Should a Jewish theological response to the Holocaust include issues of justice?
Jewish Theology and the Holocaust (Topic 3, part 2)
In April 2020, to coincide with Yom HaShoah, the day in the Jewish calendar dedicated to Holocaust remembrance, and the 75th anniversary of the liberation, Rabbi Sacks launched a series of videos offering his perspective on some of the biggest questions asked about the Holocaust.
Our response to the Holocaust involves justice, absolutely, but justice is universal and it’s a phenomenon of every crime. It has nothing specifically to do with the Holocaust. What interests me is something quite different, and that is what I call tikkun. Tikkun is a Jewish mystical concept developed by Rabbi Issac Luria in the 16th century, which speaks about mending the tears in the fabric of creation. In the case of the Holocaust, three individuals speak to me very, very much.
Number one was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whom I knew. He was the first Jew ever to really engage in outreach, to reach out to Jews who had been distant from the tradition in the most remote places. He did this all over the world. He never explained why. Why had it never been done before and why was he the first to do it? And of course it changed every Jewish community in the world. I once suggested this: that he had lived through the Holocaust and he had seen hate for hatred’s sake, and he was a mystic and he did believe in tikkun and therefore I believe that what he was doing was reaching out to every Jew in love as once the Nazis sought out every Jew with hatred. That was his tikkun, and as I say, it changed the whole tenor of the Jewish world.
The second was an extraordinary story, which I was unaware of until the London Olympics of 2012. It was then that the BBC showed a very moving film about somebody I’d never heard of before, Dr. Ludovic Guttman. Dr. Guttman was, in 1933, the leading neurosurgeon in Germany, but in 1933 Jews were removed from all their professions. He was thrown out of the general hospital. He was still able to work for the next five years in a Jewish hospital, but then in 1938, it just became too dangerous for him and he escaped to London. By 1944, realising the genius they had in their midst, the British government asked him to set up the first ever dedicated unit for the treatment of paraplegics, which he did.
He was horrified by what he saw there, because these paraplegics all suffering war injuries were young people of 20 or 21-years-old, and their life expectancy was between three and six months. They were being kept heavily sedated, lying horizontal in hospital beds, day in day out. He realised there was no need for this. These were young men who had a life in front of them. He set about giving them new life and it was very difficult. The first thing he did was to reduce their sedation, their painkillers, which hurt. Then he started throwing balls at them so they would catch them and that hurt. And then he got them out of their beds into wheelchairs and that hurt. The other doctors accused him of cruelty. They took him to a tribunal and one of his fellow doctors said, “Who do you think these men are? They are moribund cripples.” He said, “Who do I think they are? The best of men.”
Eventually he got them out into the garden playing games and he put the doctors and nurses into wheelchairs and the paraplegics, because they were used to wheelchairs, beat the doctors. This gave them, for the first time, a sign of life. So he began to organise more competitions and then not just national but international games.
Then he started, I think it was in 1948, a Parallel Olympics. Of course by the time 2012 came along, they were there from 140 different countries, 4,000 of them. The whole attitude of the world towards them and their attitude to themselves had changed. I wondered why it took a Jewish doctor from Germany to see what nobody in Britain could see? Then I realised, it’s obvious because he was a man the Germans regarded as subhuman, vermin, lice, and he knew he wasn’t subhuman. He looked at these paraplegics and realised they weren’t subhuman either. That was him taking his pain to cure the pain of others and give them new hope and new life. That was a tikkun.
The third of the three individuals I think of is the Klausenberg Rav, the Rabbi of Klausenberg who lost all his family in the Holocaust and vowed that if he survived having seen a whole culture of death, he would do what he could to save life. He built the Laniado Hospital in Netanya, Israel, dedicated to curing people of all religions and all races and bringing life where once was death.
This series, created in partnership with the Holocaust Educational Trust, has been made possible thanks to the generous support of Richard Harris.