by Eli Kavon
The ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av–which begins this year on the evening of July 15–is an annual day of mourning for the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem by the enemies of the Jews in ancient times. Today, the focus of Jewish mourning on the Ninth of Av has broadened to include the Holocaust. The destruction of the Shoah, unique and unprecedented in Jewish history, should transform the Jewish understanding of the Ninth of Av–but it has not done so. Should the terrible events of 70 years ago be included in the traditional rubric of martyrdom of the Ninth of Av? I dare to propose that the Holocaust remembrance of Yom Hashoah must be elevated to the status of a religious commemoration separate from that of the Ninth of Av. I propose this based on the theology of defiance of one of the great rabbis of the Warsaw Ghetto–Menachem Ziemba.
Mordecai Anielewicz led the desperate revolt against the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto in April 1943. The young men and women who resisted the SS chose to die fighting rather than face mass murder in the death camp of Treblinka. They fought to preserve their honor as Jews.
Yet, Jewish resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto did not only manifest itself in the taking up of arms against the Nazi enemy. The Holocaust was not only a war against the Jews: it was a war against Judaism. By gathering in clandestine synagogues and houses of study, religious Jews defied the Nazis. This form of spiritual resistance has been forgotten. Few Jews survived to tell its story.
Hillel Seidman, a member of the Warsaw ghetto’s Jewish Council, was one of the few spiritual resisters to survive the Nazi onslaught. In his secret diary written after the mass deportation of Jews from Warsaw to Treblinka in the terrible summer of 1942, Seidman tells the story of Rabbi Menachem Ziemba. Ziemba was one of the last rabbis to survive in the Warsaw Ghetto up until the April 1943 rebellion. His heroism in the face of Nazi mass murder has not yet been acknowledged. Born in 1883 to a poor Hasidic family, Ziemba struggled to make a living. In 1935, as an important figure in the Agudas Yisroel organization in Poland, he came to prominence as a member of the Warsaw rabbinical council. Ziemba’s spirit inspired the Jews of the ghetto to fight the Nazis.
In a meeting of the Warsaw Jewish leadership in January 1943, Rabbi Ziemba declared that the traditional martyrdom in the face of persecution—the sanctification of God’s name by killing oneself rather than betraying the Jewish faith—was no longer a viable response. He argued that “sanctification of the Divine Name” must manifest itself in resistance to the enemy. “In the present,” Ziemba told the ghetto leaders, “we are faced by an arch foe, whose unparalleled ruthlessness and total annihilation purposes know no bounds. Halakhah demands that we fight and resist to the very end with unequaled determination and valor for the sake of Sanctification of the Divine Name.”
Ziemba recalibrated the contours of Jewish law in the face of the terrifying reality of the Shoah. The rabbi cited halakhah to respond to a totally new situation in the history of the Jewish people. His understanding of the Jewish law in the case of martyrdom was molded by the terrible world of death and suffering around him. The tradition of martyrdom—the theology of the Ninth of Av commemoration—was an inadequate response in the face of genocide. God demanded a new response. Ziemba cited halakhah to radically transform the nature of Jewish response to persecution. For Ziemba, all actions that were performed had to be based on Jewish law. Years of starvation and disease in the ghetto did not blunt his dedication to Torah. The Polish underground gave Ziemba a chance to escape the ghetto before the revolt. He chose to remain with his people. He died as the ghetto went up in flames.
As we commemorate the persecutions of the past on this Ninth of Av, let us not forget Rabbi Ziemba. His theology of resistance recognized that the genocide of the Jewish people demanded a new halakhic mandate to resist the enemy until the end. This theology should inspire us today to never give up in the face of our foes. Today, the State of Israel faces the specter of a nuclear and belligerent Iran, a foe sworn to the Jewish State’s destruction. Menachem Ziemba understood that martyrdom could no longer be a viable response to enemies committed to the destruction of the Jewish people. In the world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, Ziemba is solely remembered as a great Talmud scholar. Yet, the revolutionary response of the great rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto must be confronted. Living in the hell of the ghetto, Rabbi Ziemba realized that the martyrdom idealized on the Ninth of Av was not the proper response that had been so much a part of Judaism for centuries. The legacy of Rabbi Ziemba forces us to question whether the Ninth of Av theology—grounded in ideals of martyrdom—should encompass the enormity and scope of the Holocaust. Menachem Ziemba, living and dying in the hell of the Warsaw ghetto, asked this question and answered it from the abyss. We should heed his daring call.
Eli Kavon is the rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida. This is his tenth year on the faculty of the Lifelong Learning Institute of Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Florida.