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SIDIC Periodical VII - 1974/3
Holy Year and Biblical Jubilee (Pages 24 - 30)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Religious Faith after Auschwitz
Pesach Schindler


SIDIC Volume VII Number 2 dealt with the Holocaust of European Jewry. As a further contribution to the themes explored in that issue, the editors are happy to reproduce here the text of a lecture given at a meeting of the Ecumenical Theological Research Fraternity in Israel on April 23, 1974. Dr. Schindler used as his starting point an introductory paper presented by Professor Laurenz Volken.

You posed some very difficult questions and forced me to do further research within an area complex by its very nature. My original work was limited to a particular area of the Holocaust: namely, the response of Hasidism during the Holocaust and the relationship of that response with select aspects of hasidic thought. I was therefore compelled to broaden the area of research. For this I am grateful to you.

The first question which puzzled me was one which you presented as 'informational': namely, What is the meaning of humility as a result of the Holocaust experience? This question seemed to persist more than others. Reference is made to a key passage in Elie Wiesel: After Auschwitz we have to be more humble. I did not really understand your question until a few days ago. As I was examining notes for this lecture, devoted, in the main, to Jewish theological positions on Auschwitz, a woman came into my office who happened to be a new immigrant from Russia. In the course of the conversation it emerged that she was a survivor of Babi Yar, that infamous and holy place where 200,000 Jews were massacred by the Nazis within a two-year period. She was then a girl of sixteen and survived miraculously by having been positioned at the extreme end of that huge pit. She attempted, haltingly, to retell the story of those days at Babi Yar where humanity was buried. When she finished her tale I emerged with a sense of humility. I did not grasp why I felt this way. I could no longer return to an analysis of those sources which represented post-experience speculation. Perhaps because I was at Babi Yar for a few moments, I was now unable to speculate with Rubenstein and the others. I began better to comprehend the meaning of Leviticus 10: 3, which was reviewed in our synagogues this past week. We read of the tragedy of Aaron, and of his two sons who died in the service of God. What was Aaron's response? Va-yidom Aharon (And Aaron held his peace). This silence was not necessarily an expression of grief and shock: it was, I submit, one of humility. Possibly this accounts for the paucity of post-Auschwitz Jewish responses in the literature especially among Orthodox Jews. We have now the volume by Prof. Eliezer Berkowitz, Faith after Auschwitz, which presents Orthodox Jewish points of view. I have the impression from your preliminary paper that you were not completely at ease with these responses. Is it perhaps that the Jewish response is one of va-yidom Aharon?

There is another meaning of humility, and that is to recognize our own limitations. This is what Elie Wiesel may have had in mind. We will not arrive at all the answers to the questions which are posed. We should certainly avoid absolutes. More important than the groping for answers is the imperative to know how to articulate a question. This is perhaps the uniqueness of the Wiesel documents. We have here a certainty of religious doubt, a harsh dialogue, a genuine encounter between man and God. Wiesel's passages recreate Jacob's struggle in the night. With whom was this struggle? Was it with a representative of God? Was it, as some sources claim, a representative of the powers of Esau; perhaps a struggle with himself? This is humility the acknowledgement of a struggle, a precondition of doubt, which then in turn emerges as the prelude for genuine faith. But what of Moses's complex response in Leviticus 10? He attempts to console his brother: Through those near me I will be sanctified, I will be glorified before all the people. It certainly is not a passive response; it is not silence. In struggling with this dilemma, I found your title given to this lecture most helpful. You do not speak in terms of post-Auschwitz theology but of religious experience. I believe whoever phrased this title instinctively felt that it was the proper thing to do.

I would like to share with you two sources seeking answers to our questions in the midst of distress; not the friends of Job, who respond after the act and are disengaged from that act, but two sources who represent Job himself. These are remarkable documents, forged in the flames of the Shoah, moving to the very heart of Holocaust theology. There is little doubt that for these authors the shaping of these documents was indeed a religious experience, as it is for those of us who study them. I am sorry that neither of these documents has yet been translated from the lashon kodesh, Hebrew.


