Thursday, September 09, 2021

The Women of Telz, and the Women of the Wall

Women of Telz (Mishpacha online)
All of the women in the ghetto gathered in the synagogue to pray and pour out their sorrow and pain before G-d in heaven. A young woman, age 20, led the prayers. She prayed skillfully and melodically, just like a chazzan. There was not a single man in the shul. The women prayed in the place of all the men who had been shot… 

The Lithuanian murderers’ order to bring all the Jewish women into the ghetto caused a panic among all the women. They were certain that their moment of death had arrived. Everyone was certain of it. Oceans of tears poured from the eyes of the surviving women that Rosh Hashanah. They all pleaded with Hashem for forgiveness, and repented for the sins that they had never even committed. It was a day of moral reckoning with Hashem, a moment of eternal parting with the world.

Once again, the young girl stood at the amud and prayed instead of a chazzan, instead of a man. Her sweet voice and prayer to Hashem to save them from death called forth rivers of tears from all the women present...

These words (excerpted by Tzipora Weinberg in her Mishpacha Magazine article) are some of the most awe inspiring words I have ever read. They were made by Malka Gillis testifying at a DP (Displaced Persons) camp in 1946 about what she witnessed at the final Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in the city of Telz during the Holocaust. She was among 500 women that survived the mass murder of all the town’s men and many of the women.  Another woman who was there by the name of Bat Sheva Berkman, testified to the following:

Holiday prayer books and siddurs were hardly to be found, just as there was no man to serve as prayer leader. Everyone waited. And suddenly, a sweet voice was heard: barechu es Hashem hamevorach! And the congregation answered: baruch Hashem hamevorach l’olam va’ed. Before the altar stood a young girl who prayed by heart… with the appropriate liturgy to suit the holiday, just as an actual cantor would. And the crowd was swept along with her. This young girl even blew the shofar. She pressed her hands to her mouth, forming the shape of a shofar, and articulated the sounds of each blow: Tekiah, Shevarim, Teruah, with the expertise of an experienced baal tokeia.  

The description of those events – and how those women reacted makes whatever problems we might have in our daily lives seem trivial by comparison. 

I would find it hard to find a better expression of Emunah - of faith in God than what these women did on that Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. After devastation and loss of unimaginable scale - both personal and communal – they did the best they could without the ability to ask Shailos. In my view it was more than appropriate. It was  a Kiddush HaShem and - as I said - awe inspiring! That they were able to do this is a testament to the level of education these woman had at a time where women's education was not yet widespread as it is today. They knew what Rosh Hashana is and how it should be executed. And they apparently did it flawlessly. 

I wonder how many men today could do the same had they been in their shoes. How many of us that have even been educated in Yeshivos could execute a Rosh Hahasha service as flawlessly and with so much devotion without the help of a Rav? My guess is that most of us could not do that. 

I often say that we cannot judge those who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust and  lost their faith. Those that didn’t experience it have not been tested that way. And clearly have no right to judge. No less a religious figure that the Satmar Rebbe declared that survivors of the Holocaust have an automatic place in Olam Habah because of what they had gone through.  Even if they stopped being observant. My guess is that a lot more survivors lost their faith than kept it.   

The women of Telz were of the latter mindset. After losing their husbands to slaughter - they refused to stop believing. They instead poured out their hearts in prayer pleading ‘with Hashem for forgiveness, and repented for the sins that they had never even committed’ on the Yom HaDin – the day of judgment that is Rosh Hashana. And then there was Yom Kippur: 

All of the women gathered together quite early. Miss Golda Amelan stood at the lectern instead of a chazzan. Everyone without exception was fasting. Miss Amelan’s voice beseeched, demanded, and tore its way into the deaf heavens. In the afternoon, many women lay on the floor in a faint. The stronger and healthier ones continued praying until nightfall.

There was not a single man in shul that Yom Kippur. It was a Yom Kippur with no one but women and small children. Just like men, they swayed back and forth, begging Hashem for forgiveness, for a good year of life and livelihood, and so forth. In the back of their minds, all the women thought that this Yom Kippur would be the last for all the Jewish women in the Telz ghetto. And because of this their weeping was so heartrending… they wept and begged Hashem to have mercy on them and on the children, and they wept when they remembered previous Yom Kippur days together with their families. 

I cannot begin to imagine what that was like. I am beyond humbled by the righteous women of Telz. 

After reading this awe inspiring story one might be tempted to make a comparison to today’s Women’s Tefilah Groups like the Women of the Wall (WOW). After all are they not doing the same thing? Doesn't that show that such groups are well within the bounds of Halacha - if  righteous and knowledgeable women such as these did it? 

The issue was never about the Halachic parameters of doing so. It is about breaking tradition for reasons that at best are about rejecting tradition as personally not being spiritually fulfilling enough. In  some cases it is purely about feminism and breaking barriers. 

To compare WOW which is comprised of women that have husbands, fathers, or sons - and are living in relatively peaceful and prosperous times to the women of Telz - and perhaps claiming it as precedent - would be outrageous. They had lost everything during one of the darkest times in human history, and had no other option other than finding a way to observe the solemnity of the day than to do what their husbands, fathers, and sons did. I have no doubt that the women of Telz would see the WOW  as near blasphemous. And I would agree.