A Ninth of Av Meditation: Rabbi Ziemba and the Theology of Defiance

Article excerpt

Should Jews commemorate the Holocaust on the Ninth of Av? The Israeli Knesset mandates a memorial day for the Nazi genocide of the Jews--Yom haShoah. But that commemoration is the creation of a parliament of a modern Jewish democracy. Yom ha-Shoah does not confront the theological ramifications of the Holocaust. Within Judaism's ultra-Orthodox camp, traditional fast days like the Ninth of Av have also been days to commemorate Jewish martyrdom during the Shoah. But can we truly include the Nazi war against the Jews within the framework of traditional Jewish fast days? Is the Holocaust similar to previous tragedies in Jewish history? Is there not something about the Holocaust that is essentially unique, that in no way can be compared to the destructions of the Temples in Jerusalem commemorated on the Ninth of Av? Are traditional categories of catastrophe being God's punishment for Jewish sin relevant to the Shoah?

The thesis of this essay is that even Jews living during the Holocaust hell realized that a new response was required to evil that had not been broached in tradition before the 20th century. The most important defender of this new theology was Rabbi Menachem Ziemba, one of the last rabbis to lead his followers in the Warsaw Ghetto.

We will never know the extent of Jewish religious belief and ritual practice in the Warsaw Ghetto. Many of the Jews in Warsaw murdered by the Nazis were religious, swearing allegiance to a particular Hasidic rebbe. But their voices remain mute. Religious Jews and their rabbinic leadership in the ghetto did not survive the war and did not live to tell us about the nature of religious life in the Warsaw Ghetto. As well, the Zionist narrative in Israel in the years leading up to the Eichmann Trial in the early 1960's was one that painted the religious Jews as being passive victims who accepted their death as the will of God. Before the Holocaust, most Jews--many of them Orthodox--rejected the Zionist movement for violating a principle in the Jewish religion by not waiting for messianic redemption to restore Jewish sovereignty to the Land of Israel. From an ideological standpoint, secular Zionism--Labor Zionism in particular--ignored the role of their ideological foes in the religious world and, therefore, had little interest in their story. But as we shall see, the role of religious Jews in the war saw Ghetto--and in the Shoah, as a whole--is far more complex than either the Orthodox theology that opposed Zionism or the Zionist political ideology that opposed the Orthodox could imagine. With the decline of Labor Zionism in Israel and the rise in prominence of both religious Zionists and the ultra-Orthodox, the time has come to bring the narrative of religious Jews to the fore in our understanding of the events of 1939-1945.

The first valuable resource in investigating the situation of religious Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto is the "Oneg Shabbos" archive of Emanuel Ringelblum (1900-1944). Before World War II, Ringelblum worked for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Many individuals in the ghetto joined historian Ringelblum in chronicling the persecution and ultimate destruction of Warsaw Jewry. Ringelblum and his associates collected newspapers, underground publications, letters, diaries, and German documents relating to Jewish deportations and murders, and recorded the testimony of the Jews coming to Warsaw from other ghettos) In detailing Jewish life in the ghetto, Ringelblum devotes little of the archive to religious life. He concentrates on the role of the Jewish Council and on institutional life, the day-to--day struggle for survival in the ghetto, and the murderous German agenda to deport Jews to their death in Treblinka. But what he does chronicle concerning Jewish religious observance in the ghetto is illuminating.

Ringelblum's archive, in an entry from October 1940--a time when the Germans forced Jews into the ghetto--mentions that "the finest public institutions in Warsaw have been ruined" and "eight hundred Torah scrolls desecrated. …