Monthly Archives: December 2016

Rupture and Reconstruction

Page of Talmud

Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy

Published in Tradition, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Summer 1994).

The author asserts that contemporary Orthodox Jewish religion and practice has undergone a major and profound change in nature during his lifetime. Where observance of Jewish law was once organic and transmitted through family tradition as much as by text and rabbinic literature, it has now become disconnected from family practice and connected only to the written word, the author explains. He explores the contours, sources and implications of this shift as pertains to Jewish (especially Orthodox Jewish) culture, philosophy, spirituality, education and relationship to the surrounding world.


This essay is an attempt to understand the developments that have occurred within my lifetime in the community in which I live. The orthodoxy in which I, and other people my age, were raised scarcely exists anymore. This change is often described as “the swing to the Right.” In one sense, this is an accurate description. Many practices, especially the new rigor in religious observance now current among the younger modern orthodox community, did indeed originate in what is called “the Right.”

Yet, in another sense, the description seems a misnomer. A generation ago, two things primarily separated Modern Orthodoxy from, what was then called, “ultra-Orthodoxy” or “the Right.” First, the attitude to Western culture, that is, secular education; second, the relation to political nationalism, i.e. Zionism and the state of Israel. Little, however, has changed in these areas. Modern Orthodoxy still attends college, albeit with somewhat less enthusiasm than before, and is more strongly Zionist than ever. The “ultra-orthodox,” or what is now called the “haredi” camp is still opposed to higher secular education, though the form that the opposition now takes has local nuance.

In Israel, the opposition remains total; in America, the utility, even the necessity of a college degree is conceded by most, and various arrangements are made to enable many haredi youths to obtain it. However, the value of a secular education, of Western culture generally, is still denigrated. And the haredi camp remains strongly anti-Zionist, at the very least, emotionally distant and unidentified with the Zionist enterprise. The ideological differences over the posture towards modernity remain on the whole unabated, in theory certainly, in practice generally.

Yet so much has changed, and irrecognizably so. Most of the fundamental changes, however, have been across the board. What had been a stringency peculiar to the “Right” in 1960, a “Lakewood or Bnei Brak humra,” as—to take an example that we shall later discuss shiurim (minimal requisite quantities), had become, in the 1990’s, a widespread practice in modern orthodox circles, and among its younger members, an axiomatic one.

The phenomena were, indeed, most advanced among the haredim and were to be found there in a more intensive form. However, most of these developments swiftly manifested themselves among their co-religionists to their left. The time gap between developments in the haredi world and the emerging modern orthodox one was some fifteen years, at most. It seemed to me to that what had changed radically was the very texture of religious life and the entire religious atmosphere.

the full article is here

Rabbi Haym Soloveitchik teaches Jewish history and thought in the Bernard Revel Graduate School and Stern College for Woman at Yeshiva University


Does kosher food really need a hechsher

Two sources:

The first is from Elie Avitan:

Food can be kosher according to Halacha, even without rabbinic certification. And so can converts. All Jews before 1911 ate food without a hechsher, and until a few years ago there was never even a concept of a conversion counsel that “vetted” converts. Rather, our ancestors made sure that food was kosher according to Halachic standards by looking into the ingredients and preparation methods, and Halachically observant rabbis trusted other Halachically observant rabbis when it came to conversions they sanctioned.

Now, many people will argue “What could be wrong with more supervision, wouldn’t we rather be safe than sorry?” I think true Halacha would argue back: Being unnecessarily stringent on kosher supervision leads to serious financial and communal strains, and being unnecessarily stringent on conversions leads to serious emotional suffering – issues the Torah seems to be particularly concerned with. So indeed, it is better to be safe than sorry, by avoiding supervision where Halacha doesn’t demand it.

No one is fully trustworthy, ever. However, Halacha says: eid echad ne’eman. Therefore, I have to treat anyone who would be a kosher eid. Whether you are accepting this fact or not, you are making an assumption that everything is a “safeik Kashrus problem” unless it has supervision. But such an assumption is not based in Halacha. Like it says in the Mishna in Yadayim, 4:3, the person who wants to be strict above the law needs to bring a proof.

