Lecture #13a: Remembrance of the Holocaust in the Teachings of the Rebbe of Slonim (Netivot Shalom) (Part 1)

  • Rav Tamir Granot



In this lecture, we will examine additional excerpts from the booklet Ha-Haruga Aleikha by the Rebbe of Slonim.  We shall focus our discussion here on the question of remembrance of the Holocaust in general, and in ultra-Orthodox culture in particular.


The Obligation to Commemorate the Holocaust


In the introductory lecture of this series we noted the fundamental question of commemorating the Holocaust in the charedi sector.  The charedi public does not mark a Holocaust Remembrance Day on the 27th of Nissan or on the 10th of Tevet, not only because of specific issues relating to the dates, but also because of two other fundamental reasons:


1.      Denial of the authority of the State and of the Chief Rabbinate to establish memorial days;

2.      Opposition to the character of the day, the essence of the remembrance, and the ways of commemorating.


Many Chassidic communities commemorate an internal memorial day, although there is no uniform custom in this regard.  Among Slonim Chassidim, the annual day of memorial is on the 6th of Mar-Cheshvan, the date when the young Rebbe of Slonim-Baranowicz was murdered.  On his yahrzeit, the Chassidim gather for prayer and memorial, with the Rebbe addressing the gathering with a sermon commemorating the Holocaust and its significance.  (Some of these sermons make up the chapters of Ha-Haruga Aleikha.) How does the Netivot Shalom – Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky - address the issue of remembrance?


Though we were unable to do anything to stop the way they were annihilated, our hearts are pained that even after the great cataclysm no commemoration for them has been established for the future – some form of eulogy and mourning – in the manner established by the sages of Jewry after the pogroms of 5408-9, when they ordained the 20th of Sivan as day for fasting and reciting selichot (atonement prayers) – despite the relatively small dimensions of that series of tragedies.  Similarly, the sages of earlier periods composed kinot (dirges) to mourn the pogroms of the Middle Ages and the Crusades – specifically to mourn the communities of Mainz, Worms, and Speyer that sanctified Hashem in death. Further back in history, [kinnot were written] to mourn the deaths of the ten sages martyred by the Romans.  Wherever a Jew sits on the ground on Tish'a Be-Av and bewails the destruction of the Beit Ha-Mikdash he also sheds tears for the above tragedies, and so their memory remains alive among the Jewish People.  Why should the tragedies of the Holocaust be different from all those tragedies?  They certainly deserve a fast day and kinot of their own.

     Whoever studies the overall picture sees that this, too, is no coincidence, but a manifestation of Divine will.  Just because the extent of the tragedy is so awesomely vast – six million Jews including over a million children annihilated in horrifying and brutal ways, genocide unmatched from the day man was created – there are no words capable of expressing the depth of the anguish that scorches our hearts.  The human vocabulary is too poor to properly express all the unnatural cruelty that was demonstrated by the monsters in human form or to describe the vastness of the loss of life of an entire generation with its unique way of life that was wiped off the face of the earth.  Human hearts and minds are incapable of grasping what took place here; no expression can encompass it because natural human feelings are too limited to be able to feel a pain as awesomely intense as this.  Only dumb silence – as in the statement "Aharon kept silent" [Vayikra 10:3] – can indicate the depth of the anguish in our hearts better than any words, for no expression is appropriate to this tragedy.

     Only a dirge-writer like Yirmiyahu, a Divine prophet, could express the pain of the Jewish People when the tragedy of the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash took place: "Would that my head were water and my eyes a source of tears so that I might bewail the dead of my People day and night!" [Yirmiyahu 8:23].  The natural tears that a person weeps are limited, incapable of bewailing the dead of the Jewish People.  A new creation was required, a source of tears, in order to mourn appropriately for the House of Jewry and the People of God who had fallen. 

(Nesivos Sholom, Kuntres Ha-harugah Alekha, pp. 32-34, published by Yeshiva Beth Abraham of Jerusalem-Slonim, Expanded edition – 5765)


The Slonimer Rebbe states here quite candidly the problem of the absence of any Holocaust commemoration amongst the charedi public.  He acknowledges the vacuum and makes no attempt to link the problem to external, Zionist sources or the like.  On the contrary, a proper religious response to this terrible catastrophe would have been the establishment of a day of commemoration, fasting, lamentations and special prayers, following the example set by the sages in the wake of past catastrophes.  Our books of lamentations and Selichot are full of dirges and prayers that were composed to commemorate the destruction wrought by the Crusaders and the Chmielnicki pogroms of 1648-49, and our calendar marks the dates of major destruction with fasting.  Does the absence of any reaction to or marking of the Holocaust – which was more terrible than the previous disasters, as the Rebbe states – not represent a religious failure or deficiency?


