Lecture #13b: Remembrance of the Holocaust in the Teachings of the Rebbe of Slonim (Netivot Shalom) (Part 2)

  • Rav Tamir Granot



Charedi Remembrance


The ultra-Orthodox manner of Holocaust remembrance is the mirror image of that common in Israel.  Religious models of remembrance are fixed – and not only because of halakhic or traditional considerations.  By its very nature, religion makes the temporal subservient to the eternal and views every individual event within the context of an over-arching principle or meaning.  The recitation of "Kaddish" as an element of remembrance is not merely a requirement or law that must be fulfilled; its purpose is to extend the acceptance of Divine judgment to every instance of suffering or destruction.  The standard practice of reciting selichot on fast days is a ceremonial model that links every remembrance of catastrophe with the need to repent for our sins; like the recitation of Tehillim, it directs our hopes for salvation heavenward.  The lighting of a candle and the recitation of "E-l Malei Rachamim" or mishnayot express our belief that the suffering of this world is not the whole picture, as well as expressing our concern for the soul in the Upper World. 


In other words, the ceremonial model expresses the world-view and the religious categories within which we perceive what is happening in the world – death, destruction, suffering – and allows us to continue to maintain some sort of acceptable religious order, which encompasses even the terrible experience of the latest catastrophe that threatened this order and its meaning.


The Purpose of Remembering the Holocaust


All of the above explains the distress experienced by the Rebbe of Slonim, representing a great portion of the charedi public.  New models of ceremony and remembrance do not exist; they are not legitimate, for both formal and essential reasons.[1] The old models are obviously valid and useful, but they are not sufficient.  It is not that the Slonimer Rebbe believes that acceptance of God's judgment or repentance are no longer relevant; the principles of faith are certainly true and eternal.  However, they cannot suffice to grasp the Holocaust because their very "standardness" may blur the uniqueness of this chapter in Jewish history and because the Holocaust itself is not the same as the catastrophes that preceded it. 


In this respect, the view of the Rebbe of Slonim is certainly different from that of other charedi thinkers whose works we have studied.  In a previous lecture, we noted Rabbi Hutner's opposition to the name "Holocaust" (shoah) because of its implied uniqueness and the severance from the traditional significance that it should bear.  Similar views were expressed by Rabbi Dessler and others.  The Slonimer Rebbe believes that the Holocaust is indeed different and unique in relation to other events, but he cannot accept the Zionist interpretation of its uniqueness – and certainly not the Zionist manner of response.


How are we to understand his proposal to "remain silent?" Silence can be part of a ceremony – as practiced among the non-charedi public during the siren that is sounded on Holocaust Remembrance Day.  What the Slonimer Rebbe has in mind, however, is not ceremonial silence, but rather the silencing of the concept of ceremony.  Two questions arise here:


1.  How is the memory itself to be preserved in the absence of ceremonies and days of remembrance designated for this purpose?

2.  Can mute silence – not ceremonial, but social and existential – express the uniqueness of the Holocaust? If so, how will it find expression?


The answer to the first question pertains to an understanding of the essence of Chassidic-charedi memory, in contrast to Zionist memory.  Zionist memory is historical in nature; it commemorates processes, facts, numbers, actors, etc., because its message is essentially historical: "Never again! There will never be another Holocaust! We will learn how it happened in order to ensure that it will not be repeated."  Charedi memory is not historical, but rather internal and spiritual.  It is the memory of Judaism, of the Jewish figures, of the spiritual realm, and especially the sense of absence of all of these.  Charedi memory is not interested in the history of the Holocaust because its lesson is not historical.  The Holocaust did not happen because we did not defend ourselves, nor will a repeat of such an event, heaven forefend, be prevented solely by means of self-defense.  We seek spiritual, inner remembrance principally in order to understand what it is that we are entrusted with rebuilding; what our obligation is with regard to the past that was wiped out, and how we have to live as Jews.  On one yahrzeit remembrance day, the Slonimer Rebbe declared:


The primary attainment of that excellent generation was the fact that they were Jews in their essence, totally Jewish.  There are people who are considered Jewish because they were born to Jewish parents or because they act Jewish in every way.  Yet there are people who are Jewish in their essence, in their entire being: all their feelings, perceptions, and thoughts are Jewish; their hearts are Jewish hearts and blood that is in every way Jewish flows in their veins.  Following the text in Megillat Esther, [2:5]:  "There was a Jewish man there" – every aspect of his being was Jewish.  Since they were natural Jews, their Torah and their davening (praying), their character traits and their good deeds, were all natural without artifice.  Since everything was absolutely natural to them, they never felt deserving of any honor or respect for their good deeds, nor did they take pride in their achievements.  Just as there is a vast difference between a man who does business with his own capital and a man who operates a much larger business with borrowed capital, where the least crisis can plunge him into bankruptcy – so, too, is there an infinite gap between a person whose Torah and service of Hashem are natural and a person for whom they are not really natural.[2] [ibid., p. 69]


In retrospect, Diaspora Judaism prior to the Holocaust looks like authentic Judaism with a full Jewish life; our aspiration is therefore to commemorate its memory by imitating it and continuing in its ways.  The establishment of yeshivot and kollels, Jewish dress, and Chassidic communities in Eretz Yisrael – all of these manifestations represent the proper and true commemoration of the Jewish life that existed and that is no more.  Indeed, the activity of many Chassidic leaders, as well as many Roshei Yeshivah, was directed by a conscious desire to rehabilitate and memorialize the communities and yeshivot that had been annihilated in the Holocaust.[3] The Rebbe of Slonim provides the following autobiographical description of his feelings during the Holocaust when he established the Slonim yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael:


The situation and state of affairs, both internally and externally, during the initial period of the yeshiva was one of "darkness covering the earth," in the manner described in Parashat Bereishit – "And the earth was chaos and void…." At that time, in the year 5702 (1942), the Holocaust and the great destruction that befell Am Yisrael was at its peak; the annihilation in the camps and crematoria was at its peak, and all of Europe was like an ocean of Jewish blood. At that time rumors and reports began to arrive concerning the destruction and the annihilation… and amongst all the turmoil of blood and the terrible reports that were arriving, we heard about Baranowicz, with all that was holy and dear to us, and how it was being destroyed and annihilated… I could find no rest; my Slonim was being laid waste and perishing… What could I do with myself? I felt then that I was falling apart, more and more, and that I could not continue. We went about like crazed people; I wept rivers of tears each night over the breach of the daughter of my people; my strength was deserting me and I was losing my wits. And then an idea started forming in my mind, and I came to the decision that if we were prevented from saving them physically, at least we would invest all of our efforts in saving the spirit… An inner urge gave rise to a great, powerful voice that called to us unceasingly: "Why are you sleeping?" and "If you remain silent at this time," and it was as though we had been entrusted with this mission of reviving the group. We had to drop everything in order to establish the yeshiva.” (p. 57)


Historical events, asserts the Rebbe of Slonim, are eventually forgotten; there is forgetfulness in the material realm.  But the essence, the love, that which is internal and eternal – these are not forgotten if they live on.  Therefore, the need for physical commemoration – through trips, documentation, and narrative – which exists in the secular sphere does not exist in charedi memory:


"If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its labor; if I fail to hold Jerusalem above my highest joy" (Tehillim 137:5)… The matter of forgetfulness applies only to something whose existence has ended and which has no more hope, as it is written (ibid. 31:13), "I have been forgotten like one who is dead." But if something is eternal, then it cannot be forgotten… The destruction was only on the outside, but on the inside the destruction did not reign, and proof of this is that when the enemies entered the Holy of Holies, they found the cherubs embracing one another (Yoma 54), showing that Israel was loved by God even at the very time of the destruction…