אמר רבי ישמעאל: אלעזר בן
עזריה, עליך ראיה ללמד, שאתה
מחמיר–שכל המחמיר, עליו הראיה

See the Tiferes Yisroel on that Mishna who says: “Everything that doesn’t have a known reason to prohibit it, “mutar hu bli ta’am”, because the Torah didn’t come to tell us what is permitted, but rather to tell us the things that are prohibited.”

As I know how things “work” in the frum world, I keep mainstream Orthodox customs at home (like having two sets of all utensils, dishes and pots and only buying food with a hechsher) but when it comes to speaking the truth about these issues I am not bound by communal norms, but rather by truth. And I haven’t yet found a universally accepted Halachic reason to justify needing supervision on commercial food products besides for meat, wine and hard cheese. (For things which are debatable like gelatin or beetle juice (lol), people who want to be strict can know to beware, but there is no reason to ‘protect’ the average kosher consumer from something which was permitted by great chachamim like R Chaim Ozer Grozinsky, Rav Zvi Pesach Frank and R Ovadia Yosef).

Again, if people only want to eat food with a hechsher and are willing to pay for it than fine, but the problem is that people who don’t want to limit themselves to the strictest, most limiting opinions get trapped being labeled “conservadox” or “not really frum” if they follow normative Halachic standards and not contemporary “Orthodox” standards.

Elie Avitan studied at Yeshivat Reishit/Yeshivat Bais Yisroel/Yeshivat Mir. He served as educational program director at Midwest NCSY, and as the Asst. campus director at the Jewish Experience of Madison.


The following was written by Rabbi Marc Shapiro for the website, a website run by Rabbi A. Abadi. Explanatory notes have been added in brackets.

Rav Henkin, who together with R. Moshe Feinstein was the leading halakhic authority in the U.S. in the 1950’s and 1960’s, is quoted as saying that the entire basis for the existence of the kashrut organizations is the view of [Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet, 1235–1310, known as the Rashba, רשב״א . What did he mean by this?

There is a machloket rishonim [dispute among the Rishonim, ראשונים, leading rabbis during the 11th to 15th centuries] and the Rashba holds that if a non-Jew, in the normal process of making a food product, adds some non-kosher element, even a very small percentage, then it is not batel [nullified, by being mixed in a much larger volume of permitted food.] Bittul [nullification] only works when it falls in by accident. This view is known by those who study Yoreh Deah since it is quoted in the Beit Yosef.

If you look at any of the standard Yoreh Deah [a section of the Shulkhan Arukh] books you will find, however, that the halakhah is not in accordance with this Rashba. Rather, any time the goy puts a small amount of treif [non-kosher food] into the food it is batel [annulled by the larger volume], even if it is intentional on his part.

[The next section references the Noda Biyehudah, נודע ביהודה, “Known in Judah”. This is a book of responsa, answers to questions on Jewish law, by Rabbi Yechezkel ben Yehuda Landau (1713 – 1793).]

There is a famous Noda Biyehudah that discusses this at length. See Mahadura Tinyana, Yoreh Deah no. 56 where he permits a drink that was produced using treif meat in the production but the amount of meat was very small and could not be tasted. He states that it is permissible. There is a Rama who has a teshuvah and states similarly. (I am sure if you describe the Noda Biyehudah’s case to people, even learned ones, and say that there is a contemporary rabbi who permits this, they will mockingly refer to him as a Conservative or Reform rabbi since in their mind no “real” rabbi who knows halakhah could ever permit something that has non-kosher meat in it!)

So now we can understand R. Henkin’s comment. If you go to the kashrut organizations’ websites and speak to them they will tell you that you need the hashgachah because sometimes the runs are not properly cleaned between kosher and non-kosher or milk and meat and some slight amounts of the objectionable ingredient might remain (yet here even rashba will agree that it’s not a problem!), or they tell you about release agents or that small amounts of ingredients are not listed on the label, etc. etc.

The Rashba indeed holds that these last cases are problematic, but the halakhah is not in accordance with the Rashba. The hashgachot have raised the bar and are now operating at a chumra level here as well as in other areas. But the average person has no idea about any of this and has never even heard about the concept of bittul. Even if you explain the concept of bittul to him, his response will be: “OK maybe this is the strict halakhah, but I’m not starving so why should I eat something that we had to rely on bittul for. A person who cares about kashrut won’t eat something that has even the smallest amount of treif.” Since people haven’t been educated about the halakhot, they assume that bittul is a kula to be used in emergency situations, and it is not their fault that they believe this, since this is the view that the kashrut organization hold and publicize.

