A Powerful Metaphor, but Does it Work?


“I believe with a perfect faith in the coming of Moshiach. And even though he tarries, I still await his arrival every day.” Those words form one of the 13 basic principles of faith of the Rambam. Yet, as I write barely a week before Tisha B’Av, I find myself doubtful that this Tisha B’Av will be filled with festive rejoicing.

That glum thought was triggered by watching From the Ashes, a new offering from Aish HaTorah scheduled to be screened in Jewish communities around the world this coming Tisha B’Av. The documentary basically follows Rav Noach Weinberg, founder of Aish HaTorah, on a visit to the death camps in Poland, together with 60 Aish HaTorah rabbis, interspersed with various participants discussing the experience.

The central metaphor of the documentary – one that is pounded home relentlessly in various ways – is that there is a spiritual Holocaust facing the Jewish people today no less devastating in its implications for the Am Hashem than the physical extermination of six million Jews in the Holocaust. Those six million constituted approximately one-third of the Jewish nation. At least two-thirds of Jews today have little connection to the Jewish people, certainly not enough to prevent them from intermarrying.

For Reb Noach, the “spiritual Holocaust” is no metaphor; it is the driving force in his life. And he seeks to make it the driving force in the life of every Jew with whom he comes into contact.

Apathy and passivity were a too common response of American Jewry to the Holocaust. To mitigate the shame and guilt of that apathy, some claim that they did not know what was happening. Others live with the shame. Today, no one can claim that they do not know of the ravages of assimilation and intermarriage on the ranks of world Jewry. They are too well documented. From the Ashes urges our generation to act so that we do not have to live with the shame of our apathy.

The documentary uses the backdrop of the death camps to draw some powerful parallels. Reb Noach invites the rabbis accompanying him – most of whom are presumably former students – to contemplate in detail the determination of Nazis, ym”sh, to wipe out the Jewish people. The Nazis experimented with different means of murdering Jews until they came up with the gas chambers, in which they could murder up to 24,000 Jews a day in Auschwitz. Next they had to find a way to dispose of such a large number of bodies, and experimented with various different methods until they found the most efficient. So much planning, so much thought went into killing as many Jews as possible.

Should we not be willing to expend as much energy, invest as much time, experiment until we find the right solution, and, in general, show as much determination to save Jews, as the accursed Nazis showed to murder Jews, Rav Weinberg asks.

THE PREMISE OF THE COMPARISON between today’s losses to the Jewish people via assimilation and intermarriage to the Holocaust is familiar to all Torah Jews: spiritual alienation from Hashem is a form of death, and even more horrible than physical death. Chazal tell us that the Egyptians were only forbidden to enter into Klal Yisroel for three generations, while the Moabites were prohibited from entering forever; the former only tried to destroy our bodies while the latter tried to destroy our souls.

Despite the familiarity of the concept, the question remains: Does the metaphor of assimilation as a “spiritual Holocaust” work for us? From the Ashes contains one scene of a 23-year-old Israeli young man, with a ponytail, breaking down in piteous sobbing in the death camps. And the film is filled with many such emotion-laden moments.

But does anyone, besides Reb Noach and few refined souls, weep in the same way upon reading the most recent statistics on intermarriage or learning of the latest depravations of one or another of the so-called “streams’ of Judaism, as they do upon visiting the death camps? And if the metaphor does not work for us at that emotional level, despite being solidly grounded in Chazal, why is that?

All of us possess bodies. When we read of the torments inflicted upon Jews on the way to the camps and after arrival – the fetid, overcrowded cattle cars, in which it was impossible to draw a breath of air, to sit or lie down, or to attend to the most basic human needs; the below subsistence diet of watery soup and a slice of bread; the backbreaking labor by undernourished, disease-ravaged Jews, day after day – we can try to imagine that suffering.

In the same way, we can place ourselves imaginatively in the place of mothers faced with the most unbearable choice that any human being could ever be forced to make – which child will you take with you? – or ordered to pass a young child to an old woman destined for the gas chambers and keep on marching to the other line.

