Reading Sermons from the Warsaw Ghetto between the Lines

Jan. 26 2017

From 1939 to 1942, Kalonimos Kalmish Shapiro, rebbe of the Ḥasidim of Piaseczno, regularly delivered Saturday-afternoon sermons in Warsaw. In 1943, he gave the manuscripts of the sermons to the Warsaw ghetto’s historian, Emmanuel Ringelblum, who hid them along with the rest of his archives in milk cans, which were located after the war. Henry Abramson notes that the manuscripts reveal Shapiro’s later editing of the sermons, changes in his thinking, and even his ambivalence on certain points. He explicates one poignant example:

[Because] the Sabbath forbids open discussion of depressing topics, . . . Shapiro’s words are artfully occluded by the shared vocabulary of midrash. Nowhere does he speak about Nazis or Germans; rather, he speaks of the biblical nation of Amalek or the Seleucid Greeks. In one telling passage in November 1939, he briefly loses himself and refers to Nazis as “them;” otherwise this pattern of intentional obfuscation is maintained in all the Sabbath sermons and broken only in the notes he appended for later publication.

Consider . . . a brief message [Shapiro] delivered on November 4, 1939, [six weeks after the German bombardment of Warsaw. Here he] argued that Moses . . . intentionally placed the reference to Sarah’s death [in Genesis 23] immediately after the narrative of the binding of her son Isaac in order to deliver a human message to the Divine: too much suffering can break a person.

On its own, the sermon is incredibly potent. . . . The historical context, however, renders the passage absolutely terrifying—these are the first words that the rebbe uttered publicly since the deaths of his son, daughter-in-law, and sister-in-law. One can only imagine the tension in the room as he delivered this sermon: “afflictions should be meted out only in such measure that they can be tolerated, and with an admixture of mercy.” Shapiro couches his veiled communication—really, a personal communication between himself and his God—within the biblical and midrashic narrative of Sarah’s death. Openly expressing his anguish and grief would have been inappropriate—the Aesopian rereading of a story well known to his audience placed his personal pain in communal context. . . .

[In his later annotations], Shapiro pushes this theologically challenging material still further, arguing that Moses was not the only biblical figure to . . . protest excessive suffering. Sarah, by virtue of allowing herself to die with the shock of the news of Isaac’s experience, was also issuing the ultimate statement of dissent, and, [in Shapiro’s words], “she did this for the benefit of the Jewish people, to demonstrate to God how it is impossible for the Jewish people to tolerate excessive afflictions.”

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Read more at Lehrhaus

More about: Binding of Isaac, Hasidism, Holocaust, Religion & Holidays, Sarah, Warsaw Ghetto

UN Peacekeepers in Lebanon Risk Their Lives, but Still May Do More Harm Than Good

Jan. 27 2023

Last month an Irish member of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was killed by Hizballah guerrillas who opened fire on his vehicle. To David Schenker, it is likely the peacekeeper was “assassinated” to send “a clear message of Hizballah’s growing hostility toward UNIFIL.” The peacekeeping force has had a presence in south Lebanon since 1978, serving first to maintain calm between Israel and the PLO, and later between Israel and Hizballah. But, Schenker explains, it seems to be accomplishing little in that regard:

In its biannual reports to the Security Council, UNIFIL openly concedes its failure to interdict weapons destined for Hizballah. While the contingent acknowledges allegations of “arms transfers to non-state actors” in Lebanon, i.e., Hizballah, UNIFIL says it’s “not in a position to substantiate” them. Given how ubiquitous UN peacekeepers are in the Hizballah heartland, this perennial failure to observe—let alone appropriate—even a single weapons delivery is a fair measure of the utter failure of UNIFIL’s mission. Regardless, Washington continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into this failed enterprise, and its local partner, the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Since 2006, UNIFIL patrols have periodically been subjected to Hizballah roadside bombs in what quickly proved to be a successful effort to discourage the organization proactively from executing its charge. In recent years, though, UN peacekeepers have increasingly been targeted by the terror organization that runs Lebanon, and which tightly controls the region that UNIFIL was set up to secure. The latest UN reports tell a harrowing story of a spike in the pattern of harassment and assaults on the force. . . .

Four decades on, UNIFIL’s mission has clearly become untenable. Not only is the organization ineffective, its deployment serves as a key driver of the economy in south Lebanon, employing and sustaining Hizballah’s supporters and constituents. At $500 million a year—$125 million of which is paid by Washington—the deployment is also expensive. Already, the force is in harm’s way, and during the inevitable next war between Israel and Hizballah, this 10,000-strong contingent will provide the militia with an impressive human shield.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: Hizballah, Lebanon, Peacekeepers, U.S. Foreign policy