What Did the Rabbis Have to Say About Anti-Semitism?

Note that this essay was written by Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman after Hitler’s rise to power, but before the implementation of the Final Solution.

Ezekiel prophesies that in the [era of] “footsteps of the Messiah” a solution will be proposed among Jews: “We will be as the nations” [Ezekiel 20:32]. The actualization of the prophecy began with the Berlin Enlightenment (Haskalah), almost 150 years ago. Its proponents masked what they were doing with the words, “Be a Jew in your home and a person in public.” The fruits of this approach quickly ripened. Their children apostatized. Their slogan amounted to an undermining of the foundations of the Torah. The Torah had warned that Jews should be separated from the nations in their whole lifestyle. “And I have set you apart from other peoples, that ye should be Mine” [Leviticus 20:26; see Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Avodah Zarah, ch. 11]. The Maskilim came and said exactly the opposite: “Be only like the nations.” God said about this: “In that ye say: We will be as the nations . . . shall not be at all.” “Surely with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm and with fury poured out” [Ezekiel 20:32–33]. It will begin with “a mighty hand.” If that does not help, the “outstretched arm” will come. If this also does not help, then there will be a “fury poured out.” We cannot know in which of the three processes we now are. The near future will show us. In any event, it is clear that the prophecy of “shall not be at all” will be realized. The nations are driving us away from them in a murderous way. It is said, that it is difficult to be a Jew. A wonder has occurred in recent times. It is increasingly difficult to become a gentile. The gentiles are driving us back.

It is said in the name of the Gaon [dean of scholars Yosef Dov Ber Soloveichik], the author of Beit Halevi, of blessed memory: It is written, “He who separates between light and darkness and between Israel and the gentiles” [Havdalah service at end of sabbath (sic)]. There is a specific distance between light and darkness [twilight]. One cannot change the distance, lengthen or shorten it. It is the same between Israel and the gentiles. There is a specific distance as to how far they should be one from the other. If the Jews approach too closely, the gentiles push them back. From this, one can understand why the more the Jews have approached the gentiles, the more severely the Jews have been repelled. We see this now in the lands where Jews have completely assimilated, how horribly the gentiles push back. It was also this way in Egypt when the servitude became difficult. The Jews began to emulate the Egyptians, thinking that through this their situation would become easier. What did God do? “He turned their heart to hate His people” [Psalms 105:25]. The more they wanted to assimilate with the Egyptians, the greater the animosity of the gentiles toward them. When the Jews realized their mistake, the redemption came. The same will be with us. “If you are separated from the nations, you are Mine. If not, you are with Nebuchadnezzar and his friends” [Rashi ad Leviticus 20:26]. . . .

Why did the Lord do such a thing? Why the extraordinary anger?

“In the generation that the son of David will come, the face of the generation is like the face of the dog” [Mishnah Sota 9:15, and B. T. Sanhedrin 97a]. . . . The Hofets Hayim of blessed memory used to give a second meaning to “the face of a dog” (in the name of the sage Rabbi Yitshak ben Hayim Volozhiner, author of Nefesh Hahayim, of blessed memory). The nature of a dog is that if one throws a stone at it, the dog runs to bite the stone. When a Haman arises against Jews, we need to know that it is only a stick with which Jews are being punished from Heaven. “O Asshur, the rod of Mine anger” [Isaiah 10:5]. There is no sense in waging war with the stick, since there is no shortage of sticks in Heaven. There are “many messengers to the one God” [Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah, Parashah 18, Siman 18]. We need rather to employ measures so that Heaven will not cast the stick. However, in the [era of] “footsteps of the Messiah” there will be no knowledge. We will run like the dog to bite the stick. We see this now, when our modern [Jewish] leaders have declared war on the mightiest nations in the world. What is our strength and what is our power? We take shots with articles in Jewish newspapers? With what result? It only incites the snakes further against the Jews. The leaders only see the stick. They do not want to know who is hitting with the stick. “Yet the people turneth not unto Him that smiteth them” [Isaiah 9:12]. . . .

—Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman (1874-1941, Lithuania), Ma’amar Ikveta Dimeshicha (1938), trans. by Gershon Greenberg in Wrestling with God: Jewish Theological Responses during and after the Holocaust, S.T. Katz, ed. (New York and Oxford, 2007), 31, 33


Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai lived during the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and witnessed the devastation of Jerusalem.

