Sunday, December 08, 2019

The Holocaust Conundrum

Beth Medrash Govoha - unprecedented numbers of Charedim studying Torah
I have lived with this conundrum for most of my adult life. The fact is that if not for the Holocaust, I would not exist. Nor would any of my four children. Nor would any of my 25 grandchildren have been born.

My father’s first wife was murdered as she tried to escape Nazi soldiers chasing her after they discovered the underground bunker she and my father were hiding in. She was caught. My father was not. After the war my father met my mother, married her, and about a year later I was born. Had my father’s first wife  not been killed by the Nazis, my father would have never married my mother.

These thoughts have haunted me ever since I became aware of them.  Not an easy thing to contemplate. And this is what I thought of when I read about Dr. Michal Shaul’s research and conclusions about the survival of the Charedi world in our day. She sees the Holocaust in a similar way - precipitating the strong revival of the Charedi world. From an article in YNet on the subject: 
According to Dr. Shaul, the world of Torah was in a process of disappearing until the Holocaust, and if it wasn’t for the dreadful disaster suffered by the Jewish people, it's possible that there would be no ultra-Orthodox world today.
"In the early 20th century, the world of Torah was in a deep crisis," she says. "Jewish Orthodoxy was nearly extinct. It was consumed by the Jewish Enlightenment movement, Zionism and Socialism, and there was a major shift towards those movements. According to estimates, there were only several thousand yeshiva students in Eastern Europe before the war."
It was the huge destruction which caused Holocaust survivors to take urgent action, she says. "They realized that it was 'to be or not to be,'" she explains. When the survivors saw that almost the entire world of Torah had gone up in flames after the war, and upon the establishment of the secular State of Israel, religious leaders and common people came to the conclusion that they to fight to restore the world of Torah.
"It's likely that without the Holocaust, the world of Torah would have become extinct," Dr. Shaul believes. 
I would not go as far as Dr. Shaul does. I do not believe that the Torah world would have become extinct. But I do think she has a point. I do believe that it was the Holocaust that catalyzed the world of Torah to dedicate itself to ‘rebuilding from the ashes’ - what was once the glorious world of  Torah that existed in pre-war Europe.

On the other hand, Dr. Shaul is right about the ‘why’ of that conclusion. The enlightenment as well as other socialist movements had taken hold in many Jewish homes. There were a lot of Jews from religious homes that had begun abandoning the ways of their forefathers in favor of a more enlightened way of life. 

It is no secret that some of the finest minds that attended some of the most elite of Yehsivas in Europe were swept away by the allure of enlightened thinking to reject traditional Jewish theology. The freedom Jews were finally given to attend universities added to that trend. Rabbi Aharon Rakaffet reported in his book on Yeshiva University's first President, Rabbi Dr. Dov Revel, that he flirted with the  socialism of that time sweeping the world before eventually abandoning it and later becoming the Yeshiva’s head.

There is no question in my mind that the Holocaust changed things. Had not Rav Aharon Kotler come to these shores and transplanted the European Yeshiva model to the US - there would very likely be no Charedi paradigm like it to follow. It is also true that the post Holocaust influx of European Chasidic immigrants to the US gave Charedi institutions gave that Yeshiva paradigm the population it needed to survive and eventually thrive to the extent it does today. The Modern Orthodox Jews of the day were hardly material for those schools.

It is possible that - had there been no Holocaust, there would like be no American Charedim. At least not in any numbers of consequence. The only question is whether things might have turned around somehow in Europe. Great ‘what if’question. And a difficult one to answer. But ultimately it doesn’t matter.

Trying to make predictions about the future based on a linear trajectory of history up to the present day is a fool’s errand. One never knows what factors might come into play that will change that trajectory. God controls the world.  

I for one am absolutely convinced that the Torah would never have been completely forgotten by the people of Israel, That is God’s promise to us. No matter how far across the globe we have been dispersed since the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem - God will remember us when we seek him with all of  our hearts and soul. That is what the words: U’Vikashtem MiSham (Devorim 4:29) mean. The children of Israel will find the eventual salvation promised to us by God Himself in the Torah.

That still leaves me perplexed about my own existence. But at the same time I have great confidence in the future salvation of our people.