Sunday, 27 April 2014

Responding to Yom Hasho'ah

Originally published 4/17/07, 2:29 PM, Eastern Daylight Time
Rabbi Ben Hecht

Recently Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, made a statement that placed the blame for the Holocaust on the advent of Reform Judaism. Since Reform Judaism emerged in Germany and Nazism emerged in Germany, Rav Eliyahu projected a link between the two that basically presented the Holocaust as a punishment for the Reform attempt to circumvent the obligations of mitzvot. The Jerusalem Post on-line edition ( quoted Rav Shmuel Eliyahu, the Chief Rabbi's son, as stating, in defense of his father: "It is not a coincidence that the Holocaust began in Germany. Whenever Jews try to act like goyim, they are punished. It happened during the Spanish Inquisition, and it happened during the Holocaust."

Of course, ARZA, the Reform Movement's Zionist arm, responded in a most critical manner to Rav Eliyahu's views. Rav Eliyahu is, in fact, not the first to voice this view. Rav Shach also voiced a similar view years ago. The catalyst for Rav Eliyahu's statement would seem to be Yom Hasho'ah and the question of how we should respond to this day of rememberance and, in fact, to the Holocaust itself. Such statements as the one presented by Rav Eliyahu in fact emerge from the directive in such sources as the gemora in T.B. Brachot that when bad things occur to a person, the person should investigate his/her deeds, i.e. initiate the process of teshuva. Is this similar, though, for the nation? And how does one do this?

Indeed the many sources, in such places as the gemora in T.B. Gittin, that tie the destruction of the Temples to the sins of the Jewish People would seem to conclude that that nation as a whole should go through a similar process as the individual. As the Talmud presented causes for the Churban Hamikdash, it is not unreasonable to expect our Rabbinic leaders to also find reasons for the Holocaust in a theological sense that leads us to investigate our behaviour as Jews. Yet, I still find difficulty with Rav Eliyahu's words. It is not the attempt to find the cause within the people that bothers me -- although I also find this quite difficult a process and greatly fear the possibility of blaming the victim -- per se that bothers me. It is the answer -- almost any answer -- that concerns me more.

This process to determine the theological reason for the Holocaust is a most complex one. Almost any answer simplifies it. The call to investigate one's actions when one is confronted by tragedy is a true Talmudic call -- but it is a personal call upon the individual. It is not a call upon another to tell the person, who is suffering the tragedy, what he/she did wrong. It is a call upon me to look at myself. It is for sure not a call upon me to justify myself in the face of another's misfortune. How often I have seen people respond to tragedy, not by looking at themselves and figuring out how they can improve themselves -- although any connection between the new insight and the misfortune must be taken with some hesitation -- but by using this as an opportunity to advance their own cause. If one with whom I agree is suffering, this person is a korban, as sacrifice for the misdeeds of others. And if one with whom I disagree is suffering, the person is, in deed, being punished for his/her misdeeds. Maybe the one you think is the korban, is actually the one with the misdeeds and the one you think in acting inappropriately is the korban? We are called upon to invesigate suffering theologically -- but it cannot just be an opportunity to voice a stand that one already has.

The gemara in Brachot calls upon the individual who is suffering to consider his/her actions. I do not believe that this call is actually intended to have the individual attempt to understand God. God is beyond our understanding -- and this for sure applies to the Holocaust. Any attempt to explain is, in my opinion, an oversimplification -- of the event and of God. (I state this with due respect to Rav Eliyahu). The call to look at oneself still is the call of the gemora, not because one will find the answer but the processes of Torah demand of us to always investigate our behaviour and to recognize that there is theological cause-and-effect in this world even as we don't understand it. Yet it is a call upon us to look at ourselves, to change ourselves. In the end blaming Reform Judaism for the Holocaust, for me, is problematic for two reasons. There is the inherent problem that would accompany any theological explanation for the Holocaust. There is the additional problem that the very purpose of undertaking this impossible task is missed -- what does it say to me? What is my problem that I have to undertake to correct? What does blaming Reform Judaism accomplish? Perhaps Rav Eliyahu felt that this response will bring people back to Torah? Then I still have the general problem I would have with any explanation for the Holocaust. There must be trepidation in the very approach to this issue. But would such an explanation have any effect? The call is for one to learn and see how one can become better -- not to challenge the other.

