David Walk
David Walk

How the Holocaust Changed American Jewry, Part 2 

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As we’ve seen in my last two posts, sometime in the mid-60’s Holocaust awareness becomes widespread in America. How does this reality impact the resurgence of spirituality and religious observance?

Well, of course, it depended on the community. Like so many of the issues I’ve been discussing, there are basically two major modes of response. First, there is the reaction of those Jews who identified with America and its value system. We have the Conservative Movement and Modern Orthodoxy. These groups were outraged by the inhumanity of Nazism, and sensitive to the survivors. 

One of the outstanding spokesmen for this point of view was Prof. Abraham Joshua Heschel. Dr. Heschel made no attempt to rationalize the Holocaust theologically, but instead saw the recovery of Jewish spiritual vitality as the only enduring response, warning: 

We are either the last Jews or those who will hand over the entire past to generations to come…I am a brand plucked from the fire in which my people was burned to death. I am a brand plucked from the fire of an altar to Satan on which millions of human lives were exterminated to evil’s greater glory, and on which so much else was consumed: the divine image of so many human beings, many people’s faith in the God of justice and compassion, and much of the secret and power of attachment to the Bible bred and cherished in the hearts of man for nearly two thousand years.  

Rav Heschel emphasized that the question of the Holocaust wasn’t: Where was God? Instead, we must ask: Where was man? Therefore, we must respond by being better human beings. 

My youth group, NCSY, and the Conservative, USY, also followed the ideas promulgated by Dr. Emil Fackenheim (1916-2003), a Reform rabbi. He claimed that we must not give the Nazis a ‘posthumous victory’ by abandoning our religion. He famously declared that there is a ‘614th Mitzvah’ to assure the continued survival of the Jewish people and faith.  

I clearly remember being told by numerous rabbis and advisors in NCSY that every mitzva you perform proclaims to the world that we have won, and Hitler has lost. It was powerful and it worked. 

This activist approach within American society took another direction in 1968 with the advent of the Jewish Defense League. Their slogan: Never Again (taken from the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto), was aimed at all Anti-Semitism as a continuation of Nazism. The phrase came to mean that Jews should never be taken by surprise with Anti-Semitic attacks. 

I don’t want to detail the extremist activities of the group. I got to meet, and even spend Shabbat with their founder Rabbi Meir Kahane. He was very pleasant and spiritual. He clearly expressed through divrei Torah, that the Holocaust and events in the Soviet Union and the Middle East should warn us to be ever vigilant both physically and spiritually. I’ve met a number of ba’alei teshuva through the JDL. 

Then there’s the other team. This group is led by those who immigrated to America after the war, and the Orthodox among them was less interested in integrating into American society. Within this segment of the Jewish community there are two major approaches to the Holocaust. The first is very inspiring. There were some very impressive individuals who survived the camps, came to America and thrived anew.  

These men and women remarried and raised families, and testified publicly about the horrors and the bravery. The most famous examples were the Hasidic Rebbes who came to America re-founded and revitalized their Hasidic dynasties. We’ve spoken about a number of them in my post The Yiddish are Coming, Part 2. 

However, there’s another segment of this society, which had a profound effect, that I, personally, have trouble dealing with.  

The leader of this point of view was Rav Yoel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe. Unlike most of the reactions I’ve discussed, he didn’t wait until the mid-60’s to declare his position. In his V’yoel Moshe (1958), the Rebbe states clearly: 

the Holocaust was a divine punishment for the secular Zionist efforts to create a modern Jewish state in the land of Israel before the Messianic age. 

Among other Ultra-Orthodox, there were less extreme, but, again, difficult positions. Perhaps, the most fascinating and creative variation on this theme was presented by Rav Yitzchak Hutner (the Pachad Yitzchak, head of Chaim Berlin Yeshiva), in a speech which appears in the Jewish Observer, magazine of Agudath Yisrael, October, 1977. 

Rav Hutner tells a story about encountering a group of older members of the Labor Party on the Yahrzeit of David Ben Gurion, in 1974. They were all from Europe, and he asked them if they remembered any children of Sabbath transgressors who become Shabbat observers. They all claimed to have never encountered that phenomenon. Rav Hutner then informed them that he knew thousands of such young people.  

He then said: 

Our new understanding of the essence of our era allows us some comprehension of the phenomenon of our ‘age of Baalei Teshuvah.’ It has oft been noted that Teshuvah seems to ‘be in the air,’ and indeed the many movements currently succeeding to an unprecedented degree in bringing Jews closer to Judaism are but a reflection of the fact that the post-Holocaust climate is permeated with a kind of Teshuvah-readiness. This is the result of the disappointment in gentiles, which demolished the first stumbling-block to Teshuvah, and forced the recognition that ‘it is because my God has not been in my midst’ that the awesome events of recent times have occurred. 

Rav Hutner was careful to point out that he disapproved of the terms Shoah or Holocaust. He claimed that it was a Churban (destruction) like had happened many times in Jewish history. It was part of a cycle of sin, destruction and return which had happened many times in Jewish history. Well, that pattern did exist in the Biblical book of Judges.  

I find this whole effort offensive. Among the Ultra-orthodox there is a tendency to blame the victims, and view the suffering as Divine retribution. I can’t stand that. Rav Soloveitchik rejected all attempts to ‘explain’ the Holocaust. I’m just the reporter. 

But the reality is clear: Reaction to the Holocaust had a powerful effect on the resurgence of observance in the 60’s and 70’s. 

Next: Learning ‘IT’ 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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