Where was God during the Holocaust? It’s a daunting question, and an appropriate one to raise as we approach Yom Hashoah, usually rendered as Holocaust Remembrance Day, which this year falls on April 12. But it’s also one thing to contemplate this question from the comfort of an office or synagogue. It’s something else entirely to have addressed it from within the Warsaw Ghetto. That, however, is exactly what Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (1889-1943) did in sermons delivered in the ghetto between the fall of 1939 and the summer of 1942, when mass deportations to Treblinka began.
Known to posterity as the Warsaw Ghetto rebbe, Shapira transcribed these sermons, which were subsequently buried in the hope that they would be passed on to whoever managed to survive. Published until now under the title Eish Kodesh (“Holy Fire”), they are far more than a collection of Sabbath homilies. Together they bear witness to personal theological upheaval and a spiritual struggle of almost inconceivable proportions, conducted not only under circumstances of unrelenting torment, starvation, and death but with a very deeply felt apprehension of divine absence.
As myself the child of two Holocaust survivors, both of whom lost many close relatives to the Nazis, I have always found the annihilation of European Jewry to defy adequate religious response. Whether God hid His face (to use a common biblical and rabbinic metaphor), or whether a new commanding Voice emerges out of Auschwitz (as the theologian Emil Fackenheim argued), or whether the Shoah spells the death or indeed the non-existence of God, nothing can soften or resolve the radical theological and philosophical crisis induced by the fact of systematic murder on so massive a scale.
In addition to his sermons’ intellectual audacity, creativity, and erudition, combined with an absolute refusal on his part to sugarcoat the horrors of the events that produced them, what gives Shapira’s work its power, and makes it one of the most extraordinary achievements of 20th-century Jewish thought, is that he reaches a similarly desolate conclusion—but without for a moment turning his back on the Jewish covenant with God.
Kalonymus Kalman Shapira was born in the Polish shtetl of Grodzisk Mazowiecki, where his father—who died when the child was three years old—served as rebbe, or ḥasidic leader. In 1909 he moved to nearby Piaseczno, where he officiated as the community rabbi, attracted his own ḥasidic following, and became known as the Piaseczner rebbe. Moving later to Warsaw, he set up a yeshiva that achieved recognition (and some notoriety) for its progressive pedagogical philosophy and that, no doubt as a result, became one of the largest in the city. When the Nazis confined Warsaw’s Jews to a ghetto, Shapira managed to establish a clandestine synagogue and served as one of the ghetto’s leading ḥasidic rabbis. He was most likely murdered in the Trawniki concentration camp in 1943.
Before addressing Shapira’s theology, it helps to know how his writings managed to survive. After the end of World War II, they were retrieved together with the spectacular cache of documents produced by the group of Warsaw writers, poets, and diarists led by the historian Emmanuel Ringelblum. Courageously persisting under the direst of circumstances, the members of Oyneg Shabbes (“Sabbath Delight”), as the group bitterly and defiantly called itself, strove to create the first archive of the Holocaust so that future generations would be aware of what happened to them and know that the Jewish spirit was never completely extinguished. They hid the documents in early 1943.
The labors of the Oyneg Shabbes group left a permanent legacy of some 35,000 pages, as well as photographs and artifacts, all testifying to a moral resistance as significant and heroic as that of those who chose to die fighting rather than be led “like sheep to the slaughter” in the famous ghetto uprising of April 1943. Though Shapira was not an official member of the group, his weapons of choice were, like theirs, the pen and the spoken word. His own life and thought—and his insistence on the preservation of his sermons—constitute yet another exemplar of resistance: a wholly unique testament to an existential struggle to wrest meaning from an evil of such magnitude as to defy all reason.
Until now, Shapira’s sermons, originally delivered in Yiddish and then transcribed by him in Hebrew, have been available mainly in a Hebrew edition published by Shapira’s family and followers in Israel. Though certainly competent, it contains numerous errors in transcription. But now the sermons have been republished in a masterful critical edition edited and annotated by Daniel Reiser, an outstanding young Israeli scholar of Ḥasidism.
As anyone can confirm who has seen Shapira’s surviving manuscript in the archives of Warsaw’s Jewish Historical Institute, the sermons are marked by incessant cross-outs, words crammed in between lines, copious marginalia, and arrows pointing every which way to supplementary text or corrections—all reflecting the restlessness, anxiety, and pain invested in every thought and its proper expression. These, combined with the idiosyncratic handwriting, render the manuscript virtually illegible to the untrained eye.
