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We’re starting on Monday! Please visit www.jewishhistorylectures.org for details on the schedule. Free and open to the community, Monday nights at 7:00 pm at the mighty Avenue J campus of Touro College, 1602 Avenue J, Brooklyn NY 11230. Call (718) 535-9333 or write to me at henry.abramson@touro.edu.

Some sponsorships are still available ($250 per lecture), funds go to our Avenue J scholarships in Jewish history. Please click here to donate or sponsor.

Searching for an escapee from the notorious Pawiak Prison, the Nazis arrested 255 Jewish leaders in the Warsaw Ghetto, holding them hostage and demanding that the community turn over the 21-year old resistance fighter Andrzej Kott. The rebel was not found. The Jewish hostages were eventually killed. 

The Rebbe was forced to spend that Sabbath  (Yitro, January 27, 1940) in hiding from Nazi patrols. The entry for that week begins with an unusual first-person annotation. Immediately after the traditional opening “Blessed is God. Yitro,” the Rebbe added the phrase “in exile” (be-galut). He then struck out the phrase and wrote above it, “On this Sabbath I was in hiding.”


The size and makeup of the Rebbe’s audience that week remains unknown. He may have been speaking with other communal leaders who were also hiding from the Germans. It is not impossible that he was completely alone, recording his thoughts for posterity. The Rebbe’s message, however, was one of defiance and spiritual courage. Certainly reflecting on his immediate situation, the Rebbe emphasized the value of learning Torah under difficult circumstances:

The receiving of the Torah took place in the wilderness. Perhaps this allusion is implicit in the holy work Bet Aharon, which mentions Rashi’s comment on the verse Hear O Israel, “that your heart should not question the Omnipresent.” The holy Bet Aharon explains, “that you should not say, ‘under these circumstances it is possible for me to serve God, but under other circumstances it is impossible for me.’ Rather, under all circumstances one must serve God.” Consequently, had the Jewish people received the Torah in their own land, in the land of Israel, they would have thought that it is only possible to fulfill it in their own places, in their own homes, and not when they are in exile, beset by distractions. Therefore, God gave them the Torah in the wilderness, on the road, while traveling, in order that they might know that the Torah must be fulfilled under all circumstances.

He added emphasis by discussing the first line of that week’s Torah reading, which describes how Yitro went out to the desert to meet his son-in-law Moses. When the Rebbe referred to the attack of the Amalekites on the Jews wandering in Sinai, the allusion to the contemporary Nazi oppressors was painfully obvious: 

Amalek reasoned that while the Jewish people were wandering, then Amalek could prevail despite the Jews’ lofty level of spiritual attainment, Heaven forbid. This is the meaning of the verse, Amalek cooled you off on the way….Therefore Yitro said, “if this is the case, it is not sufficient merely to receive the Torah at home. I must rather go there and receive the Torah while traveling as well, and then I can be a Jew even in my home.” In other words, once he heard that after the splitting of the Sea of Reeds there was a war with Amalek, who thought that they could prevail when the Jews were wandering, Yitro realized that he must also travel to the wilderness…

Returning to his opening strikeout, we can only speculate why the Rebbe chose to replace “in exile” with the phrase “in hiding.” Exile, in Hebrew as in English, has a much stronger connotation than “hiding.” For Jews it has powerful associations with the millennial diaspora from the Holy Land, and was traditionally viewed as Divine punishment for human transgression. Writing in 1940, the Rebbe was certainly also aware of the strength of the Zionist movement, which viewed Jewish settlement in Poland negatively, urging Jews to return to the ancient homeland (the Rebbe himself had close family ties in Israel, and yearned to emigrate there). The Rebbe’s subtle alteration seems to soften all of those associations—perhaps to say that so long as he was with his Hasidim, he was not “in exile.”  The Kott affair forced him into hiding, but as long as he could comfort his Hasidim with Torah, then he remained fundamentally at home. 

Available in paperback and now in a specially discounted hardcover edition. 

 

Just got my first copy of the hardcover edition of Torah from the Years of Wrath: The Historical Context of the Aish Kodesh. Special thanks to Mr. Sam Sapozhnik for making this possible!

The hardcover edition hasn’t migrated yet to Amazon, but the good news is that I can offer my students, colleagues and friends 20% off the hardcover price direct from the publisher. It’s a pretty good deal, I think: the paperback goes for $24.95, but with the discount the hardcover is $29.71 (retail price: $34.95). I hope you find the book meaningful!

