Faith facing the holocaust - Lecture #06: The Rebbe of Belz and Rav Teichtal on the Holocaust
By: Rav Tamir Granot
In previous lectures, we addressed the classic Charedi response to the Holocaust, perceiving it as a punishment for the sins of the Enlightenment and/or Zionism. This time we will be comparing the written views of Rabbi Aharon Rokeach of Belz and Rabbi Yissakhar Dov Teichtal. The highly significant exchange between them took place in Budapest, capital of Hungary, where these two rabbis lived, during the fateful period between 1943 and the beginning of 1944. The derasha (sermon) of the Rebbe of Belz, which chronologically came later, was delivered about two months prior to the Nazi invasion of Hungary and the beginning of the deportation of Jews to Auschwitz. The opinion of Rabbi Teichtal, Hy"d, was written as part of his well-known work, "Em ha-Banim Semekha," which was distributed in Hungary during that year. The debate between these two great Torah personalities, along with the complex historical aspects of the Belzer Rebbe's speech, have been analyzed at great length by historians and philosophers alike; there is no point in repeating that which has already been written (see "Sources," at the end of this lecture). I shall therefore provide here just a brief, general description of the biographical aspects and the facts.
A. The Fourth Rebbe of Belz – A Biography
Rabbi Aharon Rokeach (5640-5717 / 1880-1957) was the fourth Rebbe of the Belz dynasty, which had originated in eastern Galicia (today part of the Ukraine).
He was born in 1880 as the eldest child of Rav Yissakhar Dov Rokeach (the third Belzer Rebbe, 1851-1926) and his wife, the Rabbanit Batya Ruchama Rokeach, who was the granddaughter of Rabbi Aharon Twersky of Chernobyl. He grew up in the court of his grandfather, Rabbi Yehoshua Rokeach (the second Belzer Rebbe, 1823-1894). At a young age he lost his mother, and his father remarried; his new wife was a descendant of the Goldman-Zhevil dynasty.
During the Holocaust
Rabbi Aharon Rokeach lost his entire family in the Holocaust. In 1943 he was extracted from the Bukhnia ghetto, next to Krakow, for a large sum of money, along with his brother, Rabbi Mordekhai Rokeach of Bilgoraj – the father of the present Rebbe, Rabbi Yissakhar Dov Rokeach. On Pesach Sheni of the year 5703 (1943) he reached Hungary and settled in Budapest, where he lived for eight months, until the 24th of Tevet, 5704 (1944). When he found out that the Gestapo was on his trail and demanding that the Hungarian government hand him over, he quickly left the country, and on the 9th of Shevat of that year arrived, together with his brother, in Eretz Yisrael.
The Rebbe settled in Tel Aviv and set about re-establishing Belz Chassidut in Eretz Yisrael – first in Tel Aviv, then in Jerusalem, Benei Berak and Haifa. (Eventually Belz also spread to other towns in Israel: Ashdod, Beit Shemesh, Telz-Stone, Beit Chilkiya, and – recently – also the Ramot neighborhood of Jerusalem.) During the summer, from Erev Shavuot until after Sukkot, he would stay in Jerusalem. Up until 1955, his residence was in Katamon; thereafter he moved to Agrippas Street, close to the (old) Belz yeshiva.
Leadership and personality
Rabbi Rokeach supported the idea of unifying the religious parties in Israel, and he paved the way for Belz Chassidim to join Agudat Yisrael, despite having opposed the party throughout its history in Poland.
He was known for his love of all Jews, as well as for his traits of piety – especially for eating extremely little. He was admired as a holy ascetic, and following the Holocaust and the death of the "Imrei Emet," he became the oldest and most important living survivor in Israel of all the great Chassidic leaders of Poland.
