NOT Crime and Punishment

An acquaintance, A.M., stopped attending one Orthodox shul and joined a different Orthodox synagogue because the young rabbi in the first shul said something that A.M. found offensive. The novice rabbi, newly ordained at a very traditional yeshiva, had said that because the majority of Jewish women in pre-WWII Europe had stopped covering their hair, then during the Holocaust their hair was shorn in the concentration camps. I agree with A.M. that we cannot know the ways of the Creator and Judge, especially in the realm of reward and punishment.

However, there is a way to consider this subject that comes under the rubric of “middah kneged middah” (measure for measure) . We cannot purport to know the exact correlation between a tragedy that befalls us and our sins of omission or commission. But when tragedy strikes, we can look introspectively at our behavior for areas to improve (“baim issurim, yfashpesh b’maasayv“).

I ruminated on this during the week here in Israel that began last Thursday on Yom Hashoah vHagvurah (Holocaust & Heroism Remembrance day) and ended today on Yom Atzmaut (Independence Day). I considered the problem of “middah kneged middah” through the prism of an essay written during the European Hurban and only now just published. The subject: the Stars of David that Jews were required to wear. The essay was a sermon before Auschwitz delivered by Rabbi Moshe Kahlenberg in a French internment camp on June 13, 1942, a few months before he and his rebbetzin were murdered in Auschwitz.

R. Kahlenberg z”l wrote,

“This week there was another degrading decree. All Jews in occupied France, from five years old and up, must sew a Star of David on to the left side of their jackets.”

Rabbi Kahlenberg titled his sermon “The people of Israel were distinguished” and tried to turn the degradation intended by the decree into a sign of pride. His title Israel Hametzuyan is a double-entendre in Hebrew from the Passover Haggadah.–“In Egypt the people of Israel were distinguished.” In our modern Hebrew, metzuyanim has a second meaning – “they were excellent,” but the Haggadah praises us not for excellence but for being demarcated, different, separate, and distinct, and our survival as a nation is attributed to this.

On the Shabbat in 1942 that followed the enforced donning of the Magen David (inscribed with the French word for Jew), R. Kahlenberg devoted the entire sermon to this decree. He does not bewail their humiliation, he does not see this as a “punishment” for sins, he does not “blame the victim.” Instead he reflects on the history and significance of distinctive clothing for Jews, bolsters the spirits of his listeners by searching for meaning in this measure, and sees it as a kind of tikkun or repair for the casualness with which Jews often assimilate.

Not only did Rabbi Kahlenberg write in a state of near starvation and physical pain, but he had few writing utensils and books. He had to rely mainly the texts that had become part and parcel of his being. What he could draw on was his ROM (Rabbi’s Own Memory).

“Let us turn this sign of debasement into a patch of pride,” he suggests, and then elaborates on the title “The people of Israel were distinguished” that he gives the sermon. “They force us to wear this badge. Why?” He rejects any notion of finding blots on his people, for “before you look for faults in others, check yourself.” However, this is an opportunity to ponder the meaning of clothing, and to engage in introspection. At the least, perhaps Jews can avoid repeating past mistakes.

God is with us in our suffering, Psalm 61 reminds us. “But why the fury?” With a back-glance at history Rabbi Kahlenberg reminds his listeners that since the Emancipation, Jews have vastly greater mobility, geographically and socially leading to assimilation via imitation of the culture and mores of the host nations.

“We copied the manners and dress of the surrounding countries to the extent that in our outward appearance we were unrecognizable as Jews… Then we started celebrating their holidays and forsook our own Torah… We put their stylish hats on our foreheads in place of our tefillin… Our Shabbat disappeared. Instead of finding favor in the eyes of the world, we engendered jealousy.”

He then turns his attention to what happened when Jews began the return to the Land of Israel. The first to make aliyah were motivated religiously and were observant (among them the 13th century scholar Nachmanides) and for generations religious Jewry throughout the world contributed to supporting aliyah. However, in the 20th century waves of aliyah to the Land of Israel there was a predominance of those who saw “nationalism” as the sum total of Judaism, as replacing mitzva observance, prayer, and study. Whereas the six-pointed Star of David once hinted at the kabbalistic concept of the Creator’s sovereignty in all “six” directions (north, south, east, west, upwards, downwards), it was now emptied of religious import and taken by many as the national symbol. R. Kahlenberg points out that the Hebrew word ot, meaning symbol, was always applied to Shabbat and tefillin as our national symbols. But during the past decades those symbols (and the religious reality they represented) were denigrated and were replaced by a new ot, the Magen David of nationalism sans religion.

“Is it any wonder that this symbol, the Star of David has returned to haunt us? It is a kind of measure for measure.”

At this point in the sermon R. Kahlenberg restrains himself. “I don’t want, Heaven forbid, to cast aspersions on the Land and its inhabitants.” But he does hint that when religiously observant Jews sought “certificates” to immigrate to the Land of Israel, they were often denied them.

“The Magen David badge over the heart may come to remind us of those symbols, Shabbat and tefillin, which were spurned by some.”

Similarly, assimilationists propounded that it is sufficient to “think Jewish” and not necessary any more to “do Jewish” or “dress Jewish.” Precepts that distinguished Jews in the past, such as the mitzva to wear fringes (tzitzit) on garments, fell into disuse and Jews began to dress indistinguishably from their countrymen in Western Europe. It was in vain. “Measure for measure, the rulers are forcing Jews to wear a new identifying mark on their garments, the badge.” He concludes on a hopeful note that this “patch that distinguishes us” will be our insignia when redemption comes.
R. Kahlenberg hints that there is a third connotation to the term metzuyan in the title of the sermon. In addition to “they were excellent” and “they were distinguished,” the root letters of the word (z-y-n) form the basis of the term Zion. R. Kahlenberg’s attitude towards Zion was positive, but tempered by disappointment in the massive secularization of the return to the Land, symbolized by the Magen David. While Rabbi Kahlenberg perished in Auschwitz, his sons and his writings survived, and one son settled here in Netanya.

Esther Farbstein, a haredi researcher and academic, head of the Holocaust Research Center “zachor” at the Michlalah in Jerusalem, did much detective work finding,decoding, annotating, and now publishing a book of R. Kahlenberg’s works. His writings reflect the spiritual defiance and introspection during that period of suffering in extremis.

3 bIyyar Netanya, Independence Day 5765

Shira Schmidt

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt was raised in an assimilated Jewish home in New York, and became observant while studying at Stanford University in California. In June 1967 she told her engineering school professor she would miss the final exam because she was going to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War. “That’s the most original excuse I have ever been offered,” he responded. She arrived during the war and stayed, receiving her BSc in absentia. She subsequently met and married the late Elhanan Leibowitz, and they raised their six children in Beersheba. Mrs. Leibowitz acquired a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from the Technion, and an MSc in Civil Engineering from University of Waterloo. Today she lives with her husband, Dr. Baruch Schmidt, in Netanya. She co-authored, with Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, Old Wine New Flasks. She has co-translated from Hebrew to English (with Jessica Setbon) From the Depths (the autobiography of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau); The Forgotten Memoirs (memoirs of Rabbis who survived the Shoah, edited by Esther Farbstein); and Rest of the Dove (Parashat Hashavua by Rabbi Haim Sabato). She and her husband appear in the documentary film about the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe, “Hidden Face.” She is available to lecture in Israel and in the US and can be contacted via

You may also like...

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This