Ari Afilalo

The Soul of the Question: Responsa from the Depths

Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, of blessed memory, was a young halakhic scholar in Kovno, the second largest city of Lithuania, when the Nazis invaded on June 23, 1941.  The Nazis rounded up and imprisoned the city’s Jews in a squalid Ghetto, pending deportation to the death camps.  Confident of the assured success of their extermination project, they made Rabbi Oshry responsible for a warehouse within the Ghetto where Jewish writings would be kept in anticipation of a future exhibit on “artifacts of the extinct Jewish race.”

Instead, Rabbi Oshry used the centralized repository for spiritual resistance to the Nazis, powered by his rulings on Jewish law that answered a harrowing set of halakhic questions:  Does a father have the right to use a smuggled diamond to bribe a Nazi clerk into removing his son from a convoy to the death camps and replacing him with another Jew?  May a counterfeit certificate professing conversion out of Judaism be used to escape?  Should a Jewish sex slave, reunited with her husband after the war, remove the tatoo forced upon her by the Nazis marking her as “Prostitute for Hitler’s Soldiers?”  Do we really  need a mezuzah in the Ghetto?

Rabbi Oshry, who narrowly escaped death and passed away in New York at age 89, believed that maintaining Jewish life in the face of the Nazi horror, including rituals and routines, was an integral part of Jewish resistance.  “One resists with a gun,” he told the New York Times in 1975, “another with his soul.”  Jews were massacred, but the Jewish soul would live on.  And, for those who sought his guidance in the Ghetto, the Rabbi wrote, “their souls were in the questions” that they brought to him.

Rabbi Oshry wrote his thoroughly researched rulings on these questions using  scraps of paper that, at times, he tore from bags of cement that he carried as a forced laborer.  He buried his legal opinions in tin cans and retrieved them after the Red Army liberated Kovno.  And starting in 1959, Rabbi Oshry published them under the title “Responsa from the Depths.”

Rabbi Oshry’s unshakable belief in spiritual resistance, in Jewish survival as a people tasked with witnessing Divine goodness, and in the inexorable march of a History leading to ultimate Divine justice, pervaded his writings.

I taught this week in a Yom HaShoah event the case of a young married Jewish woman who was forced into sex slavery by the Nazis and reunited with her husband after the war.  However, when her husband saw the tattoo that had been forcingly carved onto her skin, reading “Prostitute for Hitler’s Soldiers,” he doubted whether they could partner again in building a Jewish home.  Are there any halakhic impediments to their living again as a married couple, they asked Rabbi Oshry?  Should she take steps to remove the tattoo?

Rabbi Oshry’s Responsa in this case illustrates his drive to empower Jews to resist spiritually, to retain their humanity, and to keep their eyes on the broader historical picture, no matter how horrendous their plight.  “I do not see any reason why she should be required to erase her tattoo,” he ruled of the sex slave and all similarly situated women.  “On the contrary this forced engraving is a symbol of honor for the women who were enslaved and for our entire people, and a sign that we will yet see the corpses of those criminals who raped them cast off with eternal shame as creatures from whose face any humanity was erased, and who became wild beasts of the forest and predatory wolves.”

“It is not only prohibited to cast any stigma on the women who were forced to become sex slaves,” Rabbi Oshry opined, “but it is a Mitzva [obligation] to proclaim that they will receive a great reward from He who hears from above the cries of the victims, and a promise that He will surely heal their broken hearts, bandage their frayed nerves, and bless them with the blessings granted to heroines like Yael.”  Rabbi Oshry’s choice of Yael was not coincidental; of all the Biblical female figure, she stood tall as a symbol of power and strength, having famously killed with the peg of a tent the warrior Sisera, who was the feared and cruel commander of an army that had oppressed the Israelites for two decades.

Rabbi Oshry also spoke directly and in clear and unequivocal terms to those husbands whom, he knew, were ashamed of their wives and acted out that feeling: “Nothing must be done that could cause these women any humiliation, pain or disempowerment, as happened in cases where husbands cast them away.  Woe unto us that we have to hear such stories in this day and age.”  Not only did those misguided husbands err morally and ethically, he told them, but they missed out on essentials of Jewish history.  Rahab the fearless prostitute who sheltered Israelite spies and thereby enabled the conquest of the fortified city of Jericho, he wrote, wound up marrying Joshua, the successor to Moses as leader of the Israelites, and begot a descendance that included countless prophets.  Your wives certainly did not choose their harrowing fate and should be viewed as returning warriors, he said, and in all events you have no right to conclude that a prostitute can never be destined for greatness.

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt’l wrote that, in the Jewish faith, asking a question is an expression of faith as well as a challenge to God to do justice.  “Judaism is the rarest of phenomena: a faith based on asking questions, sometimes deep and difficult ones that seem to shake the very foundations of faith itself,” he wrote. “Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” asked Abraham. “Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people?” asked Moses. “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?” asked Jeremiah.

In this tradition, Rabbi Oshry expressed his faith in a God of justice and challenged that God to make good on the promise that justice would be exacted for the Nazis and their Jewish victims.  And indeed, the Nazi hunter would in time become the hunted, and the Jewish people would rise from its ashes to establish a sovereign State and revive a vibrant Diaspora.

Within that framework, Rabbi Oshry gently nurtured and preserved the Jewish soul that came within each question, with compassion and empowerment, and with the continuation a familiar ritual of questions and answers that preserved, albeit tenuously, the bond between the traumatized victim and her or his historical anchors.  May his memory be for a blessing and his wisdom guide us.

About the Author
Ari Afilalo ( is a professor of law at Rutgers Law School in New Jersey. He grew up in France, the son of a Jewish Moroccan family, in an ethnically mixed working class neighborhood. He has published extensively in the field of international law. He is the current president of the West Side Sephardic Synagogue in Manhattan.
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