Ever since the inception of this column, I have avoided critiquing other works related to the Holocaust. However, after reading Shaul Magid’s piece in Tablet magazine entitled “The Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto,” I cannot remain silent. Magid’s piece besmirches the pristine legacy of Rav Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, Hy”d, author of Eish Kodesh and several other sefarim. I have been personally involved in translating most of Eish Kodesh into English for our museum’s future exhibits, as well as organizing shiurim based on the Eish Kodesh this pastsummer.
Magid doesn’t make much of an effort to disguise his libelous claims; he gets right down to business in his second paragraph: The fact that these heart-wrenching sermons were dated to the years of the ghetto gives us a startling view into one man’s struggle with faith, as the world—and, ultimately, his faith—collapsed around, and inside, him.
If the reader is supposed to wait for evidence for the bold lie that Rav Shapira lost his faith, he will be left scratching his head. Magid focuses on the following footnote in Eish Kodesh to support his claim,where Rav Shapira writes: The bizarre tortures and the freakish, brutal murders that have been invented for us by the depraved, perverted murderers, solely for the suffering of Israel since the middle of 1942, are, according to knowledge of the words of our Sages of blessed memory, and the chronicles of the Jewish people in general, unprecedented and unparalleled. May G-d have mercy upon us, and save us from their hands, in the blink of an eye.
Is this the smoking gun, you ask?
The Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto remained an invaluable source of inspiration to those around him until his very last day.
According to Magid, yes; instead of a heartfelt plea to Hashem from the depths of suffering, Magid finds betrayal: A full-blown theological crisis, in this case, emerges only when two conditions are met simultaneously: first, the belief that the Holocaust was an unprecedented event in Jewish history; and second, that this unprecedented event must irrevocably rupture the covenantal framework established in the Hebrew Bible. Shapira’s comment certainly adopts the first condition and, I would argue, also gestures toward the second.
Although he is kind enough to couch his words as an argument and Rav Shapira’s “feelings” as a “gesture,” as the article proceeds this “gesture” becomes an embrace, and Magid’s opinion morphs into fact. But let us counter this argument with a simple question: If the Jews face unprecedented suffering, why does that mean Hashem’s covenant is broken? Hashem never placed limitations on potential calamities; the Torah states clearly that “any illness and any blow that is not written in this Book of the Torah, Hashem will bring upon you” (Devarim 28:61).
After laying the groundwork for his slander, Magid’s piece careens downhill, filled with references by academics who deem themselves worthy of rating the level of faith of leaders such as the Satmar Rebbe and Rav Elchonon Wasserman. Were there some who did lose faith? Yes, and I cannot judge them, because I have never been tested as they have. But gedolim like Rav Shapira and Rav Elchonon and countless other kedoshim, were examples of faith during the holocaust. Yet, Magid contends: That note was not written by a man of faith; it was written by a man of broken faith. Magid’s reference to Rav Shapira’s words “unprecedented and unparalleled,” a convoluted piece of evidence on its own becomes more curious when he ignores the next sentence, where Rav Shapiro pleads “May God have mercy upon us, and save us from their hands, in the blink of an eye.”
Does someone who “lost faith in Hashem,” pray to Hashem? As if he is aware of the frailty of his position, Magid tries a new twist on an old trick. Still fixated on just one word, he writes: “From the perspective of paradigmatic thinking, or a covenantal theology, if something is unparalleled, that is precisely not the way it is supposed to be” (his italics)
I don’t know where Magid gets his rules of covenantal theology, but I do know that many unparalleled events, both tragic and joyous, were meant to be.
Even worse than his sloppy journalism and senseless arguments, Magid’s weak assertions reveal that he has no understanding or appreciation for a towering figure like Rav Shapira. Steeped in Torah and chasidus from his youth, the Rebbe devoted his life to Hashem and to helping others. Despite the tragic loss of his daughter-in-law and son who were killed during Sukkos of 1939, he continued to lead his chasidim with warmth and joy on that Yom Tov, and remained an invaluable source of inspiration to those around him until his last day on this earth.
No, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto did not believe the covenant was broken. Rav Shapira would be the first to know that only people break their word. Hashem does not.