There is a good article waiting to be written about how in the last thirty years we went from halakhah to chumra when it comes to food issues.

Rabbi Marc Shapiro, 11/11/2003

Marc Shapiro holds the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Scranton and is the author of various books and articles on Jewish history, philosophy, and theology. He received his BA at Brandeis University and his PhD at Harvard University, where he was the last PhD student of Professor Isadore Twersky. He received rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Ephraim Greenblatt. Shapiro’s father is Edward S. Shapiro who has published books on American history and American Jewish history. Shapiro’s writings often challenge the bounds of the conventional Orthodox understanding of Judaism using academic methodology while adhering to Modern Orthodox sensibilities. His books Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy (a biography of Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg) and The Limits of Orthodox Theology (a study of the disputes over Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith) were both National Jewish Book Award finalists. In 2015 he published Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History, which documents the phenomenon of internal censorship in Orthodoxy.
Marc B. Shapiro. (2016, December 15). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Oral law

The Written law [Tanakh] makes it clear that it was being transmitted side by side with an oral tradition. Many terms and definitions used in the written law are undefined. Many fundamental concepts such as shekhita (slaughtering of animals in a kosher fashion), divorce and the rights of the firstborn are all assumed as common knowledge by text, and are not elaborated upon. The Oral Law, then, is a legal commentary on the Torah, explaining how its commandments are to be carried out. – Wikipedia, Oral Torah

Pages of Talmud

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes:

Common sense suggests that some sort of oral tradition was always needed to accompany the Written Law, because the Torah alone is an insufficient guide to carrying out the laws in practice. For example, the fourth of the Ten Commandments, ordains, “Remember the Sabbath day to make it holy” (Exodus 20:8). From the Sabbath’s inclusion in the Ten Commandments, it is clear that the Torah regards it as an important holiday. Yet when one looks for the specific biblical laws regulating how to observe the day, one finds only injunctions against lighting a fire, going away from one’s dwelling, cutting down a tree, and plowing and harvesting. Would merely refraining from these few activities fulfill the biblical command to make the Sabbath holy? Indeed, the Sabbath rituals that are most commonly associated with holiness – lighting of candles, reciting the kiddush, and the reading of the weekly Torah portion – are found not in the Torah, but in the Oral Law.

The Torah also is silent on many important subjects. The Torah has nothing to say concerning a marriage ceremony. To be sure, the Torah presumes that people will get married “Therefore shall a man leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife and they shall be one flesh” (Genesis 2:24) – but nowhere in the Torah is a marriage ceremony recorded. Only in the Oral Law do we find details on how to perform a Jewish wedding. {Telushkin}

Without an oral tradition, many of the Torah’s laws would be incomprehensible. In Deuteronomy, the Bible instructs: “And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes” (see Deuteronomy 6:4).

“Bind them for a sign upon your hand,” the last verse instructs. Bind what? The Torah doesn’t say. “And they shall be for frontlets between your eyes.” What are frontlets? The Hebrew word for frontlets, totafot is used three times in the Torah – always in this context (Exodus 13:16; Deuteronomy 6:8, 11:18) and is as obscure as is the English. Only in the Oral Law do we learn that what a Jewish male should bind – tefillin.

Despite its name, the Oral Law today is a written law, codified in law collections known as the Mishna and the two Talmuds. It used to be passed along orally, but after many centuries it was finally written down so that information wouldn’t be lost.

Strangely enough, the Oral Law today is a written law, codified in the Mishna and Talmud. Orthodox Judaism believes that most of the oral traditions recorded in these books dates back to God’s revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai. When God gave Moses the Torah, Orthodoxy teaches, He simultaneously provided him all the details found in the Oral Law. It is believed that Moses subsequently transmitted that Oral Law to his successor, Joshua, who transmitted it to his successor, in a chain that is still being carried on (Ethics of the Fathers 1:1).

Given this chain of authority, one might wonder why the Mishna and Talmud are filled with strong debates between rabbis,who have very different understandings of what the law shoud be. Shouldn’t they have all been recipients of the same, unambiguous tradition Orthodox teachers respond that the debates came about either because students forgot some of the details transmitted by their teachers, or because the Oral Law lacks specific teachings on the issue being discussed.

