Thursday, March 31, 2022

Jews, Romans, and Pigs: An Impossible History

When the vegan meat manufacturer Impossible Foods requested kosher certification for its new line of “Impossible Pork,” the OU balked. Although the actual product is made of kosher ingredients, the OU found that certifying Impossible Pork as kosher was….simply impossible. For years, there have been many “faux unkosher” products, such as imitation shrimp, dairy-free cheeseburgers, and even imitation bacon, but the OU felt that pork is different. Chanie Apfelbaum, a New York kosher food blogger and cookbook author, explained to the Wall Street Journal that she had no problem eating Impossible Cheeseburgers, but that she has “a hard time getting past the idea of eating something that’s called ‘pork’ and is meant to taste like pork.”
Suovetaurilia (sacrifice of a pig, a sheep and a bull) to the god Mars, relief from the panel of a sarcophagus. Marble, Roman artwork, first half of the 1st century CE.
This resistance to pork seems strange from a halakhic perspective. Other prohibited foods, such as chametz on Pesach or the fat of the hindquarters are more severe than pork. Yet despite this, the metaphor for something unquestionably non-kosher is “chazer treif,” as un-Kosher as pork. Clearly, Jews have a particular problem with pork.

Jews have had negative feelings about pigs for over 2,000 years, and in many ways, the antagonism was created by anti-Jewish polemics. The Greco-Roman world saw the Jewish refusal to eat pork as extremely strange; along with monotheism, circumcision, and Shabbat, it was a Jewish practice that perplexed outsiders. Pork was a staple of the Roman diet, and both Greeks and Romans used pigs for animal sacrifices. Outsiders mocked the Jewish refusal to eat pork. In the year 40, a violent battle raged between Greeks and Jews in Alexandria. Philo Judaeus, a leader of the Jewish community, led a delegation to Rome to meet with the Emperor Caligula. As both parties to the dispute stood before him, Caligula asked Philo: "Why is it that you abstain from eating pig's flesh?" The Greeks burst out in laughter, certain that Caligula meant this as an insult.

Many in the ancient world saw the Jewish refusal to eat pig meat as misanthropic, part of a larger Jewish refusal to engage with the rest of the world; the desire to remain “a nation that dwells alone” irritated many in the ancient world. It is for this reason, when persecuting the Jews, their tormentors forced them to eat pork. The Book of Maccabees, which relates the history behind the Chanukah story, tells of martyrs who refused to eat pork and gave up their lives instead. Included among them were a mother and her seven sons, all of whom refused to eat pork and were all killed. Diodorus, a 1st century BCE Greek historian, explains that Antiochus, the villain of the Chanukah story, sprinkled pig’s blood on the Temple’s altar, poured pig gravy on the Temple’s Torah scrolls, and forced the High Priest to eat pork. Diodorus explains that Antiochus assumed if he could break Jewish habits regarding pork, he could break Judaism.

In the Roman era, there was a change in rhetoric; the Jewish refusal to eat pig was not seen as an expression of hostility to pigs (and those who eat them), but rather an expression of affinity for pigs. Juvenal, the first century poet and satirist wrote that among the Jews, ‘‘a long- established clemency suffers pigs to attain old age." Another satirist commented regarding Herod, who killed several of his own children, that he would "rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.” Petronius referred to the Jews as worshipers of a ‘‘pig-god." The Jews' refusal to eat pork was twisted into evidence of a Jewish fondness for pigs.

