Jewish World Review / August, 1998 / Menachem-Av, 5758

Could the Holocaust have been prevented?

In a chilling essay penned nearly a quarter-century before WWII, the late Rabbi Meir Simcha HaKohein of Dvinsk wonders why Jewry fails to learn from history

THE HISTORY OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE through this current galus (exile) is truly awesome. It is a two-millennia chronicle of almost unrelieved suffering due to hostility, oppression, ostracism and eventual exile from lands where only years before Jews had found refuge. Who, at the time of the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, Holy Temple and the dispersion of the Jewish People, would have imagined the people to survive over such a long painful period, through so storm tossed a destiny, still loyal to its Divine mission, with its integrity of purpose still intact? Indeed, the mere survival of the Jewish People through two thousand years of cruelty and oppression can of itself provide the clearest evidence of the centrality of hashgachah (Divine direction) in the course of history.

Once one accepts Divine guidance of history, however, one can ask, as have so many Jews through the years: Why have we been made to endure such unparalleled suffering? Is there any purpose in these seemingly endless wanderings? A key to this puzzle may lie in the pattern this suffering has followed: Jews arrive in a new land. They and their children gradually prosper and become important citizens of their adopted country. They organize into communities to build and maintain their own institutions. With the passage of time, they become more deeply involved in the culture of their surroundings. Acclimation leads to assimilation, as the Jew abandons his Divine mission and his hope for spiritual salvation in favor of the seductive glitter of the society-at-large. After a time, the host country turns against its Jewish citizenry, and several hundred years after its founding, this Jewish community is completely destroyed by the unleashed wrath of its erstwhile hosts. The survivors, impoverished and broken in spirit, once again return to their Redeemer and with His help escape to a more hospitable country to rebuild in an atmosphere of relative peace --- until they are again subjected to harsh treatment.

The Drive for Change

The purpose of this cycle in the ultimate realization of Israel's destiny can best be understood by delving into the causes for each stage in the process. A universal characteristic of every generation is the desire to change and hopefully to improve upon the accomplishments of its predecessors. In the realm of worldly achievement, this can be of greatest value. After all, secular knowledge is the product of human intellect. As such, its theories and conclusions are subject to constant revision with the discovery of the heretofore unknown and its correlation with the already proven. This process of adaptation and revision absorbs the energetic compulsion for change of each succeeding generation. The thirst for newness can always be well met.

By contrast, Torah is G-dly wisdom, and does not have any such allowances for adaptation and revision. Yet before Israel was driven into galus, exile, it too enjoyed opportunities for meeting this inherent drive for change in a constructive manner. The thirteen rules of exegesis were open for each beis din (religious court) to interpret the Torah in accord with its understanding. The choice to circumvent the law in cases of special need (hora'as sha'ah) was a viable power in the hands of our wise men. In addition, the guidance of prophecy and, later, of ruach hakodesh (Divine Spirit) prevailed in each generation in accordance with its needs --- pinpointing new areas of special concern and concentrated effort.

While the Torah itself remained immutable, its application to the exigencies of the times remained for each generation to determine for itself. There was thus a constant process of renewal and an ever-pervading air of fresh accomplishment.

Once the Jews were driven into galus, however, the situation changed radically. The Age of Prophecy had ended with the destruction of the First Holy Temple, and the ruach hakodesh, prophecy, that prevailed during the Second Holy Temple was never since equaled. The concentration of scholars devoted to Torah study, which had characterized both Commonwealths, also remained unmatched. With the dispersion of the Jews in galus, exile, the standard of Torah scholarship fell greatly. The result, as the Rambam (Maimonides) explains in the introduction to his Yad Hachazakah, was that the beis din, religious court, no longer possesses the authority to institute new laws or to re-examine certain old ones. Since this avenue of expression for the need to innovate has been closed, new ones are always sought.

Thus the Cycle

The cycle of Jewish settlement in the galus, exile, can now be understood. When Jews enter a strange country, they are relatively ignorant of Torah as a result of the distraction caused by the insecurities that plagued them in their old country and their migrations to the new. They then experience a reawakening of the Divine Spirit within them, which impels them to return to Torah. Their Torah scholarship improves gradually until it peaks at an unusually high level --- a level that nonetheless falls short of the attainments of earlier scholars. At this point the new generation does not conceive of any opportunities for progress. How can they possibly add to the accomplishment of earlier generations? So the need for change expresses itself in criticism of the status quo. This in turn leads to eventual denial of the worth and substance of their ancestral heritage. The Jew of this final generation abandons his religion and national identity in favor of the mores of his adopted country. He thinks of Berlin as his Jerusalem and learns to behave in a manner typical of the lower elements of the host society. A storm of destruction follows which uproots him and deposits him in a distant land, where the language and customs are unknown to him, his ears still echoing with the pejorative: Jew! Who made you into a personage? This brings him to the realization that his adopted culture and language in truth were foreign to him, and that his essence is that he is a Jew. His intrinsic "culture" is the Torah, his language is lashon hakodesh (the holy tongue, Hebrew) and his sources of comfort are the prophecies of the Nevi'ei Hashem (G-d's prophets). Any attractions other than these are to be regarded at most as temporary coverings to be shed when they present any conflict to the way of life ordained by the Torah ... This has been the pattern of Jewish existence over the centuries.

And this is the meaning of G-d's words of comfort: "I will not have degraded them" --- referring to the low level of achievement in Torah and Jewish consciousness.
"(nor) will I have rejected them" --- referring to the expulsions and forced wanderings from land to land ...
"to annihilate them" --- to the degree that they should completely abandon Torah and reject their heritage ...
"for I am Hashern, their G-d" --- My bond with them is never annulled.

The degradation and rejection are not wanton, nor are they ever consummated. They are carefully modulated measures of maintaining the Jews' awareness of their special relationship with "I, Hashem their G-d." Not despite wanderings and sufferings, but because of them, does the Jewish People remain alive.

Rabbi Meir Simcha HaKohein, ZT"L, (1843-1926) was the spiritual leader of Dvinsk, Lativa and considered one of the Torah luminaries of his day. This article was prepared for publication by Gershon Dubin.


©1998, Agudath Israel of America