Rekindling Judaism After the Holocaust

Rekindling Judaism After the Holocaust

Excerpted from the book entitled

Calling on God, Sacred Jewish Teachings for Seekers of All Faiths. 

© Copyright 2011, 2012. All rights reserved

In the Biblical Book of Esther[1] it says “Layehudim hayeta orah v’simcha v’sasson viyeqar,” which means the Jewish people had light and happiness and joy and preciousness. At the end of the Sabbath, the ritual of Havdallah is performed with a candle, wine—or other liquid—and spices. During Havdallah, participants begin a shift from the consciousness of restful other worldliness to the consciousness of work, school and engaging in tikkun olam—helping to make the world a better place.

Shabbat is the Jewish Sabbath, which begins on Friday evening at sundown and continues until after dark on Saturday night. Shabbat is a spiritual retreat in the midst of life in the world, when we are invited to experience our divinity and enjoy earthly delights in the same time and space. It is a time to experience unity between God transcendent and God in creation while spending time with loved ones and friends. It is a time to study for its own sake without writing the down the fruits for later;[2] a time to pray and sing without having to watch the clock in order not to be late; a time to walk without destination; to dance without escorting a bride and groom; to take a break from grieving even when the loss is fresh; and to taste a world where one does not need to worry about how the rent or mortgage will be paid.

During Havdallah, as we prepare for the upcoming week, we recite the above phrase from the Book of Esther, and we add “keyn tih’yeh lanu,” so may it be for us. The Jewish people had light and happiness and joy and preciousness; so may it be for us. Reb Nachman of Breslov said, “mitzvah gedolah lih’yot b’simcha tamid,” which means it is a great mitzvah (commandment) to always be in [a state of] joy. It is noteworthy that Reb Nachman himself suffered from depression. So practicing joy—which Reb Nachman is said to have practiced himself, and given to his disciples and the world—was a challenge for him; it did not come easily.

Reb Nachman taught that when a difficult time arises, the only thing to do is be happy. Guin Miller used to say that joy is the natural state.[3] In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Murshid Samuel Lewis was with his young disciples, many of whom have evolved over the years to become spiritual teachers and guides in the Sufi Ruhaniat International and elsewhere. As the festival of Simchat Torah was approaching,[4] Murshid Sam would say, “We need more simchas and less Torah!” (Simchas is Yiddish for joyous occasions.) Murshid Sam’s quip was apt since Simchat Torah is a time to dance, sing, carouse and celebrate. Yes, we do read from the end of the Torah and the beginning of the Torah to symbolize that Torah study is continuous; no sooner do we come to its end, than we begin to read it again. However, beyond festival worship and chanting from the Torah, there are no sermons, no classes, and no long discussions on Simchat Torah. Instead, there is dancing and singing and drinking and carousing and being silly.

In the 1990’s, there was a synagogue not far from where I live where members wore raincoats on Simchat Torah morning and when the words “mashiv haruach umorid hagashem” were recited, they would take out their squirt guns and spray one another. “Mashiv haruach umorid hagashem” means, “Who brings the wind and causes the rain to fall.” This is a prayer that we recite every day during every Amidah (silent devotion), beginning with the day before Simchat Torah and continuing until Passover, because, in the northern hemisphere, that is the season when we need a great deal of precipitation for the plants to grow and the land to be nurtured by moisture.[5]

The Amidah is one of the most spiritually focused and serious times during davvenen (Jewish worship), requiring even more presence and focus than the recitation of the Shema.[6] Right there, during the Amidah on Simchat Torah,[7] members of this mainstream synagogue recite “mashiv haruach umorid hagashem” and then they take out their squirt guns and have a water fight!

When I was purchasing our first Torah scroll for Or Shalom Jewish Community,[8] the scribe, an Ultra Orthodox Jew, told me that if the Torah were ever damaged due to wine or wear, he or one of the scribes in his company would be glad to repair it for us. “Damaged by wine?” I asked, chuckling. “On Simchas Torah!” he said, “Remember! We make Kiddush right there at the Torah!”[9]

Murshid Sam’s teaching about more simchas (joyous occasions) and less Torah was a double entendre. Murshid Sam lived through the Holocaust, and he prayed mightily for the souls who were suffering through torture, starvation and death. The Judaism of the years after World War II had become dry and brittle, forced and fraught with paradox. Six million Jews had been murdered, along with six million others. The six million others included two million Polish Catholics, seventy-five percent of the world’s Roma and Sinti population,[10] and hundreds of thousands of Seventh Day Adventists,[11] gays and lesbians, the physically, mentally and emotionally disabled, political dissidents, and those who risked their lives to hide and save Jews and others.