Reiser’s sensitivity to the nuances of ḥasidic language and painstaking attentiveness to the manuscript, aided by advances in technology that enable far clearer images, make this new edition an indispensable resource. His corrections begin with the title: not the ambiguous “Holy Fire” imposed posthumously by the author’s followers but the one Shapira himself gave to the collection in a note appended to the manuscript: “Sermons from the Years of Rage, 1939-1942.” Making use of the term za’am (rage), often invoked in the Bible and by talmudic rabbis in connection with catastrophe, it issues a warning: you are about to confront a rabbinic work unlike any previously encountered since the description in Lamentations of the destruction of the first Temple by a divine rage loosed indiscriminately to consume “priest and king alike” and drive ordinary men and women insane with terror.
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Reiser has published the book in two volumes. The first presents a clean, final draft of the sermons, omitting the words Shapira crossed out and incorporating those he inserted between the lines and in the margins. The text is accompanied by extensive notes, themselves an invaluable contribution, identifying sources and explicating technical kabbalistic and ḥasidic terms. In his introduction, Reiser surveys Shapira’s life and intellectual legacy while dispelling many myths concerning the manuscripts’ preservation and rediscovery.
The second volume reproduces the actual pages of the surviving handwritten manuscript in its marked-up form, side by side with a transcription of the pages into type, complete with their cross-outs, marginalia, and multiple reworkings. Seeing the text in this way adds a whole new dimension to the evolution of Shapira’s thought, even as the frenzied pen strokes conjure up the conditions under which he worked—the annihilation of his family including both of his children, the destruction of his community, rampant starvation and disease, and the constant threat of deportation and murder.
The earlier edition traced three cycles of sermons from the arrival of the Germans in the fall of 1939 to July 18, 1942, a few days before the mass deportations to Treblinka. But because Shapira continually revisited his work, we are now able to trace his intellectual evolution as he made changes to earlier sermons to reflect later conditions. To take an especially poignant example: an arrow from a passage expressing an expectation of miraculous salvation leads to a marginal note, written at a later date, casting doubt on Israel’s ability to endure such unbearable suffering until salvation arrives. As the horrific enormity of the Final Solution becomes clear, faithful optimism turns to faithful realism.
By carefully preserving these layers, Reiser has followed Shapira’s instructions that, when the sermons again see the light of day, his annotations should appear as is instead of being incorporated into the original text; the earlier versions, that is to say, are there to be reread in light of the later ones. Just as ancient rabbis radically revised biblical theology and law in the face of the void left by a destroyed Temple, so, too, Shapira’s sermons replace old theologies in response to the unprecedented calamity of his time.
One of these arrows—unsettlingly, the reader comes to anticipate them—appears in a sermon originally delivered in late June 1942, barely a month before the deportations began, glossing the observation that children have historically borne the brunt of anti-Semitic oppression. The corresponding note, likely written once the deportations to Treblinka were under way, emphasizes that the children’s suffering surpasses anything Jews had previously experienced. The note is punctuated by a desperate shriek: “What has become of us?!”
Shapira further elaborates the point in another marginal note, most likely written later in 1942, which may contain his most consequential theological move. In the original sermon, from December of the previous year, he had argued against the claim that the current catastrophe had broken the mold of previous Jewish suffering. Not so, he’d responded; it fit perfectly into the historical pattern of an endless litany of Jewish tragedies from the destruction of the ancient Temples, to the fall of the fortress at Betar that ended the Bar Kokhba rebellion in 135 CE, to all of the recurring pogroms and expulsions thereafter.
But after another year of relentless and escalating suffering, Shapira admitted the hollowness of his former evaluation, stating frankly that “the monstrous torments, the terrible and freakish deaths which the malevolent murderers invented against us, the House of Israel, since the middle of 1942—according to my knowledge of rabbinic literature and Jewish history in general, there has never been anything like them.” It was now undeniably clear that the Nazi goal was not mere persecution but wholesale extermination.
For a ḥasidic rabbi, this was no easy step to take. While most Jews today accept the idea of the Holocaust’s uniqueness and therefore of the unique challenge that it poses to faith, many Orthodox and most ultra-Orthodox thinkers have retained the older view of a recurring historical drama in which each major destruction effectively reenacts prior ones, up to and including the Holocaust. Even in December 1941, as we have seen, Shapira adhered to this cyclical understanding of Jewish history. Only in the following year, after carefully measuring the Holocaust against both history and rabbinic tradition, did he acknowledge that reactions to prior crises were radically inadequate to the present catastrophe.