The Chazon Ish


The Chazon Ish was asked about establishing a day of fasting in memory of the Holocaust.  His answer was as follows:


Matters of halakha are decided in accordance with the Torah, whose principles are set down in writing and whose interpretation is in the Oral Law.  No prophet is entitled to introduce anything unless it has textual support in the Torah.  Just as the diminishing of anything is a deviation from the Torah, likewise adding to the commandments of the Torah is a deviation from the Torah, etc.  Thus the establishment of a fast for all future generations is a rabbinically-ordained commandment, and that which we have today goes back to the time when there was still prophecy.  How then can we presume, as a generation that is better off remaining silent, to even think of establishing matters for future generations? The very suggestion testifies to our denial of all of our sins and shortcomings.  So long as we are soiled with transgressions and iniquities, destitute and empty of Torah and bare of commandments, let us not approach things too great for us; let us search our ways and repent. This is our obligation, as it is written, "Is it not fasting…" (Yishayahu 58:6).  (Chazon Ish, siman 97)


The Chazon Ish's objection to establishing a day of fasting would seem to arise from formal, halakhic considerations: we have no authority to institute new enactments.  However, he later reveals a deeper source of opposition: the very idea of establishing a fast testifies to a lack of understanding of our deplorable spiritual situation.  The Chazon Ish must have been well aware of the fast of the 20th of Sivan established by the Bach long after the era of prophecy had ended, but his words here are not meant as a measured, halakhic response. They have deeper significance; the Chazon Ish identifies the attempt to establish a day of remembrance and/or fasting with the sense of self-confidence and elation that accompanied the establishment of the State of Israel, and perhaps also with the Chief Rabbinate. 


Indeed, in his responsa, Minchat Yitzchak, Rabbi Weiss cites the Chazon Ish here within the framework of the controversy surrounding the institution of Yom Ha-atzma'ut.  In other words, there is a connection between the institution of days of celebration over the establishment of the State and days of fasting over the Holocaust - and the Chazon Ish is opposed to both.  The institution of an enactment such as a fast for all future generations demands a level of religious authority and popular acceptance that characterized the era of prophecy; it is entirely inappropriate to a generation that has experienced the almost complete annihilation of religious Jewry.  This is the deeper argument that is concealed in the words of the Chazon Ish: one of the terrible results of the Holocaust was the destruction of the world of Torah and its leaders.  Paradoxically, the institution of a fast in memory of the Holocaust serves to deny this significance of the Holocaust, because such an act expresses a feeling of authority and grandeur that ignores the terrible state of the Torah world at this time.  In his words here the Chazon Ish gives no direct expression to the importance of remembrance or to the value of commemoration.


Silence as a Response


The view of the Rebbe of Slonim assumes added importance against the background of the Chazon Ish.  The Rebbe explains that the absence of any halakhic expression or special prayers[1] arises from the unfathomable extent of the destruction and the accompanying pain.  Silence, muteness, are the expression of the limited ability of all conventional halakhic and human vessels and devices to conceive and express what happened.  The institution of a fast day or the recitation of a lamentation – which would ultimately be like other fast days and like other lamentations – may lead to a diluting of the memory of something that dare not become a banal matter.  Any ceremony or enactment that is drawn from the existing armory would make the Holocaust, and its commemoration, into just one of many remembrances.


Zionist Commemoration of the Holocaust


Let us consider for a moment this argument of the Slonimer Rebbe and contrast it with the position of Zionist Israeli society.  The State, in the name of society, instituted a day of commemoration and fashioned ceremonies of remembrance in order to preserve the memory of the Holocaust.  The simple and self-evident perception is that without special days of commemoration, appropriate ceremonies, and a positive effort to remember, everything will eventually be forgotten.  Even though there is some truth to the claim that any ceremony is likely to make the event more banal and ordinary, we have no choice.


As a defense against "banalization," Israeli society attempts to address this danger by molding unique ceremonies in commemoration of the Holocaust.  This is precisely the area in which modern, Zionist society enjoys a luxury that is denied to the ultra-Orthodox sector.  The absence of traditional commitment to ceremonial models allows for the creation of new ceremonies, uniquely suited to the memory that is to be commemorated: the State ceremony at Yad Va-Shem, the March of the Living with military and political pomp, the "reading of names," the relating of personal stories, and the reading of poetry – all of these attempt to ensure both the transmission of the memory and its unique character.


A new model for ceremonies is not merely a matter of ceremonial culture.  It usually also reflects a new context for meaning.  Indeed, Zionist culture has sought to award the memory of the Holocaust a special, different character.  It has the clear purpose of emphasizing the contrast between the reality of life in the State of Israel, which protects the welfare of Jews throughout the world, and the submissive, helpless existence of Jews in the Diaspora in general and during the Holocaust in particular.  It has an interest in severing the individual meaning of death in the Holocaust from the perception of death throughout Jewish history –from the tradition of accepting Divine judgment, or of sanctifying God's Name.  It seeks to highlight the sanctity of life at the expense of classic Sanctification of God's Name and to raise the banner of valor as part of the Zionist fighting ethos.  The memory itself, and its unique content, represent a central element in the Zionist ethos and in recognition of the importance of the State's existence.  It also highlights the difference between the personality of the "Israeli" who is remembering and the "Jew" who is remembered.  The memory is bound up principally with feelings of compassion, pity, and deep sorrow – but not identification.[2]


[1] Admittedly, Rabbi Wolbe, the Rebbe Rabbi Shlomo of Bobov, and some other leaders did compose lamentations over the Holocaust, but these have not been incorporated into the prayer canon.

[2] It is well known and documented that at the time of the establishment of the State, Holocaust survivors felt rejected and accused of having allowed themselves to be led, along with the rest of European Jewry, "like sheep to the slaughter" – an expression regarded as denoting negative behavior. Israeli society had great difficulty with the remembrance of the Holocaust as it was. In this sense, Israeli remembrance has undergone many positive developments, and the description in the body of the text above testifies to the newer, more sympathetic and less judgmental commemoration.