Category Archives: History

Who Owns The Holocaust?



Twelve years ago, the British Union of Jewish Students launched a project called 50 Days For 50 Years, an effort to commemorate the Holocaust by having Jews learn something each day for 50 days in memory of a Jew murdered in the Holocaust. A book of 50 essays written by leading (Orthodox) rabbis and scholars was published and the program was launched. In 2005, TRIBE, a section of the British United Synagogue (Modern Orthodox, Jonathan Sacks is their chief rabbi) relaunched the program under a new name, 60 Days For 60 Years. It then changed the name to 60 Days For 6 Million and "syndicated" the program to communities around the world.

Fine. To a point. Now groups like Aish and Ohr Somayach have gotten on the bandwagon (please see the pictures above for an example), and use this program as a way to draw non-Orthodox Jews to Orthodoxy and Modern Orthodox Jews to haredism.

But the problem with this program is deeper than subterfuge from Orthodox outreach organizations. First of all, many of the Jews who died in the Holocaust were secular or non-Orthodox, and they were secular or non-Orthodox by choice. They were Jews who left the backwaters of shtetl Orthodoxy for the bright lights of the Enlightenment. Is the proper way to remember those Jews learning Orthodox theology and theodicy?

Some of you will argue it is, claiming that Orthodoxy has a monopoly on theological truth. I beg to differ. Leaving aside the overwhelming failure of Orthodox rabbinic leaders leading up to the Holocaust (please see our discussion here), I would still argue that an Orthodox monopoly on this endeavor is wrong. Why? To me, it is too much like the Mormon baptisms of long-dead non-Mormons.

The proper way to do this, I think, is to take a Jewish text we all accept and study it or sections of it. For example, take the Pentateuch. Use the text to show how traditional commentary (like Rashi and Ibn Ezra) work, show how halakha is derived, codified and implemented. Show how the Documentary Hypothesis works, how modern Biblical Criticism works, and how Orthodoxy (for the most part) rejects it.

Another possibility is to deal with the exact issues the 60 Days program does, but bring varied, pluralistic responses to each one.

Of course, when an Orthodox organization sponsors an event like this, one expects the viewpoints to be Orthodox. That is why I don’t have much of a problem when the OU sponsors 60 Days, or the British United Synagogue does. But when Orthodox outreach organizations get involved, especially when those organizations have a history of deception and when their involvement is partially masked by community organizations like the Jewish Community Relations Council (please see above pictures) or the non-Orthodox day school, I think a line has been crossed.

Should the Holocaust be used as a marketing tool to bring Jews to Orthodoxy? If you think it should, shouldn’t information like Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman’s letter (which I first read in the Aish HaTorah beis midrash) and the behavior of the 6th Lubavitcher Rebbe be presented right along with it?



Filed under Chabad and the Holocaust, Haredim, History, Modern Orthodoxy, Outreach

Haredim and the Holocaust, 2

UOJ quotes the infamous letter written by Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman telling a student not to go to YU or HTC (Skokie), even though it would get him safely out of Europe:

"I received your letter, but unfortunately there is nothing I can do. The yeshivos in America which can bring talmidim from overseas are the yeshivah of Dr. Revel (YU) and [HTC in Chicago]. However, both are places of spiritual danger because they are run in a spirit of disloyalty to the Torah. Therefore, of what benefit would it be to escape [Europe] from physical danger to spiritual danger."…

UOJ notes that later in the letter, Rabbi Wasserman suggests the student contact Rabbi Shlomo Hymen at Yeshiva Torah Vodas who, Rabbi Wasserman writes, will help him. But then UOJ continues:

Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman was urged [by Rabbi Henkin] to bring over all of his students to Yeshiva Torah Vodaath and Rabbi Shlomo Hyman had agreed to step aside as the Rosh Hayeshiva and gladly have R’ Elchonon take his place. Instead he went back to Europe where he was slaughtered along with his students . He is quoted in his "Kovetz Maamarim" as saying he intended himself and his students to be a "korbon" or a sacrifice, on behalf of American Jewry. So much for "daas Torah" and "gedolim infallibility".

Rabbis gave notoriously poor advice all during WW2; the above is only one example out of many rabbinic failures. From Hungarian hasidim to Chabad, from Litvaks to Galitzianers, rabbis failed. You can say this means God "hid" the truth from them, or you can say God never spoke to them in the first place. My money is on option number two.


Filed under Haredim, History, Modern Orthodoxy

If Moses Existed, Did He Have Two Tablets On Sinai Or Only One?

Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg of the Jerusalem-based Albright Institute of Archaeological Research asks what at first seems to be a stunning question – did Moses get stonne two tablets on Mount Sinai or only one? Rosenberg answers this question rather conclusively. But first, he points out a problem in out traditional understanding of the biblical text:

…[Two stone tablets] seems to be the easy way to read the biblical texts in Exodus and Deuteronomy, but were the Ten Commandments really engraved on two tablets, which together would have weighed one-quarter of a ton according to the dimensions given in the Talmud (Baba Bathra 14a)? Luckily the Gemara, which describes the tablets as each having been like a very large paving slab and six times as thick, does not have a monopoly on our history.

In any case, would it have made sense to engrave one of the shortest codes of Law on two pieces of stone, however large or small? If we look back into antiquity, we can see the actual pieces of stone of several codes of law. The most famous is the Code of Hammurabi of about 1750 BCE, which has 282 laws engraved in cuneiform on one mighty black stone, front and back. Also from Mesopotamia is the earlier code of 61 laws of Eshnunna of about 2000 BCE, and the 38 extant laws of Lipit-Ishtar of Sumer from a period a little later. These were all written on one piece of stone with a rounded head, as are major inscriptions from ancient Egypt, though we have no code of laws from that country.

To inscribe a set of laws, particularly such a succinct one as the Ten Commandments, on two pieces of stone seems to be asking for trouble. Is one stone the important one, and the other less so? Is one first class and the other second? What if one is lost, will its laws be forgotten and considered defunct?… [I would only half in jest note that we do have the more important, less important problem today, with the division going, more important: laws between God and man, less important: laws between man and man.–Shmarya]

So, we have stone tablets way to heavy for even the strongest human to carry. This is what our so-called mesora tells us to believe. Rosenberg now looks to the biblical text itself to clarify this:

…From the biblical texts it looks as if there were certainly two tablets, in Hebrew the word is luhot. Its original meaning is based on the root laha, meaning fresh or moist. In old age, Moses does not lose his freshness (leiho, Deut. 34:7). In a dispute between rival advisers to King Ahab, one prophet hits another on the cheek (haleihi, I Kings 22:24), a ruddy cheek being a sign of good health, of freshness. As leihi basically means the human cheek, then the two tablets or two luhot would be the two cheeks or sides of the one stone. This is further underlined by a passage in Ezekiel (27:5) which talks of the fine ships of the port of Tyre having their cedar wood made luhotayim, in the dual plural, meaning that the ships’ planks had two smooth faces, or cheeks, on the underside as well as the top. Only the best ships would have that refinement. It looks therefore as if the two luhot of the Ten Commandments could be the two cheeks or smooth faces of one piece of stone.

IF WE look again at the Bible texts, we should now read them in that light. In Deut. 9:15, Moses says "and the two luhot of the Covenant were on my two hands," meaning the two smooth sides of one heavy stone. More revealing is 9:10, "He gave me the two luhot of stone written with the finger of God." Although the word stone is in the plural in the Hebrew, it implies the material and not the pieces, and is always translated in the singular, meaning that the "cheeks" were of stone, that is, the two sides were of stone. This is made clear in Exodus 24:12 which is quite explicit, when God says to Moses, "I will give you the luhot of the stone (ha’even)." And Exodus 31:18 says that He, God, gave "the two luhot of the Testimony, luhot of stone [singular], written with the finger of God."…

So, let’s recap. We have a gemara that claims the impossible, a superhuman feat. We also have a rational explanation that fits well with the biblical text and with available historical evidence. Faced with this choice, what would you choose?

Before you answer that, look at this:

…[I]n 32:15, when Moses descended from the mountain, "the two luhot of the Testimony were in his hand, luhot written from their two sides (evreihem), from this side and that they were written."

If the tablets were two individual hunks of stone, no matter their size, how would this have worked? Rashi answers that question in a most bizarre fashion. The letters were engraved in a miraculous fashion, completely through the stone, so they were visable from both sides. What’s miraculous about that? According to Rashi, whatever side you looked at was perfectly legible. Also, neither side had reversed letters, and round, closed letters were magically suspended in the stone.

Rosenberg answers Rashi this way:

…[The biblical passage] refers to the single stone itself, which had two sides (everim) of smooth faces or cheeks, and that it was the single stone that was written, or better engraved, on both of its faces.

The conclusion is, then, that the Ten Commandments – like other ancient codes of law such as the Code of Hammurabi – were engraved on both faces of one stone.