This theme continues into the medieval era. Irven M. Resnick writes: “The pleasure-loving pig, then, became a familiar image in medieval Christian anti-Jewish polemics. Moreover, the pig will be understood to have been forbidden to Jews precisely because the two share the same natural qualities or characteristics. That is, Jews will be viewed as "pig-like" while, conversely, pigs will be viewed as "Jew-like."” In other words, Christians can eat pork because they have a superior disposition; but Jews, who are ravenous gluttons, are prohibited from doing so, because it will reinforce their already pig-like disposition. Popular culture in medieval Europe was far more malevolent; the Judensau, “the Jews’ pig,” which depicts Jews in close contact with a pig, became popular in the 13th century. It was disseminated on woodcuts, paintings, and sculptures, and a frieze of the Judensau was found on multiple churches and cathedrals. (Images of the Judensau remain on nearly two dozen churches in Europe to this day.) Martin Luther reports approvingly about the Judensau at his local church:

“Here on our church in Wittenberg a sow is sculpted in stone. Young pigs and Jews lie suckling under her. Behind the sow a rabbi is bent over the sow, lifting her right leg, holding her tail high and looking intensely under her tail and into her Talmud, as though he were reading something acute or extraordinary…”
This nauseating antisemitic image is the culmination of centuries of anti-Jewish and antisemitic polemic, all focused on Jews and pigs. One simple kosher law became the focus of profound hatred, all because Jews wouldn’t eat pork.
In rabbinic literature, one sees a mirror image of these polemics; the laws regarding the pig are read as a reference to the Roman Empire. To the rabbis, the negative attributes of the pig symbolize the excesses of Rome, which like the pig, is destructive and self-centered. This polemic has a fascinating nuance. One well-known Midrash regarding the pig/Rome analogy focuses on how the pig is in a sense “half-kosher,” because the pig has one of two signs of the kosher animal; it has split hooves but does not chew its cud. But this isn’t seen as a reason for praise; instead, being “half-kosher” emphasizes the hypocrisy of the Romans. The Midrash says: “Why is he (Rome) compared to a pig? Just as the pig, when it lays down, it puts out its hooves and says, ‘‘I am kosher,’’ so too does the kingdom of Rome (Edom) arrogantly commit robbery and violence, while making believe they are smoothing out a tablecloth on the table (and acting very civilized and hospitable).” It then continues to tell a story about a Roman magistrate who was sentencing thieves, adulterers, and sorcerers to death, and afterwards remarked, “I did all three of these last night." The Roman Empire had achieved a great deal; it had abundant public works, and a fully functioning legal system. But the rabbis saw through the hypocrisy of a leadership class that satisfied their own rapacious desires without limits; they saw up close the inhumanity of a so-called “civilized” empire that used violence indiscriminately to achieve its goals.
Jews associated the pig with the Roman empire, and the pig was the food of the enemy. This is why pig is “chazer treif,” and pork is the most “anti-Jewish” of non-kosher foods, because pork carries with it a legacy of centuries of antisemitism and antagonism.

There is one final twist to the impossible history of Jews, Romans, and pigs. There is a tradition, attributed to the Midrash but first recorded in the 13th century, that in messianic times, the pig will return to the Jews and become kosher; this insight is based on the similarity between the Hebrew word for pig, “hachazir,” and the word for return, “l’hachzir.” This unusual tradition creates a lot of debate; some, like Rabbi Baruch Epstein, reject the Midrash as a forgery, while others reinterpret it. However, many accept this tradition; Rav Chaim ben Attar, the author of the Ohr HaChaim, says that when the Messiah arrives, pigs will begin to chew their cud and become kosher. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was an advocate of this Midrash, although he took the view that in messianic times, pigs would not chew their cud, but rather our perspective will shift, and will reveal the goodness within the half-kosher pig.

Undoubtedly, this change in the kosher status of pigs carries a larger lesson about the Roman Empire and its successors; when the Messiah comes, the descendants of Esau and Jacob will join hands together in peace. The good works of the Roman Empire will now be united with a higher morality and spiritual purpose. The age-old divisions of antisemitism and animosity will dissolve, and brothers will be brothers once again.