If Yom Hasho'ah is to have meaning it must remind us never to forget the great evil of the Nazis and to maintain vigilance against rashayim, the evildoers that sadly fill the world. The gemora's call to investigate oneself does not, in any way, lesson our responsibility to attack the perpetrator and respond to evil and the evildoer. But for Yom Hasho'ah to have a fuller meaning, as does Tisha B'Av and the other fast days do, it must call upon us to do teshuva and consider how we may improve ourselves. But it must always be remembered that this process is a most complex one, that whatever we find we cannot look at as God's reason -- and, perhaps most importantly, that the process is intended to teach us how we, each one of us, can improve, not not simply be used to reinforce ourselves and our views.


jlandau said...

Theological considerations aside, the fact that there are Holocaust survivors (or even children of Holocaust survivors) still alive should encourage people to hold their mouths on this issue. The sensitivity toward those who endured the Holocaust should trump any desire for theological pontification -- aside from personal introspection -- on this subject. I believe that all theories about the cause of the destruction of the temple or any other Jewish tragedy took centuries to coalesce and be published.

Nishma said...

I am in full agreement with what you say. We are called upon to undertake a personal introspection -- this is to tell us how to grow. In regard to another who is suffering, we are solely called upon to respond to the need and not contemplate the investigation of why this happened to the other. It also bothers me that when misfortune falls upon someone, people attempt to sidestep the question of why by invoking such concepts as korban or being punished for the sins of another or that Hashem wanted them back. One doesn't know what Hashem wants and Hashem's thoughts. If you can't learn something for your own self-improvement, why go there?

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

If one looks at previous Jewish tragedies that have yielded theological explanations, from the destruction of the Second Temple on down through the centuries, a common theme emerges. The person, or group, doing the explaining inevitably blames itself for the tragedy. We are told that self-hatred and lack of proper respect for God and fellow men amongst the Torah-observant Jews of the day were responsible for the destruction of the Temple. Who forumulated that? The Rabbonim themselves. The victims of the Crusades, the Inquisition, the various pogroms, introspected to find reasons why they might have suffered. Rav Eliyahu's comments differ in this regard. He is taking a group he does not identify with and blaming them for the tragedy of the Holocaust. A more concordant statement might have been to blame the Holocaust on Torah-observant Jews who were sinning, morally deficient or hypocritical in some way in Europe in the decades before the Holocaust. Indeed, the "Eim Habanim Semeichah" by R' Yissochar Teichtal places the blame for the Holocaust (he died in 1943 at the hands of the Nazis, y"sh) on the religious Jewish community's refusal to acknowledge that the time had come to return to Zion. His thesis was that God wanted us out of Europe and back in Israel and, having ignored his warnings and villified those non-religious Jews who did make aliyah, our fathers and mothers suffered through the subsequent inferno. Is he right? Not being God (I'm only a junior employee with faint hopes of promotion) I don't know but at least his thesis is based on looking at his particular group and finding a cause through them, not antagonistically blaming others.

Nishma said...

