The Holy Fire

The Teachings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, The Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto

By Nehemia Polen

Reviewed by Dr. Yehuda Gellman

As a result of the unimaginable Nazi inhumanity against the Jews in Churban Europa [the Holocaust], there has arisen a genre of Jewish theology which rejects as irrational the dominant traditional Jewish understanding of God.

Two types of reasons are offered for this rejection.  The first has to do with what should be expected from a perfect God who is involved in history.  And the second has to do with what the Jews in particular have a right to expect from God.  As Richard Rubenstein puts it, “I could not possibly believe in such a God nor could I believe in Israel as the chosen people of God after Auschwitz.”1

I acknowledge, with bowed head, the psychological and existential difficulty — or even impossibility — of believing in God that some have experienced either through their own shattering passage through Churban Europa or because of their deepest empathy with those who suffered there and those who died there.  Which of us has not felt at some time or other the sickening sense of having been abandoned by God in the destruction of the great world that was European Jewry?

But it is another matter to argue that it is irrational to believe in God as He is traditionally understood.  This is a mistaken claim.

The first kind of reason offered for this claim is that if God were really perfect and involved in history, in His perfect knowledge He would have been fully aware of the most appalling evil ever perpetrated by humans on other humans; in His perfect goodness He would have wished to intervene to prevent it; and in His perfect power He would have been able to do so thoroughly and effectively.  Churban Europa, therefore, is strong evidence that there is no perfect God involved in history.

But it is false that Churban Europa constitutes evidence against the existence of such a God, since that event equally supports the belief that God is perfect and that Churban Europa simply must have some valid justification in the eyes of God.  But, the protest will immediately be heard, what justification could there possibly be for the unspeakable suffering of so many innocent people, for the unredeemable anguish of hundreds of thousands of Jewish mothers who saw their beloved children murdered before their very eyes, for the screams of millions of innocent souls clawing for air in the gassed darkness of sealed rooms?  My answer is that there is absolutely no good reason whatsoever that I or any other human being could imagine that could possibly justify these horrendous happenings.  Citing any justifying reason that we could think of is an exercise in obscenity.  But what we can think of ought not be the measure of God’s wisdom, goodness, and power.  Surely you or I would be morally condemnable to the utmost were we to allow such things to transpire for reasons which we deemed justified.  But we cannot condemn God in the same way.  That would be irrational.  That God is perfect is a reason for believing that the possibilities are far beyond what we could ever conceive, rather than for believing that God must act as we would.  To continue to protest that in principle no possible state of affairs could ever possibly justify Churban Europa is not to be any more rational than one who thinks otherwise.  It is to refuse to take up one’s stance within emunah [faith].

To have emunah in the face of Churban Europa is to believe that since God is perfect and is involved in history, God’s justifying reasons must be unfathomable to our ordinary human minds.  From this point of view, Churban Europa is evidence of the unimaginable goodness that God wishes to bestow upon us in the end.  But what about the people who themselves suffered and were murdered?  What does any justification help them?  Indeed, we cannot imagine how any justification would help them.  But, once again, we should not try to imagine what we could possibly do that would justify their suffering, and then, when we fail to come up with anything, ascribe the same failure to God.  In addition, we are not required to believe that those who have died do not continue to live in other forms, including other gilgulim perhaps, and ultimately receive God’s greatest blessings in part, we know not how, through their sufferings.  “Bal yidach mimenu nidach“:  No one is lost.  No one is left out.  The belief in their continued existence in this way may not be very fashionable or “modern” or be standard in some intellectual circles, but it hardly follows that it is irrational.

The emunah required, therefore, is not to be described as one of irrational obstinacy in the face of contrary evidence.  The test of faith of Churban Europa is not a test of one’s willingness to be irrational in the face of overwhelming counter-evidence.  It is an existential­religious test, as to whether we will invoke our own narrow, finite human situation as the place from which to judge God, or whether we will adopt an overwhelmingly God-centered understanding of our life, its true nature, and its meaning.

The second kind of reason offered against believing in the traditional God of Judaism is that Churban Europa is strong proof against God’s having a special providential relationship to the Jewish people, a relationship in which He has promised to protect us and to care for us throughout our history.  If God did have a special providential relationship with the Jewish people, it is said, Churban Europa would not have happened.

But this second line of reasoning is no more successful than the previous one.  Long before Churban Europa, Jewish tradition taught the dual message that the Biblical promises of material well-being were not to be taken at their plain, face value, and that God’s relationship to the Jewish people will be ultimately manifest to all in days to come.

