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Wenn Selbstmord kein Selbstmord, und Mord kein Mord ist:
Halakhah und Schoah

Aus einem Artikel von Jair Sheleg, haArez

Ist es erlaubt, Selbstmord zu verüben, um nicht die Ermordung der eigenen Familie mit ansehen zu müssen? (Die Antwort: Ja, aber die Erlaubnis muss geheimgehalten werden).
Gilt die Ermordung eines Babys, das bei einer "Aktion" der Gestapo geweint hat, als Mord? (Nein)
Kann jemand, der Capo war, als Kantor fungieren? (Nein).

Ein neues Buch von Itamar Levin untersucht die schweren, manchmal furchtbaren Fragen, die der Holocaust bezüglich religiöser Vorschriften geschaffen hat. In vielen Fällen haben die Rabbiner die Vorschriften erleichtert, um Leben zu retten, aber es war zum Beispiel verboten, sich als Christ auszugeben:

A respected member of the Jewish community in Kovno, Lithuania approached a local rabbi in October 1941, two days before the destruction of the ghetto. He was aware that the Germans often abuse their victims - among other things, torturing and then killing women and children in front of their husbands and fathers. He told the rabbi that he wanted to preempt them - and commit suicide before he was forced to watch the murder of his family. The rabbi replied that it might be permissible, but he instructed the man not to publicize his response so that others would not follow suit.

Rabbi Isaac Herzog, the chief rabbi of Palestine at that time, was asked about the perspective of halakha (Jewish religious law) on those who committed suicide because of Nazi persecution. Herzog ruled that even though, according to halakha, they are not considered suicides, in order to try and avoid such occurrences, a stricter approach should be taken. At the very least, there should be no eulogies for those who committed suicide.

After the Holocaust, another Jew approached Rabbi Shimon Efrati, the rabbi of Holocaust survivors in Warsaw, with a different sort of question: during the war, he had hidden in a bunker with a group of Jews. While there were searches going on in the area, a baby who was with them burst out crying, and he had covered the baby's face with a pillow to keep him quiet. After the Germans left, they found that the baby had suffocated and died. The questioner asked if he must be judged according to the laws relating to accidental killers. The rabbi's response: The action was legitimate.

The reason for this ruling is apparently that the baby endangered the lives of those hiding in the bunker and consequently the laws of rodef (i.e., when there is someone persecuting you and threatening your life, you or a third party can kill them) applied to him.

These are just a few examples of the difficult halakhic questions presented in the book "Letters of Fire," (Yedioth Ahronoth publications) written by Globes journalist Itamar Levin. The book focuses on Holocaust-related responsa literature (rulings issued by rabbinic authorities in reply to halakhic questions). It contains not only questions that arose during the Holocaust itself, but also ones that arose in its aftermath about a wide range of issues. For example, there is the matter of agunot (literally, "chained women" who did not receive a get, or Jewish bill of divorce from their husbands) who wanted to remarry after all trace of their husbands was lost during the Holocaust, yet were still uncertain if their husbands were indeed dead. There are questions about Shabbat and kashrut observance during the difficult conditions of the Holocaust. There is the issue of running away from the ghetto when it was clear that the Nazis would take revenge on those remaining behind. There is the question of whether a former capo (an inmate given a position of authority in a concentration camp) can serve as a cantor and lead prayer services in synagogue (the answer: no).

It is notable that those who ask the questions are so meticulous about the fine points of halakha, even under the terrible conditions of the Holocaust. For example, one question deals with the issue of going outside while carrying the identity card issued by the Germans, when being caught without it would mean imprisonment under harsh conditions, or worse. The questioner is concerned about violating the ban on carrying objects from the private domain to the public domain on Shabbat. The answer does not provide a blanket exemption from this rule of halakha; instead, it says that someone who goes out on the Sabbath carrying the document does indeed have a basis for such an action (i.e., there are some rabbinic arbiters who permit it). But this should not be publicized, so that it does not become the norm.

Another issue troubling the questioners and rabbinic authorities was the question of posing as Christians during the Holocaust, and the postwar status of those who were baptized during the war. Many of the questions deal with this issue, because in the halakhic perception, Christianity is considered "idol worship" which is not permitted even in life-threatening situations. And indeed when it came to this issue, the rabbis tended to be more stringent. That was the case when Rabbi Asheri did not allow a Jew from Kovno to merely buy a forged Christian identity card, without actually converting. In this context, the book also cites the testimony of the Admor, the Hasidic rabbi of Sanz, who refused to purchase conversion certificates for himself and his family; his wife and 11 children were murdered. Rabbi Efrati permitted people to go into hiding in the home of a gentile, but prohibited Jews from declaring that they were Christians and of course, adopting Christian customs. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, on the other hand, was asked after the Holocaust if a woman and her daughters who were baptized must undergo a process of "returning to Judaism" by shaving their hair and immersing in the mikveh (ritual purification bath). His answer was no. He only noted that the woman must fast every year on the date she was baptized. The daughters were exempt even from that.

