the community as a whole in the present, but rather the nation of Israel throughout all generations.  This perspective liberates us from the oppressive sense of meaninglessness that is attached to the individual death, bringing instead new meaning:


We can use this as a model for understanding the kiddush Hahem of the Holocaust martyrs.  Doubtless, there were very many martyrs who gave their lives joyfully, lovingly, and willingly for kiddush Hashem, and the words of Chazal that no being can stand near them apply to them.  This means that even holy and undefiled righteous people cannot come near them.  They certainly fulfilled the soul of the mitzva of kiddush Hashem as well as the body of the mitzva.  But even those who were killed because they were given no choice and who had no intention of performing this mitzva did, in fact, perform the act of kiddush Hashem, for they were killed solely because they were Jews.


When a Jew reads the first paragraph of Shema, he includes the intent – each person at his level as granted him by God, may He be blessed – that he is ready to be killed to sanctify God's name.  The Rashba (Sh'eilos U-teshuvos 5:55), in his sacred words, phrased it as follows: "King David said in Tehillim (44:23): 'We were killed for You every day.' Is it possible to be killed every day? When we read in Shema, 'u-ve-khol nafshekha – with your whole life,' and we undertake to fulfill those words, it is as if we are being killed at that moment for Him, may He be blessed.  When a Jew undertakes to perform a mitzva when the opportunity will arise, it is considered as if he did it."


Nevertheless, even a Jew who has made a total commitment has, in fact, no more than his commitment. [Nor does the Jew who was martyred unwittingly have credit for more than the fact of his death.]  Only when they are combined and unified – those who were killed al kiddush Hashem without any thought or intent of it as along with all those who accepted kiddush Hashem – are the Jewish People labeled "holy." This is consistent with the statement attributed to Rav Meir of Rothenburg cited by the author of Beis Avrohom (Erev Yom ha-Kippurim, p. 206), that when a Jew undertakes to be killed to sanctify God's name, it is considered in the World of Truth as if he had actually done so.  The only difference between such a Jew and one who was actually killed is that the latter is rewarded for his suffering.  In combination they are called "Yisroel Kedoshim" – the action of the one and the intent of the other combining to yield the loftiest possible kiddush Hashem. (ibid., pp. 55-56)


The Holocaust, then, is a collective act of kiddush Hashem that is performed by the Jewish nation of all generations.  Love of God, with sanctification of His Name as its pinnacle, finds practical expression only when a Jew is required to actually give up his life.  We declare our readiness to do so when we recite Shema twice every day.  Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk once said (cited in the "Tzetil Katan") that at the time that one recites the verse of Shema – "And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…," he should imagine a great fire right in front of him, and that in another moment he will be leaping into it.  He should tell himself: "I am ready to enter and to be burned by the fire, for my great love for the blessed God."


Lag Ba-omer

 The Rebbe, author of Netivot Shalom,

on Lag ba-Omer

 The Holocaust is a cosmic fire.  The crematoria of Auschwitz and Treblinka are the eternal fire into which a Jew is obligated to leap in order to realize his faith in and love for God.  Not every Jew who has historically intended and been ready to give up his life in sanctification of God's Name has been able to fulfill his wish.  At the same time, not every Jew actually recites the Shema, or actually loves God "even if He takes your life."  The connection between the heart and the act, between sanctification of God's Name in desire alone and actually giving up life, was forged in the Holocaust.  It is specifically because this was genocide rather than an individual death, specifically because there was no distinction between believers and heretics, between religious and secular, specifically because of the absolute nature of the decree and the absence of choice, that the Holocaust has special significance as a purifying, national occasion of kiddushHashem.  In the Holocaust, the Jewish nation collectively gave up its life, as it were, for the sanctification of God's Name, with every individual sharing in this merit.  Specifically because of its unique and horrifying characteristics, the Holocaust may be viewed as a sort of forging and welding of the different parts of the nation together, bringing about spiritual unity and completeness.


Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1] Established on the date when the Rebbe of Slonim-Baranowicz is known to have perished in the Holocaust.

[2]       Slonim chassidim are fond of noting that in 1873, the founder of the dynasty, Rabbi Avraham Weinberg, gathered some of his grandsons – including Rabbi Noach Weinberg (who was only 13 years old at the time), Rabbi Yitzchak Matityahu Sandberg, and some other chassidim, and commanded them to move to Eretz Yisrael, to settle in Tiberias, and to establish a core group of Slonim chassidim there.  At the time, this decision was greeted with great surprise, as the living conditions in Eretz Yisrael were extremely harsh.  Many years later, after the great majority of Slonim chassidut had been eradicated in the Holocaust, it was revived in Eretz Yisrael thanks to that core group which had been established long before in Tiberias.  Slonim chassidim regard this as a miraculous fact and as proof of their Rebbe's prophetic powers.


[3]Admittedly, in some cases there did exist the possibility of escape to a monastery or convent, and parents did try to save their children in this way.  The Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenburg recalls being told by a certain man that his gentile neighbor had offered to take his daughters and raise them as his own.  This Jewish father could not bear the thought of his daughters being raised as non-Jews, and so he refused.  He was not prepared to hear what the Rebbe had to say from a halakhic perspective.  The Rebbe concluded his story by noting that several years later he met this man in London, and he told the Rebbe that his three daughters had all survived. 

[4]Translations are taken from: Nesivos Sholom, Kuntres Haharugoh Olecha, ed. R. Shlomo Weinberg, trans. R. Yehoshua Leiman (Jerusalem: Mechon Emunoh Voda'as of Yeshivas Beth Abraham-Slonim, 5765).