Lecture #23: The Holocaust and the State of Israel

  • Rav Tamir Granot


Introduction: The connection between the State of Israel and the Holocaust


In our previous lectures, we have encountered some approaches to the nature of the connection between the Holocaust and the State of Israel.  Of course, the existence of a historical connection is not open to question. The U.N. Partition Plan decision - and especially the agreement of both Russia and the US to the plan supporting the establishment of a state - was little less than an overt miracle; it was made while the smoke from the crematoria still wafted in the European air, two years after the war had ended.  Rather, the question concerns the nature of the ideological and spiritual connection between the two events.


The connection may be addressed in terms of cause and effect or in terms of a moral lesson and significance.  Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook maintained that the Holocaust was the cause – that is, the surgery that was needed in order to separate the Jews from their exile – and the State was the effect.  Many others, including Rav Soloveitchik, taught that the State is the proper lesson arising from the Holocaust.  The most strident formulation of this view was proposed by the Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim,[1] who asserted that following the Holocaust there is a new, 614th commandment - not to allow Hitler a posthumous victory.  It is our responsibility to ensure that there will never be another Auschwitz, and the primary means for fulfilling this commandment is through the existence of a strong, independent State of Israel.



"And I saw you wallowing in your blood, and I said: 'Through your blood shall you live' (Yechezkel 15:6)


"I saw you wallowing in your blood" – this was the Holocaust; "And I said, through your blood" – these are the wars of Israel; "Shall you live" – this is the State of Israel.


We are accustomed to speaking of the connection between Yom Ha-Zikaron,the day of remembrance honoring the soldiers who have given their lives in defense of the country, and Yom Ha-Atzma'ut,  Israel's Independence Day, which follows immediately afterwards.  This connection is most aptly evinced in the poem by Natan Alterman, "The Silver Tray" (Magash Ha-Kessef), in which he declares that the sacrifice of our fallen soldiers is the assurance of the political independence of the Jewish nation.  This is certainly true, but attention should be paid to anther connection, as well: the connection between the Day of Remembrance for the fallen soldiers and the Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is commemorated a week earlier.  The sacrifice made by the I.D.F. soldiers is, after all, meant to ensure that there will not be another Auschwitz.  The alternative to Israel's wars against her enemies – the War of Independence, the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the Lebanon Wars – is the Warsaw ghetto, the Lodz ghetto, Treblinka, Auschwitz, and Babi Yar.


It is interesting that the date chosen for the Remembrance Day for Israel's fallen soldiers is eight days after the Holocaust Remembrance Day.  The image in Yechezkel, "wallowing in your blood," referring to the moment of birth, is one that I associate with the Holocaust, when the nation of Israel was indeed wallowing in its blood.  The last part of the verse, "Through your blood shall you live," is interpreted by Chazal (Mekhilta De-Rabbi Yitzchak; Shemot Rabba 17,3; and others) as an allusion to the Pesach sacrifice and to the blood of circumcision.  Yechezkel speaks of a bloody, traumatic birth, with no mercy and no Divine Providence.  The "wallowing in blood" is a state of helplessness:


… And as for your birth, on the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed in water to be cleaned, nor were salted at all, nor were you swaddled at all.  No eye pitied you enough to do any of these, to have compassion on you; rather, you were cast out into the field, in your loathsomeness, on the day that you were born. (15:4-5)


However, there is another possible scenario for wallowing in blood.  The blood may be the result of a sacrifice offered willingly, the Pesach sacrifice or the circumcision.  Our sacrifices in Eretz Yisrael are like the blood of circumcision, which is undertaken willingly, as well as the blood of the Pesach sacrifice, symbolizing the struggle for liberty, the struggle to leave the "wallowing in blood" of the European Holocaust.  According to the literal text, the blood "through which you will live" is exactly the same blood in which the Jewish nation had been wallowing; it is from that very blood that God redeems us.  In the midrash, Chazal offer a transformation of the blood of circumcision and of the Pesach sacrifice, the blood of covenant and of redemption, which, if we are ready, may pave the way for redemption instead of the terribly painful birth that is described at the beginning of Yechezkel's prophecy.


B.        To be Created or not to be Created


Thus far, we have discussed the most fundamental significance of the establishment of the State as a response to the Holocaust.  However, this is not enough.  Beyond the existential dimension of the establishment of Israel – in order that there will not be another Auschwitz – there must also be a spiritual dimension. 


