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September 29, 2016 / 26 Elul, 5776
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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.

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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.

Rabbi Berel Wein

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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