I have a particular affinity for this tradition because it is rooted in the unending optimism of the Jewish people. Even the pig, a symbol of Roman oppression and ages of antisemitism, is still able to become kosher and return to the Jewish people. There is always potential for change, always a possibility for rapprochement.
We are already part of the way there. Rabbi Herman Adler, the Chief Rabbi of England at the turn of the 20th century, once met a Catholic colleague, Cardinal Herbert Vaughan, at a luncheon. The Cardinal asked him, “Now, Dr. Adler, when may I have the pleasure of helping you to some ham?” Without missing a beat, Adler responded: “At Your Eminence’s wedding.”

This comic exchange would have been impossible in the 3rd century, or the 13th century. But the good humor and camaraderie between the Chief Rabbi and the Cardinal in the 20th century offer a glimpse into a different world, where the impossible is possible, and Rome and the Jews can be reunited.


Thursday, March 17, 2022

A Letter from Poland: When Will Goodness Win Out?

In the past two weeks we have seen humanity at its worst. An invasion, purposeless and unprovoked, has left death and destruction in its path. Thousands have died, and millions have fled from their homes. A humanitarian disaster has devastated a country of 44 million people, and like most disasters, this one disproportionately affects the elderly, the young and the infirm. 

Witnessing the situation in person is profoundly upsetting. I have just returned from Poland, where I went as part of a UJA-Federation of New York Rabbinic Mission; there, we saw the refugees and heard their stories. They had made a long journey over a short distance, sometimes waiting as long as 48 hours to cross the border. One night, in the extreme cold, six people died waiting in line at one of the crossings. We visited the Medyka border crossing, where immigrants walk in on foot, and the Przemyśl train station, where they arrive in extremely overcrowded trains. To see their faces is to see the face of catastrophe; they carry with them a few light bags, and expressions of grief, sadness, and anxiety. Because Ukraine has a general conscription of all men between 18 and 60, virtually all of the refugees are women, children and the elderly. At the makeshift Jewish Agency center in the Warsaw Novotel, we met a young woman who had fled with her two children, ages four and nine, while leaving her husband behind; tears rolled down her face as she spoke about how she worries for his welfare. And speaker after speaker impressed upon us that Poland is merely the tip of the iceberg; what we saw, as disturbing as it was, is minor compared to what is happening inside Ukraine.  

A trip like this is profoundly unsettling, and leaves one with more questions than answers. You begin to wonder how it is possible that within the family of mankind there can be such violence. Why would someone do this, and inflict so much pain and suffering? But even as this question gnaws at the heart, the mind knows the reality: violence has been with us from the very beginning, when Cain murdered his brother Abel. But the fact that violence is part of life only makes reality more painful. Dan Pagis, an Israeli poet who survived the Holocaust, wrote a powerful poem that captures the anguish one feels in confronting endless inhumanity:

here in this carload
i am eve
with abel my son
if you see my other son
cain son of man
tell him that i

In the poem, Eve, the mother of all mankind, is pleading with her son Cain: Why are you doing this? But Eve is cut down before she can speak; violence silences her plea. Eve's shock at seeing violence arise in the world’s first family is one we share with her right now.

Dr. Eliezer Berkovits, at the beginning of Faith After the Holocaust, reminds the reader that “perhaps even more important than the question Where was God? is, Where was Man?” Berkovits discusses the role of man’s free will in understanding God’s relationship with the world, and focuses on man, who is given absolute free will to choose good and evil. Perhaps some will find the “free will defense” of God’s goodness meaningful; but in its wake, it creates a far deeper existential crisis. Since humanity is capable of such horrible evil, how can anyone ever trust in human goodness? To lose faith in mankind is no small thing, because without it, the world becomes a very dark and distressing place. Perhaps the unhappiest verse in the Tanakh is found in the eighth chapter of Genesis, which declares “every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood”; man is born with a propensity to evil. This is a very distressing thought.

There are times, as we have seen in the past two weeks, when mankind’s potential for inhumanity seems limitless. But the story doesn’t end there. There is, on the other side, an army of helpers. In Poland, we saw volunteers who mobilized from around the world, and their goodness is truly unending. 