I am in agreement with your statement. Introspection is meant for one to learn how to improve oneself, not how to challenge another, especially another who is suffering. This critique, though, may not just apply to another group but to an argument within a group. On this level, we may question whether Rabbi Teichtel was viewing the matter from his perspective and thus explained the Holocaust in a manner that substantiated his view. My understanding is that Rabbi Teichtel actually went through somewhat of a transformation and became more zionistic as a result of his understanding of the Holocaust. The point is that he saw the message in terms that affected him. This would seem to be what occurred to the Rav and why Kol Dodi Dofek is such a powerful essay. It is not just that he saw history in a manner that was in tandem with his hashkafa. He modified his hashkafa, moving from Aguda to Mizrachi, because of what he saw in history. The lesson was to him, causing him to think Then he shared his thoughts with others. Thatis powerful. Of course, we are not saying that this is really the reason forthe Holocaust but rather, what we can learn from it -- and the directive to us is to learn from it, for me, not necessarily to say this is the reason.

Rabbi Richard Wolpoe said...

Judging or laying Blame is the role of the ALMIGHTY not of rabbis. If rabbis want to cite passges from Tanach or Talmud taht suggest our behavior is to blame, that is fine with me. But layin blame is presumptuous at and is IMHO encroaching on GOD's turf.

RE:the Holocaust in general let me say this: The vaatness of it defies explanation and interpretation. That said, however, there ARE lesson that we can LEARN from the Holocaust without purporting to understand the totality of spiritual dynamic behind it.

For example, we can say the Holocaust is a manifestation of "ela shebechol dor vador om'dim aleinu lechaloteinu"

Anti-Semites are ALWAYS lurking. it is up to us to defy them. Perhaps the BEST antidote to Anti-Semitism is to be the best Jew we can be _ however taht applies to the individual. Certainly our ability to survive, thrive, and to hand over our legacy to the next generation is a lesson to be taken from the tragedy that was "the Holocaust" - just as we continued after the destruction of the Temple by Rome. We mourn and founded a "Yavneh" to continue.

In 1948 the embers rescued from the fire founded Israel, and many Jewish institutions in the diaspora, too. One lesson from Holocaust is that we go both mourn the loss and go on to live.

Acher said...

Let's now take this to the next level. Here is my question. If these kinds of pronouncements come from the Gedolim, what does that mean in terms of our need and desirability to abide by other pronouncements of these gedolim, let’s say of a halachik manner? Do these absurd pronouncements not suggest that there is something inherently flawed in the person's thinking itself? In other words, does this not disqualify the Gadol to render piskei halacha? I would say yes, as R'Eliyahu's statement undermines his authority and certainly diminishes our formerly respectful view of this Rav. We can pontificate forever about the theory behind all of this, but lets talk practical now. Thoughts?

Nishma said...

jadler's comment is most fascinating for it causes us to consider the necessary qualities for the rendering of a psak. One could contend that the knowledge and ability necessary to render a decision in the realm of halacha, or a specific area of halacha, is not connected to pronouncements in other areas such as this one. This would be similar to one consulting a doctor in areas of health while disagreeing with his views in the realm of economics. Why is one tied to the other? jadler, though, is contending that ability in rendering psak is connected to overall pronouncements in Torah. Or is he stating that psak is not just a question of ability but touches upon issues of leadership and the presentation of the model. IOW psak is not just about who knows more and who is more competant but the represenation of the ideal. Then the issue is not just the competance of the posek in the field of halacha but the presentation of the posek and whether the posek reflects your perception of the ideal. That makes us look at psak very differently.

Acher said...

>>>This would be similar to one consulting a doctor in areas of health while disagreeing with his views in the realm of economics. Why is one tied to the other?

If my doctor strongly believed in UFOs or was a proclaimed misogynist, then I would seriously question the medical abilities of my doctor. It all boils down to having confidence in the judgment of the person under consideration. Anybody who thinks that he or she understands God that well that he could attribute blame for the horrors of the Shoah (on a group other than those who perpetrated them) must be lacking in judgment in other areas as well.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

