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It has been estimated that more than half of the millions of Jews caught up in the Holocaust observed the mitzvot, the commandments of the Torah, in their daily lives prior to the advent of the Nazis. Did this commitment to halacha, the “way” of Jewish religious law, crumble and disintegrate under the pressures of the Final Solution? Or did halacha continue to bring not only some semblance of order, but of meaning, sanity, and even sanctity, into their lives?
Precisely because the motivations behind Holocaust were not without precedent, and because the halacha had confronted, dealt with, and transcended similar situations in the past, it was able to guide and sustain those who lived and died by it during the bitter and calamitous times of the German domination of Europe.
While much of its technology was novel, the Holocaust simply replicated, on an extensive and enormous scale, events that had occurred with tragic regularity throughout Jewish history. The concept of the Final Solution differed in kind from earlier attempts at the destruction of the Jews, but this could make little difference in the reaction of its victims, who were unaware of the comprehensive nature of the plan.
Pillage, psychological degradation, exclusion from society, mass murder, mass graves, burning, torture, beatings, cremation, forced labor, imprisonment, death marches, infanticide, rape, expulsion – all of these had all been experienced by Jewish communities in the past.
Long before the Holocaust, the halacha had developed its theoretical “theology” and practical course of action with regard to such tragic events.
The halacha was, therefore, uniquely equipped to adjust to death and suffering as well as to life and joy. It would be blasphemous for anyone who did not himself experience the terrors and the madness of the Holocaust to speak of the supportive and sustaining power of the Torah during that insane and diabolical period. But the vivid and compelling testimony of survivors, the literary testaments of victims, even eyewitness accounts of the SS and those in league with them, clearly indicate the significant and ennobling role of Jewish religious observance during the Holocaust.
In the face of events that would make Job’s trials seem trivial, Jews retained their confident belief in a just Creator Whose secret purposes they might not be able to fathom but Whose revealed and clear dictates in halacha they were bound to observe.
Halacha maintained that the only tenable response of the believing Jew to the chastisements of God – deserved or not – was that of Moses himself, who, after describing God’s outpouring of wrath upon His people, declared, “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong unto us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of the law” (Deut. 29:28).
The one course of action that remained mandatory under even the most calamitous circumstances was the fulfillment of the mitzvot.
Of course, there must have been thousands of observant Jews who did ask Abraham’s question, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?” and who found the conventional answers wanting. They could find no sin heinous enough to warrant the punishment they were receiving, and no promised bliss in the hereafter adequate enough to outweigh the hellish tortures they were suffering in this world. They abandoned and rejected halacha at the same time they denied God.
But there were thousands more to whom the mitzvot were as important – perhaps more important – during the Holocaust as they were in normal times. For them the rabbinic observation, “Since the day the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One, blessed be He, is only to be found in the ‘four cubits’ of halacha” (Berachot 8a), became almost literally true. Their one sure link with God was performance of His commandments. The one world in which they could be certain God was to be found was the world of halacha.
It is these men and women, who lived in the Holocaust and the realm of Torah at the same time, who truly made a Kiddush Hashem.
About the Author: Rabbi Ephraim Sprecher is dean of students at the Diaspora Yeshiva in Jerusalem.
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