Magazine article Tikkun

The Bad Is a Throne for the Good -- the Holy Fire: The Teachings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto by Nehemia Polen

Magazine article Tikkun

The Bad Is a Throne for the Good -- the Holy Fire: The Teachings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto by Nehemia Polen

Article excerpt

The Holy Fire: The Teachings of Rabbi Kalonumus Kalman Shapira, The Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, by Nehemia Polen. Jason Aronson, 1994, 208 pages. $30.

This is not a book about the Holocaust or Hasidism. Contrary to the subtitle, it is not even a book about the final writings of one of the gedolim, or great ones of our generation. The Holy Fire is primarily a manual on comprehending evil from within God. And that makes it an invaluable tool for anyone interested in Jewish spiritual renewal.

The Holy Fire began as a Ph.D. thesis under the direction of Elie Wiesel at Boston University. Like most such ventures, it still occasionally betrays its academic origins in syntax and attention to detail. But these are infrequent and the teachings of both Rabbi Shapira (and his disciple, Rabbi Polen) are so powerful and disturbing that the reader is quickly drawn into the inner workings of life and spiritual survival in the Warsaw Ghetto. Polen, himself trained with a classical Orthodox rabbinic education, understands that he is more than a historian or biographer. He intuits that through the life teaching of Rabbi Shapira, he can teach us of a long-lost way to understand what seems to be gratuitous evil.

Until now, the most common theological responses to the existence of radical evil as manifest in the Holocaust have been that God is dead (which, I guess, means that Hitler won), that suffering is punishment (which means that God is some kind of a cosmic Bogeyman and that the Deuteronomic theory of history prevails), or, most popular and perhaps most dangerous, that God is somehow constrained, inadequate, underachieving, limited, unable to prevail against the forces of evil (which means that God is less than God). Not much of a choice.

The second way is predicated on the notion that evil may or may not be real but that God is so mean or cruel (or evil--incinerating a million Jewish babies as a form of covenant pedagogy begs its own lesson) that it doesn't matter.

The first and third--the more popular ones--hold that evil has ontological reality beyond the power of God. The implication of both of these views is, in effect, that God is but one source of reality. There is another, non-divine, source, call it what you will--Satan, the devil, sitra akhra (the other side), the dark side of the force--it is not God, never was, never will be. And this world won't get better until God and His (sic) soldiers, humankind, do battle with evil and prevail.

The evil (one?) is inside us all, within entire nations, everywhere. Given this premise, in one form or another, dualism (a belief in two ultimate forces) is inescapable. We are all both spectators and players in a universal battle between the good god and the enemy, the evil force. And, while this formulation is obviously anti-Jewish, there are a lot of highly regarded Jews out there (including Isaac Luria with his ideas of kelipot or shards and much of contemprary Lubavitch Hasidism) who have come very close to embracing a dualistic worldview.

Beyond these options--God is dead, Cosmic Bogeyman, Punch & Judy Show--there is another alternative. While not as widely known and certainly every bit as problematic, it has long been favored by classical Hasidism. In this acosmic model, God is not only everywhere, God is everything, the Source of all being and reality. …

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