When our group arrived, we immediately went to visit the centers, shelters, kitchens and clinics serving the refugees. None of this infrastructure existed two weeks ago; it all came together spontaneously in a groundswell of volunteering. I was incredibly proud to see the exceptional job that the UJA - Federation has done on the ground in Poland; they are deeply involved in supporting and coordinating these new initiatives, and offering them financial and logistical support. The overall attitude is one of all hands on deck, with every spare space being used for refugees. Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, the historic Polish Yeshiva which in recent years has been a museum, has been turned into a shelter. Now, refugees coming to Lublin know to look for “the Yeshiva.” There, we met Agnes, a young member of the Jewish community, who'd been spending every free moment volunteering. When we asked her if working 16 hour days, 7 days a week was too difficult, she answered with a laugh that she hadn't had a chance to think about it. But Agnes came with a sense of purpose. She told us, "When I can give a child a toy and make them happy, I know I am doing work that matters."

Legions of volunteers are coming from around the world. It is astounding how many people have come to help, to do good. On the Polish side of the Medyka crossing is a long line of tents, which can only be described as an outdoor market of volunteer organizations. The booths offer the entering refugees food, groceries, clothing and baby goods. And there is more, so much more, that I saw in just 48 hours in Poland. We met with local Jewish leaders, including Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Jonathan Ornstein, the executive director of the JCC Krakow, Rabbi Avi Baumol, the Rabbi of Krakow, and Tzvi Sperber, the director of JRoots, who have dropped everything else and are working day and night to serve the refugees. There are volunteers working 24/7, offering healthcare, childcare and emotional support. We heard about two people who are trucking supplies into Ukraine, and then on the return trip, bringing elderly people back to Poland. And some volunteers just hand out candy to the children. The devotion of all of them is exceptional. When the Book of Psalms exclaims "You have made man just a little less than the divine one, and adorned him with glory and majesty," it meant people like this.

The worst and the best of mankind have been on display the past two weeks. The stark contrast between the two defies easy analysis. What truly is man? Are human beings generally good, or generally bad?

This is an issue that has been debated by rabbis, theologians, and philosophers for centuries. The Talmud relates: "For two and a half years, Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. These said: It would have been preferable had man not been created than to have been created. And those said: It is preferable for man to have been created than had he not been created..." The phrasing of this passage is a bit vague, but many commentaries read this text as a debate about the nature of human beings: are they good enough to be worthy of creation, or not? In other words, is mankind inherently good, or bad? In the end, the conclusion is that it would have been better for man to have not been created. The Talmud embraces pessimism, and sees humans as too flawed, fated to be bad.

This debate continues through the generations. There are Chasidic thinkers such as Rav Tzadok of Lublin who are optimists, and see the good in everything, including failure and sin; in his view every aspect of human potential is filled with greatness. The Mitnagdim, the disciples of the Vilna Gaon, had a much more pessimistic view, seeing man’s spiritual potential as profoundly limited; only in death can man’s soul first begin to flourish. And this debate is not unique to Judaism, or to theologians. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out, Hobbes is a pessimist, who sees human nature as fundamentally violent and destructive, while Rousseau is an optimist, who believes that man’s inherent good is instinctive. And the debate doesn’t end there. Ask nearly anyone, and they will offer their own philosophy of human nature, pessimistic or optimistic, often colored by life experience.

There is a third view, one which sees human nature as half and half, balanced between good and evil. Every person is in an ongoing struggle; there is a yetzer tov, a good inclination, and yetzer harah, an evil inclination, and the two clash constantly. But this struggle is not just an individual struggle. The Rambam, (paraphrasing a passage in the Talmud), says:

…Throughout the entire year, a person should always look at themselves as equally balanced between innocence and guilt, and the world as equally balanced between merit and guilt. If they perform one sin, it tips their balance and that of the entire world to the side of guilt and brings about destruction. However, if they perform one mitzvah, they tip their own balance and that of the entire world to the side of merit, and bring about deliverance and salvation….