Especially in Chassidut, long before Churban Europa, it was taught over and over again that the primary blessings in God’s promises are spiritual ones.  This teaching has had an enormous influence on Chassidic exegesis, and is well-exemplified in the teachings of Reb Zadok of Lublin that “even though the blessings relate to matters pertaining to material existence,” nonetheless the principle promise is in the realm of the spirit.  And Chassidut also taught that we cannot know in advance just what God’s promises come to, but we trust in God that they will be fulfilled in accordance with what God intends by His promises.  This teaching is exemplified in Reb Menachem Mendel of Vtebsk’s saying that the test that Abraham passed at the akeidah was not in agreeing to sacrifice his son, but in having the emunah that:

     His thoughts are not the thoughts of God and God’s ways are not our ways, and he does not understand God’s words or God’s ways at all, and the seeming evils that come from God are true goods … and all of God’s words that seem to be controverted all go to one place….2

Jewish belief in God’s providential relationship with the Jewish people withstood the destruction of two Temples, and bitter and cruel exiles, including the expulsion from Spain, the massacres by the Crusader faithful, and the Jewish sufferings of Europe’s many wars, including World War I, before the Nazi horrors.  It was not irrational to believe that God had a special providential relationship with the Jews when the Second Temple was destroyed and we began to endure a long and bitter exile, or when we were expelled from Spain, or when the Crusader massacres took place.  Traditional Christian theology taught that all of these events were evidence of God’s having abandoned the Jewish People in favor of a “New Israel,” the Church.  But we never interpreted God’s promises to us in a way that gave that claim credence.

Rabbi Shapira was a living, precious, holy testimony to the greatness of God in history.

The ultimate truth to be learned from all of these historical events is that God’s special providential relationship with Israel does not give us grounds for predicting just what will happen to us next.  It give us grounds for believing only that God has a plan for His people grounded in the covenant, which plan will be fulfilled in ways we cannot fathom.  This is irrational only if we have good reason to believe that if God had a providential relationship with us, we could fathom how this was expressed in history from step to step.  But there is no  good reason to believe that this is true, as stressed especially in Chassidic thought.3

Is there absolutely no problem about the Holocaust, then?  Of course there is.  But it is not a problem about rationality.  It is difficult for us not to assume the stance of our own limited existence and judge God by what we see and what we would like.  Poised at the precipice, if we are weak (and who isn’t?), we will affirm our own limited understanding and impose it upon God.  If we are strong (and who is?), we will bow our heads before God’s infinite perfection.

Some may ask sarcastically, “should we then celebrate Churban Europa as a means to God’s glorious ends?”  The answer is that “hanistarot laShem Elokeinu.” [God’s ways are hidden.]  We are confined to our human perspective.  God has charged us to act, and to feel, as finite, limited human beings.  We are to live in compassion and care for every person in accordance with the world as we know it from our flawed perspective.  The rest is for Him.

As for us, we mourn the little children and the loving mothers.  We see them before our eyes together with the helpless fathers, and the zaides and bubbies, confused and battered.  If only we could reach out now and pull them away to safety, the pure with the wicked, the foolish with the wise, the believers with the scoffers, tortured and degraded, murdered and violated.  But that is not all.  There is a part of God, the Shechinah, which mourns them as well.  In the dark loneliness of the night, the Shechinah walks the roadways of Kaminetz Podalsk, the streets of Warsaw, the silent foot-paths of Apt, crying out their names.

But who can really believe all of these things and resist judging God in the midst of unspeakable horrors? Amongst the many who did really believe, we know intimately of one man in particular, who must have been more than a man, who did so with a searing poignancy — the holy Piaseczner Rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, zecher zadik v’kadosh livrachah.  The Piaseczner endured the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, the Warsaw ghetto, the ghetto uprising, and death at the hands of the Nazis at Trawniki.  From early on he directed his Chassidim to flee for their lives, yet himself resolved to stay behind with the Jews of Warsaw.  He was a living, precious, holy testimony to the greatness of God in history.  Eschewing “explanations” for the unprecedented suffering, fully alive to the extent of the tragedy and despair, Reb Kalonymus Kalman Shapira was a living rebuttal to “Holocaust Theology.”