– Joseph Telushkin. Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History. William Morrow and Co.


A mechitzah (מחיצה‎, partition, pl.: מחיצות‎, mechitzot) is a partition used in Orthodox synagogues to separate men and women during formal prayer services.

For the last 2 centuries it has been erroneously taught that a mandatory mechitzah is an ancient law, followed since the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, 2,000 years ago, and enshrined in the Talmud itself,

Here is an unfortunate example of such a belief, popular among the ultra-Orthodox:

“It is my job as a Rabbi to teach and educate people. In the times of the second Temple (Beis HaMikdash) in Tractate Sukkos it was written that a special platform was made for the women so that they could view the men dancing and the Lulav and Esrog ceremony. WOMEN AND MEN HAVE ALWAYS BEEN SEPARATED from the time of Avraham until about 1800 in Germany. After the Sabbatai Ẓevi and Jacob Frank  false moshiachs [messiahs], the Reform Movement started.”

No historians would agree with this. The entire paragraph is an urban myth. There is no relationship between Zevi & Frank, and classical German Reform Judaism. Sabbatai Zevi was a kabbalist, and historians say that some of teachings actually influenced Orthodox Hasidic Judaism; in contrast classical German Reform was rationalist and rejected all kabbalah, both Zevi’s and Hasidic.

It is true that over the centuries, women and men didn’t sit together in modern-day style. Few historical sources exist, but those that do imply that perhaps men prayed more often in synagogue, and women less often. There were local customs for women and men to sit separately, but there is no evidence that this was ever a widespread law, indeed, perhaps no evidence that it was even considered a local law.

The idea that a mechitzah is mandatory didn’t develop until after the Enlightenment, and the emergence of classical Reform Judaism. In response to these changes, the Orthodox community created new rules on tefila (prayer) and gender.

Two rationales were developed by the Orthodox, in an effort to claim that this rule had always existed.

I. The Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 51b, 52a) describes a divider in the form of a balcony, in the Temple in Jerusalem. However, it was only set up only during the festive, raucous, Simchat Beit Hasho’evah (Water Drawing Ceremony) on Sukkot. Otherwise it was not used.

II. The Talmud cites a teaching that we may not daven in the presence of an ‘erva, an immodestly dressed woman. Berachot 24a states “tefach b’isha erva”, “an area of uncovered skin of a woman is ‘erva.” What an area (tefach) actually is, is not defined. Thus one may not daven in the presence of women where this much skin is exposed.

Noah Gradofsky writes:

In absence of evidence the claim that mechitzah started in an effort to avoid davening in the presence of ervah is conjecture. Somewhat reasonable, but you would have to argue that women going in to shul with ervah uncovered was commonplace enough to necessitate this enactment. This strikes me as unlikely, since if women were commonly enough going into synagogues with certain body parts uncovered, those body parts would be, by definition, not ervah. perhaps the conservative mores of a synagogue led people to label what offended them as ervah even though the cultural reality around them was different. One of the interesting points of the phrase במקום שדרקן לכסות – “where they normally cover” is whether the word מקום (place) refers to a geographic location, an anatomical location, or both.

During the same time period, Ashkenazi Orthodox Jews developed prohibitions on women from singing with men, the prohibition against Kol Isha. The result of this gender segregation (mechitzahs and Kol Isha) was to effectively render women not part of the Jewish congregation: Many Orthodox siddurim have a prayer asking God to “bless the congregation – and their wives”, clearly implying that women are full members.

The upshot: There is no mention of any mechitzah in the Temple in Jerusalem, not during the First or Second Temple, nor are there are mentions of it in the Talmud. Rabbi David Golinkin writes:

Towards the end of the Second Temple period the Sages directed that a women’s gallery be constructed in the Women’s Court to keep the sexes separated ONLY during the somewhat light-headed celebration of the water festival during Succot.

During the balance of the year men and women mingled freely in the Women’s Court. (It appears that this was so named because it marked the limit of approach by women who were not bringing sacrifices, to the inner courts of the Temple). There is no literary or archaeological basis for assuming the existence of a synagogue separation during the period of the Mishnah and the Talmud.