One source is Esh Kodesh (The Holy Fire, Jerusalem: Va'ad Hasid Piazesne, 1960). It was written in the Warsaw Ghetto during the period September 1939 through the summer of 1942 by one of the great recent hasidic leaders. Rabbi Kalonimos Kalmish Shapiro, the Piazesne Rebbe, draws from Jewish mystical tradition. For thirty-five years this man served as rabbi in Piazesne, a town near Warsaw. His hasidic lineage leads to Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk, a disciple of the disciple of the founder of Hasidism, the Ba'al Shem Toy. His wife's lineage is traced to the famous hasidic school of Karlin. This heritage determines many of his sources. The manuscript was probably composed following the oral dissertations, the Torot, presented on the Sabbath and Festivals. As he attempts to confront the Holocaust swirling about him, he feels compelled also to confront his disciples. Difficult days go by. Personal tragedy strikes him as well, as he sees his community, his world, his life, disappearing about him in flames. He asks questions. Some of these questions you yourselves have posed in the preliminary paper.

Although there is no systematic presentation in the document, there are four general areas of concern: the meaning of suffering and the justification of the ways of God; the meaning and significance of kiddush ha-Shem, i.e. the sanctifying of God's name martyrology; expressions of protest; and themes and variations of encour agement and the raising of the fallen spirits.

The Rebbe's struggle with the meaning of suffering does not elicit the expected quietistic response of if it is the will of God, it should be your will . Paradoxically, suffering is not the will of God but a form of his revelation. It is the hidden good, or hesed nistar. Thus, suffering should be confronted actively. The two seemingly conflicting qualities of God, one of din (justice), sometimes harsh justice, and the of rahamim (compassion), are not two realms at all. In fact, if one recognizes manifestations of suffering as God's revelation (hitgalut), then din ascends to a higher level than that of rahamim. . . . If man in the classic path of the mystics seeks to experience all as if it emanated from the Source and indeed seeks to reunite with it, then, the Rebbe insists: If man indeed reaches that level, then we request reciprocity from you, Almighty. Since man has reached the ultimate in the process of imitatio Dei, then we expect God to respond in kind, in Schechter's terms, via imitatio hominis. Since man reaches out to God, God should now reach out to man. God must reciprocate and thus speed redemption (ge'ulah).

There is another aspect to suffering. Suffering is part of a mysterious though very natural process. This process is noted in talmudic sources and emphasized in Jewish mysticism. In its wake, birth and creation produce elements of nullification (hitbatlut). The flowers and trees which we see were produced by a seed planted in the ground, which itself rots even as it issues forth a new creation. The suffering of the woman in childbirth, and of course its extension into the hevelei mashiah, the suffering and pangs which precede the coming of the Messiah, are explained by this process. There is no reason why such a process must occur merely that suffering is part of such a process.

Esh Kodesh now grapples with implications of kiddush ha-Shem, the readiness to offer one's life in order to sanctify God's name. How is this explained? The Rebbe transfers the Jew of the Holocaust to the beginning of Jewish history. When sacrificing his life as a Jew, he is actually completing the ultimate form of martyrdom which was aborted when Abraham brought his only son Isaac to the altar. In order to gain insight into the martyrology themes and sub-themes of the Akedat Yitzhak (the binding of Isaac), I recommend the study by Shalom Spiegel, The Last Sacrifice (published by Schocken Press). This work should be of special interest to you because of the alleged Christian martyrdom counter-themes and the fact that some Jewish sources had difficulty with Isaac who left the altar unmartyred. Abraham's intention, the ratzon, was in the proper place. He was prepared to do it, but the angel commanded: Al tishlah yadcha el ha-na'ar. So now the Jew, according to the Rebbe, is asked to achieve the task not completed in Abraham's time. Within the darkness of the Holocaust, in the presence of an enemy who wished to complete the task but without the sanctity which marked the will of Abraham, the Jew by his own will and action achieved that which Abraham was not privileged to realize.