The six million Jews included one and one-half million children, and eighty to ninety percent of the world’s Jewish spiritual teachers. The world’s Jewish population prior to the Holocaust was just under eighteen million, and Europe’s Jewish population was approximately nine million. Thus, the overall loss of Jewish lives during the Holocaust had a tremendous impact on the Jewish community at large.

The greatest impact, however, was on Jewish spirituality. Many Jews had left Europe in the centuries prior to the Holocaust, looking for a better life. However, the promise of better livelihood and a safer environment free of persecution did not have the same draw for Jewish spiritual teachers as it had for other Jews. Many teachers were concerned that assimilation in the west would draw Jews away from their religious practice. Frequently, these teachers chose to stay in Europe to serve those who did not or could not leave. During the Holocaust, the Nazis often singled out Jewish leaders for arrest, torture and murder. There are also many stories of rabbis and other teachers who were offered documents and transportation to escape suffering before and during the war, but refused the opportunity and instead remained in ghettos, concentrations camps and elsewhere to help those around them to endure their suffering.

There was a rabbi in Baden Bei Wien, a suburb of Vienna, who was beaten to death in front of his wife and four year old son for the crime of delivering food to wives and children who faced starvation because the husband, and primary bread winner of the family, had been sent to a concentration camp following the German annexation of Austria in 1938.[12] That rabbi’s name was Moishele.[13] I learned his niggun[14] from Rabbi Daniel Lev who learned it from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who learned it at age nine from Reb Moishele just a few days before Reb Moishele was killed.

In the years following the Holocaust, Jewish theologians were at a loss to explain how God could have allowed a tragedy of such magnitude. Why practice a faith that led to millions of men, women and children being murdered in mass graves and gas chambers? How does one practice joy when one cannot stop crying? In my own family, my father’s mother and thirty-one of her children and grandchildren were murdered.[15] Not only did the Nazis and their collaborators humiliate, torture and kill, but they specifically chose Jewish holidays for mass killings and forced evacuations to concentration camps. Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach and other holidays were Nazi favorites for atrocities, and they delighted in the desecration of Torah scrolls and other Jewish ritual objects. When the Nazis took over a town in Poland that had a large enough Jewish population to warrant the creation of a ghetto, they rounded up the rabbis and other spiritual leaders, together with the President of the Jewish community, forced them at gun point into a Jewish community center, poured a flammable liquid around the perimeter and burned the building to the ground, together with the leaders, the Torah scrolls, prayer books and other religious objects while community members were forced, at gunpoint, to look on.

Where Torah scrolls were not burned, some scrolls were taken to camps where prisoners were forced to cut patterns from the lettering and sew them into the souls of shoes made for the Germans, so Germans could walk on the holy letters. My son Josh found one such Torah scroll on display at Yad VaShem in Jerusalem some months before his bar mitzvah. Unbelievably, the Torah was open to the beginning of the Book of Leviticus, which was Josh’s parasha—the portion of Torah that he would read and discuss on his bar mitzvah. Josh chanted the words prior to the gaping, footprint shaped, holes and then he made his way through the section with the footprints, relying upon memory for the missing words, as I stood near him and wept.

In the village where my father was born and raised, men ages 15 to 45 and women ages 14 to 40 were rounded up and taken to concentration camps on Hoshana Rabbah, the last day of Sukkot, the festival when we build huts and eat and celebrate in them to remember the wandering in the wilderness that followed Israelite slavery. Two days later, on Simchat Torah, the Nazis came back and liquidated the ghetto, taking everyone to concentration camps except those whom they murdered on the spot. My paternal grandmother, for whom I am named, was killed on Simchat Torah.[16]

The Inayati Sufis were also deeply affected by the Holocaust, most particularly by the brutal torture and murder of Hazrat Inayat Khan’s daughter, Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan, who was a British spy in Vichy France before being captured by the Germans. After endless brutality in prison, Noor-un-Nisa was deported to Dachau where she was again tortured and then shot.

