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 4 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 … Read more »

Baruch Horowitz
8 years 4 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… Read more »

8 years 4 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… Read more »

8 years 4 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… Read more »

8 years 4 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… Read more »

8 years 4 months ago

Although the film “From the Ashes” was well done, I couldn’t figure out why it bothered me. Of course I agree that intermarriage and assimilation are decreasing our numbers significantly. I have children who work fulltime in kiruv and they’re stories never cease to dishearten as much as they inspire.

Then I had a Shabbos guest, a former neighbor of ours from when we lived in Israel. Our children used to play together 20 years ago. All of my children are observant, although hashkafically they are quite different – we are firm believers in educating children “al… Read more »

David N. Friedman
8 years 4 months ago

I have seen “From the Ashes” this evening and I would like to respond.

First, Rav Weinberg has taken his stand because it is apparent far too many Jews do not lead Jewish lives due to ignorance and not because they wish to leave and this is an important distinction. The point that it is important to reach this remnant of the Jewish people before it is too late stands and also begs the question concerning the vitality of a culture that takes the children of and grandchildren of serious Jews and helps keep them away from not only… Read more »

8 years 4 months ago

It’s silly to accuse Ori of being hopelessly infected by western thought. He is bringing up an interesting kal vachomer. And since I’ve never heard anyone give a psak that it’s OK to kill university professors that teach kefira (for example), I think his kasha is a good one.

I think a potential answer has already been discussed. The typical way to break a kal vachomer is to point out how the ordering of what is kal and what is chomer can be reversed.

In this case, the kal is muder and the chomer is causing someone to sin, since one… Read more »

Sarah Shapiro
8 years 4 months ago

My guess is that if any of my relatives, or I myself, had gone through the Holocaust, then it would be difficult to hear the word being used to refer to anything else.

Ori Pomerantz
8 years 4 months ago

YM: And the concept of Reductio ad absurdum is, for a Jew immersed in Talmud, not a barrier for conculuding that a certain course of action or thought process is invalid. Not every idea has to be taken to its logical conclusion and thus judged invalid – this is a Western way of thinking, not a Jewish way of thinking.

Ori: I am more of a Westerner than a Jew. Do we have enough common ground for you to explain to me how come something and be right and its logical conclusion wrong?

In this case we have:

A. Somebody who causes a… Read more »

8 years 4 months ago


“As you so eloquently indicate, there is a spiritual holocaust here. But the comparison to Hitler’s holocaust is inappropriate. The lost souls that were systematically murdered …”

And the tendency to carp on a minor point in a terrific article is the primary reason why articles like this have no measurable effect. Rather than take action, you sit in front of a computer and criticize those who actually do the dirty work because you have a minuscule beef.

“When a Rabbi Yosef Reinman was prevented from attempting to retrieve some of those souls because of… in my view… an over extension… Read more »

Anonymous Kiruv Rabbi
8 years 4 months ago

Harry: In my home town, ALL the descendants of the Reform “temple’s” founders are christians. Care to try and mekarev them? They are non-Jews.
I guess it’s a Holocaust after all.

8 years 4 months ago

Was not the second Bais HaMikdash rebuilt despite extremely high levels of intermarriage? Acting morally, honestly, and ethically ourselves is the best way to influence others… Ask yourself this – you have a huge business deal almost in place – would you rather the other party be an Orthodox Jew or a religous Mormon?

8 years 4 months ago

Ben Bayit: Feeling horrible about what happened to the evacuees from Gush Katif, and thinking that disengagements, in prinicipal, are wrong, are two different things. The Charedi leadership in Israel is not ideologically opposed to evacuating lands for various reasons under various circumstances, and if UTJ had not joined the Sharon government at that point, the evacuation still would have gone through – Meretz had already said that it would vote for it if it didn’t have enough votes.

8 years 4 months ago

One of the best JR articles. The question of whether this is an odious comparison or an accurate one depends on whether one’s basic life philosophy is Western or Jewish. As someone who strives to “think like a Jew” but was brought up in American, I can say that for me, the basic hashgofas I have are Western, not Jewish. It is very, very difficult to escape thinking like a Westerner.

Note that, in agreement with Garnel above,and, I think, with JR, the answer to the question of whether this is an odious or accurate comparison,… Read more »

8 years 4 months ago

BENBAYIT, I am with you all the way.
The particular dilemma of our dor is every frum religious sect has its individual agenda, instead of manning together to clarify what is needed foremost in the eyes of hashem.