The first mention is towards the end of the period of the Geonim (around the eleventh century). From then on, such separation is occasionally mentioned in passing. Not until the end of the nineteenth century do we have a halakhic source *requiring* separation in the synagogue.

At this point one is reminded of the classic joke retold by the ThinkJudaism blog:

Conservative Jew: Why doesn’t Rav Yosef Karo’s law book, the Shulḥan Aruch, have a section for the laws of meḥitza?
Orthodox Jew: Why?
Conservative Jew: We learn from this that a synagogue really doesn’t need a meḥitza.
Orthodox Jew: No, we learn from this that a synagogue really doesn’t need women.

Jews in front of Western Wall Kotel

Image: Jews in front of Western Wall, Jerusalem, from a negative taken approximately 1900 to 1920. Library of Congress LC-DIG-matpc-12192

Laws about mechitzahs were never said to be a part of halakhah until the 1800’s.  Examples include

Chatam Sofer, Orech Chaim 5:190
Moses Schreiber (1762–1839), Germany

It is right according to our Torah law to listen to the voice of a woman in shul, in a place that men congregate, and the women’s voice goes from the women’s section to the men’s section?  The reason for this, is that we believe that all prayer and praise and thanksgiving should not be mixed with improper thoughts. And because of this we separate the women from the men in shul, to make sure they do not come to think improper thoughts during the time of prayer. And we learn this from the water libation ceremony that is spoken about in Tractate Sukka where they made sure the women were above and the men below so they would not come to kalut rosh. . And it is said there on 52a, as it says: “And the land shall mourn, every family apart: The family of the house of David apart, and their wives apart; the family of the house of Nathan apart, and their wives apart.” (Zecharia 12:12). And it is a kal v’chomer- here where they are talking about a eulogy where there is no evil inclination the Torah tells us that the men were separate, and here that we are talking about happiness, where there is an evil inclination, all the more so there should be a separation.
– Translation from Sefaria.Org

Maharam Shik מהר”ם שיק, Orech Chaim 77
Rabbi Moshe Schick משה שיק‎‎, (1807 – 1879), Hungary

Igrat Moshe, Orach Chaim 1:39
Rav Moses Feinstein משה פיינשטײַן‎‎  (1895–1986), New York

Shu”t Tzitz Eliezer 7:8
Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg (1915–2006), Jerusalem

Joseph B. Soloveitchik יוסף דב הלוי סולובייצ׳יק  (1903-1993) Community, Covenant and Commitment: Selected Letters and Communications. Ktav Publishing House, 2005. p. 129-130. During the 1950’s, Soloveitchik ruled that it was forbidden to pray in a synagogue without a separation between the sexes, and that this law was actually mi-d’orayta, an actual law in the Torah. At the time, during the political-social fighting between Orthodox and non-Orthodox, many Orthodox Jews accepted this claim as correct. Today however no person takes this claim seriously; there is not mitzvah in the Torah on this subject. He further stated that the use of a mechitza as we know it today was mi-derabbenan, a rabbinical prohibition from the Talmud (discussed above, which we now know is mistaken. He misread the Talmudic text about the temporary partition erected during raucously celebrated Simchat Beit Hasho’evah (Water Drawing Ceremony) on Sukkot.

Further reading

Is the Entire Kotel Plaza Really a Synagogue? Rabbi David Golinkin, Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies

The Mehitzah in the Synagogue, Rabbi David Golinkin

Meḥitza: Do Orthodox prayers count in a Conservative Synagogue? from ThinkJudaism

The Mehitzah in the synagogue, by Rabbi Monique Susskind Goldberg (PDF file)

The Trichitza Phenomenon, by Jordan Namerow

Trichitza. A strange word, no? Until I was in Israel two weeks ago and prayed in a trichitza setting for the first time, I’d never heard the word before. Shortly thereafter, I came across a trichitza-related article in the November/December 2006 edition of New Voices. I’ve since learned that over the past few years, a growing number of communities have experimented with a trichitza, defining religious space in new, pluralizing ways. Adapted from the word mechitza (which literally means “separation” and refers to the physical divider traditionally used to separate men and women during prayer services), a trichitza divides the prayer space into three sections: one exclusively for women, one exclusively for men, and one not classified by gender. This provides options for nearly everyone: those whose Jewish practice is built upon gender-egalitarianism, those who wish to pray in a gender-specific space… , and those whose own gender-identity lies outside of the male/female binary. The author of Mah Rabu, a blog about Jewish politics, culture, and religious issues writes of the trichitza: “It’s an elegant idea that didn’t exist and then someone came up with it, and everyone said: ‘why didn’t I think of that before?’”