Of course, the problem with all this rational information and historical data is that it contradicts the fantasies of generations of rabbis. Did Moses even exist? It’s an open question. But one thing seems sure; if he did, he carried one stone, smoothed and engraved on two sides.


Filed under History

Auschwitz Falling Apart

Ha’aretz reports Auschwitz is crumbling, disappearing, not so slowly, into the earth. Visitors now walk on bits of exposed bone and the infamous exhibits of human hair, shoes, etc., are being destroyed by mildew:

…[Auschwitz director Piotr] Cywinski is acutely aware of the deficiencies of the museum but is constrained by money and the physical limitations imposed by the scale of the site.

Various grandiose ideas – including one for a giant dome – have been rejected on grounds of cost and because any major construction would destroy some of the area and alter it.

Smaller-scale enclosures to protect the buildings would be possible, but even these would be expensive and would have to be agreed by all the groups that protect the site.

"Tens of millions of dollars, more, would be needed to do all the work," said Cywinski. But money is not the main problem: the Polish government has provided large sums and there are a number of international donors.

Time itself is the enemy, eroding the site and its contents.

"Conservationists are like doctors: we can extend life, but not for eternity," said Cywinski, who opposes any suggestion that decaying original artefacts should be replaced by copies.

Faded and frail, two tonnes of hair shorn from victims is piled up in one cell block: once blonde plaits, black pony-tails and auburn curls, it is gradually decaying and now looks like grey wire wool.

The museum has had more luck with its 80,000 shoes, mostly odd. Chief conservationist Rafal Pioro and his staff of 38 invited school children to help clean and polish some of them.

But there are so many, most still have to be stored in a warehouse without air-conditioning. Slowly, most are falling apart.

"The work is endless and painstaking and can be heart-rending," said Pioro. "When we were working on the children’s shoes, some of us were crying all the time."

Workers at Auschwitz are struggling to slow the ageing of the camp and keep it as a lesson on the evils of anti-Semitism.

They aim, in the words of a plaque near the gas chambers, to keep Auschwitz as "a cry of despair and a warning to humanity".…

How far should humanity go to preserve this most horrific part of our history? How much money should be spent? Cywinski now has a staff of 260 workers. Should he have more?

I think the answer is yes. Auschwitz needs to be preserved at almost any cost.


Filed under History

Idealogical Head Of Edah Haredit Passes Away, Group Now Seen As Rudderless

The Jerusalem Post reports on the passing of what it terms the "mythological political leader" of the anti-Zionist Edah Haredit, Rabbi Yosef Scheinberger. To me, the most interesting bit of information is the yichus of Rabbi Scheinberger and therefore of his grandson, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, the haredi street riot leader turned Zaka founder turned – haredi street riot leader:

Sheinberger’s family was directly related to the Sanz Hassidic dynasty.

Edah Haredit was built on anti-Zionism. All major anti-Zionist haredi leaders are hasidim. Neturei Karta’s theology is largely based on the works of three hasidic rebbes: Yoel Titlebaum of Satmar, the Munkatcher Rebbe known as the Minchat Elazar, and the fifth rebbe of Lubavitch, Sholom DovBer Schneersohn.

By contrast, the origins of Religious Zionism are largely Lithuanian. Even the hasidic founders of RZ were, for the most part, hasidim from the Belarus-Lithuania region. Examples of the latter would be Rav Kook and the lesser known but influential Smargoner Gaon.


Filed under Chabad History, History, Israel

Haredim And The Holocaust

How do haredim relate to the Holocaust? Ha’aretz reports:

…Professor Menachem Friedman, however, one of the leading experts on ultra-Orthodoxy in Israel, attributes it to Haredi society’s reluctance to confront the most difficult questions arising from the period. Questions like "Where was God in the Holocaust?," and those raising doubts about the rabbis’ performance during those dark years. These questions were seen by ultra-Orthodox society as threatening to their way of life, and pushed it into a defensive stance.

"Even now, the Haredim cannot ask, at least not openly, how the Gerrer, Satmar and Belzer rebbes and others fled and saved themselves, leaving their followers behind. The question is not only why the rabbis refrained from warning their followers, but also why they prevented them from migrating to Israel for fear of ‘spoiling’ them," says Friedman.

