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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Haredim on the Holocaust

Much is made here in Israel about some Haredim who go about their business when the siren goes off to honor the memory of those who were murdered in the Holocaust. But the accusation that Haredim dishonor the memory of those who died in the Holocaust is unfair. This is the best treatment of a very complex issue that I have ever seen in a newspaper.
Another East European rabbi who supported armed resistance, but who is not mentioned in this context in Farbstein's book, is Rabbi Menahem Zemba [pictured at top left. CiJ]. His story appears in haredi biographer Shmuel Rothstein's 1948 book Toldot Rabbi Menahem Zemba and the recently-released Et La'asot Lehatzalat Yisrael (The Time to Rescue Israel), written by Dr. Haim Shalem, Farbstein's colleague at Bayit Vegan College.

ZEMBA, A member of Agudat Yisrael's Council of Torah Sages and a central authority in the Polish haredi community, initially opposed an armed revolt against the Nazis, fearing it would needlessly endanger lives. But after a series of transports to Treblinka in July 1942 which reduced the Warsaw Ghetto population from some 450,000 to just 50,000, he realized that the Nazis planned complete annihilation and changed his mind.

"If today Jews were being forced into apostasy," said Zemba, "and we could be saved by agreeing to it, as was done in Spain or after the decrees of [the First Crusade in] 1096, our death would be a kind of martyrdom. But today the only way of sanctifying God's name is by taking up arms."

Faced with the Nazi program of subjugation, humiliation and annihilation of the Jewish people, he supported the ghetto fighters' choice to take up arms. Even if the uprising was suicidal, Zemba felt that death in defiance was preferable to death in surrender.

According to Farbstein, rabbis were asked to condone physical resistance in three different situations: self-defense, revenge or a means of protecting Jewish honor.

"In the few cases where Jews had the option of using force as self-defense, there was absolutely no doubt that this was permitted," said Farbstein in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. "But in most cases armed resistance was either a form of revenge or an expression of Jewish pride. Even then it was supported by rabbis such as Aronson and Zemba."

However, for the most part, according to Farbstein, the rabbis invested most of their energies in calling for spiritual resistance. They encouraged their followers to continue to pray and learn Torah and perform acts of kindness. Part of the reason was because this was the only type of resistance possible.

But, says Farbstein, spiritual resistance was also emphasized by the rabbis because the Nazi threat was perceived as spiritual, not just physical. The Nazis did not only desire to destroy the Jewish people's bodies, they strove to annihilate Jewish morality, sense of justice, compassion, faith. The best route of resistance, therefore, was spiritual: fostering Jewish ideals, customs and belief in God.

Farbstein believes that haredi figures who criticized the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising as "not a Jewish phenomenon" lacked a deep understanding of the situations that faced Warsaw's Jews. Many of these leaders, politically active during the 1940s and '50s, were also fighting the Zionist leadership's attempt to recast the Holocaust as a story of secular Jewish military heroism.

But not all haredi political leaders attempted to present a Judaism that rejected armed resistance. For instance, in 1956, after the international community condemned Israel for invading Egypt and occupying the Sinai Peninsula, Yitzhak Itshe Meir Levin (Agudat Yisrael), speaking like a true Zionist, defended the act.

"A million and a half young people and children were slaughtered in broad daylight, and the world's conscience was not moved," he said. "Now the Jews are gathered in the State of Israel. But still the outside world cannot give its consent. Perhaps it bothers [the gentiles] because the Jews refuse to go to the slaughter, but defend themselves courageously."
I urge you all to read the whole thing. For those here in Israel, "Farbstein's book" is on sale at Mossad HaRav Kook (in both Hebrew and English) through Tuesday.


At 4:41 AM, Blogger HaDaR said...

Please, see an article called:
written by a Rabbi who received ordination (semichah) as FIRST OF HIS CLASS by Rav Kalmanovitch at the Mirrer Yeshivah, and then again in Erets Israel by Rav Mordechai Eliahu.

You'll find it here:

You might not like it... but remember that "the Seal of the Almighty is truth"


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