Healing takes time. Many Holocaust survivors and families of the victims could not bring themselves to speak about their experiences following the war. After decades, and with a change in world culture about discussing these atrocities, many found their voice and gave video interviews. Tens of thousands of these videos were recorded by the Shoah Oral History Project, and are archived at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, as well as in Holocaust museums and on websites. These archives provide information and courage to historians and educators. Sadly, genocide was a major phenomenon of the twentieth century. Genocide continues, as of this writing, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in central Africa, formerly called Zaire. Over four million have been murdered. There are nine million refugees. Rape is said to be as common as death. Who is speaking about it? Who even knows? May the people of the DRC soon have peace in their land and healing from their suffering. Indeed, may the people of all lands where tyranny rules soon have peace and healing.

The rekindling of the light of Judaism in the shadow of the Holocaust is a slow organic process—and there is tremendous progress—but it is no wonder that young Jews of the 1960’s and 1970’s left Judaism in droves for the spiritual paths of Sufism, Buddhism, yoga and meditation where joy abounds and spiritual teachers are filled with realization, faith and joy. There are also many Jews who continue to practice Judaism and explore spiritual alternatives simultaneously.

Rabbi David Weiss Halivni was born and raised in Hungary and suffered at the hands of the Nazis. He wrote a book, which he concludes as follows:

     “Prayer, like any other religious behavior, does not ask for change, even in the face of the terrible tragedy that eclipsed our generation; religiously we act as if we are still under the mantle of the Revelation at Sinai.[17] Nevertheless, personal emphasis and intention, [called] kavannah, is an indispensable accompaniment of prayer, and this accompaniment ought to be different today than in the past, prior to Auschwitz.

     “In the past we extolled the glory of God’s power over our limited powers…. Today, it is more suitable for us to add emphasis and kavannah to the [following] prayer[18] … recited three times a day, [that reads]: “We acknowledge (that is the right translation) that You are the strength of our own life and our saving shield. In every generation we will thank You and recount Your graces for our lives that are in Your charge, for our souls that are in Your care.” This prayer emphasizes God’s closeness to us, an assurance that His alienation will not last forever….

     “Only a prayer that pleads that God will retake the reign He forfeited for the sake of granting free will to sinful human creatures; only a prayer that pleads for the curtailment of God’s … withdrawal by means of which He was able to create a finite and corruptible world; only a prayer that acknowledges that God’s purpose of creation is for us to worship Him, to obey Him, to be close to Him, only prayers like these may heal the terrible wound that recent history has inflicted on us and shorten the distance between the two major events in Jewish history: Sinai and Auschwitz. Amen.[19]

When Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan was about to be shot by her Nazi handlers in Dachau, she called out in French, “Vive la liberté!” This means, “Long live liberty!” Noor-un-Nisa was the daughter of one of the greatest Sufis of the twentieth century. The authors of her biography entitled, The Spy Princess,[20] say that her tormentors described her as different from any other prisoner, and fellow inmates spoke of her silence in the face of torture, and her calling out “abba”[21] softly during solitude, and her crying softly in the night. Her biographers speculate that Noor-un-Nisa was calling out to her father; [22] but abba is also a name of God, and I wonder if Noor-un-Nisa’s strength and courage might have perhaps come from both calling upon the divine and upon her beloved father of blessed memory. In either case, Noor-un-Nisa’s last words were not abba or a name of God; it was liberty that she called.

Rabbi Yitzchak Greenberg is a scholar, mystic and historian. Reb Yitz teaches that since the Holocaust, we must find God within, and realize that when we are suffering, it is God who is suffering, and when we have joy, it is God who is having joy. This teaching of Reb Yitz is closer to the spiritual goal of realizing our oneness with God, whereas Rabbi Halivni’s teaching and Noor-un-Nisa’s last words call out more from the human side of consciousness; suffering is human, even as we learn to overcome it through union with the divine.

Years ago, Hakim Sauluddin and Aslan Sattler traveled together to the site of the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp and found it to be very holy. Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield, of blessed memory, said that when he visited Bergen-Belsen, he experienced a power and holiness that he had never experienced at any other time in his life.[23]

May we never experience the agony that leaves one feeling abandoned by the One who created and sustains us and brings us to this moment. May the memory of the six million Jews and six million others be a blessing for all time, together with the memory of the fallen soldiers and spies and innocents who lost their lives in that terrible war, and in all wars.


[1] Esther 8:16.

