By Gidi Grinstein and Ari Afilalo
Yom HaShoah, to be marked on Thursday of this week, commemorates the destruction of European Jewry by Nazi Germany and celebrates the legacy of tremendous bravery demonstrated by Ghetto fighters and Jewish Partisans and resistance fighters across Europe. These are certainly two crucially important narratives in the legacy and for the future of the Jewish People. But there is a third narrative as well, which is equally significant: it celebrates the day-to-day spiritual courage and communal resilience during the Shoah.
The story of Janusz Korczak – the world-renowned Polish-Jewish educator and author, who declined to save his own life and stayed with his orphans in the Warsaw Ghetto and to their death in Treblinka – has inspired millions. But there were hundreds and thousands of Korczaks in every ghetto and every concentration camp. They were teachers, social workers, doctors, community professionals and lay leaders who continued to serve their fellow Jews. They educated children, served the elderly, the sick and those in need, studied and taught Torah and performed weddings and Brises even in the harshest conditions of unbearable hunger, inhumane sanitation and a permanent threat and reality of terrorism.
Rabbis played a crucial role in nurturing this spiritual resilience. They addressed gut-wrenching practical and ethical dilemmas concerning not only religious observance of mitzvot, but also regarding ethics and morality. Some of these questions and answers are documented in Responsa from the Holocaust, which were written, collated and published by Rabbi Ephraim Oshry zt’l after the war. It addresses such questions as eating of Chametz during Pesach in order to survive; usage of clothing of the dead to fend the cold; recital of the blessing for not being a slave while being a slave laborer; selective distribution of ‘white cards’ that would save people from deportation to the death camps and whether it is permissible to snatch such card in order to save one’s life at the expense of another.
In his article, Rabbinical Leadership in the Ghettos (Hebrew, 2004), Dan Cristal analyzes the fundamental dilemma rabbis like Rabbi Oshry faced. They needed to establish whether the Shoah was a time of martyrdom (She’at Shmad) or a time of ‘saving a life’ (Pikuach Nefesh). The former mandates refusing any transgression (isur) to the point of risking one’s life (yehareg u’bal ya’avor). The latter requires saving one’s soul by putting in abeyance all commandments except idolatry (Avodah Zara), immoral relations (Giluy Arayot) and shedding blood (Shfichut Damim).
The capacity of rabbis to answer these hitherto unprecedented questions relied on the ability of the Torah, with its elaborate mechanisms of interpretation, to provide an answer to every human condition. This system allows for the evolution of Jewish society and through any technological, political, social or economic change and for transcending any condition including the deepest depths such as during the Shoah while maintaining the integrity of Halakha. As is famously said in Mishna Avot, 5,22: “Search in it and search in it, since everything is in it” (Hafoch bah ve’hafoch bah, de’kulah bah).
The 20th century challenged the Jewish People to transcend extreme conditions of powerlessness and then elevated us to having a nation-state that is a regional and perhaps global power. This cyclical nature of Jewish history of rise and decline is everlasting. It mandates us to fully appreciate what was required for our people to rise from the ashes of the lowest depths even when we are at the highest summits.
Gidi Grinstein is the Founder of the Reut Group and Author of Flexigidity: The Secret of Jewish Adaptability. Ari Afilalo is a professor of Law at Rutgers University and President of the West Side Sephardic Synagogue in Manhattan. Gidi and Ari are the Co-Founders of Depths to Summits, a project that uses the Responsa from the Holocaust of Rabbi Oshry z”l to educate about the Shoah