Lecture #17a: Dealing with the Suffering of the Holocaust - the Teachings of the Rebbe of Piaseczno, author of "Esh Kodesh" (Part 1 of 2)

  • Rav Tamir Granot





In a previous lecture addressing the teachings of Rav Teichtal, author of "Em Ha-Banim Semecha," I commented on the difference between the nature of Rav Teichtal's reaction to the Holocaust and that of the Rebbe of Piaseczno.  In both instances, the reactions came during the Holocaust, as the events in all their horrific enormity were taking place.  As we saw, the relationship between Rav Teichtal's position and that of the Rebbe of Piaseczno is not one of dispute, as is the ideological battle between Rav Teichtal and the Rebbe of Satmar.  Here, we have two approaches that proceed along parallel paths that never meet. 


For the Rebbe of Piaseczno, the reaction to the suffering of the Holocaust is entirely internal and subjective; the suffering, the crisis, the act of faith – all of these are directed inwardly, and this is the significance that is attached to them.  For Rav Teichtal, as we have seen, the change is not internal, but rather ideological, and its results are objective and external – in the historical dimension.


In the two parts of this lecture, we will attempt to examine some of the central aspects of the Rebbe of Piaseczno's teachings, and specifically the ways in which he proposes to deal with the suffering and terror perpetrated by the Nazis, which he endured along with the other Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto.  We will then continue our discussion of God's Presence in the Holocaust, and the problem of evil and suffering, although we will discover that the problem of hester panim does not occupy a central place in the Rebbe’s thought.


The Rebbe of Piaseczno's work is outstanding in its honesty, its power, and its religious and existential depths, especially considering the impossible circumstances of its writing, in the midst of the nightmare of the Warsaw Ghetto.  Because of its historical and philosophical importance, "Esh Kodesh" has been researched and discussed at length.  Among the articles written about it, I will make mention of only three of the most comprehensive.  M. Piekarz[1] uses the derashot to reconstruct a sort of existential and spiritual biography of the Rebbe during the 4-year period of writing the book.  E. Schweid[2] looks at the Rebbe's teachings from before the Holocaust and analyzes in depth some philosophical and psychological aspects of his thought during the Holocaust.  Rav Shagar[3] emphasized the special character of the Rebbe's approach to suffering.  Readers seeking to read further are directed to these works.  What follows is based in part on some of their conclusions, with some additional thoughts.


A.  Biography


The Rebbe Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira was the son of Rabbi Elimelekh of Grodzinsk and his second wife, Chana Bracha, the daughter of the Rebbe of Hanchin, and was born in 1889.  He took up his first rabbinical post in 1909, and was appointed rabbi of the Polish town of Piaseczno in 1913.  He was the descendant of a dynasty of tzaddikim from Lizhensk, Kozhnitz, and Moglanitze.  At the age of 16, he married Chaya Rachel Miriam, daughter of the Rebbe of Kozhnitz.  In 1923, he founded the yeshiva Da'at Moshe, which he headed.  His devotion to education led him to write several books before the Holocaust, but of these only Chovat Ha-Talmidim was printed at the time, in 1932. The other books were published by Piaseczno chassidim in Israel after the war. 


At the beginning of the war, the Rebbe suffered a terrible blow when his son, daughter-in-law, brother-in-law and mother were all taken within the space of a month.  He lived in the ghetto until its liquidation in 1943.  He died in a camp near Lublin, where the survivors of the ghetto were murdered in what was known as the "reaping festival" at the end of 1943.


The name "Esh Kodesh" (Holy Fire) was given to the book by Piaseczno chassidim in Israel.  The story of how this manuscript came to be saved is a wonder in its own right.  It was discovered in Poland in the late 1950's by Barukh Duvdevani, who photographed it on microfilm and brought it to the chassidim in Israel, who then published it in 1960. 


B.        No denial, no justification


A person who is suffering will typically react in one of two ways: a. denial or suppression; b. justification.


The first reaction means creating an existential or philosophical perspective that diminishes the importance of the actual suffering.  A religious person, for instance, may say:  "True life, real happiness, is not to be found in this world, but rather in the World to Come." From the depths of his faith, he will then relate to his suffering in the here-and-now as a transient, insignificant episode in relation to eternal life.  Clearly, such a position – enlisting a philosophical point of view and applying it to actual distress – may also have existential validity.  It is like a person who is forced to walk barefoot in a field that is full of stones and thorns, and who tells himself all the time, "in another quarter of an hour I will be out of this; all of this will be over," thereby blunting the intensity of his pain in the present.


The second reaction does not diminish the suffering, but rather awards it some reason and meaning.  Suffering is exacerbated when we perceive it as a decree of fate, as arbitrary.  If, on the other hand, the suffering is just, if it is deliberate and appropriate, then it may be borne by one's conscious mind, even though it is painful.  In other words, suffering is a psychosomatic phenomenon; it is comprised of a physical element and a psychological element.  The latter is bound up with our perception of the suffering; if it is just, then it is easier to bear.