Click here to order the Hardcover Edition ($29.71)

Click here to order the Paperback Edition ($24.95)

I’m really thrilled to be cruising the Douro River this summer with Kosher Riverboat Cruises, lecturing on the history of Spanish and Portuguese Jewry (my wife plans to come along, which means I really have to bring my A-game). I just learned that there’s only 18 cabins left, so if you’re interested, please click the link for more information. Looking forward to a fantastic experience!

Delightful Douro–Portugal and Spain

Conference presentation at the “The 100th Anniversary of the Ukrainian Revolution and the Proclamation of Ukraine’s Independence,” held at the Ukrainian Institute, New York, Sunday, January 21.  My talk was inspired by a thought-provoking article in the Forward by Avital Chizik-Goldschmidt. A fascinating panel, which included Anna Procyk of CUNY, Serhy Yekelchyk of University of Victoria, and the incomparable Alexander Motyl of Rutgers. Discussant was Lubomyr Hajda of Harvard (lectures in English).

The 1999 Harvard printing of my book, A Prayer for the Government: Ukrainians and Jews in Revolutionary Times, 1917-1920 has been out of print for some time, but a second, revised edition with new essays is forthcoming this Spring. The Ukrainian translation is available under the title Molytva za vladu: Ukraïntsi ta yevreï v revolutsiinu dobu (1917-1920), published in Kiev by Dukh i Litera (2017).

On Parashat Beshalah (January 20, 1940), a young rebel escaped from the notorious Pawiak Prison, located not far from the Piaseczno Bet Midrash. Andrzej Kott, the 21-year old leader of the military wing of a resistance movement called the Polish People’s Independence Action, was a child of assimilated Jewish parents who had converted to Christianity. Despite his tenuous connections to the Jewish community, the Nazis immediately posted signs around the ghetto offering a 2,000 zloty award for the arrest of “the Jew Andrzej Kott.” More ominously, the Nazis invoked once again their policy of collective punishment. By Thursday they had rounded up 255 Jews, searching primarily for well-known community leaders and professionals but also seizing Jews off the street in apparently random arrests. None of the hostages survived Nazi incarceration.
The Rebbe narrowly missed arrest and execution that week, as he briefly mentions in the following week’s message, delivered in hiding. On the Sabbath of Parashat Beshalah, however, he apparently ignored the commotion in the streets and delivered his shalosh seudos drashah as ever. He began with a passage that describes God’s protection of the Jews in their flight from Egypt, an uncanny parallel to the protection that the Rebbe would soon receive in his personal flight from the Nazis:

And God goes before them…at night in a pillar of fire, to give them light so they may travel day and night…God will not remove…before the people. Prior to this passage, the verses are written in the past tense: It happened when Pharaoh sent; and Moses took; and they traveled from Sukos. Only this verse is written in the present tense: and God goes.

At this point, four months into the German occupation, the Rebbe used the moment to deliver a fairly traditional homiletic message. A major element of Piaseczno Hasidut relies of harnessing emotional experience as an engine to drive spiritual growth. Piaseczno techniques apply not only to positive emotional occurrences such as joy but also, Heaven forbid, to suffering:

This is the intent of and God goes “before them,” God and the Heavenly court, according to the communal need of the Jewish people. Even the fire will be for the purpose of providing light for them in their darkness, and all of the judgment will be for their benefit. We must also use the judgment and the suffering for the purpose of Divine Worship, to go day and night—for this refers to the advance, day and night, of the Jewish people. From this we learn that we should not only make progress in our Divine worship when times are good, but even amidst hardship and darkness, Heaven forbid. When a person is surrounded with ease, it is easy to serve God with joy, love, and fiery devotion. When a person suffers, Heaven forbid, one must use this situation to serve God with broken-heartedness and the pouring out of one’s soul.