Indeed, on the basis of passages like this one, some scholars have deduced that the rebbe ultimately lost his faith. Reiser concludes that they are wrong, and the evidence strongly militates in his favor. If Shapira had abandoned God, why continually revise and edit the sermons themselves, preserving in them his own dialogue with God, his cajoling of God, his pleading with God, his defense of his community against God’s “rage,” and finally (as we shall see) his calling God Himself to task? If he had already buried his belief, why hand over, to be buried for posterity, God-intoxicated sermons wholly dependent on faith in Him and His covenant?
Intellectually, rejecting faith would have been the easy way out, and Shapira was a man disinclined to choose the easy way. Just as he didn’t opt for physical escape when the opportunity arose, instead remaining with his flock till the very end, so he declined the invitation to escape from spiritual torment by denying God.
Flayed by the experience of unprecedented evil, shorn of his trusted theological armor, Shapira refused to turn his back on tradition. Instead, he resolved to design a new language with which to comfort his listeners while speaking to God—while disturbing God.
The sermons constitute that language.
How so? Often in these sermons, Shapira resorts to an exegetical device by which a traditional commentator would subtly suggest the need for God to embark on a new course of action, usually in order to allay the suffering of His people.
Thus, in one sermon, Shapira attempts to sway God by means of the ḥasidic notion that the text of the Torah is a continuum without beginning or end. Seen in this light, the book of Genesis is at once the starting point and, simultaneously, the extension of a story that otherwise seems to end with Deuteronomy. That being the case, the phrase “In the beginning” (Genesis 1:1) can be read as continuing and completing the final words of Deuteronomy, giving us this passage: “and for all the great might and awesome power that Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel in the beginning.” By means of this reading, Shapira has the text cry out that the same miracles and awesome powers that enabled Moses to rescue and liberate the Israelites from Egyptian oppression must be mobilized by God not at some later moment but immediately, if not sooner—in the beginning!
Shapira employs the same technique in his very last sermon, delivered in July 1942 on Shabbat Ḥazon, the Sabbath just prior to the ninth of Av—the solemn fast day commemorating the great Jewish catastrophes of the past. Drawing on kabbalistic and midrashic symbolism, he plays on the superiority of “sight,” evoked by the word ḥazon (vision), to “knowledge.” Take a hard look at the suffering of Your people, he implores God, and leave off any grand, knowing design for a utopian future that will somehow rationalize present suffering.
And not only look, he goes on, still speaking to God, but listen to “the screams of agony of the young and the old who shout out rateve, rateve, rateve as long as breath remains within us.” Only his lapse into the repeated Yiddish plea for rescue seems adequately to convey Shapira’s extremity of desperation as, with children dying all around him, he confronts the terrifying prospect that the chain of Jewish tradition is about to be severed altogether.
Nevertheless, in attacking the standard rabbinic explanation for Jewish misfortune—namely, that it is part of God’s great plan—Shapira was not so much abandoning God as turning his back on the theologies and theodicies that stood impotent in the face of overwhelming horror. Just as Job rejected the tired and rigid explanations for human suffering offered him by his friends, instead preferring to challenge God directly, Shapira, by discarding the standard explanations for catastrophe offered by tradition, both preserved God’s covenant with Israel and made possible its renewal.
A final example in this respect comes from an earlier sermon, delivered immediately after Shapira’s son was killed during the Nazis’ 1939 bombing of Warsaw. It concerns the Torah portion of Ḥayyei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18), which opens with the death of the matriarch Sarah. Readers of classical midrash are familiar with the traditional interpretation that Sarah’s death, which occurs right after the story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22, was precipitated by her shock at hearing the news that her husband had placed their son on an altar to be sacrificed.
Building from this midrash in one of the most daring interpretive moves in all of rabbinic literature, Shapira reinvents Sarah’s death as a conscious surrender of her life. Sarah committed suicide as a supreme act of theological protest, an act designed to teach God that human beings cannot cope with trauma as horrific as the loss of a child. Suffering on that scale is no occasion for spiritual cleansing, no reproof for the sake of moral improvement, no means for imparting some salvific lesson to humanity. It can only crush and extinguish the human spirit altogether.
Reading this sermon today, who can help responding in terror and wonder—terror at the image of the million young Isaacs murdered in the Shoah, with none to stay the executioner’s hand; wonder at a Warsaw rabbi’s agonized rebuke of the Almighty and harrowing insistence that He relearn the lesson of Sarah’s suicide?
Toward the end, in a note to the audience he knew he would never meet, Shapira exhorted future readers to disseminate his writings “among Jacob and spread them out among Israel” (Gen. 49:7) so “that each and every Jew will study my works.” With the help of this new edition, which must forever be included in any canon of Holocaust literature, we are in a position to honor his last will and testament.