B. The "Derasha" in Budapest Prior to the Escape:
Reasons for Leaving and a Promise to the Jews of Hungary
The issue of the leadership of rabbis and Admorim during the Holocaust is a broad one, worthy of research and discussion in its own right. There are many variations here: every leader had his own unique characteristics, and every situation was defined by its own special conditions. Many Orthodox leaders left Poland, while others chose to stay with their followers.
The Rebbe of Belz fled Hungary when he found out from Hungarian sources – and apparently from Zionist activists, too – that the Gestapo was looking for him, as was the case concerning all the rabbis of Poland. Even when he had escaped from Bukhnia, Galicia (in Poland), he had been forced to leave his entire family behind. Once it became clear that Hungary, too, was unsafe fro him, he fled the country, clean-shaven, together with his brother (Rabbi Mordekhai of Bilgoraj) as part of a list that had been drawn up by the Zionist institutions, and with the intervention of some of the leading rabbis in Eretz Yisrael, including Rabbi Herzog and Rabbi Maimon.
His farewell sermon, which was published in Hungary (cover page reproduced above), was delivered in his name by his brother at the main Beit Midrash of Budapest, in Shevat 5704, before a large audience. The main subject of the speech was the obligation to obey the true tzaddikim, who are to be regarded as the true prophets of our times, and to resist the temptations of the false tzaddikim – the leaders of the Maskilim and the Zionists. Since the events in Europe appeared to be heading towards a realization of the Zionist prophecy, the Rabbi of Bilgoraj asserted that the Jewish community now found itself in a situation where "the Lord your God is testing you to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul" (Devarim 13:4). In other words, the conformity of the situation with the Zionist vision and the failure of the ultra-Orthodox strategy are purely superficial. They are a test that must be withstood, for false prophets will always be false prophets, even when they momentarily appear to be correct.
The sermon also included encouragement, a call for mutual help and unity, and other matters concerning morale and the social fabric. The two subjects which became the center of extensive discussion are the attitude of the Rebbe's brother towards their imminent escape and its justification before the audience, and religious guidance as to the proper practical and spiritual response of the Chassidim at this time of distress. Here we must preface our discussion with the following remark: the Jews of Hungary were convinced, at this time, that "it would not happen to them." The ongoing annihilation of Polish Jewry was already a known fact, but reports that the war was soon to end, and faith in the Hungarian government and its special status in the eyes of the Nazis, created an illusion of a level of safety resembling that of Switzerland.
Let us first examine the personal aspect, which also interweaves blessings and guidance for all of Hungarian Jewry:
Something else that I want to say… concerning the fact that I have heard that there is much fear, "terror and trembling seize them," with people claiming that our departure is difficult for them. Many people are especially concerned for the future, suggesting that perhaps, God forbid, some danger hovers over this country, and that my brother – thetzaddik of the generation – sees what is coming and is leaving and going to Eretz Yisrael, for there God has commanded His blessing – "and I shall give peace in the land," and he is going to a place of tranquility and rest, while he abandons the community, heaven forefend, to sighing. What will happen to us, who will protect us, who will save us, who will entreat for us and apply himself on our behalf?
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, that they may no longer mourn, and that "the group that remains might escape." And may the verse soon be fulfilled – "All the horns of the wicked I shall cut off, while the horns of the righteous shall be exalted" (Tehillim 75:11).
This is hinted at in the verse (in parashat Vayechi): "He saw rest – that it was good, and that the land was pleasant, and he bowed his shoulder to bear and became a servant of tribute" (Bereishit 49:19). Rashi explains: "He became a servant of tribute to all of his brethren, to Israel, to offer rulings in matters of Torah." This is most surprising: what does Rashi mean by this interpretation? Apparently, what he means is this:
"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].
"And that the land was pleasant" – because there prevails there [in Eretz Yisrael] a supernal pleasantness; and it is a land that flows with milk and honey, pleasing and pleasant in both spiritual and material aspects; and he spoke while still in his home, in the early days, of his journey to the Holy Land….