Later in the war, after an escapee from the death camp Chelmno reached the Warsaw Ghetto and related his horrific experience to the Jewish underground, the Rebbe would advocate a different theological posture. For now, however, the Rebbe pursued a direction that flowed from his prewar writings, urging his Hasidim to seize the moment and reject themselves to higher levels of spirituality, immediately before he fled the Nazi patrols and went into hiding elsewhere in the Ghetto:

“Rabbi Yosi, when he prayed in one of ruins of Jerusalem, heard a Heavenly voice.” Why didn’t he hear it when he prayed in a synagogue? Isn’t it true that God is present when Jews gather to pray in synagogues? While we cannot arrive at a complete understanding of the greatness of Rabbi Yosi, we nonetheless can infer that he was able to hear the Heavenly voice as a consequence of the increased level of broken-heartedness he experienced while praying in one of the ruins of Jerusalem… let us not waste time. Is there nothing for us to do? Let us learn Torah and recite Psalms, to go day and night, and may God who is Merciful have mercy and overturn the judgment for our benefit, and God goes before them, according to their needs.

Torah from the Years of Wrath: The Historical Context of the Aish Kodesh 

The recent translation of the work of Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Rav Shagar, 1949-2007) promises to elevate his distinctive thought to a broader audience of readers (Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age), many of whom will resonate with Dr. Yitzchak Mandelbaum’s comment on his discovery of Rav Shagar: “I knew I had found what I didn’t know I had been searching for.” Students of the Aish Kodesh may also note many parallel elements in their respective approaches. Consider this passage from Rav Shagar’s essay, “My Faith”:

There is no proof of faith, and no certainty of faith to be gained with a proof. In any event, proofs do not impact our existence like a gun pointed at one’s temple; they do not touch upon the believer’s inner life. That is why, when it comes to faith, I prefer to use terms such as “occurrence” and “experience.” God’s presence in my prayers is as tangible to me as the presence of a human interlocutor. That is not a proof but rather an immediate experience. Similarly, I do not assert that the sight of someone standing in front of me is proof of the person’s existence. That would be foolish. After all, I see you….The language of faith is the first-person address of prayer. It is not speech about something, but rather activity and occurence.

The Rebbe’s message for Parashat Bo 5702 (January 24, 1942)  echoes some of this personal, first-person definition of faith, particularly in terms of accessing the secrets of Torah (sod). He begins with a discussion of a passage from his namesake’s classic 19th century Hasidic commentary:

The holy work Maor va-Shemesh explains that the secret aspect of Torah study [sod] is not a reference to Kabbalah, for these are things which are found in works of revealed Torah, and all who wish to may study them. Also, one may study them with one’s study partner, and this does not constitute sod.  Rather, the aspect of sod in the Torah is a Divine revelation which is apportioned to each individual according to his individual stature in Torah. This is the true nature of sod, which one cannot study with a partner nor with a student; it remains unique to each individual, in keeping with his condition and level of Divine service.

The Rebbe underlined this surprisingly postmodern thought with his appreciation of sod as a deeply transformative concept:

Consequently, after studying for several hours, or after prayer or some other act of Divine service, one must gaze inward to determine if one has drawn closer, even a bit closer, to the aspect of sod. Additionally, one must make a personal evaluation every few months or years at least, to determine if one has made progress as a whole.  One must perform this exercise after every session of learning or Divine service to determine this—that is to say, even if he has not advanced as a whole, nevertheless let him stand on his holy ground and become greater than he was. Let him at least realize that after an hour of Torah study he is not the same person as after an hour of wasted time.

The Rebbe’s message shifted to a discussion of the attack of the biblical Amalekites on the traveling Israelites, and its comparison to the weakening of Torah study in the Warsaw Ghetto. His sermon does not unduly press the with its obvious parallels to the incredible suffering  imposed by the Nazi occupiers, perhaps an indication of the Rebbe’s internal turmoil  (which is apparent in later entries). Rather, the Rebbe emphasized the prophylactic power of communal study. He began with a citation from Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidim, and ended on a note that rings more personal, as if the Rebbe were lamenting the diminishing number of Hasidim attending his sermons:

The holy Rabbi, the memory of the righteous and holy is a blessing, in Tanya letter 23, writes these holy words:  “as I have heard from my masters, if a single angel were to stand in a gathering of ten Jews, engaged in discussing Torah, a boundless fear and trepidation would overcome the angel because of the Divine Presence which hovered over them, to the point that the angel would lose its very existence.” That is to say, that when the ten Jews are scattered, each one in his own home, each one is an individual, the presence of God is not as great as if they had been gathered together.  Therefore, when they come to hear the words of the living God from a master of rabbinic lore, that is to say from one person, then this constitutes a gathering and unification of all of them within this one person. As a consequence, this person experiences a greater Divine revelation which is clothed in the words of Torah which he speaks

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Torah from the Years of Wrath: The Historical Context of the Aish Kodesh