A third major area of the document concerns itself with protest. We have here an assumption that there is a dialogue, a peer dialogue, between man and God. Thus the Rebbe forthrightly poses certain questions. He asks: God, are you not supposed, like every Jew, to perform the mitzvot (the commandments), which is incumbent upon every Jew? The principle of imitatio Dei assumes that God will not ask of others that which is not being fulfilled by the Divine himself. Since the Jew is commanded to repent God is expected to repent as well. How can God repent? By removing himself from the terrible scene of the slaughter of his helpless people and by bringing the ge'ulah (redemption) immediately! The Jew has always been asked to dedicate himself to God not only with the spiritual but also with the material. (Is it really significant to worship God with the spiritual?) Worshipping him with the material, sanctifying God through the material this is the test! But how is" this to be achieved when the very raw material is being destroyed? The Rebbe saves his most severe criticism for God's angels, who at times defend mortal man, at times rebuke him while singing the praises of the Almighty. Yet, by what right can these beings comment on the state of man? Do they know what it is to suffer? Have they ever been exposed to the degradation of the Jew in the Holocaust? Have their children ever been removed from them? In another section the Rebbe recalls the Midrash of the ten Jewish martyrs in the period of Rome including Rabbi Akiba. The angels asked: Zo Torah ve-zo zcharah? (This is their Torah, and is this their reward?) the eternal question of theodicy asked throughout the ages. These are the righteous, and is this their end? And a bat kol, a heavenly voice, came forth and declared: If I will hear another sound I will turn the world into water. I will devastate both heaven and earth. The Rebbe daringly accepts the challenge. Indeed, why does not the Creator turn the world into water, since the Holocaust by far exceeds that day of terror when ten tzaddikim were martyred.

Thus, throughout this document there emerge instances of protest. Yet, to whom, one wonders, is the protest directed? Is he protesting to Divinity? Is he protesting to humanity? Is it protest for protest's sake? The uniqueness of this document seems to be characterized by the fact that protest, no matter the direction, does not lead to despair. Page after page one hears the variation of the plea Y ehudim, al titya'ashu (Jews, do not despair). Do not despair. After all, God is with you here in this Holocaust. He suffers with you. This awareness should provide meaning to what is otherwise absurd. Second, remember who you are. You are a ben-melech, a prince. You carry with you a torashah and a morashah, a very special inheritance which you bring with you into this world and with which you exit. This is the tzelem Elohim, the image of God. If you despair, if you cry alone, if you study alone and if you suffer alone, then the agony of loneliness is more intense than the suffering itself. But if you remember that there is Someone who shares all this with you, then perhaps you will find meaning in all this.

What emerges from these four complex themes? Is it possible that there is a basic underlying principle which unites all four? We submit that such a principle appears in the form of tikkun or restoration. You will find this theme in Jewish literature. (I am not sure if you find this theme in Christian literature. I would be very interested in learning.) The religious imperative demands of man not only to return to the Source, but to take in this imperfect universe that which he finds imperfect and begin the process of restoration. This is tikkun. Thus, if there is indeed suffering in this world, and if man perceives in such suffering some degree of the Divine, then paradoxically man is implored to begin to repair the flaws in the universe. The tikkun theme operates in martyrology as well. Kiddush ha-Shem, as the Rebbe demonstrated, is a form of tikkun, a restoration of an incompleted portion of Jewish destiny connecting the covenant of Abraham with the Holocaust of our own day. The theme of protest represents a form of tikkun, as it attempts to restore the process of justice in a world of injustice. And finally, if the Jew resists despair, even in the hell he participates in the process of tikkun, where man proceeds to restore himself, to remember who he is. This is the remarkable world of Esh Kodesh. The Rebbe was eventually taken to a concentration camp near Lublin, where he was killed.


In another portion of Europe, in Budapest in late 1943, sits Rabbi Issachar Teichtal, one of the leading followers of the Munkatscher Rebbe. He witnesses the Holocaust unfolding before him in tragic fashion. Hungarian Jewry was the last Jewish community to feel the brunt of the tragedy. He is struck with the terrible realization that the Jewish people indirectly contributed to the Holocaust. During a critical period in Jewish history, while the secular Zionist movement was emerging in the late 1880's and right up to the war, there emerged a significant element of the Jewish community, including powerful elements in the Orthodox Jewish community, who vehemently opposed the political Zionists and who cautioned fellow Jews not to leave Europe for settlement in Palestine. Jabotinsky was looked down upon with derision when he was touring pre-war Europe pleading for Jews to wake up before it was too late. Instead of participating in binyan Eretz Israel, the building of the Jewish homeland, the Jews were complacently situated among the fleshpots of Europe. Rabbi Teichtal is compelled to repudiate his previous views and those of his rebbe. Within three months he completes the volume. Em haBanim S'mechah. The Mother of Children is Happy , indeed, when the children return to her (Ps. 113:9). Against the background of this massive blunder, according to Rabbi Teichtal, the simplest Jew involved in the rebuilding of Eretz Israel is on a higher plane than the pious scholar with all his prayers. Here, too, there appear four themes: the purpose of suffering; the nature of salvation; the role of Eretz Israel in the relationship between man and God; and the prerequisite of ahavat Israel and andut Israel: namely, the love of a Jew towards his fellow man, and the unity of the Jewish people, as preliminaries for redemption.

