Hasidim and Academics Debate a Rebbe’s Faith during the Holocaust (on Facebook, of all Places)

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Henry Abramson

Earlier this month an obscure corner of the Internet witnessed a remarkable exchange between followers of the martyred Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapiro and Professor Shaul Magid, a scholar of Hasidism and a Tablet Contributing Writer. In what one observer called “the best thing doing on Jewish Facebook,” the trilingual dust-up extended deep into two distinct worlds: the academy on one hand, and pious (albeit internet-enabled) Hasidim on the other. It soon became a bona fide mahkloket, descending into ad hominem attacks involving slurs like farbissener (embittered) and “apikores” (heretic), until Rabbi Dr. Daniel Reiser, winner of the 2018 Yad Vashem Prize for his research on Rabbi Shapiro, attempted to calm the dispute by suggesting that “we all try yoga to achieve inner peace.”

The intense debate was occasioned by a ragged fissure at the juncture between two world-views: did the saintly Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapiro of Piaseczno, heroic Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, lose his faith? For his disciples, even the question alone is offensive (I myself, a long-time student of the Rebbe’s Torah, am tempted to add the traditional has ve-sholem), while for critical scholars of modern Jewish thought, clarifying the precise meaning of the Rebbe’s last wartime writings may earn him a rare place in intellectual history as the first thinker to articulate a post-Holocaust theology of Judaism.

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Rabbi Kalonymous Kalmish Shapiro (1889-1943) is best known as the author of a collection of sermons delivered in the Warsaw Ghetto between 1939 and 1942. Before his death, the Rebbe committed his precious manuscripts to historian Emanuel Ringelblum, whose underground Oyneg Shabbos group was secretly collecting data on the life of Jews under Nazi occupation. The manuscripts, along with a variety of other Ghetto documents, were sealed within two milk containers and buried, where they remained until they were discovered in 1950 by a Polish construction worker. The Rebbe’s sermons represent a sui generis glimpse into the spiritual life of Hasidic Jews under Nazi oppression, demonstrating how Rabbi Shapiro attempted to place the unimaginable suffering of the community within the larger context of Torah, week after hellish week. Since their publication in 1960 under the title Aish Kodesh (Holy Fire), they have been the subject of intense study, both in the neo-Hasidic world as well as the academy.

Early scholars such as the pioneering Nehemia Polen attempted to identify the development of the Rebbe’s thought over the course of the war, outlining a progression from a traditional theological understanding of the problem of evil in the early weeks of the occupation, through a period in which the Rebbe seemed to be preparing his Hasidim to die with dignity, until the fateful spring of 1942, when the Rebbe’s anguish seems to break loose from conventional expressions of Jewish theology into completely uncharted territory. Daniel Reiser’s major contribution was to return to the actual manuscript, which reveals a universe of sophistication and nuance not available to readers of the printed text: the Rebbe’s cramped Hebrew script is littered with strikeouts, emendations, and insertions, suggesting that it is less accurate to describe his thought as a linear arc than as a tortured canvas, with the author returning again and again to moments of pain, shading and revising his text multiple times throughout the war.

The moment of inflection occurred in 1942, evidenced by a number of explicit annotations such as the Rebbe’s famous admission that his comments in earlier sermons on the nature of persecution in Jewish history were incorrect: the period that we would later call the Holocaust was completely unprecedented, a novum in Jewish history, and by implication, required a new theological response. The Rebbe, bemoaning his spiritual exhaustion, did not articulate this new response—or was his admission a theological statement in itself? This is precisely the argument.

The Facebook debate broke loose when Pesach Sommer, a dedicated student of the Rebbe, reacted to Shaul Magid’s recent Tablet review of Reiser’s research. Based on his readings of the Rebbe’s wartime writings, Magid had written, “by the middle of 1942, most of [Rabbi Shapiro’s] community had perished, including his family, and he was increasingly alone with his thoughts, struggling to make sense of the tragedy that was unfolding before his eyes. Scholars differ as to how he fared: Did he remain a believer as before? Did his faith waver, change, or get destroyed? We will never know the answer.” Sommer was deeply offended by the suggestion that the Rebbe’s faith somehow wavered, changed or (has ve-sholem) was destroyed, and moreover Sommer has still not reconciled himself to a 2017 article, in which Professor Magid wrote of the Rebbe’s last words: “That note was not written by a man of faith; it was written by a man of broken faith.”

What was the historical antecedent of this apparent shift in the Rebbe’s thinking? I have argued that the turning point is the testimony of Szlama Fainer, a young man who escaped from Chelmno in mid-January and smuggled himself into the Ghetto. Fainer provided the first authoritative report of the newly established death camps, where he was forced to work as one of the Sonderkommando, processing the bodies of thousands of Jews and Roma, including the corpses of his parents and many of his townspeople. His report detailed precisely how the Nazis had advanced their killing technologies since the mobile killing squads first overran the shtetlakh of Eastern Europe.

The Ghetto was paralyzed by Fainer’s news from Chelmno. The Hasidim who gathered to hear the Rebbe’s thoughts on Parashat Mishpatim (February 14, 1942) must have been filled with trepidation. The Rebbe responded with arguably the most powerful sermon of his life, emphasizing that if finite human beings could suffer so, how much more so should the Holy One, who is infinite, be suffering. God’s weeping, however, could not be contained within a finite Universe:

This is also the reason that the world continues to exist and is not destroyed by the anguish and the voice of the Holy One who is Blessed over the suffering of God’s people and the destruction of God’s home: the terrible anguish of the Holy One who is Blessed cannot be made manifest in the world…since God’s anguish was, as it were, infinite, greater than the universe, thus it could not be made manifest in the universe, and the universe remained unshaken by God’s anguish…

For if the universe would hear the sound of the weeping of God, the universe would hear and explode—a spark of Divine anguish would enter into the universe and all of God’s enemies would be incinerated. At the sea, the Holy One who is Blessed said, “my handiwork is drowning in the sea—and you wish to sing songs of praise?” Now, however, that the Jewish people are drowning in blood—shall the universe continue to exist?

