Sukkot, the Tower of Babel, and Bringing Nazi War Criminals to Justice

November 24, 2020 | Meir Soloveichik
About the author: Meir Soloveichik is the rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel and the director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University. His website, containing all of his media appearances, podcasts, and writing, can be found at

Seventy-five years ago this month, the war-crimes trials of the leading figures in the Nazi regime commenced in the German city of Nuremburg. The trials concluded the following October, so that the first of the eleven convicts sentenced to the gallows—the propagandist Julius Streicher—was hanged on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Meir Soloveichik observes:

Every Sukkot, Jews read Ezekiel’s apocalyptic vision of “Gog and Magog.” The prophet describes an international axis of nations that sets out to destroy the Jews, whose ultimate defeat will be marked by the celebration of Sukkot.

This passage was brilliantly explained by Samson Raphael Hirsch, rabbi of 19th-century Frankfurt. The ancient tale of the Tower of Babel, he wrote, describes a pagan, tyrannical society that created an edifice in worship of its own power; it is just such nations that hate the Jews, who preach a God of morality and justice. By celebrating for seven days in what seems to be a mere shack, the sukkah, Jews signify their certainty that the ethos marked by Babel will be ultimately undone. The people who suffered most at the hands of tyranny nevertheless confidently predict that world history, which began with a totalitarian tower, will end in a holiday of huts, a defeat of evil, and a recognition of God as the true source of power and justice.

Thus a sublime symmetry emerges that the Allies could never have foreseen. It was in Nuremberg that [Hitler’s favored architect] Albert Speer had built the “Hall of Honor,” an enormous structure towering over the rally grounds where the Nazis gathered to celebrate themselves. Architecturally celebrated in Germany, the Hall had been inspired by the ancient altar of Pergamon in Greece. To watch film of the Nuremberg rallies in a pagan structure reborn is to see a prophecy pronounced by the 19th-century German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine terrifyingly fulfilled: “The ancient stony gods will rise from the forgotten debris and rub the dust of a thousand years from their eyes. . . .”

In the end, the Nazi Hall of Honor, like Babel’s tower of old, was undone. . . . . It is fitting then, that the destruction of the Nazi “edifice complex” was to be followed, in the very same city, by a hanging of Nazis on the holiday of huts.

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