Thursday, April 20, 2017

Why do we mourn the death of R' Akivas students but not the holocaust?

We are currently in the period of Sefira where religious Jews observe customs of mourning to mourn the death of R' Akiva's 24,000 students who died in this time period. And yet, there is no observance to mourn the 6,000,000 Jews killed in the holocaust, the question cries out why not?

The official Charedi answers are:
I. Chazon Ish - Igros Chazon Ish letter 97 - We really should make a day of memorial. However, to be קובע תענית is like to make תקנה דרבנן. Our generation is not on that level to do such a thing. And therefore he says we should not make any new day of memorial. We are not at the proper level to make such a תקנה. In other words, the proper response would be to קובע תענית, however we are not at the level to make such a תקנה. When chazal made dinim d'rabbanan they did it with soem aspect of ruach hakodesh which we lack.
This is the biggest problem that orthodox Judaism has today. The leaders are afraid of their own shadows and will not make any changes. This has led to the stagnation of Judaism and an inability to really adapt to the modern world. WADR to the Chazon Ish there is a time when you need to be a leader.
II. Brisker Rav - Tisha B'Av is the day of mourning for all tragedies including the holocaust. IMHO this is a copout as well. In fact, Sefira shows that this is not true, we don't mourn R' Akiva's talmidim on Tisha B'Av, rather we have a separate mourning period for them during Sefira. There is no question that the holocasut was a much greater tragedy. What is even more damning is that most Charedim don't even say a single Kinna for the holocaust and even those that do say 1 kinna at the very end when everyone has already had enough. If you really believe that Tisha B'Av is the time to mourn the holocaust then at least do something on Tisha B'Av to actually mourn the Holocaust. However, to say on one hand that Tisha B'Av is the day of mourning for all tragedies including the holocaust and then on Tisha B'Av ignore the Holocaust is mind boggling.

So what are the real answers that the Charedi world doesn't observe any mourning for the holocaust? IMHO there are a number of theological issues.  The holocaust poses some very strong theological questions, specifically related to Daas Torah, Gedolim, and Where was God?

  1. Daas Torah - The post war Charedi world is built on Daas Torah, that the Gedolim have all the answers to any question. Yet, the fact is that before the holocaust the Gedolim were very very wrong and there mistakes cost the lives of many Jews. The pre-war Gedolim were dead set against religious Jews leaving Europe. Mourning the holocaust would shine a light on these failures of Daas Torah. Here are some specific examples of the failure of Daas Torah.
    1. In 1939 R' Aharon Kotler was the Rosh Yeshiva of the Kletzk Yeshiva and had an American Talmid named R' Gedalia Shorr (who went on to become the Rosh Yeshiva or Torah Vadaas. That summer, R' Shorr received an urgent message from his parents to return home because war was about to break out. He could not ask R' Aharon Kotler because R' Aharon was away on vacation, so he sent a message to R' Aharon that he was leaving. When R' Aharon heard this he immediate;y wrote him a long letter saying ...he could calmly remain in Kletzk and that he did not have to worry about a war in the near future. WWII broke out less then 2 months later and if R' Schorr had followed R' Aharon's advice he most probably would not have survived (source: What did R' Aharon Kotler advise talmidim to do before WWII?)
    2. The Belzer Rebbe ran away from the Nazis and ended up in Hungary in 1944. His brother made the following farewell speech in Hungary before fleeing to Palestine: ... Concerning this I am obliged to tell you, dear friends, sages of Hungary, the absolute truth.  Anyone who is close to my brother and is part of his circle certainly knows that he is not leaving in flight, nor is he running hastily, as though he wished to flee and to leave here.  Rather, his wish and desire is to ascend to the Holy Land, which is sanctified with ten measures of sanctity.  I know that for much time he has longed greatly for Eretz Yisrael, and  his desire is so powerful and his pure soul so longs to go up to God's city, in order to arouse [Divine] compassion and favor there for the entire community ... "He saw rest" – the Tzaddik sees that there will prevail here, for the residents of this country [Hungary], rest and tranquility; "that it was good" – the Tzaddik sees that it is good, and all good, and only good and kindness will pursue and overtake our brethren, the house of Israel, who live in this country [Hungary]. In his address, the Rabbi of Bilgoraj presents the journey to Eretz Yisrael in a manner that is altogether removed from the situation in which he and his audience find themselves.  The claim that the journey is not motivated by any danger or fear is simply not credible, and even the biographers of the Rebbe admit this.  The second part of the speech, the blessing/promise by the Rebbe that peace would prevail in Hungary was simlarly wrong in view of what was destined to take place only two months later – the arrival of the Germans and the deportation of some 400,000 Jews (about 80% of the Jewish population) to Auschwitz. Some scholars have interpreted his words as deliberately concealing of what he knew to be true for the sake of saving his own skin, while others have seen it as a faulty reading of the situation, and certainly a failure in the foreknowledge expected of such a great Tzaddik.  Later on, printings of the derasha in Israel omitted this section.
  2. Gedolim as leaders - The Gedolim are portrayed in the Charedi world as the ultimate leaders and yet many of these leaders (especially on the Hasidic side) abandoned their flocks and ran away. The best example is the above mentioned Belzer Rebbe but he was not alone, the Satmar Rebbe fled as well as the Gerrer Rebbe. What is even more disturbing is that the Belzer and Satmar were saved by the Zionists and yet showed no gratitude and in the case of Satmar became rabid anti-Zionists. 
  3. Zionism - As mentioned above many Charedi leaders were saved by the Zionists, how could they explain this? 
  4. The biggest question of course is Where was God? How could God allow Hitler to destroy the Jews of Eastern Europe with the biggest victims being Haredi jews? The Satmar answer is well known and almost laughable but for most of the Charedi world the question is simply not asked and not answered. 
Mourning for the holocaust would bring focus on all of the above and therefore has been neglected. One Gadol who did real introspection about the Holcocaust was R' Soloveitchik (RYBS). In 1941 he gave the Hesped for R' Chaim Ozer in America which was probably the best enunciation of the idealogy of Daas Torah. And yet, after the war he was willing to admit that he was wrong, the Aguda was wrong and Mizrachi was right and he switched affiliations and no longer promulgated the Das Torah ideology. 

The truth is, that we are starting to see a change today because as the Charedi world has grown stronger and more self confident, these issues can be dealt with.


  1. Two historical answers:

    1. We don't mourn for R' Akiva's students. Sfira is first recorded in the Middle Ages, and likely originally commemorated the slaughter of the Jewish communities of the Rhineland during the first Crusade. This makes your question about the Holocaust stronger. Why do we have a month-long mourning period for the mass murder of Jews in the 12th century, but not in the 20th?

    2. R' Akiva's "students" were more likely soldiers in Bar Kochba's army. Their deaths represent the defeat of the last hope for a restored autonomous Judea. What we are mourning is not their deaths, per se, but the death of the Jewish state. This answers why other mass deaths are not commemorated by a mourning period. Add to that the suffering the Jews have endured over the many centuries as a result of not having their own state, and you can justify continuing the mourning period in remembrance of that suffering even now, when we once again have a Jewish state.

    1. Yes those are historical answers but I am asking on the Charedim לשיטתם