The Rebbe of Piaseczno rejects both options.  Concerning the first, he says:


There are calamities for which it is possible to accept consolation.  A person may have had an illness from which he recovered.  Although he had been in great danger and in tremendous pain, when with God's help he was healed, he was immediately consoled for all the pain he endured.  Similarly, if money was lost, then when God restores the lost fortune, consolation follows quickly.  But when lives are lost, it is impossible to accept solace.  It is true that when the pain is due to the loss of family and loved ones, or to the loss of other Jewish people because they were precious and are sorely missed, it is possible to take comfort in other surviving relatives and different friends.  But any decent person mourns the loss of others not simply because he misses them; it is not only his yearning for them that causes pain and distress.  The real cause of his grief is the death of the other – the loss of life. 

(Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira, Sacred Fire: Torah from the Years of Fury 1939-1942, translated by J.H. Worch [Jason Aronson], p.200, Shabbat Nachamu – August 9, 1941)


The Rebbe presents an existential position that also assumes religious grounding.  Life, in the simplest sense, is good; that is our unmediated experience of it.  The desire to live, and acceptance of the normal order of life, is part of the fundamental law of Creation; it is not a spiritual shortcoming or deficiency.  Therefore, the simple feeling of the goodness of life, and the evil of its absence, is the most proper and natural attitude.  Our sources support this view: the Torah promises long life to those who perform the mitzvot; hence, the existential experience of the goodness of life itself is also God's blessing to those who perform His will.  Untimely, death is thus rightly perceived as evil – not only for us, because we miss those who pass on (after all, the passing of someone who is very old still leaves us with a sense of loss and a longing, even though it is not experienced as "evil"), but first and foremost for the dead person himself, who has lost his life, which was fundamentally good. 


This clear existential position leaves no room for denial or suppression by invoking the World to Come or the like; it proposes that the evil of death be acknowledged and addressed directly.  Any other reaction is false; either it is not being uttered honestly, from the heart, or it requires that one nullify the heart.


The other possibility – the justification of suffering – was available to the Rebbe of Piaseczno, and he even mentioned it at the beginning of the war.  However, as time went on, the troubles grew increasingly severe, with the Nazi madness attaining unimagined dimensions.  The Rebbe concluded that the suffering of the Holocaust could not be dealt with by justification in any familiar sense of the expression, since it truly exceeded any sort of suffering invoked by memory or tradition in teaching about punishment or repair for sins.  In 5703, three years after the beginning of the war, the Rebbe wrote:


[Note added by author on the eve of the holy Sabbath, Kislev 18-November 27, 1942.]  No such torment as was endured until the middle of 1942 has ever transpired previously in history.  The bizarre tortures and the freakish, brutal murderers that have been invented for us by the depraved, perverted murderers, solely for the suffering of Israel, since the middle of 1942, are, according to my knowledge of the words of our sages of blessed memory, and of the chronicles of the Jewish people in general, unprecedented and unparalleled.  May God have mercy upon us, and save us from their hands, in the blink of an eye.  (See note on p. 251, see also p. 209 in the note)


If the punishment is really of such a different order of magnitude, so qualitatively different, then it cannot be considered a punishment for the sins of the nation or the like, for if it were so, it should have assumed the familiar modes of punishment.[4]


Moreover, even when God punishes, He does not act out of a drive for revenge.  Punishment must have a constructive purpose –it is meant to teach a lesson, to lead to soul-searching, to repentance, etc.  "When you are in distress and all of these things have befallen you… then you will return to the Lord your God, and obey Him" (Devarim 4:30).  Here, however, the Rebbe witnessed good, wholehearted Jews losing their faith.  Something had been lost, as it were, in the vital equilibrium of Divine justice. If everything was being destroyed – if there was no more education, no more society, no more beit midrash or synagogue, if it was impossible to study Torah, and all of this lasted for several years, then how could any repentance and return to God grow out of it?


Worse still -  in the personal, internal sense as well there is a point of equilibrium up to which suffering may be a catalyst for improvement and repair, prayer and soul-searching, but beyond which body and soul alike are broken and the person is shattered.  At that point, there is no longer a person to pray or to be improved in the most fundamental existential sense.  The purpose of suffering may be compared to the function of a vaccination, or even to an illness.  So long as the body is generally healthy, it develops antibodies; it prevails, and is even strengthened as a result of the encounter with the bacteria.  However, if the dose is too heavy, or the attacks on the body are too frequent, then the effect will be detrimental; the immune system may collapse altogether, and the body will no longer be able to mount a positive combative response.  In the spiritual realm, the same principle applies.


Indeed, the Rebbe declares, the dose is too high; there is no longer any strength to pray or to study.  This being the case, what is it that God desires to achieve? What purpose is there to such suffering?


