Jewish Theology and the Holocaust

Rabbi Sacks on the Holocaust - Topic 3

Rabin Jonathan Sacks

From: Rabbi Sacks on the Holocaust

Part 1: What do you think the Jewish theological response to the Holocaust should be?

Part 2: Should a Jewish theological response to the Holocaust include issues of justice?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Lament is regarded as the first response here, why might this be?
  2. How do you feel about the idea that faith is not about certainty, but having ‘the courage to live with uncertainty’?
  3. Where can we find a ‘tikkun’ to respond to the world we live in today?

Historical Background & Additional Information:

Eichah (the Book of Lamentations) is the third of the five Megillot (scrolls) of Ketuvim (Writings), the last section of the Tanach (Bible). It is generally accepted that the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon in 586 BCE forms the background to the poems. The book is partly a traditional “city lament” mourning the desertion of the city by God, its destruction, and the ultimate return of the divinity, and partly a funeral dirge in which the bereaved bewails and addresses the dead. The tone is bleak: God does not speak, the degree of suffering is presented as undeserved, and expectations of future redemption are minimal. The book is traditionally recited on the fast day of Tisha B’Av (9th Av), mourning the destruction of both the First and Second Temples.

In Jewish teachings, a ‘tikkun‘ or ‘Tikkun Olam‘ refers to any activity that improves the world, bringing it closer to the harmonious state for which it was created. It implies that while the world is innately good, God purposely left room for us to improve upon His work. All human activities are opportunities to fulfill this mission, and every human being can be involved in tikkun olam.

Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam (10 January 1905 – 18 June 1994) was an Orthodox Rabbi and the founding Rebbe of the Sanz-Klausenburg Hasidic dynasty. Halberstam became one of the youngest Rebbes in Europe, leading thousands of followers in the town of Klausenburg, Romania, before the Second World War. His wife, eleven children and most of his followers were murdered by the Nazis while he was incarcerated in several concentration camps. After the war, he moved to the United States and later to Israel, where he rebuilt Jewish communal life in the displaced persons camps of Western Europe, re-established his dynasty in the United States and Israel, founded a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighbourhood in Israel and a Sanz community in the United States, established a hospital in Israel run according to Jewish law, and rebuilt his own family with a second marriage and the birth of seven more children.

The Klausenberg Rav is predominantly known for having established Laniado Hospital, a voluntary, not-for-profit 484-bed hospital in Kiryat Sanz, Netanya. The hospital is run according to Jewish law. The vision for establishing the hospital originated during the Holocaust. The first building was opened in 1975. At the cornerstone-laying for the second building in 1980, he told the assemblage that “I was saved from the gas chambers, saved from Hitler. I spent several years in Nazi death camps…They murdered my wife and 11 children, my mother, my sisters and my brother – of my whole family, some 150 people, I was the only one who survived – I witnessed their cruelty. I remember as if it were today how they shot me in the arm. I was afraid to go to the Nazi infirmary, though there were doctors there. I knew that if I went in, I’d never come out alive. … Despite my fear of the Nazis, I plucked a leaf from a tree and stuck it to my wound to stanch the bleeding. Then I cut a branch and tied it around the wound to hold it in place. With God’s help, it healed in three days. Then I promised myself that if, with God’s help, I got well and got out of there, away from those resha’im (wicked people), I would build a hospital in Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel] where every human being would be cared for with dignity. And the basis of that hospital would be that the doctors and nurses would believe that there is a God in this world and that when they treat a patient, they are fulfilling the greatest mitzvah [commandment] in the Torah.”


Part 1: What do you think the Jewish theological response to the Holocaust should be?

Speaking personally, the most profound Jewish response to the Holocaust I know is Sefer Eichah, the Book of Lamentations, the book written after the destruction of the First Temple, the poetry of lament, bitter lament unto death. It is one of the most searing pieces of literature ever written. And we said it in memory of the loss of the First and Second Temples, Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, on the saddest day of the Jewish year. I know of no more profound theological response. In Judaism the most profound theological response is not an answer. It’s not a theology, it’s a cry.