Hilchot Pluralism, Part III: Macroscopic prayer issues – Includes a discussion about trichitzahs

The Face of God: Thoughts on the Holocaust

Many Orthodox rabbis from the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) have rejected the view that the Shoah (Holocaust) was God’s judgement, including Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, Norman Lamm, Abraham Besdin, Emanuel Rackman, and Eliezer Berkovits. Their works have been collected in “Theological and Halakhic Reflections on the Holocaust” Ed. Bernhard H. Rosenberg and Fred Heuman, Ktav/RCA, 1992


The Face of God: Thoughts on the Holocaust, Dr. Norman Lamm

In my attempt to formulate a Jewish approach to the Holocaust, it should not be expected that I will venture an answer to the ancient question of zaddik ve-ra to (“the righteous whom evil befalls”) the vexing problem of the suffering of the innocent and the prosperity of the wicked, one that puzzled such biblical giants as Samuel, David, and Jeremiah.

The problem of theodicy – “justifying” the ways of God to man, offering rational explanations for the ethical and philosophical dilemmas presented by the disjointedness and inappositeness of conduct and circumstance, the quality of one’s moral life and his fortune or misfortune — has a long and honorable history. But there is no one theodicy in Judaism. From jJb to the sages of the Talmud, from Maimonides to Luria to the Besht, there is only one constant, and that is the queshon of zaddik ve-ra lo, the righteous who is afflicted with evil. The number of answers varies with the number of interpreters. No one approach has official, authoritative, dogmatic sanction in Judaism, although each has something of value to contribute. And the question remains the Question of questions for Judaism, as it does for every thinking, believing human being.

How, then, shall we approach the problem? Let us begin by dividing it into two parts: first, the universal problem of suffering, the cry of zaddik ve-ra to, why should the innocent suffer, intensified in the Holocaust by its unprecedented magnitude and cruelty. In kind, the Holocaust mystery is a continuation of the ancient question of evil and suffering – more urgent perhaps, but essentially the same.

The second part is not universal-metaphysical but national-theological. The Holocaust is not only a human challenge to God’s justice and goodness, but a Jewish challenge to His faithfulness and promise. The absolute novelty of the Holocaust lies in its threat to the continuity of the Jewish peopte as such. It not only outrages man’s ethical sensibilities but it throws into disarray most of our notions of the philosophy of Jewish history.

In other words, the novelty, the demonic novelty, of the Holocaust lies not so much in the murder of six million Jews as in the decimation of one third of the Jewish people and the trauma to the remaining two thirds.

In trying to come to grips with the Holocaust and to probe, haltingly but inevitably, for some scrap of understanding of this cataclysm, we are confronted wirh an immediate dilemma: the very relevance of “meaning” to the Holocaust. Can we hope to find even a shred of meaning in the “black hole” in Jewish history? if we mainrain that we can, we are in effect asserting a zidduk ha-din, a justification for the death, torment, and suffering of one million children and five million adults. We shall come back to this later, but I will say now that the very idea is repugnant to me and bespeaks an insufferable insensitivity. Moreover, if the “meaning” we purport to discover does nor measure up to the magnitude of the suffering, then we have not only erred, but we have profaned the memory of the martyrs. However, if we then pursue the other alternative, and declare that the Holocaust had no meaning, we seem to rob their deaths of any redeeming dimension and furthermore, appear to deny a great and abiding principle of Judaism, that of hashgahah peratit, divine providence over all human individuals.

Apparently not everyone appreciates that a dilemma even exists. Thus, almost all of those (few) Orthodox thinkers who have ventured into this area at all offer variations of the mi-penei hata’einu (“because of our sins”) thesis, so-named from the initial words of the special Musaf section of the service for the new month and the festivals, declaring that we only recite the order of the sacrificial Temple service liturgical¶y, but do not actually make the offerings, for the reason that the Temple was destroyed and we were exiled “because of our sins.” They see the Holocaust as punishment for Israel’s sins.