But can someone born to a frum family, educated in frum schools, imagine the life of someone who has never been exposed to tefillah, who has never even met a Jew with a real connection to Hakadosh Boruch Hu, who knows nothing of Torah learning or the sweetness of mitzvah observance? (Perhaps that is why Rav Weinberg decided early on in his mission that his most dedicated troops would be drawn from the ba’alei teshuvah themselves.)

The truth is that most of us – even shomrei Torah u’mitzvos – are much more connected to our bodies than our neshamos. Part of the hiddenness of this world is that we are aware of every little ache and pain of our body, but largely oblivious to what is happening to our neshama.

Even further removed from us is the pain of Hakadosh Boruch Hu over His children who know nothing of Him, or the suffering of the Shechina b’Golusa. Reb Noach describes what would happen if someone ran up and asked to borrow a rope so that he could save our drowning son. How we would rush to get the rope. If so, how much more so should we expect that Hashem will give us what we need in order to save His children from spiritual oblivion. But how many of us really identify with Hashem’s pain over His lost children to the point of resolving to work to lessen that pain?

I also suspect that Rav Weinberg underestimates the capacity of even the finest people to remain apathetic. His starting point is that if we knew of another Holocaust today, that all normal life would cease. We would drop everything else and devote ourselves fully to doing whatever we could to stop it. But I wonder.

Two years ago, almost to the day, 8,000 Jews were uprooted from their homes, their communities destroyed, their sources of parnassah taken away. Every once in a while, a new government study catalogues the suffering of those who were uprooted and details the impact on their lives. Sometimes we read the story; sometimes we skip it so as not to feel depressed. But how many of us have done anything to help our fellow Jews, or even gone to visit them to offer a bit of moral support? Do we even give them a thought from one month to the next?

And last of all, how many of us appreciate the extent to which the loss of millions of Jews is our personal loss. The Bais Hamikdosh, according to the Ramban, was a physical manifestation of the unity at Har Sinai when all 600,000 Jews received the Torah “ke’ish echad b’lev echad,” as “one man with one heart.” That unity was the precondition for the dwelling of the Shechinah among us. The loss of millions of Jewish souls, then, represents the amputation of a limb from the collective Jewish people, a loss of the unity upon which depends Hashem’s once more dwelling in our midst. Our deadness to the tragedy, our tragedy is a measure of our distance from Sinai and from the Bais Hamikdosh; a measure of our inability to truly mourn the Churban.

So I don’t expect many of those who view From the Ashes this Tisha B’Av to fully grasp the metaphor, to break down sobbing the way the secular Israeli broke down at Auschwitz. But maybe we can at least shed a tear over our own deadness, which is in the end a measure of our own lack of yearning for the unity of the Jewish people and the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdosh, bimeheirah b’yomeinu.

Appeared in Yated Ne’eman.

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8 years 2 months ago

The Holocaust theme “Never Again” and the re-birth of Israel from the ashes of the Holocaust gave a reason to be Jewish to two generations of American Jews. It is wearing thin as all can see. The NOah Cohen article and the Aish film are two sides of a coin. Obviously for many Jews, marrying out, which means being the last of the line as far as Judaism is concerned is not a cause of concern. If you read Jewish History, especially that of the past couple hundred years, you will see many “last of the line” Jews who helped their people in time of need but did not pass it on to their own children. One example that comes to mind is Jacob Schiff, who gave the equilvelant of billions of dollars to help Jews emigrate from Europe. He was totally Jewish, having gone to the school of SR Hirsch in Frankfort as a boy, but did he pass anything on to his descendants, are any of them Jewish?
Kol Hakovod to Aish Hatorah, they are rekindling the fire before it goes out, I hope they succeed, whatever “hook” ( sounds much better than “gimmick”, they need to use. I love them.

Baruch Horowitz
8 years 2 months ago

“Motivations are tricky. Some people respond to emotional appeals, some to cold logic, and so on. The film under discussion is an experiment, with hard-to-predict short term or long term results. Why agonize too much over its potential effectiveness? Let’s just see what happens.”