There are two ways to look at the issue of psak and R' Eliyahu's statement. The first is to separate (a) religion (b) ethics/philosophy and (c) politics from each other. For example, as R' Hecht says, a doctor might be a brilliant diagnostician but also cheat on his wife and blaspheme G-d (this is NOT a self-description, BTW). In this perspective, the latter two negative qualities in no way change the first. Just because your doctor believes in UFO's doesn't mean he doesn't know the symptoms of appendicitis or heart disease. As I often tell patients you don't go to a surgeon for bedside manner, you go for skilled hands. In this light, R' Eliyahu's statement in no way reflects on his halachic ability. There is a world of difference between whether or not the chicken is kosher and whether or not Reform Jewry caused the Holocaust. One deals with the concrete - am I buying this bird for dinner (mmmmm, cooked bird). The other deals with something only God himself can answer and He's not taking questions at this point in history. On the other hand, the chareidi concept of Daas Torah would seem to negate everything I've just typed. Chareidim believe that everything is part of
Torah and that their "Gedolim" are as equally qualified to make definitive pronouncements in areas of ethics/philosophy and politics as in concrete halachah. If that's the case, then this statement of R' Eliyahu would seem to call into his question his entire ability to be relied on! Again, to use the doctor analogy, this would be the case of the doctor correctly diagnosing one's heart disease but then saying "I'm not going to give you the standard drugs because the drug companies are all in cahoots to sell ineffective drugs and I refuse to believe the studies that show they work."
"Yehuda ben Teima says: Be bold like a leopard, light like an eagle, fast like a deer, and courageous like a lion. He would say: The arrogant will go to New Jersey, the easily shamed to Heaven. May it be thine will, oh
Lord our God that your Temple be rebuild speedily in our days and grant us a portion in your Torah." (Avos 5:23) Now, how do the three parts of this mishnah fit together? The mephorshim explain that the correct combination
of the first four qualities is an extremely difficult thing to achieve. Too much leopard and lion in a person renders them arrogant and the second part of the mishnah then tells us what happens to them. The final part of the mishnah then tells us that only with the rebuilding of the Temple
(speedily in our days and let us say Oh Yeah!) and G-d Himself granting us true understanding of our Torah can we reach the perfect balance. Until then, we must be Boshes Panim to achieved the reward of Heaven.
In our day we have forgotten these important principles. Our leaders
reach their positions not by demonstrating superior humility but through pushing themselves forward past their competition. This has a lasting effect on them and their pronouncements. May G-d Himself speedily rebuild our Temple, return the Stanley Cup to Toronto, AND return us to Tzion so
that we can once again worship Him as was truly meant

Acher said...

Interesting Michael. So if a Rav blasphemes God, you would still accept his halachik dispensations?

Nishma said...

This discussion is entering into two most important areas of investigation: the standards of a posek and the methodology of psak. On one hand, psak can be seen as a technical skill much like any other intellectual endeavour. All that is of interest is the specific limited intellectual ability to render a proper decision within the system. In the extreme, such a perspective would explain why Rabbi Meir still wished to consult Acher in regard to halachic reasoning. Chazal, of course, critiqued Rabbi Meir for this behaviour. Was this simply a policy decision, that we do not want someone who does not properly represent Torah to be involved in this process, eventhough he has the proper technical ability? Or is it because one's overall worldview, hashkafa, broader perspective interrelates with one's process of psak and thus there was concern that Acher's technical ability in psak could be affected by his life perspective? Maybe one like Rabbi Meir can mitigate against this concern but others can't and this is what is behind Chazal's comments? So is jadler's concern that Rav Eliyahu's psak would be tainted by a world view which jadler finds problematic or is his concern that someone with this worldview has a voice within Torah eventhough perhaps technically proficient inthe narrow technicalities of psak?