The purpose of suffering: suffering is considered the absence prior to the presence . It sounds more powerful in the Hebrew: ha-he' eder lifneh ha-havayah. The greater the absence, the greater the night, the more significant will be the presence which follows. Why must we have absence at all? Suffering, according to Em ha-Banim S'mechah, is the stimulant to make the Jew cognisant of his former glory, to force us to return to our Source. The Source has twin significance not only the source of the Divine, but the material source, the Land of his forefathers. In order to return to the source, shebirah the breaking of what preceded must take place. This is the beginning of restoration. The term tikkun is very prominent here. The Jew is depicted as one who has resold his birthright in the Diaspora for a bowl of linzel soup. The Jew has made his home in the Diaspora; he has forgotten that he is a stranger in hostile lands. He has forgotten what it means to be a Jew. This is the purpose of suffering. Suffering is the beginning of tikkun, the shattering before the restoration and the prelude to redemption.

Rabbi Teichtal now presents two conditions for redemption. First, redemption will not appear by sudden, unnatural means. Here he was certainly taking into account the rabbinic leaders who cautioned the activist Jew: Don't play the role of the Messiah. If God wants to hasten redemption, he will do so in his own fashion. Em ha-Banim counters: Redemption is to evolve by natural means, bit by bit, gradually. This is the first condition. The second condition for redemption requires man to be an active partner with God in that process. He cannot wait for God to begin the process. We do not know his thoughts, nor his modus operandi. During one of the rare moments of comic relief in Holocaust literature, Em ha-Banim demonstrates how man must rely on his own resources in terms of salvation. He relates the story of a hasidic rebbe, the Kamarnor Rebbe, Rabbi Isaac, who had a devoted gabbay (attendant). His name was Peretz Gabbay, a simple man. His fellow Hasidim asked Peretz why he did not marry, since it is commanded that man should have children. He responded, without hesitation, that he need not marry since he would go to his rebbe with a prayer note. His prayers would be answered and he would have children. They told this story to the rebbe, and he laughed and said: Look what happens to a man who relies on his rebbe too much. He relates this hasidic story to demonstrate the blunder of the Jewish people, which led to the complacency prior to the Holocaust. The Jew passively caught in Europe did not seem to understand the process of redemption.

Em ha-Banim reaches its peak in its analysis of the place of Eretz Israel in Jewish destiny. The tragedy of the Holocaust is embodied in the lack of recognition of the Land of Israel as a medium of the partnership between God and his people. Eretz Israel, as per Yehuda Halevi, is the heart and the soul of the People of Israel. The Shekhinah finds its special place in Eretz Israel. In every Jew rests the image of God. Here is the connection. Consequently, how can a Jew remain in the galut? In a prophetic moment Rabbi Teichtal insists that we still have an opportunity to redeem the martyrs. They can yet be reborn if the remnants of the Holocaust and Jews everywhere will return and rebuild Eretz Israel. Should the Holocaust indeed provide the impetus to the rebirth of the Jewish homeland, then these martyrs will in fact have been reborn. They will live through the Jewish State. The Holocaust will then not have been deprived of meaning. It is interesting that though the post-Auschwitz literature displays great hesitancy to link Eretz Israel with the Holocaust, this man did not seem to display the guilt feelings evident in some post-Auschwitz theology. Rabbi Teichtal, however, sets a precondition to an Eretz Israel dream: unity among Jews. The friction, the inner turmoil, the conflicts in the European Jewish community, were a major impediment in the path of tikkun and redemption. If there is inner weakness in the fabric of the Jewish community and there is no unity below, there cannot be unity Above. In numerology (a common device in rabbinic and especially mystical literature) the numerical value of takkanah (restoration) is equivalent to the numerical value of ohev Israel (the mutual solidarity of one Jew with another). In the famous Passover Haggadah statement she-lo ehad bilvad amad aleinu le-chalotenu not only in one generation (namely in Pharaoh's time) did someone rise to destroy the Jewish people he rephrases this as follows: she-lo ehad bilvadamad aleinu le-chalotenu, only because we were not as one (she-lo ehad bilvad) this is the reason why we are vulnerable to destruction.

