'Rabbi, Who Should Die First?'

Rabbi Yehoshua Moshe Aharonson participated in the 1945 death march from Buchenwald to Theresienstadt. The Nazis, writes Aharonson in his book 'Alei Merorot,' imposed the death penalty on anyone who ate the grass, which they wanted to retain for pasture.

Rabbi Yehoshua Moshe Aharonson participated in the 1945 death march from Buchenwald to Theresienstadt. The marchers were famished. The Nazis, writes Aharonson (who later became Petah Tikva's chief rabbi) in his book "Alei Merorot," imposed the death penalty on anyone who ate the grass, which they wanted to retain for pasture.

Aharonson relates how a friend turned to him, trying to persuade him to allow the consumption of a dead marcher's body. The friend argued that, since they would soon be liberated, it would be a pity for the survivors to die at the last moment. "I began to cry," Aharonson recalls, "and groaned from the depths of my heart: 'Master of the Universe, take my life lest I lower myself to that level.'" He explained to the inquirer that, although Judaism's consecration of human life ostensibly permitted cannibalism, such authorization could lead some people to murder their comrades for their flesh.

This rabbinical ruling appears in a CD of questions and answers on the Holocaust issued last year by the Netivei Hahalakha institute. So far it contains rabbinical rulings from 155 books, some of them quite rare; the CD is nearly the only way to access them. According to its distributor, Moshe Chasid, the Holocaust rulings are unique: The "rabbis were not sitting in a well-lit office with bookshelves of texts on the halakha [Jewish law]." They gave their rulings in concentration camps and ghettos, sometimes in a stolen moment or during hard labor. Many of the rabbis whose rulings are included in the CD were murdered in the camps. Thus, it is also a commemorative work.

The attempt to continue a religiously Jewish way of life represents the determination to remain Jewish and human.

Rabbi Zvi Meislish, who survived Auschwitz, deals with the question of whether the Kovno ghetto's residents could hold communal prayer services, since the Nazis imposed a death penalty for doing so. He rules that the prohibition is itself an attack on Judaism and that one may die a martyr's death to defy the decree; furthermore, he allows not only congregational prayer, but also the blowing of the shofar (ram's horn).

Aharonson prohibited sexual relations during the war, even for childless couples, because pregnant women and little children were the first to be exterminated. Rabbi Israel Landa, chief rabbi of Edeleny in Hungary, was asked whether, considering Jewish suffering in the Holocaust, conjugal relations were not permissible for those not in the camps or ghettos. He authorized sexual contact in that case, citing Exodus 1:12 regarding the Israelites in bondage in Egypt: "But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew."

Even after the Holocaust, horrifying questions persisted. On the 10th of Tevet, the day of the general Kaddish [mourner's prayer] for victims of the Shoah, the cantor in the synagogue on Jerusalem's Mount Zion wore a rope Nazis used to hang Jews. Rabbi Meshulam Rata decided the custom should be abolished and the rope buried. A similar question concerned the use of gas pipes from the death camps to produce religious articles commemorating the murdered. The reply: "No, bury them."

Perhaps the question most cogently symbolizing the impossible moral dilemmas facing rabbis in the Holocaust is the fate of a crying infant in a bunker where Jews are hiding during a Nazi search. There is wide agreement among the rabbis that the infant could, through its crying, lead to all the Jews in the bunker being captured; they argue that din rodef (a ruling allowing the killing of a Jew endangering the lives of other Jews) applies here and that the baby's cries can be smothered with a pillow, even if that act kills the child.

A yeshiva student approached Meislish in Auschwitz, informing him that a brilliant student was in a group slated for extermination. The yeshiva student wanted to know whether he could bribe the guards to allow him to take the place of the genius, because the world needed him more. Meislish vehemently disallowed that idea. A parent asked him whether he could redeem his only son from a group marked for extermination, although he knew the guards would seize someone else instead. Meislish refused to reply despite the parent's insistence. The parent understood that Meislish could find no way to permit such a thing, and therefore did not rescue his son.

At least once a year, on Yom Hashoah Vehagevurah (Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Day), we should remember these impossible rulings that rabbis were forced to make during the Holocaust, if only to immunize ourselves against needless comparisons that have become so acceptable in the Israeli discourse. Even if Israel commits harsh actions - including, perhaps, war crimes - in the Palestinian territories, those attempting to compare what happens there to the Holocaust's horrors are simply refusing to look at the facts as they are.