This is a powerful paradigm. Mankind is not good or evil; it is up to each of us to change the world, and tip the scale in the favor of goodness. There is a constant battle for the soul of humanity, and even the smallest good deed we do can make a difference for the entire world. 

Many of us might feel a rush of cynicism while reading this passage in the Rambam. Perhaps on a divine level the world is saved; but down on earth, things are different. Good deeds are nice, but they don’t change much; handing out candy to children won’t stop a tank. This cynicism is warranted, but the Rambam deserves a careful hearing nonetheless. What he is articulating is a religious version of the “butterfly effect.” In nature, even small actions can make a big difference, and even a butterfly flapping its wings can have an outsized impact on the weather, and theoretically even cause a tornado. The same is true of spirituality; small actions can have a major impact. One must never overlook the value of a good deed, because its impact years later can be much larger than imagined.

Before I left for Poland, several people asked me if the trip was worth my while; after all, what could a rabbi do there? I found the answer to this question on Tuesday morning. At 6:00 AM, we went back to the Warsaw Novotel to see off a group of 40 Ukrainians on their way to Israel. I had the opportunity to address them through a translator, and told them that we, the Jewish community around the world, are their family, and would be with them every step of the way. I blessed them and told them our hearts are with them. Then our group handed out chocolates and Israeli flags, and while I was doing so, got many more smiles than I thought I would. 

It isn’t always worth traveling halfway around the world for a smile. But this time it was. I was no hero, not like Agnes and all of the tireless volunteers we met. Even so, I still could bring a bit of warmth to a few refugees, and let them know that they were not alone; and that alone was worth the entire trip. 

Sometimes, a small piece of chocolate can make a big difference.

Friday, March 11, 2022

What Will Happen if Women Don’t Come Back?


In a recent article in Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought entitled "Where Are All the Women?," Dr. Erica Brown relates the following:

“When I was 18 and in seminary in Jerusalem, I went to morning minyan in a large local Israeli yeshiva. Having attended a co-ed Jewish day school with a daily minyan requirement, this seemed normative enough. The few men populating the cavernous women’s section in this yeshiva, however, huffed when I appeared. My presence was an obvious inconvenience to their communal prayer experience. After a few weeks, I was called into the Rosh Yeshiva’s office, where he asked me in Hebrew if I had my eye on a yeshiva bochur. “No,” I replied. “I come here to daven.”
Lazar Krestin, Portrait of a Jewish woman holding a prayer book, before 28 February 1938
The insensitivity of the men to Erica’s spiritual interests is upsetting; the Rosh Yeshiva’s condescension is disturbing. But at the same time, her presence at minyan was an anomaly. Women have no obligation to pray with a minyan, and in many synagogues, women generally don’t attend daily services.

But women everywhere do come to synagogue on Shabbat. And throughout history, there were many communities where groups of women came to daily services. They did so, despite being exempt from communal prayer. And the question is: Why did women choose to come to the synagogue?

The answer begins with a passage in the Talmud. Our Torah reading discusses the ritual of semikhah of laying one's hands on the sacrifice that is being offered. Semikhah is a meaningful ritual that conveys how this sacrifice stands as a proxy for the owner, who is symbolically offering themself to God. Women were exempted from doing semikhah on their sacrifices. The Talmud records a debate whether women can voluntarily choose to perform semikhah. Rav Yosi and Rav Shimon ruled that they may do so, and Rav Yosi recounts that "Abba Elazar related to me the following incident: On one occasion, we had a calf for a peace-offering, and we brought it to the Women’s Courtyard, and women placed their hands on it… in order to give contentment to the women.” This ruling goes beyond semikhah; it is stands as a precedent, one that authorizes women to take part in time-bound commandments such as Shofar, Sukkah, and Lulav, as well as other commandments from which they are exempt, such as Torah study and praying with a minyan.

Women embraced the opportunity to perform these mitzvot. Rabbi Eliezer ben Nathan, or the Raavan, an early 12th century rabbi from Germany, writes that “one should not protest” when women perform commandments from which they are exempt and make a blessing. The implication of his words is clear: without even asking, women took the initiative to do these mitzvot on their own.