[2] There are many sacred Jewish texts that were written by one of the disciples of a great teacher. The disciple would hear a talk on the Sabbath or a festival and wait to write down the teachings at the conclusion of the holy day. These remembered teachings might be interspersed with teachings that the master gave on ordinary days when notes could be taken.

[3] Guin Miller (1904-1992) and her husband Joe Miller (1904-1992) were spiritual teachers at the San Francisco Lodge of the Theosophical Society for many decades. There were also Buddhist Dharma Masters and ministers in the United Church of Christ. Joe was also a student of Christian Qabbalah and he served as a spiritual uncle to the teachers of the Sufi Ruhaniat International.

[4] Simchat Torah, which literally means “Joy of Torah” is a festival that falls at the end of the seven day autumn festival of Sukkot, and its accompanying Shmini Atzeret (literally “eighth [day] of gathering”).

[5] During the rest of the year, we acknowledge G-d as “morid hatal,” which means “Who causes the dew to fall.”

[6] In modern Jewish worship, many participants focus most carefully and deeply when reciting the Shema. However, there are many who focus even more carefully and deeply during the Amidah. There are teachings in the Talmud and elsewhere to support this hierarchy of practice. In Sufi terms, one might say that the Shema is a Zikr and the Amidah is a practice of worshipping in the state of Zat or Aklak Allah, which is, being—or acting as though we are—in the Divine Presence, or in the Abode of G-d.

[7] As explained in Chapter 1 of this book, musaf—meaning addition—is the name of the worship service added after shacharit—the morning service—on the Sabbath, festivals and the new moon.

[8] The author was the founding rabbi of Or Shalom Jewish Community in San Francisco.

[9] Kiddush, meaning sanctification, is the practice of blessing and drinking wine or grape juice as part of the sanctification of the Sabbath or a festival. Kiddush is discussed in Chapter 24.

[10] Roma and Sinti are two populations who were formerly known as Gypsies.

[11] Seventh Day Adventists were singled out by the Germans for torture and murder, because they observe the Sabbath on Saturday, which coincides with the Jewish Sabbath.

[12] The first concentration camps were constructed and became operational in 1933, shortly after Hitler came to power. By the time World War II began in 1939, tens of thousands of Jews, political dissidents and others had already been imprisoned and tortured. Some were murdered, some were freed, and some remained imprisoned when the war began.

[13] According to Reb Zalman—who knew Rabbi Moishele personally—Reb Moishele Heschel was the son of Kopitchenitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Avraham Yehuoshua Heschel. Rabbi Avraham was a cousin of Professor Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who served on the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and marched for the rights of people of color with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

[14] Niggun literally means melody in both Hebrew and Yiddish. In Hebrew, it is pronounced with emphasis on the last syllable, whereas, in Yiddish, it is pronounced with emphasis on the first syllable. To be a niggun, a song must have two distinct musical parts. When one sings a chant that has one musical part, one may continue to sing while spacing out, but with a niggun, one needs to pay attention to change ever upcoming change in melody. This helps us to bring our wandering mind back into focus.

[15]  My family lost over one hundred adults, teenagers and children during the Holocaust, including my paternal grandmother, aunts, uncles, first cousins and the siblings of my grandparents and their descendants.

[16] The story of my paternal grandmother’s death is retold in Pamela Frydman Baugh, “A Blessing From My Grandmother,” Zeek Magazine, online edition, October 2009 <http://zeek.forward.com/articles/115540/>.

[17] The “revelation at Sinai” refers to the Israelites receiving of the Ten Commandments and the Torah at Mount Sinai seven weeks after leaving Egypt and crossing the sea. The story is recounted in the Torah. Exodus 19:1-20:23.

[18] “We acknowledge that You” is Rabbi Weiss Halivni’s translation of “modim anachnu lach.” These are the opening words of a prayer that appears toward the end of the Amidah/Silent Devotion. As we recite the phrase “modim anachnu lach,” we bow in gratitude, and we continue with the words of the prayer that speak of our involvement with God and God’s involvement in our lives.

[19] David Weiss Halivni, Breaking the Tablets, Jewish Theology After the Shoah (Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2001) 125-126.

[20] Shrabani Basu, The Spy Princess, The Life of Noor Inayat Khan (The History Press Ltd., 2006) Prologue.

[21] Abba means father.

[22] Basu 61.

[23] Verbal introduction to the “Healing Song,” Let the Healing Begin by Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield, cassette tape.