Bottom line

"Letters of Fire" is a collection of responsa that appeared in some 60 books by various rabbis who dealt with Holocaust-related questions; most of these rabbis were actually in occupied Europe. That is the case with the book "Mima'amakim" (From the Depths) by Rabbi Efraim Asheri, who was in the Kovno ghetto, and "Alei Merorot" (Leaves of Bitterness), a book of the responsa and recollections of Rabbi Yehoshua Moshe Aaronson, who was in several work camps and death camps. In this context, Levin says, "the most prominent rabbis mentioned in the book weren't necessarily the most prominent rabbis in Europe at the time. The prominence of the rabbis and responsa literature from that period is to a large extent a matter of luck: who was lucky enough to be saved and then write about his activities during the Holocaust. Rabbi Menachem Zemba, for example, the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto, was a renowned scholar, but he was killed and the ghetto was also destroyed, so no documentation of his activities remained after the war. The same is true of Rabbi Elhanan Wasserman, a very prominent rabbi who was killed at the beginning of the Holocaust."

In addition, "Letters of Fire" also contains questions that appeared in the writings of important rabbinical authorities outside of Europe, such as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein in the U.S. and the chief rabbi of mandatory Palestine, Rabbi Isaac Herzog.

The book's main focus is the questions; they appear in great detail, while the answers usually just state "the bottom line:" permitted or prohibited, without explanation. That is regrettable, because it would have been interesting to follow the logic of the rabbinical arbiters. Levin says about this point: "My intention was not to write a book on halakha, which I'm not an expert on, but to document the Holocaust as reflected in the halakhic literature, and in that respect, the stories and testimonies emerging from the questions are more important."

The advantage of this documentation is that it was done in real time - the rabbis recorded in their notes the questions they were asked - unlike most of the Holocaust testimonies, which were gathered many years later and relied on memory. This way there is less possibility of inaccuracy.

Another characteristic of the book is that it quotes the original language of the questioners (or of the rabbis who cite them) and does not "translate" it into modern Hebrew - which will, incidentally, make it harder for readers who are not fluent in the language of halakha. "As a historian by training, I know that primary sources are the most important," says Levin, explaining his choice. "Because until now these sources from the responsa literature were not compiled, I thought it appropriate to first present the reader with these primary sources and of course, that's an opening for other studies to be done on these sources - studies that would be better if done by people who are more knowledgeable about halakha than a historian."

Levin says he came to his topic via a book written by an ultra-Orthodox researcher, Ruth Lichtenstein, on Holocaust testimony. "By chance, I came across this book, called `Edut' (Testimony) during Hebrew Book Week and I bought it. Because she is a Haredi woman, only her initials appear on the book. Lichtenstein poses an interesting halakhic question about a man in a ghetto hospital and the deliberations over whether or not to bring him tefillin (phylacteries), because of the concern that if he dies, all of his possessions will be burned immediately, including the tefillin, due to fear of contagion. The ruling, incidentally, was that it is permissible to bring him tefillin, but this testimony made me think that it would be interesting to study the whole issue of responsa from the Holocaust."

Permissive approach

In his research, Levin used two libraries of halakhic literature: the Rambam Library in Tel Aviv's Beit Ariella and Bar-Ilan University's Judaic Studies Library. "In these libraries, I looked for all the responsa books that were published after 1930, and using the indexes, I searched for questions related to the Holocaust." He says that Bar-Ilan University's computerized Responsa project did not actually help him in this case. "The experts explained to me that in any case I'd have to do the same search I did in the libraries, so I preferred the manual search." In order to understand the halakhic significance of the material he read, Levin got help from Rabbi Shlomo Dichovski, a member of the Jerusalem Rabbinical High Court of Appeal.

Levin says what he found most surprising and also most impressive in the material he read is the "halakhic meticulousness of the questioners, even in the toughest conditions. For example, there is a case of a shohet (ritual slaughterer) who, during a Shabbat bombing of the Romanian town where he lived, went outside with a wad of money underneath his hat, so that he would have something to live off later on. The question was whether the fact that he had carried money on the Shabbat, even though it was under his hat and in those circumstances, should make him ineligible to be a shohet. I was astounded by this degree of meticulousness."

The hardest stories, he says, "were, of course, those that involve children. For example, the testimony of a woman who was about to give birth and was shot by the Germans. She was transferred to the Jewish hospital in the ghetto in an attempt to at least save the baby; but the Germans didn't give up: they came to the hospital and when they found the baby that had been taken out of her womb, they smashed his head against a wall. I'm usually a calm and collected person, but when I read these testimonies, I left my office trembling."

Levin, himself an observant Jew, concluded that the halakhic approach of the rabbinical authorities was overall very liberal, especially under those circumstances. "When you leaf through the rulings, you find that most of them take a permissive approach. There are a few exceptions, such as questions about posing as a Christian, but in general, a survey of these books of responsa disproves two common perceptions. One is that halakhic arbiters always take the conservative approach, and, among other things, during the Holocaust, prevented people from saving themselves. And the second is that all religious people stopped being religious as a result of the Holocaust. Certainly, there were such things - conservative rabbis and people leaving religion - but they weren't the prevailing phenomena. I think that these perceptions were entrenched because the battle over people's consciousness is won by whoever writes the history and totally secular researchers who had no access to halakhic literature were usually the ones who wrote the history of the Holocaust. To a certain extent, this book attempts to somewhat correct the distortions."


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