In the Warsaw Ghetto, the Rebbe gave weekly sermons on the Parshah which related to the events surrounding him.  The sermons were discovered after the war in the rubble of the ghetto, and published as Esh Kodesh, “The Holy Fire.”  In them is a most profound record of sadness and distress, together with a redemptive faith in God’s ultimate goodness.

And now Rabbi Nehemia Polen has blessed us with a book about the Rebbe and the Kodesh, named The Holy Fire, The Teachings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, which is a singular event in the history of Holocaust literature.  It is too rare that a work of high academic quality, as this is, is at the same time as empathetic of its subject as this is.  “Academically correct” and well-researched, Polen’s book is at the same time a deeply reverent and compassionate presentation of a Giant of Faith.  Polen carefully analyzes the contents of Esh Kodesh, supplemented by historical investigation, including the author’s own interviews with survivors who knew the Rebbe, and by scholarly research into the Rabbinic and Chassidic writings which inform the Rebbe’s ideas.  Polen places the Rebbe’s thoughts within the context of earlier Kabbalistic and Chassidic thought and explains for us just where and in what ways the Rebbe had been brought to go further than anyone had ever been called to go before.

Polen vividly portrays both the saintliness and the leadership of the Piaseczner in the Warsaw Ghetto.  As Polen shows with great acumen, at the start of the war, the Rebbe preached trust in God’s impending deliverance of the Jews from their troubles, and tended to explain what was happening as punishment for their sins.  As time went on, however, and the dimensions of the horror grew, the Rebbe abandoned that stance and increasingly taught complete surrender to God’s infinite unknowability, in an act of pure faith.  He no longer preached God’s imminent earthly salvation, and disowned the explanation of punishment.

In this, the Pieseczner was continuing and deepening themes found in Chassidic thought, as we have noted, for some time already.  For that reason, I believe that the earlier position was adopted by the Rebbe as an act of leadership, from a sense of his responsibility to raise the spirits and encourage the people of the ghetto.  As events plunged into the abyss of human depravity, however, the true task of leadership turned to one of having to help preserve faith in God in the face of insane adversities.  In doing so, the Rebbe goes beyond what for him may have been adequate, a bare affirmation of faith, and attempts to give religious understanding to the events.

Typical of the Piaseczner’s heroic leadership in the cause of faith is the entry in Esh Kodesh for February 28, 1942, Parshat Zachor, where he asks, “How are we today to fulfill the commandment of destroying Amalek?”  And he answers that Amalek is the power that “cools off” the Children of Israel in their ardor for God, as it says, “asher korchah baderech:  they “cooled you off,” “on the way,” the way of God.  They cooled faith by attacking the Children of Israel.  Given this understanding of “Amalek,” the way in which we now can destroy Amalek, says the Rebbe, is by overcoming any weakening of faith that we might have in the face of evil.  If we refuse to be “cooled off” in our ardor for God, we succeed in destroying Amalek inwardly, in historical circumstances in which we are unable to rise up against Amalek outwardly.

Polen’s translations of the Rebbe’s passages are moving and delicate, his explanations and elaborations informative and compelling.  Having read Polen’s book, one feels that he has been touched by the very presence of the holy Rebbe himself, and that the Rebbe’s words, as explained and elaborated by Polen, bear witness to the truth of faith.

Each year I light a yahrzeit candle in memory of the Piaseczner Rebbe on the sixth of Cheshvan.  In the black of the burning wick I behold the tragedy and affliction of my people in what we have conveniently come to call the “Shoah.”  In the darkest blue of the flame, as one with the wick, I see their sorrow and pain, their grief and broken despair.  In the white, outer, light of that little candle I think I can see, and sometimes I think I can even feel, the lichtigkeit of the Piaseczner and others like him who received a veritable gift from God, the gift of emunah, at that very moment, at that very place.  May their light give us light.


  1. Richard Rubenstein, After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism (New York: Bobbs Merrill, 1966), p.64.
  1. Pri Ha’aretz (Jerusalem: Hamesorah, 5749), p. 20.
  1. For a recent particularly sensitive treatment of Churban Europa from a Chassidic point of view, see: Haharugah Aleicha (Jerusalem, Machon Emunah V’daat, 5748), by the present Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Noach Brozovsky.

Dr. Gellman is Professor of Philosophy and holder of the Blechner Chair in Jewish Values at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva, Israel.  His book, The Fear, the Trembling and the Fire: Kirkegaard and the Hasidic Masters on the Binding of Isaac, was published by Universities Press of America (1994).

This article was featured in the Spring 1996 issue of Jewish Action.