“What does Judaism have to say about _____________?” You can put just about anything you want in the blank – sports, family, business, friendship, bullying, romance, etc.
No matter what you put in the blank, it’s a fairly straightforward question. Hidden in that simple question, though, is something profound. In truth, that question is asking if the ancient Jewish tradition can have an impact on our modern American lives. So, as a rabbi, I love hearing that question. Because we can’t (or won’t) make Judaism a part of our lives until we know that it has something to say about the issues that are important to us.
This is not something new.
In 1941, a rabbi by the name of Ephraim Oshry was placed in the Kovno ghetto along with other members of his community after the Nazis invaded Lithuania. As the Jews tried to cope with this new, nightmarish reality, they wanted to know if Judaism had anything to say about how to go on under the worst possible circumstances. So, they turned to Rabbi Oshry with questions about Jewish law and custom.
He tried his best to answer their questions. He also kept a record of all the questions and answers on scraps of paper which he buried. After he miraculously survived the Holocaust, he returned to Kovno and found his papers before immigrating to the US. He ultimately published those questions and answers in a collection entitled “Responsa from the Depths.”
Some of the questions that he was asked are simply mind-blowing. “Is it permissible to save oneself and thereby cause another to be killed?” “May a young man put on tefillin (phylacteries) before he is thirteen years old since he may not live to thirteen?” “Is it permissible to say Mourners’ Kaddish for the gentile who hid me from the Nazis?” “Are infants subject to the commandment to sanctify the Name of God by martyrdom rather than be raised in another religion?”
Despite facing situations that no one should have to face, the prisoners of the Kovno ghetto tried to live their lives according to the moral code of our people. They still cared about what God expected from them. They attempted to preserve their humanity despite the inhumanity of the world around them. In spite of being singled out for persecution because of their Jewish-ness, they sought to remain Jewish as best they could under the circumstances.
Today is Yom Ha-Sho’ah v’Ha-Gevurah (Day of the Holocaust and Heroism) as established by the Knesset in 1951. There are many ways to remember the Holocaust, commemorate those who perished and honor those who survived. Our Summit Community Service will be this Sunday, 11:00am at Congregation Beth Hatikvah.
It seems to me, though, that the best way to honor the memory of the Holocaust is to emulate the efforts of Jews like those in the Kovno ghetto. We are blessed to live in a free and open society where we need not be afraid to live openly as Jews. That same freedom makes it easy to set aside or “forget” our Judaism. Instead, we ought to rededicate ourselves to living according to the moral code of our people and to caring about what God expects of us.
And it can all start with a question as simple as, “What does Judaism have to say about _____________?”