Our Rabbis taught: It once happened that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai left Jerusalem riding upon a donkey, while his disciples followed him. He then saw a girl picking barley grains out of the dung of Arab cattle. As soon as she saw him she wrapped herself with her hair and stood before him. “Master,” she said to him, “feed me.”

“My daughter,” he asked her, “who are you?”

“I am the daughter of Nakdimon ben Gorion,” she replied. . . .

Rabbi Yochanan said to his disciples: “I remember that when I signed the ketubah of this [unfortunate woman], I read therein ‘a million gold dinars from her father’s house,’ besides [the amount] from her father-in-law’s house.” Thereupon Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai wept and said: “How fortunate are Israel! When they do the will of the Omnipresent, no nation nor tongue has any power over them; but when they do not do the will of the Omnipresent, he delivers them into the hands of a low people; and not only in the hands of a low people, but into the power of the beasts of a low people.”

Ketubot 66b


Midrash Rabbah (Exodus 1) comments that “when Joseph died, they [the Jews] stopped circumcision, saying, ‘Let us be like the Egyptians.’ What did the Holy One do? He changed their minds to be hateful towards Israel” . . . The matter is to be understood as follows: while Joseph lived he forbade any Israelite to dwell outside of Goshen. In this way separateness was maintained, and they did not even consider trying to be similar to the Egyptians. When Joseph died, they allowed themselves to live anywhere, willfully ignoring God’s statement to Abraham “your children shall be strangers.” They sought equality with the Egyptians in lifestyle and manners until they trampled upon the word of God, abandoning circumcision. Immediately, God turned the Egyptians against them to despise His people and seek to destroy them; that is when their trouble began.

* * * *

The Rabbis comment (Sanhedrin 104a) on the verse (Lamentations 1:1) “How she dwelled alone” as follows: “Rabbah, in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, says, “I [God] said, ‘Israel dwelt separate and secure, the eye of Jacob’ (Deut. 33:28), now they will indeed be separated and alone.” It was God’s will that they be separate and alone, willingly separated from the nations of the world. Then they would dwell securely. Now that they have failed to willingly do so, they will be separate against their will. They will be forced to live alone.

Netziv (1816-1893, Lithuania), Why Anti-Semitism? A Translation of “The Remnant of Israel,” trans. by Howard S. Joseph (New Jersey, 1996), 18


On that bitter day when the pogroms of the people broke out in all their fury and trampled under them all that was holy, yeshivah students were evicted from their schools. I remained alone, absorbed in my thoughts of the destruction of the people and communities of Israel. . . . Why did the Lord do such a thing? [Deuteronomy 29:23]. Why the extraordinary anger? [Deuteronomy 29:3]. Hence, I decided to examine the 2,000-year-old chronicles of our people during their exile and persecutions among the nations. . . .

My students have been forcibly removed from me. No one remains with whom I can engage in halakhic study. Thus I have been stimulated to question as in the Book of Daniel: “How long until the end of these awful things?” [Daniel 12:6]. . . .

There must surely be some restraint upon us which delays our redemption. We are, therefore, compelled to identify and understand this obstacle so that it is removed from our midst. . . .

[T]he purpose of all of the plagues with which we were assailed during our periods of exile were mainly intended to stimulate us to return to our Holy Land. . . . Indeed the great Yaavets [Yaakov ben Tsevi Emden] in the preface to the Siddur [prayer book] Sulam Beit El grieves over our neglect to return to and dwell in Erets Yisrael. We continue to live calmly outside the Land as if we have discovered another Erets Yisrael and Jerusalem. That is the reason for the tragedies which have befallen the Jews when they dwelled in comfort in Spain and other countries. Once again they were expelled. Not a Jew remains in that country. . . . This explains what is happening to our people in these countries. . . .

—Rabbi YissacharTeichtal (1885-1945, Hungary), Eim Habanim Semeichah, trans. by Gershon Greenberg in Wrestling with God: Jewish Theological Responses during and after the Holocaust, S.T. Katz, ed. (New York and Oxford, 2007), 75-82


Rabbi Eliyahu Krakowski is associate editor of OU Press.

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This article was featured in the Fall 2019 issue of Jewish Action.
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