The letter which appears below describes how many of our people in the Land of Zion are discovering a more spiritual and unifying way to remember those who perished in the Holocaust. There are no gory descriptions in this letter. In the spirit of the approaching Shabbos, the focus of this letter is not on suffering and despair, but on healing and hope. The letter begins with a description of a conflict which has divided our people – a conflict over the way to remember those who perished in the Holocaust. It then discusses some signs of reconciliation.
This letter contains references to the Chareidi communities. (An alternative English spelling is “Haredi.”) To enhance the understanding of this letter for those who are unfamiliar with the Hebrew term Chareidi, I will explain in this introduction the meaning of this term; moreover, I will also explain why this term is used for these particular communities.The Hebrew word chareid can connote fervent concern or zeal, and it can also refer to the “trembling” that may result from intense loving concern or awe. The Prophet Isaiah uses the related term Chareidim to describe those who are fervently loyal to the Torah when many of our people are ignoring the Divine Teaching; thus, the Prophet refers to these loyal souls as those who are “Chareidim regarding His word” (Isaiah 66:5). During the early 20th century, the term Chareidim was often used to describe those Torah-committed Jews living in the Land of Zion or in the Diaspora who strongly opposed the efforts of the World Zionist Organization to have nationalism replace the Torah as the raison d’etre of our people. Many of them therefore formed their own organization, Agudath Israel, which was under the guidance of the Chofetz Chaim and other leading sages, including great Chassidic Rebbes. Some of the disciples of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (who passed away in 1888) had a major role in organizing Agudath Israel. For example, Moreinu Yaakov Rosenheim, a follower of Rabbi Hirsch, became the first president of Agudath Israel. When he spoke at the founding conference in 1912, he said:
“The aim of Agudath Israel is to revive an ancient Jewish possession: the traditional concept of Klal Yisrael – Israel’s collective body, animated and sustained by its Torah as the organizing soul.” (The Struggle and the Splendor)
The Holocaust Remembrance Day which was established by the State of Israel also commemorates the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943. The official name for this day of commemoration is: Yom HaShoah V’HaGevurah – the Day of the Holocaust and Heroism. The main focus of those who established this day was to honor Jews who physically resisted the Germans.
The Chareidi communities pointed out that secular Israeli society was ignoring the spiritual resistance which took place during the Holocaust. They wondered why the government-sponsored programs were ignoring those Jews in the ghettos and camps who tried to keep the mitzvos of the Torah as best as they could, even though this observance was outlawed by the Germans.
Before I came home to the Land of Zion, I served as the director of the Martin Steinberg Center of the American Jewish Congress – a center for Jewish artists in the performing, visual, and literary arts. The Center attracted unaffiliated Jews, as well as Jews from diverse Jewish communities. Many of the Center’s participants were especially interested in stories about spiritual and cultural resistance during the Holocaust.
One of the most popular books on the Holocaust in that period was “Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust” by Professor Yaffa Eliach. This book had stories about spiritual resistance during the Holocaust, and it was read by people of diverse beliefs and backgrounds; in fact, the late Cardinal O'Connor, the Archbishop of New York, often cited stories from this book.
In recent years, a growing number of Jews in Israel have begun to develop a more respectful attitude to those who spiritually resisted our oppressors. An article about this positive development titled, “Yad Vashem Broadens Holocaust Story by Reaching Out to Haredim,” appeared in the Forward on Nov 26, 2008, and the article opened with the following statement:
“The Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem was designed as a place for Jews to come together and though it has been the one definite stop for every foreign head of state, until very recently, it has been a recurring source of divisions within the Jewish world.”
The article discusses some steps towards reconciliation between “Haredi Jews” and Yad Vashem, and the following are excerpts from this article:
In late October, the leadership of the Haredi community once again descended on Yad Vashem. But this time, the community recognized how much things have changed. The occasion was the launch of a four-book series released by Yad Vashem that documents the Holocaust from a Haredi perspective. In the series, “Years Wherein We Have Seen Evil,” religious victims are presented as heroes for holding on to their faith, or embodying what is termed “spiritual resistance.”
…On November 9, in another move that is likely to improve relations between Yad Vashem and the Haredim, the government appointed former Ashkenazic chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, a Holocaust survivor, as chairman of Yad Vashem. Lau, who is viewed as straddling the Haredi and national religious camps, replaces arch secularist politician Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, who died last June.