In the same way, in our "Jerusalem," too, those places from which there emerged Torah and the word of God, and the great light that was spread by our holy teachers during a period of some two hundred years – even if outwardly everything has been destroyed, the inner light lives on and continues. For their learning and their light are drawn from the root of eternity… and thus the concept of forgetfulness does not apply to them. This great and holy house [the yeshiva building] is not a place commemorating all of our glorious past, but rather a natural and living continuation of the students, and students' students, reminiscent of the image of "the parchment is being burnt, but the letters are flying up into the air" (Avoda Zara 18a). (ibid., p.  35)


The answer to the second question, concerning the expression of the uniqueness of the Holocaust within the charedi manner of memory and commemoration, is that this subject is addressed, from a philosophical and moral perspective, in those same sermons delivered on days of remembrance and in written teachings, and through this discussion a world-view is consolidated.  In the Chassidic, religious context, the sphere of Torah study and its interpretation is the natural arena for creating meaning.  The very fact that the Rebbe talks about silence in itself contributes towards the internalization of the consciousness of the uniqueness of the Holocaust.  In all of his sermons about the Holocaust, there is an attempt to explain and to understand it within a conceptual model that is different from that of "Divine retribution."  In other words, it is clear that the Holocaust is more than simply a matter of Divine punishment or of classic sanctification of God's Name.


We conclude with the emotional words of the Slonimer Rebbe about silence, dating from the year 5703, when the scope of the annihilation and the destruction of Baranowicz became known:


Each one of us weeps inwardly, and we are gathered here to give expression to this pain and to give voice, through the joining of hearts, to the terrible, common sorrow. Yet concerning this it is written, "The wise will be silent at that time" (Amos 5:13), for the tears have not yet been created, nor the expression come into being, that would be appropriate to the great catastrophe, the horror of the tragedy that is the slaughter of the greater part of the nation, the best of the people's forces, the geniuses and tzaddikim of Israel, with the yeshivot and their students. In such a situation, the only appropriate response is that of Iyov's friends: "They sat with him… for seven days and seven nights, and no-one said a word, for the pain was great" (Iyov 2:13). And in Yechezkel (24:15-24), when God tells the prophet, "Behold – I shall take the delight of your eyes…" and that they should not mourn, Rashi explains – because there are no comforters, since everyone is mourning. All of this has come to pass for us, but we may add further that we should not mourn – because there is no mourning that is appropriate and fitting for such a terrible destruction.

It is also hinted in the verse "the wise shall be silent at that time", that he cannot find strength or strengthen others, in keeping with the interpretation offered in the book Ye'arot Devash on the verses in Yechezkel (21:11-12): "And now, son of man, sigh with the breaking of your loins and in bitterness sigh before their eyes, and it shall be when they say to you, 'Why are you sighing?' you shall say: 'Because of the news that comes, melting every heart…'". In other words, they will ask the prophet, "Why are you sighing? You, who always go about giving support to others – why are you so despairing?" And his answer is: "Because of the news that comes, melting every heart…" When there is suffering for the entire Jewish nation, then it is forbidden to derive strength; rather, as it is written in Yirmiyahu (8:23), "that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people."

We cannot eulogize the "slain of the daughter of my people" who should have been eulogized, but [at the same time] we cannot come to terms with the idea that they are no more. It is as recorded in David's dirge for Shaul and Yehonatan, that he eulogized Shaul, but when it came to his bosom friend, Yehonatan, he was incapable of eulogizing; he simply cried out – "I am distressed over you, my brother; you have been exceedingly dear to me." There are no words to eulogize; we can only cry out bitterly, "We are distressed over you, holy brethren, who lived as holy people…"   (ibid. p. 10)



Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1]The Chazon Ish was opposed to the very possibility of introducing something new because of the lack of authority. Here, I seek to indicate only the absence of any possibility of creating a new model.

[2]Also: "The point is to immerse our minds in the subject and understand it.  If it is beyond comprehension, we must at least learn what happened, what we lost when in our time a link was ripped out of the chain of generations… Implicit in recalling is learning – learning their ways and following in their footsteps." (ibid., p. 69)

[3] Thus, for example, Rabbi Kahaneman established the Ponevezh yeshiva; the Rebbe of Vizhnitz established Kiryat Vizhnitz, etc.