Three holy men we should be remembering - opinion


Even the holiest Jew seeks teshuva (repentance). 

This is brought into sharp focus by the stories of three hassidic rabbis who, in their own way, discovered repentance in the darkest epoch of Jewish history. They had the courage to question the theology that was accepted without question in their world. The tragedy is that none survived and their legacy has been forgotten.

Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, Menachem Ziemba, and Yisachar Shlomo Teichtal: They were transformed by the horror and death of the Holocaust. This led them to formulate ideas that subverted traditional theology and theodicy. Yet, these holy men are forgotten by almost all Jews.

In the realm of theodicy – why bad things happen to good people – Rabbi Shapira overturned the traditional Jewish understanding of suffering and persecution. This was not an outright rebellion but a process that evolved as years of confinement in the Warsaw Ghetto passed. Shapira first blamed the persecution on young Jews embracing Zionism and socialism. But after years of suffering in the ghetto he sermonized on God suffering with His people. On March 14, 1942, Shapira writes, “The Talmud states in Hagigah [5b] that we may apply the verse ‘Strength and rejoicing are in His place’ (I Chronicles 16:27) to God’s outer chambers, but in His inner chambers, he grieves and weeps for the sufferings of Israel.” Traditional theodicy – punishment for sin – was abrogated by the reality of Jewish suffering in the ghetto, only months before mass deportations to death in Treblinka. 

Rabbi Menachem Ziemba, also in the Warsaw Ghetto, overturned the idealization of martyrdom in Ashkenazi tradition. Martyrdom had been a cornerstone of Ashkenazi Jewry’s self-understanding. Ziemba argued that the Germans set out to destroy every Jew and there would be no one left to emulate and be inspired by those who sacrificed their life. This hasid of the Rebbe of Ger condemned the ghetto Jews watching their brothers and sisters being loaded on cattle cars from Warsaw to death in the gas chambers of Treblinka – and doing nothing to stop the mass murder. He spoke of a theology of defiance at a meeting on January 14, 1943 after the mass deportations to death in Treblinka and before the uprising in April. 

“In the past,” Ziemba spoke, “during religious persecution we were required by the law ‘to give up our lives even for the least essential practice.’ In the present, however, we are faced by an arch foe, whose unparalleled ruthlessness and total annihilation purposes know no bounds. Halacha demands that we fight and resist to the very end with unequaled determination and valor for the sake of Sanctification of the Divine Name.” 

Rabbi Yisachar Shlomo Teichtal was especially close to the Rebbe of Munkatch, a prominent leader of the hassidim of Hungary who was a rabid anti-Zionist. Teichtal was the head of the yeshiva in the city of Pishtian in Czechoslovakia for 20 years. When World War II broke out, he witnessed the sufferings of the local Jews. He wandered, finally settling in Budapest at a time when Jews of the city were in great peril. This impacted him to break with the Rebbe of Munkatch and become an ardent supporter of the Jewish return to the Land of Israel. His classic work, Eim Habanim Semeichah (A Joyous Mother of Children – from Psalms 113:9), written under great duress, argued that Jews will bring the messiah only if they leave Europe and immigrate to Israel to build up the land.

Teichtal writes, “The exile made you into an exile-Jew. I mean that exile made you into a man who is detached and separated from the entire Jewish community, for in exile you do not live life as a nation. In other words, in exile you do not lead a nationalistic life to the degree that you feel unified with the holy nation of Israel. You do not feel yourself part of the Jewish nation, which is scattered and dispersed among the nations. Rather, you consider yourself a citizen of the place in which you live. You [see yourself] and lead your life only as a loyal citizen of that place.” 

These men were holy rebels who deserve the recognition of all Jews. They lived and died in the Shoah and understood that what had once been persecution was now genocide. 

Their legacy will never die.

The writer is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida. He thanks the following for the words in English of these great rabbis: The Holy Fire: The Teachings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto translated by Nehemia Polen (1994); Rabbi Ziemba’s exhortation from The Warsaw Ghetto Diaries of Hillel Seidman translated by Yosef Israel (1997); and Rabbi Teichtal’s Eim Habanim Semeichah translated by Moshe Lichtman(2000).

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