The midrash speaks of a debate in heaven regarding the creation of man:


Rabbi Simon said: When the Holy One, blessed be He, was about to create Adam, the ministering angels separated into groups and camps, some saying, "Let him not be created," while others said, "Let him be created." This is as it is written, "Kindness and truth meet, righteousness and peace kiss" (Tehillim 85:11): Kindness says, "Let him be created, for he will perform acts of kindness." Truth says, "Let him not be created, for he is full of deceit." Righteousness says, "Let him be created, for he will perform righteousness." Peace says, "Let him not be created, for he is full of quarrel." (Bereishit Rabba 8,5)


I wrote the following during a visit to the Majdanek death camp:


In Majdanek, almost everything is in its place.  Sixty years on, and the sense of terror and evil is still in the air.  The gas chambers, the crematoria, the huts with shoes, the ash.  Majdanek lies on the outskirts of the town of Lublin.  On one side, people are plowing and sowing; on the other, they are murdering and burning.  At that moment this midrash went through my mind, with Chazal describing the debate among the angels concerning the creation.  If there is a place like Majdanek in the world – and there is, more than one – then the angels who said, "Let him not be created" were correct.  If this is what man has wrought in God's world, it would have been better had he not been created.


Then I wrote the following:


Two groups of angels say, "Let man not be created."  Today, these two groups have the strongest of proofs, the most concrete of all evidence: Auschwitz, Majdanek, Treblinka.  Most convincing evidence.


The Heavenly Court will no doubt be persuaded.


Two groups of angels say, "Let him not be created!" And the Heavenly Court is about to rule, "He shall not be created!"


The two groups of angels representing kindness and righteousness lack such convincing evidence.  The verdict is about to be passed, but then Moshe Rabbeinu intervenes: "Lord, Lord, God Who is merciful and compassionate, long-suffering and full of kindness and truth…"


"It may be that their verdict is true," Moshe admits.  "But You are long-suffering and full of kindness and truth – so allow Your people, Israel, to state their case."


The Master of the Universe replies: "I have heard enough argument.  The stage of arguments is over.  But I am prepared to accept a proof, a convincing proof."


Moshe asks, "Give us time; give us a test."


Two years after the Heavenly Court almost ruled, "He shall not be created," the Holy One, blessed be He, gives humanity a test.  And we – the nation of Israel – are the test.  We must bring proof.


The court is tense; the eyes of all of the world are resting on us here: Is this world, is humanity, worthy of existence? Will the counter-proof, the opposite evidence, be presented? Can we build a world of righteousness and kindness to combat the world of war and of deceit?


And if – and if, Master of the Universe – the date for the ruling on the appeal is the 5th of Iyar, 5767, do we have convincing evidence to bring before the Heavenly Court? Would the verdict now be, "Let him be created?"


C.        The Significance of the Conflict between Nazism and Am Yisrael


Am Yisrael brought the world a lesson that became the foundation of the morality of western culture.  No longer would beauty, strength, ability, or desire perch at the top of the hierarchy of values, as in the Greek and classical western tradition.  Rather, the supreme values would be the righteousness, truth, freedom, mercy, and kindness of the Torah.  The children of Avraham are modest, merciful, and kind (Yevamot 79a).  These signs characterize Jews not only towards themselves, but are also recognized by the nations of the world.  Nechama Leibowitz[2] cites a letter written by a Roman senator describing the Jews he saw during his visit to Eretz Yisrael: "[They are] immersed in reading, teaching, and discussion; a group of cultured people elevated above the people would never be possible."  Their laws are "nonsensical and meaningless – such as this law commanding that they rest on the seventh day, and to free a slave who has served them for six years." He writes further: "You will be astonished to know that there is no land like this one for lack of slaves.  While our last census counted twenty-three slaves for every free person, in Judea the opposite is the case – there is one slave there for every twenty-three citizens."