Every Jewish person prays to God and cries out to Him, blessed be He, regarding any calamity [that it should not occur].  And when, God forbid, the trouble is even greater, he cries out even more, as it is written (Esther 4:1), "And Mordechai cried a great and bitter cry."  Even when there is no impending calamity, we pray to God because prayer itself is closeness to God.  When we pray, we pray with a full voice, as it is written in sacred literature, "The voice awakens the intention (kavana), the intention awakens the voice." But what can we do when they do not permit us to cry out, or even to congregate for prayer, and we are forced to pray in hidden places, and every Jewish heart must lament this alone? At least in the depths of his heart, every Jew must shout out to God about it.  (p.124)


In other words, so long as suffering leads to repentance – or even just to a cry to God, without repentance – it contributes towards bringing us closer to God, as we learn from Mordekhai's reaction in Megillat Ester.  Crying out to God is itself a form of closeness; therefore, it is a positive result arising from suffering.  But if the objective conditions do not allow for prayer, then what value can there be to the suffering? Here it must be noted that the Rebbe is under no illusions; he is well aware that the objective and social dimension of prayer plays a not-insignificant role in the positive inspiration and motivation that arises from it.  When a Jew is forced to pray alone, in silence and in hiding, unable to cry out – simply to cry out! – and unable to reveal what is in his heart to God along with his fellow Jews, then even the fountain of the heart is blocked.  The intensity of the suffering grows even more oppressive when we discover that we cannot even cry out to God.  What, then, remains for us?!


Elsewhere, the Rebbe recounts bitterly the melancholy and frustration gripping him and those around him when he discovers that the more their troubles intensify and continue, so their enthusiasm and desire to pray and to serve God diminish – not only under the influence of theological questions, but simply because there is no more strength:


At kiddush, after services on the holy Sabbath, I remarked, "I would have thought that in such troubled times as these, when Rosh Hashanah comes around, the prayers of Jewish people would be shouted, and the outpourings of the heart would gush like a torrent of water.  But although we trust in God that our prayers have been effective, everyone can see that before the war, our prayers were louder and more passionate and offered with a greater outpouring of the heart than the prayers that were uttered during Rosh Hashanah this year.  This is simply because our bodies are so weakened and Jews have no more strength.  But, in addition, we observe that in general Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath of Repentance, lack the trepidation and passion with which they were celebrated previously."  [Now, as I am writing this, I can add that others have told my they agree: They have observed it too.]


What has caused this to happen? Firstly, as King David said (Tehillim 138:3), "On this day when I called, You answered me, and strengthened me with strength in my soul." When a Jewish person prays, and his prayers are answered, his subsequent prayers are even stronger and stimulated to greater passion.  But when he prays and then sees that not only are his prayers not answered but his troubles actually increase, may the Merciful One protect us, a person's heart falls and he can not arouse himself to passionate prayer.


The second reason is, as we have already said, for anything to really happen, for faith and for joy, there needs to be a real person to experience the faith and the joy - but when the person has been wholly crushed and squashed, there is no one left to rejoice.  (p. 230)


Every Jew knows that his prayers are not always answered.  Rashi teaches that "iyun tefilla," in its negative sense, means the expectation that my requests will be fulfilled; concerning this it is written, "An expectation that is deferred makes the heart sick" (Mishlei 13:12) (see Berakhot 55a and Rashi ad loc.).  Nevertheless, over the course of months and years of continuous suffering accompanied with prayer, those suffering in the Holocaust expected at least some sign, if not real salvation.  All of these prayers had apparently been rejected, and there was no more will to pray.


Moreover, as noted above, even if a person finds within himself the religious faith that motivates him to pray, he must still remain a "person."  In order to be able to pray, he has to exist above a certain minimum level of healthy consciousness, with a sense of continuity, life-force, a desire to live, etc.  When he is completely bent and broken, there is simply no person left to pray.


The suffering therefore appears to be devoid of any purpose.  If the only possible effect is a loss of faith or a weakening of religious commitment, then how can this be of any benefit? Hence, the path of justifying God's judgment is irrelevant in the context of the suffering of the Holocaust, since this was quite unlike any punishment that the nation had ever known, and especially because it exceeded the point of equilibrium of God's attribute of justice, shattering the last remnants of dignity and decent human existence.


We will continue this theme next week.



Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1]Polish Chassidism: Ideological Trends Between the World Wars and During the Holocaust (Jerusalem, 5759), pp. 373-411 (Heb.).

[2] From Destruction to Salvation: Reactions in Ultra-Orthodox Thought to the Holocaust in Its Time (Tel Aviv, 1994), pp. 105-154 (Heb.).

[3]Broken Vessels (Efrat, 5764), pp. 134-140 (Heb.).

[4] We noted in the past that Rav Hutner refused to call the Holocaust (Shoah) by that name, insisting that despite its extent, it was ultimately no more than another blow like others that Am Yisrael had received over the course of its history.  Clearly, the Rebbe of Piaseczno experienced the Holocaust in a completely different way and drew a different conclusion.