The late Satmarer Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Moshe Teitelbaum, is clear and unambiguous. In his two hooks, “Va-Yoel Mosheh” and “Al ha Ge’ulah ve-al ha-Temurah”, he decides that the Zionists were responsible for the tragedy of the six million. The arrogance of nationalistic self-determination in trying to build a Jewish state caused the great destruction. The fact that so many Zionists were secularists, nonbelievers, only made matters worse. They violated the injunction to remain passive, refrain from interfering in the divinely preordained plans of redemption, and to await the miraculous coming of the Messiah. Hence, the Zionists are guilty, and all the Jewish people suffered because of their sins. This theme is interwoven with another, and both recur throughout the Satmarer’s writings: the power of Samael, the archdemnon, to test and seduce Israel into sin. These cruel tests with which Samael accosts us, often with the help of miracles, are characteristic of our pre-messianic tribulations. Of course, it does not occur to the Satmarer or his followers, in their anti-Zionist demonological interpretation of history, that the reverse might be true: that the Holocuast was the bitter test, and the “miracles” of statehood and military triumph and national survival were and are the reward for our sufferings and anguish.

A less well known figure (Rabbi Emanuet Hartom, writing in the Israeli journal De’ot a few years ago), takes the opposite view of the Satmarer: The Holocaust is the punishment for our neglect of Eretz Israel. Our failure to participate en masse in the Return to Zion indicated a tragic defection from Judaism, a betrayal of the Promise to Abraham, and hence the unprecedented punishment we call the Shoah. That at least a portion of our people was spared is in itself a tribute to divine compassion for, having chosen to remain in exile, we implied our readiness to assimilate and thus turn our backs on God. One wonders what this particular rabbi would answer to the criticism, leveled at him in a later issue of the same journal, that it certainly is odd that the Holocaust struck first and hardest at those very centers of Jewish life that were most intensively Jewish, pro-Eretz Israel, and anti-assimilationist.

There is a third variation of the mi-penei hata’einu thesis, this time by an American (Rabbi Avigdor Miller) a mashgiah, or spiritual supervisor, at a Brooklyn yeshiva. Let me quote a few of his precious lines:

“Because of the upsurge of the greatest defection from Torah in history, which was expressed in Poland by materialism, virulent anti-nationalism, and Bundism (radical anti-religious socialism, God’s plan finally relieved them of all freewill and sent Hitler’s demons  to end the existence of the communities.”
(“Rejoice, 0 Youth”, pp. 278—289)

One wonders at the statement that Polish Jewry experienced the greatest defection from Torah in history: more than in the days of the prophet Elijah? Isaiah? Worse than German Jewry? American Jewry?

But let us not quibble about such trivial matters as facts. Is there any validity to the mi-penei hata’einu, the Holocaust as punishment explanation on which the various responses we have mentioned are based? Of course there is. The thesis is a corollary of the whole principle of sakhar ve-onesh, reward and punishment. It is a theme found throughout the Prophets and the Talmud.

And yet — I reject the cavalier invocation of this theme as a way of “explaining” the Holocaust. Indeed, in these special circumsstances of such unprecedented butchery and unequaled suffering and unimaginable danger to our survival, recourse to mi-penei hata’einu is massively irrelevant, impudent, and insensitive.

Why so? First, there are many approaches to suffering, as I indicated at the outset, and sin is not the only one. Indeed, the whole brunt of the Book of Job is to reject the simplistic recourse to mi-penei hata’einu in any and all circumstances: Job was not guilty of any sin — that is the premise of the whole book — and yet he suffered. It was the friends of Job, who insisted he must be guilty of some hidden sin, who were rebuked by God.

Hence, for us who live in comfort and security years after the event to point an accusing finger at European Jewry — probably one of the greatest and most creative and most beautiful in all Jewish history — and castigate them for shortcomings of one kind or another ostensibly deserving of such horrendous suffering, is an unparalleled instance of criminal arrogance and brutal insensitivity. How dare anyone even suggest that any “sin” committed by any significant faction of European Jewry was worthy of all the pain and anguish and death visited upon them by Hitler’s sadistic butchers? How dare anyone, skiing in the American or British or Israeli Paradise, indict the martyrs who were consumed in the European Hell?