This issue actually touches upon many other issues we now face within the Torah world. For example, this issue is tied to the question of whether a person should always ask a shaila of his/her personal rabbi who knows them or of the greatest expert in the field who may not know the whole picture? If the former, than one is saying that psak does not exist in a vacuum and that the one asking the question should always turn to someone with whom there is a personal connection and a shared worldview. It may be then the role of this rabbi to turn to the experts as seen fit. Of course, the world is moving in the other direction that has an individual phoning the greatest expert -- with whom there may not be a shared world vision, no knowledge of the gestalt and no personal connection -- based upon technical expertise. Of course, then emerges the concept of Daas Torah which transforms the one with the greatest expertise into a figure with a certain perception of the gestalt and an all-inclusive worldview that extends to all,

Finally, it is interesting that jadler's point really reveals a two edged sword. His argument that Rav Eliyahu's statement causes him to discount Rav Eliyah in all matters of Torah can be countered by a critque of him in that he is not willing to be mekabbel the words of Rav Eliyahu. In a world of dialogue you struggle with the issue -- and I know that jadler struggles with the issue. The problem in our world is that often you cannot raise the question because even by questioning you are deemed to be challenging the opinion of the gadol or rebbe and not being mekabel (a reflection no doubt of gayvah). Yet, if we believe in dialogue and investigation, while we analyze the words of Rav Eliyahu, we must be careful not to judge hims until we actually enter into a shakla v'tarya with him.

Acher said...

Before I respond to R'Hecht's comment directly above, a friend of mine had this to say:

"Putting my feelings aside that R’ Eliyahu’s comments were in bad taste and totally inappropriate, I think this type of history revisionism needs to be addressed.

Pointing a finger at efforts of Jewish assimilation as cause and effect belies the facts.

From a historic perspective, there were many countries where Jews were almost completely assimilated, centuries before the Holocaust (some examples: Italy, Holland, most of Scandinavia, England), yet were a lot less affected by the Holocaust than German Jews. In the United States, the Reform movement was thriving. Pointing the finger at the Reform movement as a catalyst for God’s wrath is not just insensitive and arrogant, but also completely false.

Acher said...

>>>Finally, it is interesting that jadler's point really reveals a two edged sword. His argument that Rav Eliyahu's statement causes him to discount Rav Eliyah in all matters of Torah can be countered by a critque of him in that he is not willing to be mekabbel the words of Rav Eliyahu. In a world of dialogue you struggle with the issue -- and I know that jadler struggles with the issue. The problem in our world is that often you cannot raise the question because even by questioning you are deemed to be challenging the opinion of the gadol or rebbe and not being mekabel (a reflection no doubt of gayvah). Yet, if we believe in dialogue and investigation, while we analyze the words of Rav Eliyahu, we must be careful not to judge hims until we actually enter into a shakla v'tarya with him.

Do you mean Rabbi that we must actually enter into a dialogue with R'Eliyahu himself? Or are you speaking in a figurative sense?
If the former, I dont think that this would be a practical endeavour. If the latter, I have considered his opinion and I have rejected it (as have several others, more prominent than me) uncategorically.

Incidentally, see the headline story today on

Nishma said...

jadler's friend's points are well taken but check carefully what Rav Eliyahu actually said (which may be even more problematic). Of course, if the Holocaust was presented as a punishment on the Reform, it is a big problem as Reform suffered much less than Orthodoxy. If a punishment on Germany, German Jews had greater opportunity to escape. The cause-and-effect is challenged. Rav Eliyahu, though, did not say that the Holocaust was a punishment on the Reform. He said it was a punishment because of the Reform. IOW, as Rav Eliyahu himself said in stating that the victims were not punished for their sins, the victims were punished for the sins of others -- others who did not suffer. To me that is a greater problem on many levels, not to say that describing those who suffered in the Holocaust as being punished for their sins is less of a problem. Its just that anything is now possible with this type of thinking. We saw that type of thinking with Katrina, to which I responded in an article at the Nishma website "Katrina, Gush Katif and Explaining God" available at

There is the further problem now, as pointed out again in the article you cite, with the damage the statement itself caused. Even if Rav Eliyahu believes his words, there is the great question of whether he should have said them. This is stated to simply bring up an additional concern with Rav Eliyahu's behaviour that should also be addressed. It should be recognized that the colloquial use of the term chillul Hashem to prohibit behaviour involves actions that are permitted halachically but would be looked upon negatively by even non-Jews, even ovdei avodah zarah.