Bob Miller
8 years 4 months ago

We compare two things to gain insight into one or both. In this case, the common thread is danger to the Jewish people. Eventually, the threat of the Germans and their helpers to the Jewish people in the 1930’s and 1940’s was painfully felt by all. However, the threat of assimilation before and after that era is taken seriously only by one group—those who reject assimilation. The many who don’t reject it glide along without even sensing that assimilation is a problem.

Can associating assimilation with the Holocaust motivate the latter group to re-identify with… Read more »

8 years 4 months ago

Mr Pomerantz –

Chazal say Gadol Hamachti’o yosr min ha’horgo – worse is the one who cauases someone else to sin, more than killing him.

You might not understand it. You might understand it and not like it. But we believe these words of chazal. You have a question – that we cant reverse the killing of someone, but we can reverse the aveiros via teshuva. Chazal knew this also. They still said the above mentioned meimra.

Ben Bayit
8 years 4 months ago

I think about the Gush Katif pogrom every day. But I also think about how it was carried out with the explicit acquiesence of some of the same Gedoylim mentioned by Jonathan Rosenbloom (as being the ones who seek to establish uniform conversion standards) who were more interested in additional sectoral budgets to further enable avreichim to put off their inherent responsibilities in providing for the material well being of their families, it was carried out with the explicit acquiesence of certain Modern Orthodox politician/Rabbis who insisted that we must obey immoral orders of the government, and it was… Read more »

Harry Maryles
8 years 4 months ago

As you so eloquently indicate, there is a spiritual holocaust here. But the comparison to Hitler’s holocaust is inappropriate. The lost souls that were systematically murdered …many of whom were physically and mentally tortured in unimaginable ways makes such comparisons upsetting at best. Especially to survivors and their families. Furthermore, those souls lost during the holocaust are forever lost. They can never be retrieved.

On the other hand, the lost souls of the vast numbers of Reform, Conservative, secular and unaffiliated Jews are not necessarily lost forever. They are instead overly ripe for Kiruv. Would that the lost souls slaughtered… Read more »

8 years 4 months ago

Historical note.
There was a much greater rate of assimilation and out-marriage between the 100 and 1100 CE. Our numbers declined from around 7 million to barely a million.
Also I think the use of the word holocaust in this context is disgusting.

Good article ,R.Rosenblum.

Ori Pomerantz
8 years 4 months ago

Jonathan Rosenblum: 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.

Ori: By logical extension, somebody who causes Jews to leave observance, or to not become observant, is as bad as somebody who kills them. We are commanded to stop somebody who tries to kill somebody else (rodef) by any means necessary, including deadly force. Logically, this would apply to anybody who teaches Heterodox interpretation of Judaism.

I assume you… Read more »

Anonymous Kiruv Rabbi
8 years 4 months ago

Interesting excuse as to why we don’t care about what Hashem cares about.
But it’s not a metaphor. It’s reality.
The spiritual holocaust that we find ourselves in the midst of is the greatest calamity that has befallen the Jewish people in the last 2000 years – if ever. Losing 70% (eventually 80-85%) of the Jewish nation over the course of just a few generations?!?

If they can’t cry about that – if they remain apathetic, well, I guess they can’t be as “fine” as you claim.

I commend your article, but I remain unconvinced that Hashem will be as willing… Read more »

Garnel Ironheart
8 years 4 months ago

I would make two suggestions:
1) Please don’t use the word Holocaust to describe what is happening to our people today. Yes, it is tragic and must be addressed by us to prevent a horrible decline in our people. However, using the word “holocaust” will be seen in a negative way by those people who need to be reached the most. Remember that the Holocaust occupies a special place in our history and our hearts. I would posit that most assimilated Jews, not seeing the danger with their lifestyles in the first place, would be very offended… Read more »

sima ir kodesh
8 years 4 months ago

One of JP best articles ever. It should be published in the Jerusalem Post and other news medias to get a larger and more diversified audience. Presently, there are minute amount of Yeshivos, (Rav Berkowitz & Chofetz Chaim of Sanhedria) whose main focus is to save and educate the masses dying in the spiritual holocaust, it is a difficult endeavor and needs authentic individuals with skills and strategies of kiruv.

lawrence kaplan
8 years 4 months ago

Perhaps we should accord Jonathan Rosenblum some poetic license, but it is well known that the text of 13 Ani Maamins in the siddur is not by the Rambam, is not a translation from the Rambam’s 13 principles in his Intro to Perek Helek, but rather is a late medieval work of unknown origin only loosely based on the Rambam and differing in several significant ways from the Rambam’s own formulations.

Steve Brizel
8 years 4 months ago

Take a look at the announcements for simchas in the Yated, Hamodia,or the Jewish Press. Then, if you read the NY Times or even a local Jewish communal paper, read what passes for the society pages. If that doesn’t cause one to weep, what will?