Second, whoever undertakes to expound the thesis of mi-penei hata’einu for any specific event, in the gory detail we mentioned earlier, risks violating a most heinous sin of his own — that of zidduk ha-din, justifying the punishment and travail of the people of Israel. The sages did not take to this too kindly.

According to the rabbis, Moses himself was punished for making offensive statements about his people. Moses told the Israelites: “Listen, ye rebels” (Numbers 20:10). His punishment: “…you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them” (ibid v.12). Elijah complained to God that “the children of Israel have forsaken Thy convenant” (I Kings 19:10).

Shortly thereafter, we read of God’s command to appoint a successor, Elisha, in his place. Isaiah, too, used offensive language. In the course of a prophetic revelation, he confessed his feeling of worthlessness by saying “Woe is me, for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips.” But he erred by adding the significant words: “and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). Soon afterwards we read of how one of the angels of God, “with a glowing coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar,” touched the mouth of the prophet and said: “Lo, this hath touched thy lips and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin expiated” (Isaiah 6:7).

According to a Midrash, this was in atonement for the sin of criticizing his fellow Jews as “people of unclean lips” (Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah chap. 6). The Talmud tells us that King Manasseh killed Isaiah, who died when the sword reached his mouth — which had uttered the defamation of Israel (Yevamot 49b).

The sages’ aversion to condemning one’s fellow Jews and justifying their suffering, no matter how terrible their behavior, is taught in a famous tale of two great amoraim (Midrash Shir ha-Shirim 1): R. Abbahu and R. Simeon ben Lakish entered the city of Caesarea. R. Abbahu said to R. Simeon: “Why did we come here, into this country of abusers and blasphemers?” Whereupon R. Simeon dismounted from his donkey, took some sand in his hand, and pushed it into R. Abbahu’s mouth. “What is this?” asked R. Abba-hu. R. Simeon replied: “The Holy One does not approve of one who slanders Israel.” (I am indebted to Prof. Eliezer Berkovits for this reference.)

So let all those who are quick to interpret the Holocaust as punishment for Jewish sins be warned that they risk running afoul of the sages’ anger at whoever undertakes the sordid task of blaming his fellow Jews — and especially if such accusations are unjust.

Third, I am also troubled by a certain moral deficiency in those who seek to apply the mi-penei hata’einu philosophy to the Holocaust, and that is their sense of utter self-confidence, their dogmatic infallibility. They *know* that six million Jews were killed because there were Zionists among them, or because there were non-Zionists among them, or because there were assimilationists or apikorsim or whatever among them. While the rest of us poor benighted souls cannot begin to fathom, today, some forty years after the event, that it happened, how humankind could have degenerated so as to permit it, what all this pain and torture did to the martyrs and to their survivors — all this while, these smug interpreters of the Holocaust have no questions, no doubts, no problems, no uncertainties. They just know everything about the Sho’ah, especially why it happened. The enormity of this callousness, the outrageousness of such insensitive arrogance in elaborating this zidduk ha-din is mind-boggling. It is to my mind, unforgivable.

One last comment about the advocates of applying mi-penei hata’einu to the Holocaust: this is the first time in Jewish history, to my knowledge, that supposedly pious and learned Jews — a rebbe, a rav, a mashgiach — have made so colossal an error in elementary grammar. They use the words u-mi-penei hata’einu “because of *our* sins,” when they really mean to say u-mi-penei hatae’ihem, “because of *their* sins”! In the past every case of interpreting a disaster as the result of sin was one in which the interpreter included himself in the group that was guiity; it was “our sins,” not anyone else’s, that caused us to be exiled from our land. Today, in trying to explain the greatest of all disasters ever to befall us, small-minded people blame others, not themselves. The anti-Zionists blame the Zionists, the Zionists blame the anti-Zionists, the secularists blame the Orthodox rabbis who did not encourage emigration, and the Orthodox blame the assimilationists and the socialists and everyone else not in our camp. This last point alone is enough to disqualify the whole line of reasoning from being applicable to the Shoah.

In sum, if we ask, if we may resort to the mi-penei hata’einu rationale for the Holocaust, my answer is a resounding no — indeed, six million times no!