Learning from the Aish Kodesh

New Book by LAS Dean Henry Abramson Examines Life and Work of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira

November 21, 2017
LAS Dean Henry Abramson\'s book
LAS Dean Henry Abramson's book "Torah from the Years of Wrath 1939-1943: The Historical Context of the Aish Kodesh," examines the life and work of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira.

Since the discovery of Rabbi Shapira’s manuscript by a Polish construction worker in the 1950s, scholars have long puzzled over Rabbi Shapira’s opaque literary approach to the suffering he and his followers endured. In a novel study, Dr. Henry Abramson, Academic Dean of Lander College of Arts and Sciences, and a disciple of Rabbi Nachman Bulman z"l, looks at the context of Rabbi Shapira’s work and provides a much-needed historical background in his new book, Torah from the Years of Wrath 1939-1943. “During his speeches, Rabbi Shapira spoke of the timeless lessons of the Torah and made it known to his followers that they were not alone in their suffering; that their Jewish ancestors had suffered similarly and overcame obstacles,” stated Dr. Abramson. With his extensive knowledge of both Jewish history and theology, Dr. Abramson pares back the mystique of Rabbi Shapira’s writing to understand how, even during the worst of times, the Aish Kodesh imbued his followers with the faith to continue.

T: Who was Rabbi Kalman Shapira?

HA: Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira was born in 1889 to a traditional Chasidic lineage. He was set to be the next rebbe of the Grodzhisk chasidim but there was a dynastic conflict and he moved to Piaseczno, a small suburb of Warsaw. He created Warsaw’s second largest yeshiva and wrote a series of books on a young adult’s spiritual development, the first of which was called the Obligation of Students. It became an instant classic. It spoke about the problems within Chasidic society and provided a clear path forward for young Jewish people: how they could maintain a modern identity while deepening their spirituality. My research focused on his life in Warsaw when the war broke out. Despite repeated requests by the American Jewish Joint Committee and the partisan underground, he refused to leave his followers and stayed. Every week he gave a sermon and wrote it down after Shabbat. My contribution focused on comparing what occurred in the ghetto on a microlevel to his weekly sermons.

Rabbi Shapira wrote in an opaque way. He never mentioned the Germans or the Nazis. You can read the entire book and not know it was written during the Holocaust. Perhaps the most gratifying response to the book I’ve had so far was a comment by Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, whose shul Aish Kodesh is named after Rabbi Shapira. In his approbation for my book, Rabbi Weinberger wrote that a copy of Rabbi Shapira’s wartime speeches had been on his desk for forty years, yet there were things he was not able to understand before reading my historical account. 

What was remarkable about what the Aish Kodesh taught? What was the Jewish community of Poland facing?

Poland in the interwar period was a hotbed of political, sociological and gender-based change. The Jewish community was buffeted by all types of ideologies—Zionism, capitalism, fascism, feminism, socialism. They were drawing Jews away from religiosity into new forms of civic movements. Rabbi Shapira felt that arguing about doctrinal matters was missing the whole idea; people were defecting too fast. He took, and I use this term loosely, a “post-sectarian” approach and insisted on the core ideas of Judaism into order to inflame the enthusiasm of Jewish youth and to allow them to recognize that their destiny was intrinsically related to the Torah. Rabbi Shapira had a novel idea about prophecy. He felt that the power of prophecy had not ended. It was still possible to receive direct communication from God; not in the sense of foretelling the future, but by appreciating the reverberations of Hashem’s Torah in everyday life. His books were about developing an awareness of that spirituality.

You mentioned that he wrote in a very opaque way, can you explain that? 

Rabbi Shapira adopted this occluded style of speaking with a deep artistic sensibility. Most sermons we have from those times addressed the issues of what was occurring around the Jewish community; the persecution, the wholesale slaughter. Instead, Rabbi Shapira focused on the biblical story and never deviated from it. He spoke about the tribulations of Abraham and the challenges of conquering the land of Israel. He spoke of timeless lessons and made it known to his followers that they were not alone in their suffering; that their ancestors had suffered and overcame similar troubles. His message was that we can see ourselves in the Biblical passages. It was a phenomenally powerful jolt to his beleaguered followers: to see this metaphysical purpose to their suffering. As more and more news of the truth about the Holocaust and the progress of the Nazi advance became evident to the population, we see how his reaction is modulated as he struggles to articulate a coherent sense of meaning amidst incredible human suffering. The nadir of his writing, which is hotly debated by scholars of the period, occurred at the very end of 1942 when the community learned about the gas chambers. In fact, a great deportation began, 6,000 Jews per day from July 1942 on. In my research I proved that there was a shift in Rabbi Shapira’s writing after a young man escaped from the death camp called Chelmno. He smuggled himself into the ghetto and informed the Resistance about the murder process the Nazis had devised for the Jewish deportees. After that report circulated in the ghetto, the Rebbe’s theological approach became much more extreme. He’s clearly reacting to the young man’s reportnd trying to find a way to make sense of it in the Jewish tradition. It’s a form of spiritual heroism to maintain this steadfast faith during the worst kind of suffering we can imagine. He stayed faithful right until his murder in November 1943.

