The Holocaust Didn’t Just Kill Jews

One of the less known Torah giants of our generation must be Rabbi Yom Tov Schwarz. He is a Holocaust survivor, who seems to have made it his mission to point out how the Torah world we know today, has dramatically changed in comparison to the pre-war Judaism he remembers. He studied at Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin, and at the age of 16 was asked to check his Rosh Yeshiva’s [1] halachik responsa prior to publication.

After his inhuman suffering in the concentration camps, he became an expert at the then very important question of aggunos [2], for whom special courts were created. He later settled in America but shied away from public office and religious/political affiliation, a trend which had become popular in the rabbinical world at that time.

Although he kept to himself, in 1958, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky referred to him as one of the ‘gedolei doreinu’ or greats of this generation.

In 1974, when he published his Ma’aneh LeIgrot, which fearlessly criticised many of Reb Moshe Feinstein’s halachik rulings, people began to take notice of him. Since then he has been consulted by many leading rabbis on important issues of halacha that many other authorities were reluctant to get involved with [3].

In his book, Enayim Lirot [4], he recalls how before the war, a European city may have had different religious communities each with different synagogues and customs. But a single rabbi acted as the Rav of the community which was essentially united in its diversity. Also, and perhaps more importantly, there was non-sectarian Torah education for all the children. Students from all ‘denominations’ generally went to the same school. The fact is that throughout most of our history, Jewish communities never even had elementary schools. Typically, a melamed or tutor was hired privately to teach small groups of younger children.

“After the Shoah, however, a new social order — unlike any other in our nation’s history — began to evolve as our nation became splintered into different factions, each of which functions almost like a separate nation…”

Now, for the first time in Jewish history we have a separate school for each religious sect. This sows seeds of division which is subliminally inculcated into our young children from the moment they are able to learn. I go to this school but you go to that school. One of us must be better than the other. This creates an illusion of elitism in Torah education, something which never existed before.

“And when these children grow up and become eligible for marriage, they will hardly ever marry someone from another group. In the Holy Land, each sect even has its own neighbourhood, led by a rabbi whose entire upbringing and education took place within the confines of that sect’s yeshiva system.”

Now the factionalism is perpetuated into the next generation, consolidating the misleading impression that this is how Jewish communities were always structured.

In times gone by, if a person wanted to become an expert scholar, he would never just study under one rabbi. Instead he would travel to a variety of teachers to be exposed to a variety of views [5]. This ‘cross pollination’ is severely discouraged in modern Torah society. But Rabbi Schwarz believes this ‘new practice’ which encourages students to only study at one ideological institution, has a detrimental effect on scholarship in general, because a gifted student is led to believe that all meaningful learning can only take place within his present environment. The student thus insulates himself from further potential spiritual and intellectual growth.

“It has also become customary for all members of a particular group to follow a unique dress code — marked by subtle distinctions in various articles of clothing such as a hat or overcoat — which identifies them as being members of that group and no other.”

Rabbi Schwarz then goes on to explain that while it is true that in Egypt, the Jews dressed differently from their Egyptian counterparts — that was in order to differentiate them from the Egyptians. We are now differentiating ourselves from our fellow Jews!

Although dress codes obviously pre-dated the Holocaust, by analysing photographs of those older communities, it was clearly nowhere near the extent that it is today.

“Thus, in the ultimate of ironies, the very means used by our forefathers in Egypt to keep the Jews united…is now being used by these groups to separate themselves from all other Jews… We should not be inventing new practices that perpetuate division…”

He traces this new thirst for factionalism directly to the generation surviving the holocaust which was young, orphaned and had no fixed tradition or long lines of links with the past. Whatever they had absorbed before the war was quickly forgotten, and only the major milestone observances were remembered without the subtle nuances of meaning and ethics that were once so tangible. When they transmitted these external demonstrations of faith to their children, it was much like a body without a soul. In a sense this was an unprecedented break in the mesora of Torah transmission, in that unlike earlier times where “a segment of the population in each new generation will have lived half their lives in the outgoing generation”, this did not happen after the war.

Although we have suffered many horrific calamities in our history, we were always defiantly quick to recover, and often experienced periods of great growth afterwards.  After the terrible persecutions of 1648, for example, the great commentators to the Shulchan Aruch [6] wrote their monumental works. Amazingly these works abound not just with legalities, but with amazing ethical insight and with respect for interpersonal relationships.

The difference was that in the past there were always surviving elders who had grown up in the spirit not just the letter of the Torah, and they were able to transmit that spirit to the next generation. Not so with the generation surviving the holocaust, where even those who did survive were “old, shattered and broken.”

It is no wonder then, that “hardly a week goes by without some story appearing in the non-Jewish media about yet another case of corruption, or some other shameful act committed by an observant Jew, causing a tremendous chillul Hashem…as the Talmud declares…the non-Jews will then say ‘This person has learned the Torah and its commandments, yet his conduct is more corrupt and shameful than that of a descent gentile.’”[7]

Like a modern day Kotzker, Rabbi Schwarz daringly argues for the religious world to re-evaluate their insular view of non-religious Jews, as well as of non-Jews. He pleads with religious Jews to become kinder, more compassionate, and conscious of creating a kiddush Hashem by their unconscious public behaviour. And he strongly advocates for a re-appraisal of fundamentalism and factionalism which he says has become a hallmark, plaguing the modern religious world. This never existed in pre-war Judaism, on the scale that it does now. As a result, the common cultural religious Judaism practised today, is in his view, skewed – notwithstanding the unprecedented growth of yeshivas and other learning institutions that abound.

Maintaining and growing the status quo, will not course correct us back to how we used to be. That can only be achieved through a powerful re-injection of the value of ethics back into the scholarly curriculum. For that we need massive buy-in from all our leaders, who would first have to become aware of the problem…

In short, he believes the Holocaust killed not just Jews, but sadly some of the most important aspects of Judaism as well.

[1] Rabbi Frommer, known as the Kozhiglever Rav.

[2] The sad predicament of many women whose husbands were ‘missing’ during the holocaust, and were still considered to be legally married, and therefore unable to remarry as they did not have a divorce.

[3] A case in point is kidushei ketana, where an unpleasant divorce led a man to ‘betroth’ his eleven year old daughter to an undisclosed man. Rabbi Schwarz was able to invalidate the ‘marriage’ and remove this cruel manipulation of law from becoming a precedent.

[4] EYES TO SEE, published by URIM in 2004, p36 – 54.

[5] The original ‘chareidim’ who would ‘tremble’ in order not to make a mistake in halachik rulings, would travel from sage to sage until they were satisfied they had explored every conceivable angle of a concept in question. See Bava Metzia 33b and the relating Rashi who says they ‘studied under many chachamim…since they were not all expert in all subjects.’

[6] These included the Shach, Taz, Be’er HaGolah and Magen Avraham.

[7] Yoma 86a.

About the Author
Rabbi Gavin Michal is fascinated by the psychology of belief, the difference between belief and superstition, and by whether religion makes people better or worse. Besides being a community rabbi, he is also a helicopter pilot, builds drones for anti-poaching, and restores vintage aircraft to flying condition.
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