Ceasing to work on Shabbat, mercy for slaves, the value of freedom – all of these appeared to Roman eyes as a threat to civilized culture.  Over the course of the years, Jewish values seeped into European culture via Christian channels, although at times they were warped along the way.  At a later stage in history, some anti-Semitic intellectuals – such as Walter and Chamberlain – even argued that Jewish culture and morality had come to dominate European culture.  The fiercest and most important exponent of this view was Nietzsche.  He claimed that there is no such thing as absolute morality; rather, there exist two main systems of morality, each representing the interests of a different class. There is the morality of masters, and the morality of slaves.  The morality of masters had developed among the ruling classes; it centers around an appreciation for power, strength, beauty, and success. These are the values of one who lives a life of freedom without disturbance by some master.  Jewish morality, Nietzsche claimed, is the morality of slaves, the "morality of the weak."  In other words, it centers around the obligation of compassion towards the weak, towards those in need of protection.  The nature of Jewish morality is such, he argued, because of its source in a weak and persecuted culture, whose moral teachings express its own need for protection and compassion. 


According to Nietzsche's analysis, the spread of Jewish morality throughout Europe was simply the result of European weakness and lack of confidence in its own classical values.  At the center of his new moral approach, he placed the desire for power – the strongest human existential drive.  Nietzsche called for the realization of this drive; he proposed that all human ability and talent should be directed towards the creation of a type of man who would give expression of his independence and strength.  In his view, the Jewish morality of kindness and compassion represented suppression – based on self-interest - of power and strength, blocking the full realization of human potential.


Nietzsche placed a question mark over both faith and morality.  Jewish monotheism gives absolute validity to morality – the morality of God.  Nietzsche's message was that Jewish morality is not truth, but rather weakness.  A weak nation seeks values that protect the weak.


Hitler was familiar with Nietzsche's teachings and took his ideas to their extreme limits.  The Third Reich was build upon the philosophy of power and strength that justified everything.  Hitler's justice and righteousness flowed from the might of his regime and his army.


Was Nietzsche correct in asserting that a morality of kindness and compassion can exist only amongst a weak society, a weak nation? And beyond Nietzsche, is the nation of Israel righteous, pious, merciful, and kind only because it is weak and lacking in military might?


History presented two diametrically opposed options: the Jewish nation had proven that it was possible to be weak and righteous; the German nation had proven that strength and might – not only as natural qualities, but as values, as national ideals – forge a natural alliance with evil.  History has already proven that it is possible to be weak and righteous or strong and evil.  However, does the historical playing field also allow for the third option – a nation that is strong and righteous? Can there be existence based on might and mercy simultaneously? Can such a nation survive and make a place for itself in history?


D.        Righteousness and Kindness vs. Quarrel and Deceit


The midrash places in confrontation two groups of angels, each representing lofty ideals and speaking in their name.  Two ideals – righteousness and kindness – demand the creation of man; two other ideals – peace and truth – reject it.  The angels of righteousness and kindness manage to look at the world and see mankind engaged in righteousness and kindness, while the angels of peace and truth fail to detect such aspirations among humans; they see only quarrels and deceit.  Is all of mankind indeed engaged in righteousness and kindness? On the other hand, among all the people in the world, are there not some who do pursue peace and seek truth? Why are these two pairs of values in the midrash arranged in this way?


I believe that a look at the midrash through the lens of the Holocaust offers a new dimension of understanding.  The angels of righteousness and kindness are viewing the Jewish nation: "For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they will observe the way of God, performing righteousness and justice" (Bereishit 18:19).  We already know that the descendants of Avraham are able to be discerned by their compassion and their acts of kindness.  Individuals of this sort unquestionably exist everywhere, but the human question, ultimately, concerns an entire society or nation: can there be a social infrastructure of righteousness and kindness? Can there be a society that holds these as its aspirations, that legislates these as its laws, that establishes institutions to perpetuate them? The angels that justify the creation of man are looking at Am Yisrael, and they bring this nation as positive proof.[3]


The angels that vote against the creation of man envision the antithesis of the above scenario.  That is Nazi Germany, sanctifying war as a central expression of might and strength and – along with them – deceit.  In Nazi Germany, deceit and the worship of power forged an alliance to establish a realm of evil.  The principle of might operates in nature, as well, and determines the survival of different forms of life.  However, there the power is not unlimited, and every creator is sustained in accordance with its needs.  Even the strongest of animals is strong only proportionately.  The justification of force as an ideal based on the principle of survival in nature, as Hitler sought to do, is a perversion of the natural principle of might.  That natural principle can be twisted to accommodate fantasies of power, greatness and glory of the individual or of the nation, which have nothing at all to do with the natural need for survival.  The combination of humanity and unlimited power as an ideal goes against nature and against humanity itself.  Therefore, it can only exist on a false basis.  The Nazi ideology of deceit, the perversion of history, the system of propaganda and all that went along with it – all of these forged an alliance with the kingship of might, whose sole justification is that very might itself. 


