Hitler is not my halakhic authority

Hitler is not my halakhic authority

By Rabbi Jakob J. Petuchowski, Reform Jewish movement

jakob j. petuchowki
Image from collections.americanjewisharchives.org

By Jakob Petuchowski

Variety has always been characteristic of Jewish life. Two thousand years ago, the land of Israel was teaming with different sects, of which Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes are the most famous, only because the contemporary historian, Flavius Josephus, chose to inform posterity about them, and because Pharisees and Sadducees figure in the New Testament narrative. When Pharisaic Judaism gave way to rabbinic Judaism, the rabbis among themselves had their significant differences of opinion, to which the Talmud and the rest of rabbinic literature bear witness. And that does not even include those Jews who, in principle, rejected the Judaism of the rabbis.

In the Middle Ages we find a rationalists at odds with anti-rationalists, proponents of philosophy defending themselves against opponents of philosophy, and mystics and non-mystics excommunicating one another. When we come to the 19th century, we see the excitement and the animosities created by the rise of Reform Judaism, Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism, and Zionism. But such excitement and animosities were nothing new. A century before the animosities… the relations between Hasidim and their opponents, the Mitnaggedim, were at least as fierce as were the animosities between the Reform and Orthodox Jews a hundred years later. And we have not even dealt with the differences between observant and not observant Jews, and between the learned and ignorant the Jews.

There was of course throughout those centuries and millennia, some kind of awareness of the fact that we were all descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But that did not rule out the manifold attempts to read one another out of the faith. What the Amsterdam Beth Din did to Spinoza in the seventeenth century, the Vilna Gaon did to the Hasidim in the eighteenth, the London Chief Rabbi did to the (very “Conservative”) British Reform Jews in the nineteenth, and some Orthodox rabbis in America did to the late professor Mordecai M. Kaplan in the 20th.

Religion is a serious matter for those who are religious believers, and, thus far at least an attitude of “your lack of belief in the truth of what I believe is every bit as good as my assertion of the truth of my belief!”, has been possible only for those who, in all likelihood, did not believe anything at all.

Yet the survival of Judaism has not been hurt by these acrimonious differences of opinion and practice. It might even be argued that the ongoing dialectics within Judaism has been an enhancement of judaism’s survival chances. Vigorously championed and furiously challenged religious positions kept the Jews on their toes.

..within recent years, however, some Jews have begun to ask for a ceasefire. One segment of Jewry [Reform Judaism], for example as taking unilateral action in changing the definition of what constitutes Jewish status in Jewish law, in altering Jewish marriage and divorce law, and disregarding some of the traditional requirements for conversion to Judaism, and even a rejecting the traditional condemnation of homosexuality.

That those unilateral interferences with what had bound Jews together for at least eighteen hundred years provoked a negatively charged reaction from other quarters of religious Jewry should really have come as no surprise to anybody

After all, with all the differences in belief and practice which the Judaism of tradition had been able to sustain, it should have been clear to the latter-day innovators that, as far as the laws of personal status were concerned, the faith community of Israel could afford no interference with the universally accepted rules. Jews who differed in their interpretation and application of those rules either had to establish their own new religion, as the early Christians did, or because no believing and practicing Jews could intermarry with them, they were pushed to the periphery of Judaism or beyond, has happened to the medieval Karaites.

Yet the people [Reform rabbis] taking those unilateral actions with respect to the Jewish laws of personal status today feign surprise, and complain about the negative reaction which they have encountered.

Should my enemy set my rules? Whether or not there may be grounds on which those unilateral actions can be justified is a topic which is not under discussion here. What does concern us within this context is an argument which is occasionally heard in connection with this problem. Hitler, so the argument runs, make no distinctions between observant and not observant Jews, between believing and non-believing Jews, when he consigned the European Jews to the gas chambers. That is why, after the Shoah, we too must not make any distinction between Jews. We are all Jews, whether we are believers and non-believers, observant or not observant, Jews by the definition of Jewish law or Jews by self-definition only. It makes no difference at all, for the simple reason that Hitler made no such distinctions. Hitler killed them all. Consequently we too must not make any such distinctions.

Apart from the logical fallacy of this argument – for do we let ourselves be guided also by the other things which Hitler did? – this argument also elevates Jewry’s most fiendish enemy to the position of supreme halakhic authority. There is the Talmud’s definition of a Jew. There is the Shulhan Arukh’s definition of the Jew. And, lo and behold, now there is also Hitler’s definition of the Jew. The argument demands of me nothing more and nothing less than that I should side with Hitler against the Talmud and the Shulhan Arukh!

I may or may not wish to argue with the decisions stated in the Talmud or Shulhan Arukh. if I do so, however, it will have to be on other grounds. For I do not accept Hitler as my halakhic authority.

I also refuse to let my efforts to ensure a Jewish survival be motivated by the consideration that we must not hand Hitler a posthumous victory – which, so it has been argued in certain quarters, we would be doing if we fail to survive. That, according to the voice referred to, is the burden of the “commanding voice of Auschwitz.” It is also claimed that the mandates are survivors Jews must be added as a six hundred and 14th commandment to the 613 Commandments enumerated by tradition.

How real the command? How far its reach?

A Jew who fills the Mitzvah to be fruitful and multiply as well as the Mitzvah of teaching one’s children Torah, the Jew who himself or herself engages in the lifelong study of Torah and in the observance of both the moral and the ritual commandments of Judaism to the best of his or her ability, such a Jews making sure of Jewish survival. But if one is deaf to the “commanding voice” of Sinai, then one is not very likely to heed the “commanding voice” of Auschwitz, whatever the latter might mean.

Moreover if Sinai is insufficient to stimulate the desire for Jewish survival, one wonders why there should be a distinctive Jewish (as distinct from a generally human) survival, to begin with.

But a substitution of hi’neni mukhan umezumman, “Behold I am ready and prepared to perform a certain act in order not to hand Hitler posthumous victory,” for the traditional “behold I’m ready and prepared to fulfill the commandment of my creator,” would seem to be a case of yielding to The last temptation, which is to do the right thing for the wrong reason.

It would also mean that one substitutes a negative reaction to Hitler for a positive acceptance of the yoke of God’s rulership and the yolk of God’s commandments. And this I am not prepared to do. in either a positive nor a negative sense am I able to recognize Hitler as my halakhic authority.

Click here to open: Hitler is not my halakhic authority.

Jakob Josef Petuchowski (1925 – 1991) was an American research professor of Jewish Theology and Liturgy and professor of Judeo-Christian Studies at the Jewish Institute of Religion at Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, Ohio.
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