The Rebbe of Belz in his youth with his students
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. Rabbi Natan Ortner, a biographer, explains that the commander of the Hungarian police had demanded that the Rabbi refrain from disclosing the true reason for the departure – the demand by the Gestapo that the Hungarian police turn the Rebbe over to them. The painful part of this section of the speech is the blessing/promise by the Rebbe that peace would prevail in Hungary. 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 (including Amnon Shapira and, less bluntly, Mendel Piekarz) 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 – an omission which Mendel Piekarz, a historian of Chassidut, has pointed to as an evasion of the uncomfortable truth. By omitting this section of the derasha, the editors seem to admit that the derasha represented a failure of leadership on the part of the Rebbe who, at best, was not aware of the situation and erred in his understanding of reality or, at worst, abandoned his followers to save himself, placating them with unfounded reassurances.
I find it difficult to defend this internal censorship. Unfortunately, the phenomenon is not rare among religious and Charedi publishers, and to my mind this is not a positive sign. However, as to the claim itself, it must be noted that many of the followers of the Rebbe of Belz point out that the Jews of Budapest, to whom the speech was addressed, were indeed mostly spared, with only a small number being sent to the camps. In fact, this was the greatest concentration of Jews to be saved in Hungary and in all of Eastern Europe.
The intention of the Belzer Rebbe and other Admorim to escape is the source of Rabbi Teichtal's fierce words against them:
Dread and fear hover over us when we see that, as I write these words, all of the Admorim of our country are making attempts to escape from here to Eretz Yisrael, out of fear of the oppressor, not taking into account the discouragement that they bring to other Jews, when they hear the masses murmuring, "The Rebbes are running away; what will happen to us?" (Em ha-Banim Semekha, p. 312)
More importantly, with regard to the flight of the Rebbe of Belz himself, it is also important to note the immediate personal danger that faced him. This danger was not yet a tangible and immediate one for other Jews. (To my mind, the fact that the Rebbe also left his family behind is ample evidence against the claim of egocentric abandonment.) No less important is the huge contribution of his personal survival to the rehabilitation of Belz chassidut – and to no small extent, of chassidut in general – after the Holocaust. Together with the Admorim of Ger, Vizhnitz, Sanz, Satmar and Chabad, who also survived, the Rebbe of Belz managed to save his movement from collapse and extinction. Perhaps his survival could have ended up looking more heroic, but it is also possible that the loss would have outweighed the gains. The same applies to the Admor of Samtar (who escaped on the Zionist Kastner train), and the Admorim of Ger and Chabad (both of whom left Warsaw in 1940). The Admor of Vizhnitz, author of "Imrei Hayim," remained in Europe during the war, while the Admor of Sanz-Klausenberg miraculously survived all of its horrors – including labor camps and Auschwitz.
However, having extended the benefit of the doubt, I believe that we cannot escape one point that continues to rankle, perhaps testifying to a lack of intellectual honesty and a profound fear of the truth. I refer here to the sharp contrast between the seemingly optimistic tone of thederasha and the Admor's hasty escape from Hungary, using a Zionist passport. In the first part of the derasha, the Rebbe denounces the Zionist "false prophets" and argues that the real situation in no way indicates that they are correct. However, de facto he accepts their help in escaping to safety in the Zionist Eretz Yisrael and in rehabilitating his Chassidic movement upon a platform prepared by those same Zionists. Forty years earlier, in 1903, Herzl had written (in a letter to a Hungarian Jew named Ernst Mezei) as follows:
The Hungarian Jews, too, will meet their fate, and the later it comes, the more bitter and cruel it will be. Meantime, we the Zionists will be building a spacious home for those who do not wish to know us….