I heard of a Rabbi who went through the Holocaust, (this is a true story), and lost his wife and all 11 children and was asked afterwards, “Do you have no questions of God?” And he replied, “Of course I have questions of God. My questions of God are so powerful that were I to ask them, God Himself would invite me up to Heaven to give me the answers. And I prefer to be down here on earth with the questions than up there in Heaven with the answers.” Now, that sounds clever, but actually it’s very profound. I have said many times, faith is not certainty. Faith is the courage to live with uncertainty. After the Holocaust, uncertainty is where we live.

Part 2: Should a Jewish theological response to the Holocaust include issues of justice?

Our response to the Holocaust involves justice, absolutely, but justice is universal and it’s a phenomenon of every crime. It has nothing specifically to do with the Holocaust. What interests me is something quite different, and that is what I call tikkun. Tikkun is a Jewish mystical concept developed by Rabbi Issac Luria in the 16th century, which speaks about mending the tears in the fabric of creation. In the case of the Holocaust, three individuals speak to me very, very much.

Number one was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whom I knew. He was the first Jew ever to really engage in outreach, to reach out to Jews who had been distant from the tradition in the most remote places. He did this all over the world. He never explained why. Why had it never been done before and why was he the first to do it? And of course it changed every Jewish community in the world. I once suggested this: that he had lived through the Holocaust and he had seen hate for hatred’s sake, and he was a mystic and he did believe in tikkun and therefore I believe that what he was doing was reaching out to every Jew in love as once the Nazis sought out every Jew with hatred. That was his tikkun, and as I say, it changed the whole tenor of the Jewish world.

The second was an extraordinary story, which I was unaware of until the London Olympics of 2012. It was then that the BBC showed a very moving film about somebody I’d never heard of before, Dr. Ludovic Goodman. Dr. Goodman was, in 1933, the leading neurosurgeon in Germany, but in 1933 Jews were removed from all their professions. He was thrown out of the general hospital. He was still able to work for the next five years in a Jewish hospital, but then in 1938, it just became too dangerous for him and he escaped to London. By 1944, realising the genius they had in their midst, the British government asked him to set up the first ever dedicated unit for the treatment of paraplegics, which he did.

He was horrified by what he saw there, because these paraplegics all suffering war injuries were young people of 20 or 21-years-old, and their life expectancy was between three and six months. They were being kept heavily sedated, lying horizontal in hospital beds, day in day out. He realised there was no need for this. These were young men who had a life in front of them. He set about giving them new life and it was very difficult. The first thing he did was to reduce their sedation, their painkillers, which hurt. Then he started throwing balls at them so they would catch them and that hurt. And then he got them out of their beds into wheelchairs and that hurt. The other doctors accused him of cruelty. They took him to a tribunal and one of his fellow doctors said, “Who do you think these men are? They are moribund cripples.” He said, “Who do I think they are? The best of men.”

Eventually he got them out into the garden playing games and he put the doctors and nurses into wheelchairs and the paraplegics, because they were used to wheelchairs, beat the doctors. This gave them, for the first time, a sign of life. So he began to organise more competitions and then not just national but international games. Then he started, I think it was in 1948, a Parallel Olympics. Of course by the time 2012 came along, they were there from 140 different countries, 4,000 of them. The whole attitude of the world towards them and their attitude to themselves had changed. I wondered why it took a Jewish doctor from Germany to see what nobody in Britain could see? Then I realised, it’s obvious because he was a man the Germans regarded as subhuman, vermin, lice, and he knew he wasn’t subhuman. He looked at these paraplegics and realised they weren’t subhuman either. That was his taking his pain to cure the pain of others and give them new hope and new life. That was a tikkun.

The third of the three individuals I think of is the Klausenberg Rav, the Rabbi of Klausenberg who lost all his family in the Holocaust and vowed that if he survived having seen a whole culture of death, he would do what he could to save life. He built the Laniado Hospital in Netanya, Israel, dedicated to curing people of all religions and all races and bringing life where once was death. Those are the real responses to the Holocaust, and I find them very moving.

This series, in partnership with the Holocaust Educational Trust, has been made possible thanks to the generous support of Richard Harris.

Go to Topic 4: Personal Faith and the Holocaust

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