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Responding to Tragedy: A Historical Approach

Jewish Action Editor-in-Chief Nechama Carmel Converses with Dr. Henry Abramson 

The academic dean of Touro’s Lander College of Arts and Sciences, Dr. Henry Abramson holds a PhD in history from the University of Toronto and is a specialist in Jewish history and thought. 


Nechama Carmel: Historically speaking, how did Jewish communities deal with catastrophe?  
Dr. Henry Abramson: Jews have always responded to trauma and catastrophe with creativity and innovation. Take, for example, a major catastrophe like the Churban in 70 CE. One of the most significant ways in which we adapted as a people is by investing in the institution of the synagogue, the beit knesset. Now the synagogue, of course, preexisted the Beit Hamikdash. Prior to the Churban, we did have local places of gathering for worship of some type.  

But with the Destruction of the Temple, we lost the central locus of our worship. For centuries, everything was based around Jerusalem. The great spiritual challenge was the removal of the center of gravity from the Jewish world. Judaism was inconceivable without the Temple. How do you redefine your identity once the gravitational core is removed? It’s like taking the sun out of the solar system. We had to find some other way to orient our entire being. So the synagogue really stepped in as an institution—a place where we can gather, where we can still pray, both in the Diaspora and in Israel. It is one of the main examples of innovation that helped Judaism survive. Establishing the synagogue as our new mikdash me’at, our mini sanctuary, was a hugely creative venture that persists to this day.  

Carmel: Was the innovation of the synagogue an indication of how the Jews at that time managed to hold on to hope, despite the overwhelming catastrophe? 
Dr. Abramson: Historians don’t generally work with emotional values. We focus on facts: dates, rulers, wars, et cetera—that’s the kind of data we tend to work with. 

Assessing hope, however, is obviously crucial to understanding how a community survives after a catastrophe. It’s hard to get into the mind of a first- or tenth- or fifteenth-century Jew and imagine how he or she felt about the future. The way a historian would measure hope is by analyzing new developments: new structures, such as a physical building discovered archaeologically, or new literary documents revealed—all of which attest to strategies for survival. Those are the kinds of things historians normally look at to assess the question of how communities created hope for the future.  

Carmel: Can you give another example of creativity and innovation in response to catastrophe that one finds in Jewish history?
Dr. Abramson: After the Bar Kochba revolt ended, circa 135 CE, the focus on the transmission of Torah increased. Visionary leaders like Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi determined that change was necessary: to preserve the Oral Law, it needed to be recorded. This resulted in the codification of the Mishnah, which was essentially the creation of a portable beit medrash.   

The willingness to challenge older paradigms, in what the Talmud calls a sha’at hadechak, an emergency situation, is a creative strategy. Once the Mishnah was codified, one could take this book and read its teachings. Instead of limiting Torah learning, which the rabbis feared would be the result of codifying the Oral Law, it actually made it more accessible and helped spread Torah learning in a remarkable fashion. 

Carmel: It almost seems as if tragedy itself is the impetus for growth and renewal. In an article we featured some years back, Rabbi Dr. Ephraim Kanarfogel discussed the Jewish response to the Crusades and how some of the Jewish communities that were “Ground Zero” of the First Crusade subsequently became centers of prolific Torah learning. Dr. Kanarfogel said: “Quite remarkably, during the period in which the first few Crusades took place, while the Jewish communities in Northern France and Germany were mourning their losses and composing kinot, much of the vast literature of the Ba’alei HaTosafot was being created” (“Crusades and Crisis” [fall 2020];  
Dr. Abramson: Robert Chazan, a scholar of medieval Jewry, notes that we tend to have a view of Jewish history, particularly of the Middle Ages, as being a time of persecution, followed by a return to the median. In other words, we are holding at a certain level materially and spiritually and then we experience a pogrom or get expelled from a certain place, and then we ultimately return to the level we were at prior to the catastrophic event. Chazan points out in his research that it’s not like that. The Jewish community has been assaulted and persecuted so many times, but not only do the Jews bounce back, they actually surge further ahead. Although we tend to have an overarchingly negative view of the Middle Ages, we see that the Jewish population in Europe actually increased during that time period. Moreover, it often grew at a higher rate than the surrounding non-Jewish population, especially in the Eastern part of Europe in the nineteenth century. How is that?

While I hate to quote Friedrich Nietzsche, he did say something rather true: whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That’s what happens to the Jewish people. Another case in point: the Holocaust of the twentieth century is followed by the resumption of sovereignty in our land. It’s incomprehensible. The vast majority of peoples who have been singled out for persecution have simply disappeared from the historical record. Either they’ve been massacred out of existence, or they’ve simply chosen to assimilate into the surrounding populations. Jews have not only not been beaten, but we come back stronger. And that’s an amazing thing.

Carmel: So you’re basically saying the Jewish people seem to have a unique kind of resilience. Is that correct?
Dr. Abramson: The word I would use isn’t necessarily resilience, which indicates returning to stasis. We’re talking about rising beyond that. The word would probably be closer to something like creativity or innovation. Okay, we’re struck with this unusual challenge, and that’s putting it mildly. We’ve been massacred, we’ve been attacked, and we’ve been hounded almost out of existence—how do we respond to it? Well, we find new ways to live as authentic Jews. 

Carmel: If you could pick one figure in Jewish history who represents hope and optimism and the ability to reinvent and start anew, who would that person be?
Dr. Abramson: I could think of many individuals but my favorite is Don Yitzchak Abarbanel, who went through tremendous tribulations. In his golden years he elects to remain with the Jews rather than convert and take a high position in the Spanish government under Ferdinand and Isabella. He is essentially exiled to the Mediterranean, living in different countries in his sixties and seventies. That’s when he decides: I’m no longer the minister of finance. I’m no longer involved in high-level politics. I guess I’ll write a massive commentary on Tanach. Which he does, and it’s brilliant.  

