Rabbi Sacha Pečarič

Inability of talking

I do not see myself as the right person to talk about it since I am young enough not to remember the war. I also come here as a representative of a specific faction of Jewry in which certain topics are looked at in a unique way. I think it is important to see how orthodox Jews look at such a complicated topic as Auschwitz. This is a quite different point of view, not only different from the non-Jewish one but also different from Jews who live both in Israel as well as the United States. As we know Jews in Israel and in the US have very different worldviews: from secular to reformed, conservatives and Zionists. Everything I write here presents the perspective of orthodox Jews.

Misunderstandings come from unfamiliarity with realities. There are misunderstandings not only on the non-Jewish side. There was a time when orthodox Jews or Jews in general, were very isolated. Jews were isolated not only by the ghetto which separated them physically. There was also Jewish isolation towards the secular, Catholic or any other world of a different cultural circle. That is why I would primarily like to write about what Jewry is so that we can see the attitude of a religious Jew then look at the Holocaust through this perspective.

A Jew follows the Torah. The Torah, in a colloquial explanation of the five books of Moses, which often is translated as the law, which however is a mistake. The word Torah in Hebrew comes from the word hoora, which means ‘instruction’. That is why the Torah is not law or a book but is an instruction for life. This is not a book you put on a shelf or a book you study (sometimes you study it, sometimes not). It is a real reflection of life. If I want to operate any technical device I need an instruction manual. If I want to live as man, I need a guide to know what to do. It is very important to see how strong a Jew is bound to the Torah. The Torah contains 613 commandments – 248 positive and 365 negative. There are two parts of the Torah. Five books written on parchment and placed in an arch at a synagogue – this is a written Torah. The second part is an oral Torah. Both parts are closely interconnected. They are extremely important for religious Jews. I will not say ‘orthodox’, because this is a new word. I am referring to a Jew who is connected with his tradition. Such a Jew cannot think about one without the other.

The Talmud is a part of the oral Torah and contains 63 tractates. These are in fact long deliberations created during the time of five centuries. Mishnah, which is a part of the Talmud, was written down in the 2nd century. For the next 300-400 years the Talmud was crystallized in yeshivas – Jewish educational institutions. The Mishnah was written down only because of a very uncertain political situation in Israel. That was the time when the second temple was destroyed. Rabbis made a decision and Rabi Jehuda Hanasi wrote down a part of the Talmud that we call the Mishnah. We should understand well that eventhough is written down it does not mean that it is a part of the written Torah.

The written Torah is read in synagogues on Saturday morning and the shorter parts are read on Monday, Thursday and during holidays. An important thing about the Torah is that every word has its own melody. In written Hebrew we do not find marked vowels. Later, in print, punctuation of vowels was added but it does not exist in the liturgical Torah used in synagogues. That is why the person who reads the Torah in a synagogue sees only consonants. The man who reads must know the text perfectly since he cannot make any mistakes in vocalization of the words, since it would change the meaning of words. Another thing the person must know is connected with the fact that every word has a specific intonation, a musical tone. For example the word adam (a man) is written with only three letters in the Torah. But this word has also a sign called pazer which means that the word adam must be read like “adaaaam”, exactly this way. Pazer written in musical score would look like this: C C D E F G A H A G F F [intonation of the second “a” in the word adam raises and falls]. Every word in the Torah is marked with one of twenty-eight musical signs.

Every one of the books of the prophets has also its own melody. Also similar is the case of Chamesz megilot, that is five scrolls that are read during holidays. Every book from the Pentateuch, from Tanach, has its own musical melody. The person who reads must know it to read it exactly like it should be read. The music and spirituality coming from it enriches the language. This is the music of the written Torah.

There is also music of the oral Torah. If you enter a yeshiva you hear music of life. Few hundred people sit opposite to each other and argue. That’s why there is a saying that there is a noise like in a Jewish school. This music stops only in one moment, when a prayer is said quietly standing up. Only then a yeshiva is quiet, is there a moment of suspension when you can hear everything but a conversation. I need to remind you that the argumentation of the Talmud, the dialectics of the Talmud, is also differentiated musically. In an introductory argument, intonation of the voice raises: “If I say thaaaaat”. And then it falls: “I could say thaaaaaat”. In argumentation we always notice a differentiation between low and high voices.

The problem is that in Poland there used to be so much of this music of both oral and written Torah and now it is simply gone. What remained is absolutely incomparable with the richness that existed here before the war. The music of the Jewish world was so lively that everyone in Poland could hear its echo, not only the Jews.

In Hebrew there are two words for silence. One means the silence when no one is talking (sztika). But there is also another silence (dumia) and we use it when a man is mute, when he has no ability to speak. And this second word, inability of speaking, is also used in Israel to describe a great suffering – it’s not a silence that there is nothing more to talk about, but a silence of suffering which cannot speak.

