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Why Many Orthodox Jews Can’t Face Up To History

The mainstream Orthodox rabbinate in Poland publicly objected to the formation of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel on the grounds that the heads of that state would undoubtedly be secular if not even anti-religious. And so they opposed leaving Poland. And then the Holocaust happened.
Orthodox Jew at King David's Tomb in Old City of Jerusalem.

Orthodox Jew at King David's Tomb in Old City of Jerusalem.
Photo Credit: Mendy Hechtman / Flash 90

I think we can all agree that the two main stories in the Jewish world in the past century were the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel.

These two cataclysmic events changed Jewish society radically if not even permanently.

Yet much of Orthodoxy inexplicably ignores them as though they never happened.

The Holocaust and the rise of Israel occupy no space or time in many Orthodox schools, and days of commemoration of these events are absent on school calendars.

Instead there is a mindset that harkens back to an idyllic Eastern European world of fantasy – a world that is portrayed falsely in fictional stories and hagiographic biographies and by doctored photographs and omission of uncomfortable facts.

An entire talented and vital society is doomed to live in the imagined past and disregard present realities. And if the view of the present is unfortunately shaped by historical and social disconnect and denial, then certainly the longer and equally important view of the future will be distorted and skewed.

Sooner or later reality must sink in and when it does, the pain, anger and frustration over past distortions and failures will become very difficult to bear.

The great struggle of most of Orthodoxy in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries against Zionism influenced all Orthodox thought and behavior. As late as 1937, with German Jewry already prostrate before Hitler’s madness and Germany already threatening Poland, the mainstream Orthodox rabbinate in Poland publicly objected to the formation of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel on the grounds that the heads of that state would undoubtedly be secular if not even anti-religious.

They were correct in that assessment, but since the Holocaust was then an unimaginable event in their worldview, they continued in their opposition to Jews leaving Poland to settle either in the United States or in Israel. Because of this past mindset, the Holocaust is more unsettling – theologically, at least – to Orthodoxy then perhaps to any other group in the Jewish world.

Much of Orthodoxy chooses to ignore the issue or to contrive lame excuses and causes for this catastrophe. In my opinion, while there is no human answer to the event itself, it cannot be ignored.

One of the consequences of confronting it would be to admit that great and holy men can be wrong in their assessment of current events and future occurrences. But much of Orthodoxy is so hagiographic about its present and past leaders that it cannot bring itself to admit that. As such, the past cannot truly help to assess the present. A false past is almost as dangerous as having no past at all.

Dealing with the modern state of Israel is an even more vexing issue for much of Orthodoxy. The creation of the Jewish state, mainly by secular and nonobservant Jews and by political and military means, was not part of the traditional Jewish view of how the Land of Israel would again fall under Jewish rule.

Since it occurred in the “wrong” way and was being led by the “wrong” people, this too shook the mindset of much of Orthodoxy. One of the great and holy leaders of Orthodox society in Israel stated in 1950 that the state could not last more than fifteen years. Well, it is obvious that in that assessment he was mistaken.

But again, it is too painful to admit he was mistaken and therefore the whole attitude of much of the Orthodox world is one of denial of the fact that the state exists, prospers, and is in fact the world’s largest supporter of Torah and the traditional Jewish religious lifestyle.

About the Author: Rabbi Berel Wein is an internationally acclaimed scholar, lecturer and writer whose audiotapes on Torah and other Jewish subjects have garnered a wide following, as have his books, which include a four-volume series on Jewish history. Formerly an executive vice president of the Orthodox Union and rabbinic administrator of the OU’s kashrus division, he founded Yeshiva Shaarei Torah of Rockland in 1977 and moved to Israel in 1997.

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9 Responses to “Why Many Orthodox Jews Can’t Face Up To History”

  1. Gene Strong says:

    Most Germany jews.supported Hitler at first and later tried appeasement before it was simply too late.
    Modern Israel has grown complacent and is trying to appease muslims.who want nothing less than another holocaust. ..The IDF is under attack by
    Muslim thugs and have no support from timid Israel leaders..shut down the liberal press if they are.scaring the politicians…Israel is in big trouble.