I did not see the film, but as far as making use of the term “spiritual Holocaust”, I agree with the above comment. If the metaphor and movie inspires someone to engage in outreach, then good. If someone finds it off-putting, then they should find a different way to become inspired. People’s emotions aren’t always in synch with spiritual realities, and not everyone has to use one approach.

Rabbi Weinberg and others are on front lines of outreach, and are aware of predictions that the window will be open for only a limited amount of time; they apparently are using a metaphor to bring to life a spiritual concept, and thereby shock people out of complacency, as is done in mussar(ethical) works.

Others, not on that level, should use the metaphor with caution in everyday speech. Whatever role the Holocaust should play in the world-view of secular Jews(“lachrymose approach to Jewish history” vs. Yechezkiel 20:32-33), or of non-Jews(dangers of anti-Semitism) , it should not be trivialized(e.g., see Deborah Lipstadt’s “Denying the Holocaust” regarding immoral-equivalencies of Stalin and other massacres; PETA’s campaign, or some in Gush Katif who wore yellow stars). Similarly, I think one needs to be careful about how one goes about talking about who, or what “caused the Holocaust”.

I remember a newspaper editorial criticizing a different organization for advertised to the effect, “stop the spiritual Holocaust, and win a custom-sheitel…”. The newspaper was correct for noting that such trivializes the Holocaust, and that some find it offensive. The Aish Hatorah approach, which is mussar-oriented, sounds like it can be a powerful dose of mussar and introspection if used wisely, but in our everyday conversation, we should be aware of the enormity of the implication of such speech, and whether we are honestly able to live with such powerful terms.

8 years 2 months ago

G B,
“Most of his kids are high school dropouts because they couldn’t fit into “the system” (chareidi litvish) which left no room for anything other than full-time yeshiva learning.”

Something here doesn’t add up. It’s not unusual [unfortunately] for one child out of a group not to fit into the system and drop out. But when NONE OF THEM fit the system – that tells me that your friend seriously missed the boat. Perhaps he should have tried another system that better fit his hashkafos? Those exist in EY as well. Why did he insist on sending his children through a system that clearly wasn’t in line with their training? Did he try sending them to Frum schools where secular subjects are studied?
And if you tell me that he raised them all to be BH Yeshivish and everyone of them rejected it, that says more about his child-rearing methods than it does about the system, I’m afraid.
Your story tugs at the heartstrings for certain, but leaves much to be explained.

8 years 2 months ago

Sarah Shapiro and others:
If, l’fi hashkafas HaTorah, what Klal Yisrael is going through is a Holocaust, then our uncomfortability with using that term is the biggest proof that we need to use that term.

My father and his parents spent 4 years in the camps. That doesn’t give me any special moral right to comment but I grew up with pretty strong first hand exposure to those that suffered greatly. My feeling is that what Klal Yisrael is going through now is just as worthy of the term. Not only in terms of numbers but in terms of actually suffering. Women in there forties that baught into femenism and now realize that they will never have children, parents of children in cults, teenagers with gender identity confusion, suicides and mental illness, and of course intermarriage. As a nation, we are suffering terribly.

8 years 2 months ago

See the video.
R. Weinberg’s point is:
a. There was a holocaust during WWII that nobody acted to stop.
b. We have a “holocaust” in progress now and the efforts to reverse the assimilation process are just not enough.
c. The Germans were systematic, efficient, and learned from their mistakes so that they were unfortunately very successful in their efforts to kill us.
d. We should *learn from them*! We have to be as systematic, efficient, creative and tireless in saving the lives of 6 million as the Germans were in destroying life.

He sets a very high standard: If every frum Jew saves 8 lost Jewish souls, we can save them all.

We really all have to make a cheshbon hanefesh (a self-assessment): Is what we do to open ourselves to our fellow Jews who have little or no exposure to Torah enough? What can we do in our communities with just some marginal mesiras nefesh?