This is just the introduction to be able to understand views of orthodox, religious Jewry regarding the Holocaust, an event about which it is very hard to talk about. Let’s see what the answer is of a religious person about something which is hard to describe in words. We are about forty people here. Let us imagine four hundred people. And now please imagine four thousand people. And think what would be a crowd of forty thousand people. This is already hard to imagine. And four hundred thousand people? I remember Błonia Park in Cracow. When it is filled with people, how many people are there? And these are people who once were children who had parents and their names and surnames. And someone loads them on trains, cars and trucks. They arrive somewhere and the innocence of their thoughts is similar to a chicken about to be killed. They have no idea what is going to happen to them. Fifteen minutes or half an hour later this spirituality, this life, this whole microcosm that we have discussed –is gone. All were murdered: with their parents, brothers and children and grandchildren. Gone.

We have gathered here also to discuss something else. What stays inside a man, that after two or three years of living in a certain reality, he can still say: “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart”. This is a sentence from the Anne Frank. “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart”. What drives a man that is able to live in ultimate fear not for a day, a week or a month, but for years, and still write such a sentence? This is a question I would like to ask myself. Let us look at Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Chasidic Rabbi of Piaseczno and all the people who were murdered in gas chambers. They weren’t even able to doubt the goodness of mankind. No one in their innocence of mind even thought that it could end so badly. At that time not many people were able to sense what might happen.

There is a verse in the Torah which says that when Jews are not good, God will make ester panim (will hide his face). The word nistar – mysterium doesn’t mean something we aren’t able to understand but something which is hidden, something which we can’t look at. The verse says that when Jews do not behave correctly, God will make ester panim. He will turn away and hide his face.

There are many anthropomorphic words in the Torah. They must be correctly explained in order to know that God has no physical features. Usually the word panim (which means face) is interpreted as care, looking after or providence. So: when God looks at Israel, he takes care of Israel and nothing can happen to them. A usual interpretation of this verse is: this care does not exist and everything can happen. Let me tell you how this verse was interpreted by Rabbi Kalonimus Kalman Shapira. He was in the Warsaw Ghetto from its very beginning. He walked in the streets and watched how people were dying. Every Shabbat he spoke to people in a synagogue. When we read his book Eszs kodesz, which means Holy fire, we actually don’t know when it all took place. It is completely detached from this history. It doesn’t say for example that Germans killed so many people. These are only spiritual deliberations. Rabbi Kalonimus Kalman Shapira simply explains the Torah, as other rabbis did for centuries. He interprets its verses and he explains what to do. On the other hand, when we read this book, we feel the constant echo of history. We are somewhere in the Warsaw Ghetto. At the end of the book we find deliberations, which get closer to theodicy. The role of theodicy is to find a way to justify God in the face of evil, which happens in front of our eyes. Sometimes people say: why would God allow someone to murder people or to start a war. This is of course a very difficult problem.

For a religious person theodicy is actually unnecessary. If I treat God seriously, then the questions of how he does things are a side issue. The Torah says: you shall love your God with all your heart. Rashi, a commentator from the 11th century, explains: with all your heart means that your heart should not be divided in front of God. An additional comment by Rashi explains that: a person should not even think to ask, why is it good for bad people? It should not cross your mind. If you indeed love God with all your heart you cannot even think to ask: why is it good for a bad person? Even to think! Rashi is very subtle. Let’s go back to the Rabbi of Piaseczno and his explanations of the verse when God turns his face away. Rabbi Kaliminus Kalman Shapira, in such a place like the Warsaw Ghetto and in such a time like 1943 says (and this is a really radical explanation of this verse): God turns away not because he is angry at his people but he turns away his face because he weeps and suffers for his people. When God is crying, nobody can see His face. Not many people share this approach. It’s hard to imagine a man saying such things at that moment: God turns away his face, because God suffers and cries for his nation. It’s unthinkable.

The Jewish nation consists of religious people but also of Jews who forgot about God a long time ago. But there is one basic feature of the Jewish nation which allows people like Anne Frank to say: I believe that people are good, something which lets a man like Rabbi Kalonimus Kalman Shapira say that God is crying by what is going on. All people who were deprived of life in such a wrong way have one thing in common. It is not religious believe, because this term is too narrow. I think the proper word is confidence – confidence that the word has a meaning. History is a mosaic and we may not be able to understand everything at once. We approach life with our own quiet song deep in our souls. You can describe it with this word – confidence. I think this is what gave strength. In a religious sense, for us it is almost impossible not to trust. The truth is that today many Jews in the world don’t have such confidence. This is how I would like to conclude this text about how Jewish spiritual thought looks at the problem of the Holocaust. On one hand we have an inability to speak when suffering is so strong that a man becomes mute. On the other hand there is great trust that we should not give up, that some things must survive. Luckily for us this song of confidence moved today, in a sense, to Israel and America.

Published in: Dialogue at the edge of Auschwitz. Kraków 2014, s. 129-134.