Human culture unquestionably includes additional alternatives, to be found at every point on the continuum that stretches between the kingdom of righteousness and kindness, that of the descendants of Avraham, and the kingdom of war and deceit of Nazi Germany.  However, the real conflict is – as always – between the two most diametrically opposed possibilities.


It is also clear why Nazi Germany viewed the Jewish nation as an absolute threat to its sovereignty.  Nazi Germany had no fear – on either the ideological or the practical level – of strong nations, since it was certain of its ability to prove even stronger.  The true threat that it faced was embodied instead by the weakest of the nations – weak because it could not even theoretically present any sort of opposition, and because for that nation, power was not any sort of ideal or desirable aspiration.  The Jewish nation did not confront the might of the German offensive with any sort of counter-force; rather, it confronted it with the opposite ideal, the ideal opposing aggression, the ideal of righteousness and kindness and the claim that force is not an ideal at all, and therefore can never provide justification.


E. The World to Come


Shmuel said: There is no difference between this world and the Days of the Messiah[4] except for subjugation to the nations. (Berakhot 34b)


What Shmuel means here is not simply that the decree of Jewish subjugation to the other nations will be nullified at the time of the Messiah, but, more broadly, that the principle of force will cease to operate in history.  When will the "world to come" arrive? Apparently when the experiment of this world ends.  This world is a corridor because it is not the true world, the one that is truly desired; rather, it is a laboratory in which to investigate the question of whether it is worth creating a world that is run by humans.  The question of whether the world is worthy of being created – the same question that was debated among the angels – has not yet been decided.  The Holy One, blessed be He, is patient and long-suffering, and the Heavenly Court is still waiting for the counter-evidence, evidence that there can be a society whose founding and guiding principles are righteousness and kindness. 


The test will be complete when Am Yisrael also possesses the ability to wage war, when the nation is strong and powerful.  Will this nation, then, also become quarrelsome? Will its might cause it to neglect its values? Or, perhaps, will it decide – heaven forefend – that it must return to its former state of weakness in order to be the most righteous of nations?


The State of Israel arose after the fall of the Third Reich because it must provide moral justification for the existence of the world and for the existence of humanity in view of the ultimate negation.  The world knows this – even if the idea is not expressed in the same language – and therefore it is obsessively interested in the sins of the State of Israel.


There is much room for forgiveness for the failure of the State of Israel – and, sometimes, Israeli society – to establish an ideal kingdom in which power, righteousness, and kindness operate seamlessly together.  Our persecuted nation is motivated by great fear, much doubt, and a lack of self-confidence rooted in thousands of years of political non-existence, exile, and humiliation.  Nevertheless, we must be worthy of this test, the great test of reviving the kingdom of Israel in anticipation of the World to Come.  It is not by chance that we were chosen by the kingdom of evil for annihilation and destruction; rather, it is because we negated its fundamental claim.  Now, left with those whom God spared, we must pray that He grant us a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and valor, and spirit of knowledge and the fear of God, so that we may be worthy of our great test - worthy of the title, "A great nation, with righteous statutes and judgments" (Devarim 4:8), and worthy of blessing and praise: "For who is the great nation that has God close to them, like the Lord our God whenever we call to Him" (ibid., 7).


Translated by Kaeren Fish


* This lecture was written on the eve of Yom Ha-Atzma'ut, 5767, based on an article that I wrote on Rosh Chodesh Nissan of that year during a visit to Majdanek.

[1]E. Fackenheim, The Jewish Return into History: Reflections in the Age of Auschwitz and a New Jerusalem, New York 1978.

[2] Iyyunim le-Sefer Shemot, pp. 13-14, quoting Howard Fast, My Glorious Brothers (NY, 1948).

[3] Indeed, Reish Lakish teaches: "What is the meaning of the words, 'And it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day' (Bereishit 1:31)? It teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, made the creation of the world conditional, and said: 'If Bnei Yisrael will accept the Torah – it is well; if not – I shall return you to primordial chaos'" (Avoda Zara 3a).

[4] In the language of Chazal, "the World to Come" and the "Days of the Messiah" are concepts that are closely related, meaning the time of the redemption of Am Yisrael and the entire world from its present history.