Friedman says these questions, which Agudat Yisrael newspapers dealt with passionately immediately after the Holocaust, gradually became taboo over the years.…

The bulk of the article is about one woman, Esther Farbstein, who has changed this to a small degree:

…Farbstein, who presented the research at both Haifa University and Yad Vashem, believes these are historic documents that shed light on various issues and add insights into Jewish life before and after the Holocaust. …

The most interesting dilemmas are those pertaining to survival itself. Rabbi Weinberger of the town of Turka, in Galicia, contends with the question of whether or not to leave. Despite family pressure to leave, he decides to remain with his community. The prefaces also reveal that the option of pretending to be a gentile presented a halakhic dilemma, as adopting a non-Jewish identity can be tantamount to idol worship.

The question of whether to go to the Land of Israel also worried the ultra-Orthodox rabbis, many of whom strongly objected to Israel for ideological reasons.

For it’s part, Chabad was not different. The Rebbe Rayyatz followed in his father the Rashab’s virulent anti-Zionism. (Did you know that a significant part of Neturei Karta’s ideology is based on three hasidic Rebbes’ anti-Zionism, the Satmar Rebbe, the Munkatcher Rebbe and the Rebbe Rashab of Lubavitch?) The Rayyatz told his followers there would be no war and Warsaw was safe for them. He did this in the summer of 1939, a couple of months before the Nazi destruction of Poland.

The Rayyatz was saved by American intervention. As he was being wisked out of bombed out Warsaw, what did he ask his American saviors for? To save more Jews? No. He asked for his book collection (largely secular books like Sherlock Holmes in Yiddish) and his household silver. The Rayyatz wrote several letters to President Roosevelt during the war. He never once asks Roosevelt to save Jews.

Only one man spoke with prescience regarding Europe’s Jews – Vladimir Jobotinsky. And it was followers of Jobotinsky who created and organized the so-called Rabbis March on Washington, which brought the ceation of the War Refugee Board, which saved more than 200,000 Jews. These followers of Jobotinsky were for the most part not Orthodox.

In other words, for the most part, listening to haredi rabbis meant dying on the ash heaps of Auschwitz. Never forget that.


Filed under Chabad and the Holocaust, Haredim, History, Jewish Leadership

The Jesus Dynasty

Months ago, I was contacted by Simon & Schuster and asked to accept a review copy of James Tabor’s book, the Jesus Dynasty. I agreed, and intended to write a review. But the Lebanon War and the abuse scandals didn’t leave me time, and Tabor’s book sat partially read on my table.

I met Tabor years ago in Jerusalem, and have really felt uncomfortable with my continued procrastination. Then tonight, I happened upon Tabor’s blog. From there I went to the book’s website:

…John and Jesus preached adherence to the Torah, or the Jewish Law.  But their mission was changed dramatically when John was arrested and then killed.  After a period of uncertainty, Jesus began preaching anew in Galilee and challenged the Roman authorities and their Jewish collaborators in Jerusalem.  He appointed a Council of Twelve to rule over the twelve tribes of Israel, among whom he included his four brothers.  After he was crucified by the Romans, his brother James – the “Beloved Disciple” – took over leadership of the Jesus Dynasty.

James, like John and Jesus before him, saw himself as a faithful Jew.  None of them believed that their movement was a new religion.  It was Paul who transformed Jesus and his message through his ministry to the gentiles, breaking with James and the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem, preaching a message based on his own revelations that would become Christianity.  Jesus became a figure whose humanity was obscured; John became merely a forerunner of Jesus; and James and the others were all but forgotten.

James Tabor has studied the earliest surviving documents of Christianity for more than thirty years and has participated in important archeological excavations in Israel.  Drawing on this background, Tabor reconstructs for us the movement that sought the spiritual, social, and political redemption of the Jews, a movement led by one family.  The Jesus Dynasty offers an alternative version of Christian origins, one that takes us closer than ever to Jesus and his family and followers.  The story is surprising and controversial, but exciting as only a long-lost history can be when it is at last recovered.…

James D. Tabor is chair of the department of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.  He holds a Ph.D. in biblical studies from the University of Chicago and is an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls and Christian origins.  The author of several previous books, he is frequently consulted by the media on these topics and has appeared on numerous television and radio programs.

I still have not had time to finish the book. From what I’ve read, I’m not yet convinced Tabor has proved his case. Still, for those interested in the split between the Church and Jews, or who simply want to know more about the time period that led up to the destruction of the Second Temple, Tabor’s book may be worthwhile.

[By the way, Tabor for many years was involved in the Bnai Noach Movement, and may still be today.]


Filed under Books, History