Women have always had a particular devotion to the synagogue. The Torah tells us that in the first sanctuary in the desert, the Mishkan, a large group of women would assemble daily at the entrance. Rabbeinu Bachya explains that they came to pray and study. The prayer of Chanah at the Mishkan in Shiloh is studied carefully by the Talmud and is the foundation of many of the rules of prayer.  In medieval Europe, women were very committed to synagogue life.  Avraham Grossman cites multiple references of women attending services. Yemima Hovav, in her analysis of the epitaphs on Jewish tombstones, found that women were praised for their regular synagogue attendance as often as men. In addition, there are multiple records of medieval women leaving money in their wills to the upkeep of the local synagogue.

All this involvement in synagogue life took place against the background of a medieval custom that women did not enter a synagogue while they were menstruating. Despite this obstacle, their passion for synagogue attendance remained undiminished. As Elisheva Baumgarten points out, “On the contrary, the imposition of physical distance may have elevated women's awareness of synagogue activities and their longing to return."
A moving example of women’s devotion is found in the eulogy offered by the Rokeach, Rabbi Eliezer of Worms, for his wife Dulcea, who, along with her two young daughters was murdered during a home invasion. In a eulogy of heartbroken poetry, based on the words of “Eshet Chayil,” the Rokeach says:

Her lamp will not go out in the night,
because she makes wicks for the miniature Temple (synagogue) and the house of study,
and she says Psalms,
She sings hymns and prayers, she recites petitions,
Daily (she says) the viduy confession …
She says pittum haktoret and the Ten Commandments,
In all the towns she taught women (so that they) can chant songs
She knows the order of the morning and evening prayers
And she comes early to synagogue and stays late,
She stands throughout Yom Kippur, and sings…
Dulcea was a woman of prayer.

Despite being exempt from praying with a minyan, women were dedicated to synagogue life. One passage in the Talmud sums it up best: “There was a widow in whose neighborhood there was a synagogue, yet every day went to pray in the study hall of Rabbi Yoḥanan. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to her: My daughter, is there not a synagogue in your neighborhood? She said to him: My teacher, don’t I attain a reward for all the steps I take while walking to pray in the distant study hall?” This widow literally went the extra mile to find an inspiring synagogue. It is from her example that we learn the importance of sechar pesiyot, the value of making an extra effort to go to the synagogue. And this passage is a metaphor for women’s devotion to synagogue life; they have always been ready to go the extra mile, no matter what the obstacles were.

But recently, things have changed.

Dr. Brown begins her article with a recent conversation she had in synagogue.

“One recent Shabbat in shul, a friend ….whispered in my ear, “Where are all the women?” The men’s side was brimming with religious activity. The women’s side looked as if we were still practicing rigorous social distancing… even in our wonderful synagogue with a generally high female turnout.”
For some reason, in many modern Orthodox congregations, women have not returned since the coronavirus. Brown explains:
“Let’s be honest. Not every woman who is not going to shul on Shabbat is raising a young family or caring for someone elderly. Not every woman who has stopped attending minyan is struggling with feminism’s discomfort with Orthodox prayer space and gender disparity.” One could, and should, discuss issues related to feminism and Judaism. However, that isn’t the reason why women haven’t returned to synagogue since Covid.
At the conclusion of the article, she makes an impassioned case for women to return to synagogue, offering 10 different arguments. (The article it is available here)

But this is not just a women’s issue. Whether or not women return to the synagogue matters to the entire community; what’s at stake is a unique spiritual legacy. When reading about the history of women and prayer this past week, I was struck by how generations of women were absolutely determined to pray in synagogue no matter what the impediments were. In the women’s section, the knowledgeable women would teach the others the prayers and parsha; there would be books of tkhines, prayers in Yiddish, so that even those with limited educational backgrounds could find the words with which to approach God. In the corners of synagogues, women came to pray, to speak to God, and pour out their hearts. They had many reasons to stay home, many barriers to overcome. But they still went to the synagogue to pray.

