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.”

Read more at Lehrhaus

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


When It Comes to Peace with Israel, Many Saudis Have Religious Concerns

Sept. 22 2023

While roughly a third of Saudis are willing to cooperate with the Jewish state in matters of technology and commerce, far fewer are willing to allow Israeli teams to compete within the kingdom—let alone support diplomatic normalization. These are just a few results of a recent, detailed, and professional opinion survey—a rarity in Saudi Arabia—that has much bearing on current negotiations involving Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh. David Pollock notes some others:

When asked about possible factors “in considering whether or not Saudi Arabia should establish official relations with Israel,” the Saudi public opts first for an Islamic—rather than a specifically Saudi—agenda: almost half (46 percent) say it would be “important” to obtain “new Israeli guarantees of Muslim rights at al-Aqsa Mosque and al-Haram al-Sharif [i.e., the Temple Mount] in Jerusalem.” Prioritizing this issue is significantly more popular than any other option offered. . . .

This popular focus on religion is in line with responses to other controversial questions in the survey. Exactly the same percentage, for example, feel “strongly” that “our country should cut off all relations with any other country where anybody hurts the Quran.”

By comparison, Palestinian aspirations come in second place in Saudi popular perceptions of a deal with Israel. Thirty-six percent of the Saudi public say it would be “important” to obtain “new steps toward political rights and better economic opportunities for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” Far behind these drivers in popular attitudes, surprisingly, are hypothetical American contributions to a Saudi-Israel deal—even though these have reportedly been under heavy discussion at the official level in recent months.

Therefore, based on this analysis of these new survey findings, all three governments involved in a possible trilateral U.S.-Saudi-Israel deal would be well advised to pay at least as much attention to its religious dimension as to its political, security, and economic ones.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Islam, Israel-Arab relations, Saudi Arabia, Temple Mount