Rabbi Teichtal never saw his pleadings heeded nor his prophecies fulfilled. He died in Auschwitz.


What may be the underlying principle of the four Em ha-Banim themes? Is it the theme of tikkun? The prior condition to tikkun, to restoration, is the breaking of the old vessels. This is suffering. The Jew must assume the initiative in the process of tikkun. The rebuilding of Eretz Israel can serve as a tikkun for the martyrs of the Holocaust. The barrier to tikkun is internal rift.

Has any of this significance for us today? What is the meaning of the tikkun motif? Does it have something to say for us in the post-Auschwitz world whether in the theological or the humanistic realm?

First, at its most basic level, these two documents (and there were others) were an attempt to come to grips with suffering and evil within a religious frame and experience. By and large, what you have heard in this lecture are traditional responses familiar throughout both the mystic and the classic rational schools of theodicy. There is one exception. Clearly absent, and contra Richard Rubenstein, is the Deuteronomic covenantal equation For we have sinned . This is almost totally non-existent in any religious response during the Holocaust. There was a variant response from the extreme hasidic rebbe, the Satmer Rebbe, who points to the Holocaust as God's punishment for the Jewish people's cooperation with the secular Zionists. This is way-out theology, if one can even call it theology, out of the mainstream of Jewish thinking. We mention it in order to mark the extremities. By and large, there is no expression of guilt feeling here, with the exception of the Em ha-Banim sections dealing with the lack of redemptive initiatives and the resulting consequences. Generally the sources recognize in Auschwitz a massive struggle against the traditional God and his system of ethics. The Jew seems to act as his agent in this struggle. The theme of tikkun was an attempt to protect God within man. It was understood that if God was not merely to transcend history but operate within it, man would have to serve as his active partner. Godless man easily eclipses his Creator in a world of free will. In this context, Rubenstein's writings seem irrelevant. They remove all meaning not only from Auschwitz, but for the post-Auschwitz Jew. In the words of Heschel, If death is devoid of meaning, then life is absurd . Mainstream Judaism acknowledges God's application of his omnipotence in order to limit his omnipotence. Only then could man act ethically in the absolute sense. The imperative of the Auschwitz response of tikkun implied that the Jew could no longer play perhaps never could have played the role of the passive suffering servant of Isaiah 53, but rather the active, struggling son seeking to protect his suffering Father.

The silence of most democratic nations, the silence of the secular liberals, the silence of most of the Church and a good many of our own Jews while Auschwitz was going on, pointed to the fact that it was, and is to be, a very lonely and unique struggle. Further, the enemy was prepared to sacrifice his own interests, namely his preservation, in order to destroy the Jew. He mistreated and destroyed an entire force of free slave labor. He mobilized thousands of potential warriors anddirected them against the defenceless Jew even while his own empire was falling apart. In this sense, because of the loneliness of the Jew and because of that single-minded purpose which conflicted with the physical interests of the enemy, the Holocaust is sui generis.

These documents reflect the Auschwitz themes of struggle and mystery and awe and sanctity present in the writings of Elie Wiesel. They also echo the post-Auschwitz, man-focussed, action-orientated imperatives of Fackenheim and Heschel. The theology of tikkun emanating from the Holocaust brings the Jew to the stark realization that this struggle cannot be fought with the spirit alone, with the voice of Jacob alone, but with the hands which operate in the sphere of the material. Thus, following Auschwitz, Reinhold Niebuhr echoing the Zionist call stated: I do not see how it is possible to develop the prophetic quality of high religion in the Jewish community fully if this nation does not have a greater degree of social and political security. Thus the theme of tikkun not only represented kiddush ha-Shem, the sanctification of the name of God. It not only implied kiddush ha-hayyim, the sanctification of life in the death world of Auschwitz. Tikkun signified kiddush ha-sho'ah, the sanctification of the Holocaust, in order that netzah Yisrael lo yeshaker, so that the Israel/God partnership remains intact and eternal. The implication for the post-Auschwitz Jew is self-evident. Auschwitz demands of its survivors that we sanctify life and time Jewishly, that we infuse our moments with eternity.

Dr. Schindler, who received his Ph.D. from New York University, wrote his dissertation on Responses of Hassidic Leaders and Hassidim During the Holocaust in Europe, 1939-1945, and A Correlation Between Such Responses and Selected Concepts in Hassidic Thought.


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