Without a doubt, these women influenced their communities, their friends, their husbands, their children. Many rabbis learned the beauty of prayer on their mothers’ laps, and would say so to their students. Women’s prayer is the foundation of Jewish prayer.

What will happen if women don’t come back to synagogue?

Friday, March 04, 2022

The Voices of Ukraine


A little girl from Ukraine in the home of a member of the Jewish community.
At that point, she still would not come out from under the table.
Yosef Haim Yerushalmi quotes this passage at the end of his book Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory. Yudka may be representative of a generation, the founders of the State of Israel, that wanted to move on from the past; but as Yerushalmi demonstrates, the very fabric of Jewish culture is interwoven with collective memory. The root zakhor, to remember, appears no less than 169 times in the Bible, and Yerushalmi explains that “nowhere else is the injunction to remember felt as a religious imperative to an entire people.” Each year, we imagine as if we were in Egypt during the Exodus and in Jerusalem during the Destruction. For Jews, history is current events.
But I am sympathetic to Yudka. Jewish memory carries with it Jewish pain; it is far happier to forget. There is an entire atlas of Jewish persecution, places filled with haunting memories: York, Seville and Auschwitz, and even entire countries like Spain and Germany. At times it feels like there is nowhere one can go in Europe without confronting an ugly episode in Jewish history.
The area of the Eastern European steppe between Russia, Ukraine and Belarus is truly a “bloodlands,” and soaked with Jewish blood. The mere mention of Ukraine conjures ghosts of the past: Chmielnicki and Petliura, pogroms and the Beilis blood libel. In 1941, at Babi Yar, just outside of Kyiv, nearly 34,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis and Ukranian Auxiliary Police; the massacre began on Yom Kippur and continued through the next day. To add insult to injury, the murders at Babi Yar were covered up by the Soviet Union. Because of this, when watching the news this week, some had the reaction that Ukraine is Ukraine, and will always be Ukraine. But children are not judged by their parents' sins, and a Ukraine with a Jewish president is very different than the Ukraine of 80 years ago.
The Torah’s imperative of remembering history is not in order to relive nightmares. History is a teacher, perhaps even a lesser form of revelation; in this regard, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch emphasized that history must be included in the school curriculum, because it offers a glimpse into God’s will. Unquestionably, Judaism expects us to live our lives in dialogue with history; the purpose of memory is not only to connect with the past, but also to learn its lessons.
To remember is to bring the voices of the past into dialogue with the present. Our ancestors are always speaking to us; and sometimes it sounds like a cacophony. Rav Soloveitchik eloquently described how at every one of his lectures, “visitors” would arrive, from his grandfather to the great rabbinic authors of previous centuries, ready to begin a dialogue with his students; to study the words of the rabbis is to bring them back to life. At seders and Shabbat tables, whenever we grasp hold of memory, we can hear the voices of the past speaking to us; grandparents and great rabbis, heroes and humble Jews, all offering insight and wisdom.
This week, two voices from Ukraine have been calling out to me. Chaim Nachman Bialik had been a student of Volozhin Yeshiva, but left to become a poet, scholar, and publisher. In 1903, after the Kishinev pogrom, Bialik wrote what is arguably the most influential poem in the Hebrew language: B'ir Haharegah, In the City of Slaughter. It was a furious indictment of Jewish cowardice. Instead of fighting, the Jews of Kishinev hid during the pogrom, while their friends and families were beaten, murdered and raped. Bialik describes it vividly:
Come, now, and I will bring thee to their lairs
The privies, jakes and pigpens where the heirs
Of Hasmoneans lay, with trembling knees,
Concealed and cowering—the sons of the Maccabees!
It was the flight of mice they fled,
The scurrying of roaches was their flight;
They died like dogs, and they were dead!