He reinvents himself. And when he has the opportunity to do so, he goes back into politics—in his seventies, he gets involved in high-level negotiations between Italy and Portugal. He is remarkable in dealing with the various challenges he experiences in his life. He never gives up on his Judaism and his Jewish identity. He is a role model to me.   

Carmel: While I understand your points about creativity and innovation, I wonder why Jews didn’t just at one time or another in history succumb to despair. 
Dr. Abramson: I’m not sure that my credentials as a historian equip me to answer that question, but Ican try. I think about this question a lot. The easy answer is that we’re talking about a supernatural phenomenon. Hakadosh Baruch Hu gave the Jewish people a special fate and destiny—we see it right there in Sefer Bereishit, when Hashem says to Avraham, “I will make you into a great nation.” Even in the modern era, although many Jews are not necessarily connected to emunah, they still demonstrate this kind of incredible bounce-back quality that is characteristic of the Jewish people. 

That’s the supernatural answer.

But there’s also an argument to be made from a historical approach: forcing the Jews to be marginalized, particularly in the European culture, compelled them to develop an ethos of constantly looking for the new. For example, let’s look at nineteenth-century Russia, where Jews suffered incessant pogroms and expulsions. If you know you could be kicked off your land in a heartbeat, you’re going to look for commercial ventures that don’t require attachment to the land. If you know you may be blocked from entering a certain profession, you’re going to look for a different profession. This ability to adapt is built into the cultural DNA of the Jewish people.  

The Jewish community has been assaulted and persecuted so many times, but not only do the Jews bounce back, they actually surge further ahead.

Another crucially important point is that the persecution validates our traditional self-narrative. In other words, if we view being in the Diaspora as a punishment for our many sins, then when we experience a pogrom or other catastrophe on a national scale, we recognize it to be a result of our sins. Our response is to circle the wagons, turn inward, and focus our energies in a centripetal way to ensure that we don’t sin again. Persecution actually makes us stronger. 

Carmel: You stated above that “even in the modern era, although many Jews are not necessarily connected to emunah, they still demonstrate this kind of incredible bounce-back quality that is characteristic of the Jewish people.” Can you elaborate on that? Where do you see that?
Dr. Abramson: I see it primarily in the phenomenal ways they have transformed the modern economy. Through banking innovations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, through unparalleled technological innovations in the late twentieth century, through their contributions to literature, the motion picture industry, and scientific expansion across the globe. 

The reality is that the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have seen innumerable Jewish contributions to the world. We constitute something like .02 percent of the world’s population, yet Jews have been the recipients of more than 20 percent of Nobel prizes. Where does that come from? It comes from being pushed to the wall and forced to find new ways to do things. 

Carmel: I’d like to shift the conversation to Israel. How do you see Israel rebuilding and recovering from the enormous trauma of October 7?
Dr. Abramson: That is a good question. One of the hallmarks of our resurgence after crisis is our ability to look creatively at the way we have been doing things until that point, and to have strong leaders who are capable of defining alternate realities.

The example I have in mind is Rabbi Akiva Eiger. In his time, circa 1830, there was a huge cholera epidemic. Death was all around. Rabbi Eiger innovated some really strict Covid-like rules, authorizing the secular police to enforce social distancing. But one of the things he did, which had a significant effect on Ashkenazic Judaism, was relaxing the rules regarding who is allowed to say Kaddish. Until then, only one person per minyan was allowed to recite Kaddish. This resulted in all kinds of friction (“It’s my Zaidy’s yahrtzeit,” “my aunt’s yahrtzeit”), which had to be resolved by determining who had kedimah, halachic priority. Since so many people died during the cholera epidemic, Rabbi Eiger ruled that all those who needed to say Kaddish could say it together. The custom continued even after the epidemic. You can’t go into an Ashkenazic shul today without hearing people reciting Kaddish simultaneously. It’s become normative practice.

Instead of excluding people who needed to say Kaddish, Rabbi Akiva Eiger found a way to remain within the bounds of halachah and yet allow a creative innovation. What’s noteworthy about his decision is that in a time of crisis he leaned toward inclusivity.  

This is what’s happening in Israel right now. You see beautiful acts of unity and inclusivity. You see Chareidim serving food to chayalim. At the same time, you see chilonim who have very little attachment to Judaism literally dancing when they receive a pair of combat tzitzis. They are overjoyed and feel this is their armor. While they might have little or no connection to religion, they feel the love from their fellow religious Jews no matter how far apart they are. That inclusivity just makes us all disproportionately stronger. 

We should not lose sight of the phenomenal unity we have, however briefly, achieved during this crisis. That should be front and center for us. We should not forget that we stood together: secular Jews, atheist Jews and religious Jews of all stripes. We should remember this moment as we craft the next chapter of our history.


More in this Section

The Tenacity of Our Nation by Michal Horowitz

Bitachon During Crisis by Rebbetzin Dina Schoonmaker as told to Barbara Bensoussan

How to Build Hope by Rabbi Larry Rothwachs

The Psychology of Hope by Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox

Not for Naught by Rabbi Dov Foxbrunner

Celebrating Life in the Face of Pain: One Son Married, One Son Missing by Toby Klein Greenwald

Of Faith and Fortitude: How Devorah Paley Energized a Nation by Yocheved Lavon

A Laughing Matter by Carol Green Unger

This article was featured in the Spring 2024 issue of Jewish Action.
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