  2. Stella Webby says:

    Jews did not believe the rumors in germany. Yes, until it was too late.

  3. those who God will used he keep them.

  4. Suzy Baim says:

    It’s important to learn about the holocaust, but learn it as one of the tragedies among others. Plus people shouldn’t just learn tragedies, but positive events too so our heritage is not a downer but beautiful.

  5. Suzy Baim says:

    It’s important to learn about the holocaust, but learn it as one of the tragedies among others that happened. Plus people shouldn’t just learn tragedies, but positive events and values. This is just one thing out of many things in history. We have a whole heritage to learn and live as we go forward

  6. The State of Israel is Not the Moshiach!

  7. The State of Israel is Not the Moshiach!

  8. Yossi S Schwartz says:

    Meir Zirkind Also your critique of my words that you put in quotes, while relevant to the overall discussion, missed the point I was trying to make. All I was saying that your argument against the state on the basis that we will lose the life of one soldier was wrong, simply because in general, between three thousand and two thousand years ago, God decided to give us a kingdom, (back then), despite the fact that this would obviously result in wars, and during those wars there would be fatalities. To reiterate, what I am saying is that your argument that “in theory” we should not have a state because of the resulting casualties is spurious, at best.

    As far as the Zionists not creating the state because it is Gods intent, but rather because of their own goals, it is irrelevant for several reasons. The creation of the state Israel by the Zionists was done for several reasons, the primary one being as a way to prevent the persecution of the Jews (who would not be persecuted if they were living in their own state with their own army). Obviously the main facet of persecution in the 19th and 20th centuries were the arbitrary government killings of jews that took place in Europe, which of course, doesn’t take place in Israel. This goal, I feel, is a good one. From a common sense approach. Without an army–any jew in any land can be killed by any government—not so in Israel with a jewish government. Now, I think that it is largely unimportant if this is the Torah approach. This is the right approach. As it happens, it is possible to say that this is the Torah approach. The Torah does place great emphasis on human life (not to mention human dignity), and one can violate almost any commandment in the Torah to save lives.

    Which brings us to the next point…

    As far as God’s will, I must confess that in my daily conversations with God, I tell God what I want, but He never tells me anything what He wants. Thus I can’t really say what God’s will is. However, I understand that you brought proof from the neviim to claim that we can’t go back yet. I believe that you are oversimplifying it. In fact, many religious Zionist rabbis bring proof from navi that the establishment of the state is or will usher in the process of moshiach. Certainly, navi speaks about the times of moshiach in reference to: a rejuvenation of Judaism, (which has and continues to happen), the agriculture blossoming, and miracles in the land. As far a miracles go. No other nation in the history of the world has ever established themselves as political entity after losing their sovereignty for two thousand years—nothing remotely similar has ever taken place; no other nation has revived a “dead” language as the Jews, and no other land, as poor and primitive and lacking of resources and in such a precarious position as Israel, has gone from that initial state, to being an economic powerhouse with WMD’s, a strong military, ect ect. Of course, all this is compounded by the fact, that only a few back, we had suffered a holocaust. This and more is unprecedented—therefore it is logical that is miraculous—and only God performs miracles (unless you are satmar). Despite everything I just wrote, I could understand, somewhat, that different people could interpret the texts in different ways. Ultimately then, God’s will then, (as determined by Jewish texts) is not crystal clear. I therefore revert back to common sense.

    We do not celebrate independence day or cry on yom hashoa, because the government says so. They are irrelevant in matters of religion. It is matter of religion, and the rabbinut at the time, which is the religious mechanism in Israel, as well as most of the religious Zionists rabbis at the time and now, said to observe those days. Of course the anti-zionist rabbis said not to, but of course, they have no say—they are against the state, and thus it would be equivalent to asking Benedict Arnold whether to sing the star spangled banner.

    As far equating Israel or her leadership to a bully. That is unfair. Better to say that they are comprised of human government leaders and generals, and like leaders and generals, sometimes they do things that are wrong or mistaken or that you disagree with.

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