The words of this visionary, the "false prophet," from forty years earlier, had turned out to be far more accurate than the prediction by the true prophet of only forty days earlier…
The fact that Herzl predicted the future with greater accuracy than the Rebbe of Belz does not obligate us to regard him as a completely righteous Jew, nor to accept the Zionist approach in its entirety, nor for that matter nationalism, secularism, or liberalism. At the very least, however, we must acknowledge the fact that the Rebbe himself - who had been mistaken in his prophecy - and his Chassidic followers were saved by virtue of that false prophet, who happened to have been correct. Our Sages point to mistakes in the leadership of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai (of whom Rabbi Akiva said that God "turned [the wisdom of] the Sages backward" – see Gittin 56b), and in Rabbi Akiva's assertion concerning Bar Kokhba ("This is the King Messiah" – seeYerushalmi Ta'anit 4:5), and yet this does not prevent us from admiring them for many other reasons. Therefore, it must certainly be possible to admit to a mistake on the part of the Rebbe of Belz. The fact that he and his followers were unwilling to do so is a sign of weakness, and introduces an element of less-than-complete honesty, perhaps even deceit, into their entire approach. It was with reference to such instances that Rav Kook wrote that there are some good things in the world that are supported by murky reasons (Arpelei Tohar).
The Rebbe of Belz in his later years
We have already examined Rabbi Dessler's teaching concerning faith in the sages, and the reasons for his view are quite understandable. However, in view of the special instance of Belz chassidut, the weakness and deficiencies of the argument also become apparent.
C. Chassidut vs. Zionism in the Holocaust
Let us now turn our attention to the existential guidance that the Rebbe sought to convey in his address delivered by his brother. The background to his speech is a question that was posed by Rabbi Sar Shalom, the first Belzer Rebbe, in a dream: What is the meaning of God's words to Moshe at the Red Sea, "Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to Bnei Yisrael, and let them journey on" (Shemot 14:15)? In his dream he was answered by Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk, with a parable from the book "Tiferet Yehonatan" by Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeschutz (parashat Lekh-Lekha 19a). In the parable, the king of Portugal’s wife was experiencing difficulty in childbirth because soothsayers were casting spells on her. What did the king do? He announced the successful conclusion of the birth! Indeed, this plan worked well; the magicians ceased their magic, and the queen gave birth. What this parable symbolizes, according to Rabbi Elimelekh, is that the splitting of the sea was being held back by the heavenly accusers. Therefore, God told Moshe that the best way to respond would be simply to journey on.
What is the significance of this parable in the address delivered by the Rebbe's brother?
"Why do you cry out to Me" – so long as you cry out, the heavenly accusers will see that the salvation of Israel is not yet complete, and the angel of Israel has not yet achieved victory on high, and they will present further accusations. Therefore, it is better that he [Moshe] should remain silent and not plead any more [before God]; rather, he should speak to Bnei Yisrael and [tell them to] journey on, as though all that was crooked was already made straight, and as though the depths had already cooled… When the accusers would see this, they would assume that the heavenly judgment was already over, and that Israel had prevailed, and then they would leave off accusing, and all of their magic would immediately become ineffective. As our Sages taught: Israel were redeemed only in the merit of their faith. They believed even before the miracle began, even before salvation came, and therefore they were deserving of redemption.
Hence the practical guidance:
Likewise the situation of the Jews right now; we are in a crisis… because of the accusers… therefore the best course of action is to "speak to Bnei Yisrael, that they should journey on." They should turn their minds away from the exile, as though all the troubles were already over and the redeemer was "standing behind our wall" and the redemption was about to happen… and as though salvation had already come. Then all of the accusers would be silenced, and the redemption would truly come.
This derasha contains some of the most fundamental principles of the Chassidic approach towards reality. Existing facts threaten us and disturb our peace of mind. What should we do about them? The Chassidic approach, which includes both metaphysical and psychological elements, teaches that salvation is dependent not on action, but rather on faith. The situation that is revealed to us is not the only possible reality. There is another reality that is hidden from us. How do we reveal it? Simply by means of a spiritual movement, by deciding that I believe it to be possible, that the answer exists, that the action will succeed, etc. Faith in change and in salvation has the power to bring about its own fulfillment. That which I choose to believe in, will also come to be for me. God's instruction to Moshe, then, is not that Bnei Yisrael should "journey on" in the simple, earthly sense, but rather that they should deliver themselves from negative thoughts about suffering or about their complicated situation. They should "journey on" in their consciousness, through faith, and then they will be saved.
