• Alfie Marcus

The Divine Hand?

Parshat Yitro 5781

Parshat Yitro is my bar mitzvah sidra. I was bar mitzvah in 1963, 57 years ago in a period far closer to the one I am going to discuss than today. There are so many parts of a parsha which has the Eseret Hadibrot one could discuss. I have been thinking of the commandment not to take Hashem’s name in vain.

I have been listening to the Jewish history podcasts of Rabbi Dov Katz of Baltimore for about the past year. I like them all but I particularly liked the one he did on Rabbi Yechiel Weinberg. Wikpedia says the following about Rabbi Weinberg: “Rabbi Weinberg was considered a genius in his time - with mastery over both Torah and secular subjects. An insightful and introspective individual, his varying interests in Talmud, musar, Hebrew literature, Russian language, and general academia make him one of the best representatives of the tumultuous intellectual trends present in his period.” Rabbit Weinberg was the rosh yeshiva of the Hildesheimer seminary in Berlin, till the Nazis destroyed it in 1938. Somehow, he survived the war, maybe by luck as the Nazis put him in a jail meant for Russian political prisoners. Rabbi Weinberg lived out the rest of his life in Montreux, Switzerland, and, as I gather from Rabbis Katz’s podcast, though he had many questions about the Holocaust he did not explicitly deal with it and was mostly silent on the topic.

I also recently read a chapter from a book, Rethinking the Holocaust, by the Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer, where he quotes and critiques the Lubavitcher Rebbi for comparing the evil gentile yemach shemo who brought on the Holocaust to a surgeon sent by G-d to cut out sin. Prof. Bauer quotes the Rebbe as saying that "Hitler was a messenger of God in the same sense that Nebuchadnezzar is called 'God's servant' in the Book of Jeremiah." Bauer, writes: "The Rebbe's stance, therefore, is clear: The Holocaust was a good thing because it lopped off a disease-ravaged limb of the Jewish people - in other words, the millions who perished in the Holocaust - in order to cleanse the Jewish people of its sins. The 'surgery' he spoke of was such a massive corrective procedure that the suffering (i.e., the murder of the Jews) was minor compared to its curative effect." I believe the Rebbi may have retracted and apologized for this comparison, at least that seems to be the case when I did a search on the Internet.

I am also reading a book called Shoah published by Art Scroll a number of years ago wrttien by Rabbis Yoel Schwartz and Yitzhak Goldstein. About Rabbi Schwartz, Wikpedia writes: “Yoel Schwartz is a Haredi Jewish rabbi, Torah scholar, and prolific writer who has published over 200 Jewish books. He is currently a senior lecturer at Dvar Yerushalayim yeshiva in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof, an English-speaking institute for baalei teshuva.” If I have pinned down the right Rabbi Goldstein he is affiliated with the Diaspora Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

In this 1990 book Rabbis Schwartz and Goldstien twist and turn, saying we are not privy to understanding G-d's intentions with regard to the Holocuast, but we must try. The result is that they blame assimilation, secularism, modern culture, science, technology, Christianity to some extent, and to a degree the Zionist movement of Herzl and ben Gurion for the Holocaust and also come close to seeing Holocaust as just punishment for our sins. They move in this direction but then seem to draw back from it, admitting that it is not proper for humans to infer G-d’s intentions. The remedy, though, is unambiguous -- greater commitment to Torah and mitzvot.

I suppose assimilationists, secularists, Zionists and those committed to science, technology, and modern culture would come to the opposite conclusion. Had not Torah true Judaism held sway, more Jews would have gone to the US earlier in the 20th century and more would have become committed Zionists and gone to Israel. With regard to modern culture, the problem with blaming figures like Kant, Beethoven, and the rest (Nietzsche does deserve blame) is that it had not been for the science, technology, and modern culture and the democratic values of western civilization that derive from enlightenment thinkers including Locke, Mill, and even Kant, the Allies would not as likely have been able to oppose Nazi evil as rigorously as they did and ultimately defeat it. The period of the Second World War seems to be one in which Nazis attacked western culture's core values, not stood up for them. Of course, self-interest played a role as well in what the Allies did. The British, Americans, and Russians did not want to cede power to the Germans. Moreover, the allies were far from perfect in protecting Jews and providing them with havens to escape.

Engaging in counterfactual thinking, in the end, may be useless. It can be used to prove almost any point. If nearly all Jews had remained true to Torah, what would have happened? If nearly all Jews had abandoned the Torah, assimilated, or even become Christian, what would have happened? Who knows? My intuition suggests that the results may have been similar inasmuch as the forces tearing Germany and the rest of the world apart would have existed regardless, and animosity toward the Jews could have come out in some horrific way anyhow. The dissemination of propaganda and lies through modern forms of communication is a problem that still exists today. Troubled and confused people can be manipulated by tyrants and tyrannical regimes to break nearly any barrier.

Unfortunately and tragically, a disproportionate number of religious Jews – because they were impoverished and stuck in Poland and had no time to escape – died in the Holocaust, and many assimilated Jews escaped. But from this fact, can one draw lessons? There is the theology of the righteous suffering for the sins of the unrighteous, but I cannot go there? What happened happened. Even Rabbis Schwartz and Goldstein seem to admit this.

As to lessons, we have learned that if the state of Israel was to abandon modern science, culture, technology, it would put the Jewish people in grave danger. Israel’s survival depends on them, my bias, of course, given that I have a PH.D from a modern university.

In any case, who am I to ask these questions? Hashem was not that happy when someone of the greatness of Moshe asked them. These questions as well were the ruination of Elisha ben Abuya or acher.

The powerful and successful drive of the Haredi world today must spring at least in part from the desire to rebuild after the destruction, which in my view, is incredibly admirable. Another admirable trait is the near total pacifism in fact of the Jewish people in exile for nearly 2000 years which permitted persecution of a very high order but not of the magnitude of the Holocaust. This pacifism no longer exists, repudiated every day by the strength of the current state of Israel.

What not taking G-d’s name in vain means is that we cannot understand these things, neither what happened in the past nor what is happening today, though, since it is how our minds work, we cannot help but be curious. Nonetheless, any attempt to understand G-d's role in history is beyond us, since we get only a relatively short lifetime, a small glimpse of what is taking place in a much larger flow. Moreover, the interpretation of that flow is not stable. It will keep changing as events evolve. Shabbat shalom


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