Holocaust and silence
By Andrew Apostolou
Today we remembered and prayed for those murdered during the Holocaust. Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laGvura (The day of remembrance of the Holocaust and the Heroism) is an occasion for speeches that seek to derive meaning or a lesson from the murder of Europe's Jews. For some, however, it is also time for an alternative commemoration: silence.
Silence as a reaction to shocking death can be found in Parsha Shemini, the torah portion which was read this last Shabbat. In Shemini, Moses commands Aharon, his two sons, and the elders of Israel to bring "a calf for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt-offering." Olah, the Hebrew for burnt offering, translates into Greek as olokautoma, from which we derive the word Holocaust. The sacrifices were brought and Aharon blessed the people. Moments later, two of Aharon's sons, Nadav and Abihu, the best of their generation, brought forth an "alien fire." God punished these two young men by burning them up.
After the climactic moment of bringing the sacrifices and blessing the people, Aharon saw his two sons destroyed before his eyes. The Hebrew states: Vayidom Aharon. Aharon was still. He said nothing. Vayidom also appears in the book of Joshua. Vayidom Hashemesh, "the sun stood still" to allow Joshua and the Israelites to take vengeance on the Amorites.
The stillness of Aharon the High Priest brings to mind a story about Rabbi Aharon Rokeach, the Rebbe of Belz, the leader of a Hasidic dynasty. Rabbi Aharon Rokeach had managed to escape from the Germans, but his wife and and children did not survive the Holocaust. He went to live in Israel. In 1949, he was visited by Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, then a young rabbi and activist. Rabbi Hertzberg, who would later become a pre-eminent American Jewish religious leader and intellectual, was related to the Rebbe of Belz. Both had been born in Polish Galicia. Rabbi Hertzberg wanted to talk to the Rebbe of Belz about his maternal grandfather and his maternal uncles, all of whom had been followers of the Rebbe of Belze and all of whom had been killed during the war. Rabbi Aharon of Belz would not discuss them. Rabbi Hertzberg, who died in 2006, wrote in his autobiography "A Jew in America":
he [Rabbi Aharon Rokeach] was totally silent when I mentioned my mother's father and her brothers, who had been his disciples until they were murdered during the war. I was upset. This strange behavior was later explained to me by his principal assistant: the rebbe had not once said any of the prescribed prayers for his wife and children, because those who had been killed by the Nazis for being Jews were of transcendent holiness; they were beyond our comprehension. Any words about them that we might utter were irrelevant and perhaps even a desacration of their memory. The rebbe did talk about the school that he had just begun to establish in Jerusalem, to teach young people the ways of his sect; this task was self-evident, and the effort would succeed.Vayidom aharon. The Rebbe of Belz was still in the face of calamity. He would only discuss the future.
A few nights later, Rabbi Hertzberg met with another man of East European Hasidic origin, Avraham Shlonsky, the famous Hebrew writer, poet and translator. Shlonsky told Rabbi Hertzberg that the Holocaust had vindicated the secular Zionist cause and that the alleged passivity of the Jews in the face of persecution had proved the "moral decadence of the older Jewish culture." Shlonsky and his friends were utterly contemptuous of their religious heritage and saw a solely secular future for the Jewish people. Rabbi Hertzberg characterized their view as: "The rabbis and the Hasidic rebbes were dead or discredited, and the Israelis in that room had no doubt that the few who remained would soon vanish. The men and women in that room that night were announcing themselves as the new secular priesthood."
In the face of the Holocaust, Shlonsky exulted in the supposed rightness of his ideology. The Rebbe of Belz, following the biblical precedent, held his tongue. Sometimes silence is the most dignified tribute.
Andrew Apostolou is a historian of the Holocaust. He assisted the late Rabbi Hertzberg with the editing of the memoir "A Jew in America."
Posted by: Schaum | April 13, 2010 8:18 AM
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