What is the meaning of the last phrase? What is the answer to the Rebbe’s question? The Rebbe cited the well-known aggadata (see Sanhedrin 35b) in which God rebukes the angels who wished to celebrate the drowning of the Egyptian army. God refused to hear songs of praise because the rescue of the Jews required the destruction of the Egyptians, who were after all human beings, God’s handiwork. In Warsaw, when the Jewish people were the ones drowning in their own blood—who is the subject of the Rebbe’s rebuke, if not God himself? Is he not saying, “Master of the Universe! You were so sensitive to the deaths of the cruel Egyptians. How can you remain silent when the merciful Jews are slaughtered in Treblinka?” The Rebbe provides no answer to his own question. And yet.

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Magid’s position is more clearly articulated in his forthcoming book, Piety and Rebellion: Essays on Hasidism.[1] There he writes, “I am not saying that Shapira lost faith in God entirely; I think he did not. But the faith that he had after November 1942, based on the only words we have, is not the faith he had previously.” This more nuanced statement helps clarify the precise location of the factor that, ironically, unites both Piaseczno Hasidim and academic students of his thought, like tiny iron filings caught between two powerful magnets. Some—myself included—have argued that the Rebbe never lost his faith in God, but he was forced to relinquish his traditional view of the inevitably redemptive trajectory of history. God’s apparent decision not to intervene in the massacre of Warsaw Jewry, for the Rebbe, was a tremendum that was so qualitatively and quantitatively different that it could not be contained within traditional Jewish thought. As such, exhausted and incapable of providing a theological response to suffering (an activity that had been his daily preoccupation since the invasion of Poland in September 1939), the Rebbe confessed his loss of faith in history—but not his faith in God. The fact remains that the Rebbe continued to deliver sermons right up until the deportations of the summer of 1942, and he continued to annotate his sermons until January 1943. This refusal to relinquish his Torah is the undeniable proof of his intact faith.

Rav Shagar (Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, 1949-2007) argued that the existential, immediate, and ineffable experience of personal suffering, especially at the scale endemic to the Warsaw ghetto, caused a visceral clash with traditional theology. Rav Shagar’s reading of the Rebbe also locates the essential problem in the theological understanding of history. In an essay entitled “Good and Evil in Jewish Thought,” he wrote that “we cannot abandon history, we cannot abandon the world,” and offered the question, “Is the explanation of the Holocaust that history is lost, or is the explanation that, despite everything, the possibility nevertheless exists of the victory of good in history?”[2]

Rav Shagar then points to another characteristically challenging aspect of the Rebbe’s writings, almost too awesome to imagine: that just as God suffers along with the victims of the Holocaust, God also repents–literally does teshuvah–for their pain. Rav Shagar maintains that the Rebbe’s approach was to validate the essential trajectory of redemptive history, finding a new and terrifying theodicy instead of the sympathetic suffering of God.

Shaul Magid, by way of contrast, argues that faith without the belief in God’s presence in history is a fundamentally broken faith. “The God that remains [after the loss of faith in history],” he writes, “is not the same God as before theodicy crumbled with the Ghetto walls or the Great Deportation.” And yet, Magid concedes that, even crippled by this altered faith, the Rebbe continued to serve his Hasidim until the bitter end, teaching Torah and Hasidism. For Magid, this determination to endure even in the face of an apparently absent God—perhaps in an ethical modality, evidenced by the famous story of the holy hunchback of Tel Aviv, which he cites in an earlier publication—represents the genesis of post-Holocaust theology.

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The Facebook debate, however heated, is likely to remain within the category of “controversies for the sake of Heaven,” which, as the Mishnah teaches us, is destined to endure. Both groups of the Rebbe’s students—those who could arguably called his post-war Hasidim, and those who seek to critically analyze his contributions to Jewish thought—must balance at the end of the abyss if they seek to understand his vision of spirituality in the maelstrom of the Holocaust. Like Talmudic disputants, one group claims, “this is mine,” and the other claims “this is mine,” yet no division will satisfy them. Still, one might reflect that the Rebbe has nevertheless achieved a posthumous victory—a lover of all Jews, in his martyrdom he has brought together these disparate brethren, united in their desire to plumb the depths of his holy writings from the Holocaust. For those of us who strive to embody the religious teachings of the Piaseczno Rebbe, however, Rabbi Yoel Rubin’s comments toward the end of the Facebook debate resonate with power: in his last words, “the Rebbe’s faith was never stronger…we should all live and merit to have such broken faith.”

[1] I am grateful to Professor Magid for sharing unpublished proofs of his chapter on the Rebbe.

[2] I am grateful to Levi Morrow for sharing this passage: ש׳ רוזנברג, טוב ורע בהגות היהודית, תל אביב תשמ׳׳ז עמ׳ 87, which is cited in a chapter entitled תורת הגמול במבחן השואה: שיעור ליום השואה, ביום ההוא, דרושות ומאמרים למועדי אייר תל אביב תשמ׳׳ז, עמ׳ 53.

Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish history, serving as a Dean of Touro University in Brooklyn, New York. His most recent work is a three-volume survey of Jewish history, forthcoming from Koren Publishers (Jerusalem).