Bialik is saying “enough”; enough to Jewish cowardice, enough to begging the non-Jewish world to offer a bit of tolerance. Jews must take control of their destiny. It was a clarion call, one answered in the following decades by pioneers who renewed the Jewish spirit and rebuilt the Jewish state.
This week, the call of Bialik was heard. Whatever may happen in the days and weeks to come, the Jews of Ukraine will always have the State of Israel. Robert Frost famously said, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” And Israel is taking in the Ukrainian Jews. From the very beginning of its existence, Israel has rescued Jews in need, in Yemen and Uganda, in the Soviet Union and in Syria. As of now, 3,700 Ukrainian refugees have applied for entry to Israel; undoubtedly there will be tens of thousands more to come. But unlike 80 years ago, there is a place for Jewish refugees to take shelter. Thank God for the State of Israel. Bialik’s call for Jewish self-determination was answered, and the State of Israel has changed the lives of every Jew around the world.
Calling from even further in the past is Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chasidic movement. He revolutionized the Jewish world, and taught a community that was broken in spirit the importance of faith, perseverance and love. The Baal Shem Tov taught: “One must have total self-sacrifice and dedication for love of one's fellow, even towards a Jew whom one has never seen.” The Jewish family is our responsibility, and the mitzvah of Ahavat Yisrael, loving one's fellow Jew, requires dedication and devotion.
This has always been the ideal; but it has not always been the reality. When the Jews of Kyiv were being murdered in Babi Yar, American Jews averted their eyes. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, in his book Were We Our Brothers' Keepers?: The Public Response of American Jews to the Holocaust, 1938-1944 reviews the halfhearted actions of the American Jewish community during the Holocaust. His final paragraph concludes: “The Final Solution may have been unstoppable by American Jewry, but it should have been unbearable for them. And it wasn’t.”
During the Holocaust, we were not our brother’s keepers.
This past week, we were. Volunteers in Poland are running to the border, doing their utmost to help; and many have taken Ukrainian Jews into their homes. One friend shared with me a picture of a young girl who hid under her host’s dining room table, too traumatized to come out. Another woman in the Krakow community took 20 refugees into her own home. It is all hands on deck, with everyone getting involved. There is a non-stop push to help those displaced with food, shelter, and supplies.
And then there are those who have been self-sacrificing in their mission to help others. The 192 Chabad Rabbis and their wives in Ukraine have stayed in place to stand with their communities. The Rabbi of Kharkov, Moshe Moskovitz, stayed behind with his wife, Miriam. In one of its last posts on its Facebook page, the community wrote about a moment this past Shabbat when everyone broke out into tears: The chairman of our community Alexander Kaganovsky established a wonderful tradition many years ago: after prayer, he congratulates community members on their birthdays and announces our activities. Today he asked everyone for a moment of attention and said, "Reb Moshe, on behalf of our entire community, I want to thank all of you, all the Shluchim who stayed here to be with us. You have told us many times throughout the years that you and your family are an integral part of our community. Now we can see that this is true." And he hugged Rabbi Moshe tightly.
Rabbi Refael Kruskal, the CEO of Tikva Odessa, a network of Jewish schools, orphanages, and community-care programs, evacuated over 650 people in a bus caravan last Friday night. It was a harrowing experience that took 33 hours. A moving video recorded the moment when several buses stopped at a gas station, and Rabbi Kruskal made Kiddush; the children in the crowd broke out into tears. There has never been a holier Kiddush. And what these rabbis have done truly defines what “total self-sacrifice and dedication for love of one's fellow Jew” means.
This Shabbat, as you make Kiddush, listen to the voices of Ukraine. Even though one is not meant to cry on Shabbat, this week it is appropriate to shed a tear for our brothers and sisters in need. And do whatever you can to help; that is what “dedication to love of one's fellow Jew” means. The voices of our brothers and sisters are calling, from Ukraine past and present, asking us to fulfill our mission.
How can we refuse to listen?