This is a classic Chassidic concept that emphasizes the power of faith and is directed towards an internal, rather than external, response to reality. It is an attempt to confront the impure "husk" of reality, the mere "appearance" of reality, and to believe in God despite it. What we see here is a clear manifestation of the Belzer Rebbe's pragmatic argument. He does not suffice with an assertion that faith is of primary importance. He adds, based on the parable, that through faith it is possible to cancel the decree on the level of tangible reality.
Scholars have already pointed out that it is highly significant that the Rabbi of Bilgoraj invokes this teaching by Rabbi Elimelekh. He is presenting a veiled challenge to a different interpretation of the same teaching which had been proposed a year previously, in the monumental work by Rabbi Yissakhar Dov Teichtal, "Em ha-Banim Semekha." We will discuss Rabbi Teichtal and his book at length in the next two lectures; here we mention only the well-known fact that the author, a chassid of Munkacz and Belz prior to the war, became a Zionist as he witnessed the destruction of Slovakia (where he was the rabbi of the community of Pishtian) and of Europe. His book is a lengthy argument in favor of Zionism and a criticism of the anti-Zionist Chassidic leaders. As part of his argument, Rabbi Teichtal quotes the same lesson by Rabbi Elimelekh:
The same applies in our times, that we have reached a crisis [which is the same word in Hebrew as "birthing-chair"] and there is no strength to give birth… therefore the best advice, as Rabbi Elimelekh taught, is to "speak to Bnei Yisrael, that they should journey on" – to Eretz Yisrael, and remove the countries of exile from their minds altogether, and then the accusers will understand that it has been decided thus from Above, and then they will cease to accuse any more… That is what Rabbi Elimelekh, of blessed memory, commanded us. And now – how are those who present themselves as being holy not ashamed to say that it is forbidden to publicly encourage journeying and going to Eretz Yisrael?
The way to confound the accusers, then, is to "journey" – in the simplest sense of the word: to journey without fear, to actually move, to leave the exile. Thus the decree will be nullified.
It is easy to see how that which the Rebbe of Belz understood as an internal, Chassidic teaching, was reinterpreted by Rabbi Teichtal as pointing towards practical Zionist action. According to Chassidic teaching, reality is to be dealt with by faith – i.e., through recognition of the external, misleading appearance of reality. According to the Zionist approach, reality is to be addressed by acting to change and repair it on the most tangible level. Clearly, Rabbi Teichtal's reading of the teaching is not the simple reading. Originally, Rabbi Elimelekh's words applied – as evidenced by the metaphor cited by Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeschutz – to an act of faith, and not anything else. The interpretation of the Belzer Rebbe, then, is true to its source. However, this interpretation served to reinforce Orthodox passivity, which itself facilitated (according to Rabbi Teichtal) the Nazi threat, and therefore he rejected it. Rabbi Teichtal's interpretation offers a different understanding in light of his recognition that sitting by passively could not be an option, after witnessing the mistake of this approach.
History is sometimes ironic and cruel. The Rebbe of Belz and his brother, who called for faith rather than action, actually acted. They escaped to Eretz Yisrael and were saved from the Nazis. Rabbi Teichtal, who called for action and not just faith, was not able to leave, and was murdered by a Ukrainian on a train, just two months before the war ended. However, the two options that they represented when faced with the Holocaust – the Chassidic choice and the Zionist choice – continue to echo in the derasha and in the move of a Chassidic rabbi towards Zionism.
