How the Rebbe Understood the Holocaust

In his op-ed in Haaretz on June 1 ("God as surgeon"), Prof. Yehuda Bauer refers to the opinion of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe regarding the Holocaust.

Eliezer Shemtov
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Eliezer Shemtov

In his op-ed in Haaretz on June 1 ("God as surgeon"), Prof. Yehuda Bauer refers to the opinion of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe regarding the Holocaust.

Without responding to his unwarranted, unacademic, personal attacks against the Rebbe, I think that Bauer gravely misunderstood the nuances and delicate concepts that the Rebbe was conveying in his 1980 letter to Knesset member Chaika Grossman.

The letter to the late MK Grossman was written to an individual whom the Rebbe surely understood to be in a position to correctly understand its contents without more explanation. I am sure that Prof. Bauer, too, writes in one language when corresponding with colleagues and in another when writing for the general public. Nothing in the letter to Grossman contradicts anything the Rebbe said before or after; anything said before or after simply expounds upon and clarifies the concepts written in that letter in a relatively condensed manner. The quoted letter is published in "Likutei Sichot" (Vol. 21, page 397). I would suggest that any serious student of this issue study that letter in its entirety and original before forming any opinion.

Following, however, are some of my personal insights into the matter:

In the letter, the Rebbe was responding to MK Grossman's published questions regarding the Rebbe's published views.

The Rebbe first expresses his astonishment at the fact that she based her criticism on an unedited version of the Rebbe's talks, which was subject to slight misquotes or lacking adequate context, and admonished her for publishing criticism without first checking with him what he meant to say.

The Rebbe then establishes in no uncertain terms who the "good guys" and who the "bad guys" are. When referring to those who perished in the Holocaust, we say "Hashem yikom damam" - meaning "may God avenge their blood." We refer to them as kedoshim, holy individuals. When referring to Hitler and his like, we always add the epithet "yemach shmo," that is, "may his name be obliterated." The Rebbe then goes into a lengthy, detailed explanation of his view, addressing the issues at hand point by point in a detailed albeit condensed way.

Prof. Bauer quotes the Rebbe as saying that "Hitler was a messenger of God in the same sense that Nebuchadnezzar is called 'God's servant' in the Book of Jeremiah (Chapter 25)." How do you, Prof. Bauer, explain Jeremiah's reference to Nebuchadnezzar?

The Rebbe, with this quote, simply draws attention to the biblical precedent seeing in each and every event the hand of God, however inexplicable to the human mind or painful to the human heart. Bear in mind that Nebuchadnezzar was not rewarded, but punished, for what he did.

In his letter, the Rebbe points out both a similarity as well as a distinction between Nebuchadnezzar and Hitler. Whereas the massacres in Jeremiah's times are understood to be a punishment, the Rebbe insists that the Holocaust cannot be understood in this way. The comparison with Nebuchadnezzar was merely intended to make the point out everything that happens in this world is part of God's design, however incomprehensible it might be to the mortal mind.

Here we find yet another example of the inaccuracies appearing in Prof. Bauer's article. He writes: "The Rebbe's stance, therefore, is clear: The Holocaust was a good thing because it lopped off a disease-ravaged limb of the Jewish people - in other words, the millions who perished in the Holocaust - in order to cleanse the Jewish people of its sins. The 'surgery' he spoke of was such a massive corrective procedure that the suffering (i.e., the murder of the Jews) was minor compared to its curative effect."

This is a gross misinterpretation. Prof. Bauer misunderstood the comparison to surgery. Careful reading of the letter will show that the example of surgery is brought only in order to illustrate how something as horrible as an amputation, although beneficial, can seem criminal to the uninitiated. It is by no means brought in order to imply that those that perished were "amputated" for the benefit of the survivors.

The Rebbe clearly writes that although we have no understanding as to why the Holocaust had to happen, we do believe that it is for the benefit primarily of those that perished (not merely for the benefit of the survivors). The Rebbe does not attempt to explain what the benefit is; he simply asserts that it must be for the (eventual?) benefit of those who perished (especially taking into account our belief in resurrection and the world-to-come).

The Rebbe points out that even when the one going through the surgery knows that it is for his benefit, he still cries out in pain, as do those nearest and dearest to him. It is perfectly normal and theologically acceptable for a believing Jew to cry out in pain and clamor to God for mercy, when suffering or when witnessing the suffering of others.

These are just a few examples of how slight inaccuracies in quotes and context can generate conclusions totally contrary to those intended. One must be more careful when quoting our sages and their words and make sure that it is done accurately before taking issue with them.

Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov is director of Beit Jabad del Uruguay in Montevideo.



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