On to jadler's other point, my call for dialogue is in many ways theoretical -- afterall, the Jerusalem Post article you cite mentions that Rav Eliyahu refused to be interviewed -- but it reflects another concern of mine. Before fully dismissing something, I would like to give the other an opportunity to respond. The more adament I am about my position, the more I want to hear the other side. It is only in shakla v'tarya that we can arrive at the truth. That is why, in my opinion, the gemara praised intense debate within Torah. We sadly live in a world where this is missing. In this regard, if we are going to be upset that the gedolim who banned Rabbi Slifkin did not hear his words, we want to temper our remarks in regard to Rav Eliyahu to hear his argument. The problem is that Rav Eliyahu won't enter into this discussion -- so we are stuck. It is sadly the new way of advocating for your opinion -- don't enter into discussion on it. Yet, I am still reluctant to fully dismiss Rav Eliyahu eventhough he is choosing not to enter the dialogue. I guess I am in a 'catch 22", but that does not mean I won't voice my opinion that his statement is highly problematic, even beyond highly problematic. Let's perhaps put it in Brisk terms - I don't want to fully dismiss the gavrah although I am left with no choice, especially in that he will not defend his opinion, but to totally reject the cheftza, i.e. his statement, for many reasons.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Ah, sometimes one has to avoid living in Toronto to see things clearly.
There are two ways to approach a person as a source of knowledge. One can divorce the knowledge aspect from the rest of the person and interact directly with it. Thus, to use the doctor example, you could approach a surgeon who's a horrible person ethically but still accept his opinion on a medical case due to his extensive expertise in the area.
BUT... this implies that the person himself divorces those two aspects within himself. Thus the surgeon would know he's a liar and a rogue but when asked about medical cases he would answer truthfully and expertly. In reality, this almost never happens. If he didn't like his patient and was unethical enough, he might even give advice that is against the patient's best interest despite knowing better.
This could then be extended to rabbinical advice. A particular Rav might be a blasphemer and heretic, yet also be the world's biggest expert on a particular halachic issue. However, in the real world, this doesn't always hold.
Now, the gemara tells us that Rabbi Meir and Acher were once travelling on Shabbos and at a certain point Acher told Rabbi Meir to go no further because he was reaching the Techum Shabbos. There are two interpretations of this statement. One is that Acher was mocking Rabbi Meir who was still working within the halachic system that Acher had rejected and that he thought him a fool for doing so. The other opinion is that Acher, while being a heretic himself, respected Rabbi Meir's choice to remain within the halachic system and chose to be helpful to him. We would like to think that experts in a field would be like the latter case but sadly, many are like the former.
Thus, can R' Eliyahu separate the cheftza from the gavra? If I, a non-chareidi Jew, approach him with a shailoh, is he more likely to give the question serious thought or is he more likely to look at me, decide that since I am "the other" I don't deserve
respectful treatment and interact with me in a condescending fashion? Not knowing the Rav, I can't answer that but such knowledge would influence my decision whether or not to follow his psak.
In this case, however, we're not dealing with a psak. We're dealing with an opinion, one that most people will reject (something I suspect he has already figured out which is why he is refusing all interviews until he has dislodged his foot from his mouth).
Finally, there is the matter of his answer. One is reminded of G-d's cameo appearance at the end of the Book of Iyov when He challenges:
"Do you know the time when the mountain goas give birth or anticipate the labour pains of the gazelle?" (39:1)
The Holocaust, as huge a tragedy as it was, is only one part of history and the complete picture of all times and places put together is only visible to He who spake and blam! There was the world! We, who are trapped within time and consumed with egocentric views of the world, can not even guess at the purpose of various events, let alone explain them satisfactorily. And this is where Rav Eliyahu's statement is most problematic.