David Skulsky, director of Ginzach Kidush Hashem, which is one of Israel’s largest Haredi Holocaust commemoration organizations, said that the change within Yad Vashem has been significant: “There is more openness to the Haredi perspective, and a preparedness to listen to our viewpoint.”
“Yad Vashem’s emphasis on heroism in the past excluded Haredi victims,” said Dudi Zilbershlag, who in 2003 became the first Haredi member of Yad Vashem’s board. “But the Haredi perspective is that people who died in the name of God, keeping Torah and mitzvoth, should also be considered part of the heroism in Yad Vashem, and today we are moving toward a situation where that is the case.”
…The rapprochement between the two sides has been a slow development that, according to many, began when Avner Shalev became chairman of Yad Vashem 15 years ago. Shalev, former director general of the government’s culture authority, is widely credited with having ushered in a new approach to commemoration where less of a traditional Zionist interpretation is imposed on events.Almost as soon as he came into office, there was a development: Yad Vashem’s educators began to move away from the old ideological message and toward teaching the Holocaust with reference to the experiences of individual victims and survivors from diverse backgrounds.
According to Edrei, secular Israelis, encouraged by such people as Shalev, are becoming increasingly interested in learning about what life and religious identity were like before the Holocaust.
…One of the biggest steps in the developing relationship was the opening of a new museum at Yad Vashem in 2005. The old museum focused on the scale of the Holocaust but did not include a single personal testimony. In the new museum, there are 90 personal stories. They focus on the experiences of a diverse group of people, some of whom are religious survivors who talk about such issues as the challenge of religious observance during the Holocaust.
“The collectiveness and concentration on symbols in the old exhibition has been exchanged for more individual and personal narratives,” Brog said.
…Talks are under way between Yad Vashem curators and Haredi leaders about the possibility of changing displays on the Warsaw Ghetto uprising — viewed in Zionist ideology as the pinnacle of resistance. The Haredim have suggested including such people as the Piaseczno rebbe, Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, who ran a secret synagogue, solemnized marriages and gave inspirational speeches until 1943 when he was deported to and killed in the Trawniki work camp.
According to Hebrew University sociologist Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, an expert on collective memory in Israel, the changes going on at Yad Vashem are an echo of changes going on in Israeli society at large.
“There is a process of changing collective memory where the narrative people carry of the Holocaust is today much wider than it was,” Vinitzky-Seroussi said. “It’s no longer about having one narrative, the narrative of the Warsaw Ghetto heroism, but about something much deeper where there’s a place for heroism — now different kinds of heroism — and victimhood. In many ways, Yad Vashem is not leading that shift, but following.”
I will conclude this letter with an excerpt from a traditional prayer for the souls of the departed, including martyrs:
“May their souls be bound in the Bond of Life, together with the souls of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah; and together with the other righteous men and women in the Garden of Eden.”
Have a Good and Uplifting Shabbos!
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
Related Teachings and Comments:
1. During the Holocaust, millions of Jewish men, women, and children were murdered “because” they were Jews. My Torah teachers from Chareidi communities taught me that these Jews, regardless of their level of belief and observance, were holy martyrs who sanctified the Divine Name. This is because the very existence of our people is to represent the Divine Name; thus, Moshe, our teacher, told our people: “The Name of Hashem is proclaimed over you” (Deuteronomy 28:10). The German oppressors understood that we represent the Divine ideals which they hated. As a result of this hatred, they burned synagogues, Torahs, and all Jewish books. They wanted to destroy the entire Jewish people and all traces of the ideals that Jews brought into the world. In their view, each Jew was a living representative of the “dangerous” ideals which needed to be eliminated from the new Aryan society. My teachers therefore emphasized that the Jews who perished in the Holocaust were holy martyrs.
2. Rabbanis Esther Farbstein, a noted Chareidi teacher in Jerusalem, has written the following well-researched book which has gotten much public attention: Hidden in Thunder: Perspectives on Faith, Halacha and Leadership during the Holocaust. Originally published in Hebrew as Beseiser Ra’am, it was translated into English by Devorah Stern (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, Feldheim)
3. For further information on the Chareidi communities, you can review the letter – “A Chareidi Critique of Secular Zionism” – at the following link, or you can request from me an e-mail copy: