Join our email list

The Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto

How Kalonymous Kalman Shapira`s 'Holy Fire' spread out of the Holocaust and into the non-Hasidic world
Dr. Shaul Magid is a Fellow of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He is a Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, where he teaches Jewish Studies and Religion, rabbi of the Fire Island Synagogue in Sea View, NY, contributing editor to Tablet Magazine and editor of Jewish Thought and Culture at Tikkun Magazine. He is also a member of the American Academy for Jewish Research. Shaul received

Originally published in Tablet

“The greatest thing in the world,” said the Holy Hunchback, quoting his rebbe, Kalonymous Kalman Shapira (Szapiro) of Piasczeno, to Shlomo Carlebach on the Yarkon in Tel Aviv, “is to do someone else a favor.” The story of the Holy Hunchback is one of Shlomo Carlebach’s most oft-cited stories about meeting an elderly Jew, a street cleaner in Tel Aviv who reveals himself as one of Shapira’s students in his yeshiva for children.

The story served as one of the ways Shapira’s work Esh Kodesh became popular among non-Hasidic Jews worldwide. It appears on numerous Carlebach recordings, including his collection of stories, and online here. “The greatest thing in the world is to do someone else a favor.” It is with these words, and with the story of the Holy Hunchback, that R. Kalonymous Kalman Shapira (1889-1943) – also known as the rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto – became known to the non-Hasidic world.

Shapira called his collection of ghetto sermons simply Hiddushei Torah auf Sedros, Torah Novella from the Weekly Parsha, but they were later published as Esh Kodesh (Holy Fire). The fact that these heart-wrenching sermons were dated to the years of the ghetto gives us a startling view into one man’s struggle with faith, as the world – and, ultimately, his faith – collapsed around, and inside, him.

Nechemia Polen in his The Holy Fire (1999) calls this book “a testament of fidelity to Torah and tradition, in the face of the enemy’s efforts to destroy both.” Others who have written about Esh Kodesh include Mendel Piekarz in his Polish Hasidism: Between the Wars (1978), Pesach Schindler in Hasidic Responses to the Holocaust in Light of Hasidic Thought (1990), Don Seeman’s “Ritual Efficacy, Hasidic Mysticism and ‘Useless Suffering’ in the Warsaw Ghetto” (2008), James A. Diamond, The Warsaw Rebbe: Diverting God’s Gaze From a Utopian End to an Anguished Now (2010), and most recently Daniel Reiser’s new two-volume Hebrew work on the manuscript edition of Esh Kodeh (2017).

Polen adeptly traces the trajectory of Shapira’s struggle with the incongruence between tradition and destruction as life in the ghetto became unbearable, and ultimately, unlivable. While he acknowledges that Shapira’s last sermons in the spring and summer of 1942 indicate a shift in his theological orientation, Polen claims that to the end Shapira remained committed to faith in a God that could not, or would not, save him.

My assessment moves in another direction. I would like to revisit these sermons from a wider lens and speculate what they might convey beyond the walls of the ghetto. I suggest that in his last sermons, and particularly in a note he added to a sermon in the summer of 1942, Shapira set the stage for what would become post-Holocaust theology a few decades later.

Shapira never lived to further articulate some of his most radical notions in some of his sermons in 1942. At the end of the ghetto revolt in May 1943 Shapira, with many other Jews who remained in the ghetto, was deported to the Trawniki labor camp, where he was murdered Nov. 3 in what was known as “the Harvest Festival” (Aktion Erntefest) in response to violent uprisings in other camps.

Shapira’s sermons almost did not survive. As things worsened in the Warsaw ghetto, a young secular Jew named Emmanuel Ringelblum, working with a small cadre of courageous assistants, began to collect as much documentation as they could. The plan was to hide this material in metal milk crates and bury them so that the world would know firsthand the plight of the Jews of Warsaw.

Much of what we know of life in the ghetto is from this group, known as the Oyneg Shabbos Archive, superbly documented in Sam Kassow’s 2007 book, Who Will Write our History? Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive.

But the ghetto was in many ways quite segregated according to religious and ideological lines, and Ringelbum and his group did not know about Shapira. Ringelblum worked with a young Orthodox rabbi named Shimon (Szymon) Huberband (1909-1942), who served as Ringelbaum’s connection to the religious communities in the ghetto. Huberband knew Shapira – he was actually his first cousin – and heard some of Shapria’s sermons. He told Ringelblum that Shapira had transcribed his weekly sermons in the ghetto.

Interested in any documentation, Ringelblum asked if he could get the manuscript to include in his archive. Luckily for us, Shapira complied, and the manuscript, buried separately from other archive materials, survived the Holocaust and is now housed in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Before the war, Shapira was widely known as an innovative Hasidic rebbe, writing a trilogy on Jewish education, including educating young men for prophecy. Two of those volumes, A Student’s Obligation: Advice from the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto (Hovot Ha-Talmidim) for young children, and very recently, Jewish-Spiritual Growth: A Step-by-Step Guide by a Hasidic Master (Hakhsharat Ha-Avreikhim) for adolescents, have appeared in English. Another slim volume on building community, B’nei Makhshava Tova (Conscious Community), appeared in translation in 1996 and has become popular in Jewish Renewal circles. A collection of earlier sermons from his time in Piasczeno, Derkeh ha-Melekh (The Way of the King), is widely viewed as a Hasidic classic of the period. But it is his Warsaw Ghetto sermons, published as Esh Kodesh (appearing in English in 2000 as Sacred Fire: Torah from the Years of Fury 1939-1942) that has become the most popular.

Considering their historical import, it is surprising that the collection of Shapira’s sermons in the ghetto was not published until 1960. Even after its publication, Esh Kodesh remained very much within Hasidic circles until Shlomo Carlebach and a few others discovered the work and began conveying its teachings in non-Hasidic communities. Carlebach captured this work in his story, “The Holy Hunchback,” the story of a broken, elderly street cleaner Carlebach encountered in Tel Aviv who, as a child, was one of Shapira’s students in his yeshiva in Piasczeno.

My observations below are reflections on a short and very potent note Shapira inserted into his last sermon in the summer of 1942. A footnote was inserted in 1943 to the entry on November 27, 1942 (Kislev 18):

Only such torment as was endured until the middle of 1942 [the Great Deportation was July of that year] has ever transpired previously in history. The bizarre tortures and the freakish, brutal murders that have been invented for us by the depraved, perverted murderers, solely for the suffering of Israel. Since the middle of 1942, are, according to knowledge of the words of our sages of blessed memory, and the chronicles of the Jewish people in general, unprecedented and unparalleled. May God have mercy upon us, and save us from their hands, in the blink of an eye.

What is not widely known is that this passage, along with numerous others from Esh Kodesh, were read publically by Baruch Duvdevani, who found the manuscripts in postwar Warsaw, at Session 26 of the Eichmann Trial on May 3, 1961. The transcript of his testimony is published in The Trial of Adolf Eichmann: Record of Proceedings in the District Court of Jerusalem, and a video recording of his testimony is online here . Duvdevani was asked by the attorney general to read this precise passage from Esh Kodesh to give testimony to life in the ghetto in the early 1940, directly facing Adolf Eichmann.

The suggestion that the tragedy unfolding was both unprecedented and unparalleled may seem ordinary, even obvious, to many contemporary readers. But for a Hasidic Jew in 1942 who lived deep within the orbit of the covenantal theology of Judaism, it was almost unprecedented; it gestured to what would become a few decades later a radical reassessment of the Holocaust as a full-blown theological crisis and a serious challenge to the Jewish tradition.

A full-blown theological crisis, in this case, emerges only when two conditions are met simultaneously: first, the belief that the Holocaust was an unprecedented event in Jewish history; and second, that this unprecedented event must irrevocably rupture the covenantal framework established in the Hebrew Bible. Shapira’s comment certainly adopts the first condition and, I would argue, also gestures toward the second.

The enterprise known as “post-Holocaust theology,” which encapsulated this theological crisis, began in earnest in 1966 with the publication of Richard Rubenstein’s After Auschwitz, a book that argued that the Holocaust made traditional belief in God’s covenant with Israel untenable. This initiated a veritable cottage industry of Jewish reflections on the Holocaust and the Jewish tradition by scholars, theologians, and historians such as Emil Fackenheim, Eliezer Berkowitz, Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, Steven T. Katz, Gershon Greenberg, Zachary J. Braiterman, and Eliezer Schweid, among many others.

In general, it has been argued that the notion of a rupture of Jewish faith after the Holocaust was viewed not solely through the horror of the event, but by the combination of the tragedy and secular and historicist notions common to modernity. That is, the Holocaust was what it was, because it was viewed and processed through modern lenses. To quote Emmanuel Levinas about a related matter, “Biblical criticism can only damage a faith that has already been weakened.”

Few traditionalists wrote about the Holocaust in any systematic way. The traditional, and ultra-traditional, mind-set, it has been argued, lives in what Jacob Neusner called “paradigmatic thinking” – a belief that all events correspond to a predetermined notion of covenant, even if that correspondence may be veiled from view. Neusner believed that “paradigmatic thinking,” and thus the traditional model of the covenant, became impossible with the introduction of historicism.

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi sums up “paradigmatic thinking” quite nicely in his seminal book Zakhor: “What has occurred now is similar to the persecutions of old, and all that happened to the forefather has happened to their descendants. Upon the former already the earlier generations composed selihot and narrated the events. It is all one.” This is, of course, a play on a popular rabbinic dictum “the acts of the fathers are signs for their children.” (Midrash Tanhuma, 9). We live in a world of reward and punishment not totally of our own making. “It is all one.”

For post-Holocaust theologians, the Holocaust could not fit into this paradigm. More strongly, the belief that it could, for some, might itself be blasphemous. Jewish historian Amos Funkenstein notes in his essay about the Holocaust, “To the most courageous among recent theologians, the very meaningless of the Holocaust is itself, they say, a manner of faith, a positive religious act.” Believing in a covenantal God after the Holocaust was, for many, an act of “bad faith.” This notion of rupture was not solely the product of Rubenstein. Rubenstein’s teacher Mordecai Kaplan, who never wrote directly about the Holocaust, wrote obliquely in his 1970 book The Religion of Ethical Nationhood, “[The Holocaust] rendered the traditional idea of God untenable.”

All of these figures were deeply influenced by modernity, even though some, like Berkowitz and Greenberg, were Orthodox. What of the ultra-Orthodox Jews? Some like R. Yoel Teitelbaum of Satmar, R. Yosef Yizhak of Lubavitch, and R. Elhanan Wasserman (who was murdered by Lithuanian collaborators of the Nazis in the summer of 1941) maintained a belief in the traditional covenant and viewed the Holocaust as punishment for Jewish secularism, including Zionism.

Others, such as R. Zvi Yehudah Kook and R. Yaakov Moshe Charlap, viewed it as a punishment for not leaving Europe after the Balfour Declaration. That is, for rejecting Zionism. R. Zvi Yehuda even called the Holocaust an act of “divine surgery.” Each case, however different, is an exercise in “paradigmatic thinking.”

In her 2013 dissertation, “Covenantal Theodicy among Haredi and Modern Jewish Thinkers During and After the Holocaust” (2013), Barbara Krawcowicz deftly deployed Neusner’s notion of “paradigmatic thinking” in reference to the Holocaust, by treating some of the major ultra-Orthodox rabbis who wrote about the Holocaust during and immediately after the war.

Krawcowicz argued that many of these figures who wrote about the Holocaust during the war, e.g. R. Shlomo Zalman Ehrenreich (1862-1944), R. Shlomo Zalman Unsdorfer (1888-1944), and R. Yissakhar Teichthal (1885-1945), while they did not conclude, as did many of their modern counterparts afterward, that the covenant was irreparably broken, nevertheless also did not offer reasons for the Holocaust that fit neatly into the paradigmatic thinking that, as Yerushalmi stated, “It is all one.” For them, the Holocaust posed a theological dilemma but not a theological crisis. Teichthal is an interesting case here, because the Holocaust did evoke in him a radical shift from being a staunch anti-Zionist to one who believed that establishment of a Jewish homeland in Erez Israel was indeed a priority.

Krawcowicz chose not to include Shapira in her dissertation for a variety of reasons, but here I would suggest that Shapira stands somewhere between her ultra-Orthodox subjects and the modern post-Holocaust theologians. More strongly, as I mentioned above, I think Shapira presages post-Holocaust theology from the very depths of its destructive fire.

I suggest that Esh Kodesh can be divided into three distinct but overlapping parts that loosely correspond to the period when he began his sermons in the ghetto in September 1939, until the final recorded sermon on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av in the summer of 1942. These three periods can be marked by three aspects of his vocation; in the first phase, Shapira functioned largely as a pastor, offering his community words of strength in times of peril.

Here, he thought very much within the paradigmatic model that what Jews are facing is not categorically different than previous times of Jewish suffering. He was emphatic about that. For example, in a Hanukkah sermon he delivered in December 1941, he stated, “Those that say that suffering such as this has never befallen the Jewish people are mistaken. There was torture comparable to ours at the destruction of the Temple and at Beitar.”  Here, he appears to be protesting against the position, offered at that time mostly by secularists, that this is an unprecedented moment. We will see that by The Great Deportation in the summer of 1942, he emphatically agrees with them. For him, however, the theological price would be very high.

In the second phase, Shapira had the ominous job of teaching his people how to die. This is illustrated in his many sermons about martyrdom. These sermons about martyrdom are nothing less than learning how to die with dignity; how to understand that, although beyond comprehension, they are part of some divine drama and serve as its cadre of heroes. One gets a sense in these sermons that Shapira knew he was speaking to individuals who would likely not be alive the following year. To read these sermons with that in mind is heartbreaking.

In the final period, ending abruptly in the summer of 1942, Shapira emerges as a radical theologian, in a sense implicitly rejecting, or certainly contesting some of his earlier sermons, by suggesting that this moment does not fit into any paradigm, as he wrote in his inserted note to his sermon Nov. 17, 1942, that what he and his constituents were experiencing was “unprecedented and unparalleled.” These two words separate Shapira from his ultra-Orthodox colleagues and plants the seeds of what would become post-Holocaust theology a few decades later. Paradigmatic thinking cannot absorb a true novum.

What is noticeably different in Shapira’s additional note is that his unprecedented claim does not come from historicism or secularism, or even from theology, but from a deep existential realization of the utter inability of the tradition, which was for him until those months of darkness ironclad and indestructible, to withstand this level of radical evil. Theodicy collapses and nothing exists to take its place. Disbelief was untenable. But belief as previously defined was no longer possible. God remained, but the covenant did not.

The paradigm that enabled Jews to withstand disbelief throughout Jewish history simply would no longer carry the burden of this historical moment. By this third period, more than the previous two, one gets the sense that Shapira is preaching largely to himself. Many of his congregation were already dead or deported; those who remained knew their days were numbered and were likely more concerned with food, shelter, caring for the sick, and avoiding transport than hearing inspiring words from their rabbi. Shapira seems left alone to process the brokenness of his inner world as the world around him collapsed.

On this reading, Shapira contests the claim that post-Holocaust theology emerges from the historicist and secular foundations of Jewish modernity, nor does it require theological or historical justification, the way we see in Fackenheim and Katz. Is the Holocaust a theological or historical novum?

I think that question was utterly irrelevant for Shapira, because that question is an act of explanation one way or the other. Shapira is also not advocating silence in the moment where the paradigm, and faith, reaches its limit, such as we see in Ehrenreich and Unsdorfer. Shapira realizes that he will likely die with a God who has abandoned his people, a faith that has not disappeared but is shattered, a belief in a God who is broken. A God who cannot save, or will not save. To believe in God becomes as absurd and as blasphemous as not to believe in God.

Zak Braiterman uses the term “anti-theodicy” to describe post-Holocaust theology, the notion that refuses to view catastrophe as instrumental in the divine covenant. Sharpira was not anti-theodic in that sense; his view might more accurately be described as a “broken theodicy.” But he may have opened the door for the anti-theodicy that was to come.

Regrettably, Shapira did not live long enough to offer any resolution to his crisis in faith. But he also did not fool his listeners into believing that the covenant could carry this burden or could survive this moment. It could not. The pastoral vocation in the first period had become, for him, obsolete. He taught his congregation how to die; many of them had already died. And now he was left to his own devices. It is better to die facing the truth of the moment, even if it tears the fabric of tradition, than to defend a paradigm that has already become obsolete.

He famously said, “Since God does this, that is the way it is supposed to be.” But from the perspective of paradigmatic thinking, or a covenantal theology, if something is unparalleled, that is precisely not the way it is supposed to be. Unsdorfer and Ehrenreich could respond to the Holocaust only with silence. But Shapira was not silent. He added that note in 1943 to say something to his reader. That note was not written by a man of faith; it was written by a man of broken faith.

And so what can we do with a Hasidic master who was not able to finish his theological work that claimed this catastrophe was not like all the others? It is a tear in, or rupture of, the covenant. All [of Jewish history] is not one. Here, the Holy Hunchback enters through the portal of Shlomo Carlebach.

“Can you tell me please,” asks Carlebach, “tell me something you learned from him [Shapira]?”

The Holy Hunchback puts down his broom. He washes his hands, puts on his jacket and hat, straightens his tie.

“From my years in Auschwitz, I have long forgotten his Torah,” he says in a heavy Polish Yiddish, “but I remember that during the Friday night Shabbos meal, between every course, between the soup and the fish and the fish and the chicken, he used to say to us, ‘Children, take heed, the greatest thing in the world is to do someone else a favor.’ And then Carlebach added, “Do you know how many favors you can do in Auschwitz?”

The Holy Hunchback’s recollection – if it happened at all – happened before the ghetto, when Shapira had a yeshiva for young children in Piacszeno. But perhaps there is some foresight here as to what would happen some years later, a response to Shapira’s own realization that the covenant is fractured beyond repair. In that world where God will not save, where history will not conform to the confines of tradition, where we are left alone in the thralls of radical evil; in that place of utter despair, there is nothing better than doing someone else a favor. That becomes the covenant.

Perhaps Shapira’s message is that after the Holocaust, the only thing left is the ethical. And a new Torah, if it will be constructed at all, will be constructed on that foundation. And any new Torah without that foundation is not worth having. Or more strongly, it is a false Torah. What is a belief in God without a covenant? Doing someone else a favor.

Some months later Carlebach returned to the Yarkon in Tel Aviv to find the Holy Hunchback. He looked everywhere, to no avail. He asked a passerby, “Have you seen the Holy Hunchback?” only to realize that he had left the world. We can assume he was doing someone else a favor.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

Join our email list for more Hartman ideas

Join our email list


The End of Policy Substance in Israel Politics