What effect did the war have on him?

He related to it in an immediate and personal fashion. He suffered terrible tragedies. In the beginning of the war the Nazis launched a bombing raid over Warsaw, killing 60,000 members in the capital city in the days between Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot. Shortly after Yom Kippur, a bomb fragment flew through the window and mortally wounded his son. Rabbi Shapira, together with his daughter-in-law and her sister, gathered up his son and rushed to find a hospital. Since the hospital had a shortage of doctors, Rabbi Shapira went to find a physician. His daughter-in-law and her mother remained outside the hospital reciting Psalms for the wounded, when the Luftwaffe executed another bombing raid immediately over the hospital, killing both women immediately. Rabbi Shapira’s son succumbed to his wounds a few days later. The Rabbi had another child, a daughter who went missing in 1942. When he died he had no idea what happened to her, but she was likely murdered in Treblinka. Rabbi Shapira intimately knew the suffering his congregation was going through--aside from his own personal story-- and like every Chasidic rebbe, he was intimately involved in the everyday tribulations of his followers. He did not live a sheltered existence. There were many requests to take him to safety but he refused; even at the end of the war, when he was in a labor camp, the Resistance tried to get him out but he refused to leave. He would only leave if all the prisoners were taken out—including the atheists and the free-thinkers. He would not allow anyone to be left behind. 

How were his works discovered?

When he realized he wouldn’t survive, Rabbi Shapira gave his writing to an underground group of historians called Oneg Shabbat who were collecting data on Jewish life in the Warsaw Ghetto. He wrote his last will and testament begging anyone who found his writings to send them to his brother in Palestine. He wrote that anyone who would study his work would earn the merit of his illustrious ancestors. His work was buried underground and remained lost until a Polish construction worker accidentally dug it up and gave it to the Jewish Historical Institute of Warsaw.

What is an example of how he talked about current events in his sermons?

Fairly early on in the war, he started speaking about this problem from Leviticus where walls develop this kind of plague—a type of stain on the wall. There’s this discussion about how to destroy the wall and though it seems like a tragedy, the midrash says that once the walls were destroyed the Jews found treasure deposited by the ancient inhabitants. Rabbi Shapira spends a lot of time talking about it and then you realize he said these words on the week when the Nazis had issued a decree that the Jews must build the ghetto walls. The Jews were terrified of being walled-in and Rabbi Shapira was giving them a message of hope from the Biblical passage. Just as it worked out then, it would work out in the Jews’ favor now. Another one of my favorite examples is when the Jews were entering Israel they sent out spies to check out the territories. Ten of the spies were full of complaints: “there were giants in the land” and “the cities were fortified." Two of the spies come back with a positive report: God promised us the land and we need not worry about the odds. Rabbi Shapira spoke these words in June of 1940 as news circulated that Paris had fallen to the Nazis. The fall of France meant that the Nazis controlled everything from Russia to the English Channel. It appeared that the German Thousand-Year-Empire was coming true, as all of Europe was under Hitler’s sway. The Jews in the ghetto felt completely demoralized, and that’s why Caleb’s message was so important: don’t pay attention to the odds or the strength of the German army. God has already promised us victory.

Do you think Rabbi Shapira’s message still has meaning today?

Rabbi Shapira emphasized the profound metaphysical significance and role that Jews play in the unfolding of cosmic history. He developed a series of spiritual exercises to help Jews develop their potential and stave off the corrosive, alienating effects of contemporary culture. Rather than succumb to temporary temptations of various political ideologies and fads, the Rebbe urged a return to Judaic tradition in a profound and refreshing manner. He emphasized the relevance of contemporary prophecy—again, not in the sense of foretelling the future, but in a close relationship with God. He was fond of quoting a Talmudic passage: “If the Jews are not prophets themselves, then they are the students of prophets.”