In the next lecture, we shall take a closer look at Rabbi Teichtal's world-view.
M. Piekarz cites the testimony of a member of the Auschwitz Sonderkommando (Jewish prisoners forced to work in the disposal of the bodies of murdered Jews), who heard the final words of a distinguished woman at the entrance to the gas chamber. Piekarz identifies this woman as Mrs. Chaya Halberstam, Hy"d, the Rebbetzin of Stropkov, whose husband was himself a Chassidic Rebbe (known by the name of his book, Divrei Shalom), son of the rabbi of Shinova and grandson of the "Divrei Chayim" of Sanz. There is special significance to this testimony, since it represents criticism from within the Belz camp that is directed towards the Belzer Rebbe and the other Rebbes:
Everyone asked the advice of the Rebbes, and they were always reassuring. The Rebbe of Belz said that Hungary would only be frightened [but would be saved]. But the bitter hour came when the Jews could no longer save themselves. Indeed, from the heavens [the evil decree] was concealed from [the Rebbes], but they themselves fled at the last moment to Eretz Yisrael. They saved themselves, leaving the people like sheep for slaughter. Master of the Universe, in the last moments of my life I pray of You: forgive them for the great desecration of Your Name.
The "Daat" website has published several articles about the sermon of the Rebbe of Belz and his escape, as well as other related subjects. I recommend that interested readers examine the articles on this site:
The material is brought together in Mendel Piekarz's Hebrew book, Chassidut Polin: Megamot Re'ayoniot Bein Shetei Milchamot ha-Olam u-vigzerot 5700-5705 (Ideological Trends of Hasidism in Poland During the Interwar Period and the Holocaust), Jerusalem, 1990.
For a theological discussion, see Eliezer Schweid's book, Bein Churban li-Yeshu'a: Teguvot Shel Hagut Charedit le-Shoah bi-Zemana (Between Destruction and Salvation: Responses of Charedi Thought to the Holocaust while It Occurred), Tel Aviv, 1994.
 Interestingly, Rabbi Teichtal testifies, in his "Em ha-Banim Semekha," that amongst the Hungarian ultra-Orthodox community it was generally maintained that the Nazi Holocaust had struck Poland with the greatest devastation because Zionism had gained substantial Orthodox support there. (In the eyes of some Chassidim, such as the followers of the Rebbe of Munkacz, even Agudat Yisrael was perceived as a pseudo-Zionist party.) Hungary had been spared the same fate, as they saw it, because of the opposition of its Jews to Zionism.
 I was told by Prof. Yehuda Eisenberg that Rabbi Ortner has now published a different view of various aspects of the address. Since I have not yet seen the relevant publication, I merely make mention of this here; the matter requires further study.
 Historically speaking, this was partly due to Roosevelt’s threat to destroy the city if the Hungarian government was to cooperate with the Germans. Since this was the only tangible instance of intervention by the American government on behalf of European Jewry, from the Chassidic point of view it could perhaps reasonably be regarded as the fulfillment of the Rebbe's prophecy.
 Cited by Meir Shalev, "Mitz Petel," Supplement to Yediot Aharonot, Aug. 6th, 1993.
 M. Piekarz, Chassidut Polin pp. 416-434; E. Schweid, Bein Churban li-Yeshu'a (see "Sources" at the end of this shiur).
 M. Piekarz, Chassidut Polin (see "Sources"), pp. 412-416. Piekarz himself expresses some doubt as to the identity of the woman. There is a discrepancy of forty years between the age that is stated in the testimony (85) and the real age of the Rebbetzin (44), and since she was from Hungary, her physical condition should not have been so terrible as to be so misleading. In any event, the issue of the woman's identity is less important than the real problem expressed in her words. The testimony is certainly genuine, and from the context it would appear that the words were expressed by a woman of stature who was associated with chassidut. This case is discussed by Esther Farbstein in her response to Piekarz; see the "Da'at" website: