Reading Sermons from the Warsaw Ghetto between the Lines

January 26, 2017 | Henry Abramson
About the author:

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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