Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > Education > Choosing Life: Self-Sacrifice in the Shadow of the Holocaust

Choosing Life: Self-Sacrifice in the Shadow of the Holocaust

The overarching idea of yeshiva education, cast in the shadow of Holocaust trauma, is "self-sacrifice." This ideal is woven into the fabric of yeshiva experience, and last long after the student has left his alma mater. But must it be this way? Can we choose life even as we choose a Torah life?

Tevet 5783, January 2023

During my final years in yeshiva (I studied at Chevron, among the illustrious Yeshivos of Jerusalem), while eager matchmakers were quickly grabbing my friends, we used to jokingly practice our engagement speeches. A typical speech would include the following exaggerated pathos: “The groom’s dedication to his studies, his self-sacrifice that was emblematic of the entire yeshiva….”

At the time, hardly considered the dramatic, perhaps even tragic, meaning of the expression “self-sacrifice.” It was another way of saying that the boy was a serious Torah student who invested time and energy in his learning. After all, I was used to hearing about how self-denial was an integral part of Torah study, as we find in the Talmud (Berachos 63b). The Mashgiach (spiritual supervisor) would preach that Torah learning at the highest level requires suffering, giving up life’s pleasures, and self-mortification. A person must “kill himself” – a metaphorical expression sourced in the Gemara – in the tent of Torah.

At engagement parties, the theme of devotion and sacrifice is woven into the soundtrack

Looking retrospectively, dedicating one’s life to Torah study after marriage is the natural continuation of the ‘self-sacrifice’ ideal. At engagement parties, the theme of devotion and sacrifice is woven into the soundtrack, setting the stage for the groom who sets aside the burden of earning a living and responsibility for his future family’s physical sustenance (the standard expectation from married men) and adopts, rather, the “devotion of the soul” in his continued dedication to Torah studies.

Reflecting on all this today, I think to myself: Can we really call this giving up one’s life for Hashem?! Isn’t that a bit dramatic for a young groom? How does a young and cheerful boy become like Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion, a martyr who was tortured and murdered at the stake while wrapped in burning sheets of a Torah scroll, ensuring a slow and agonizing death? How can a happy event, like the building of a Jewish home that compares (in the Talmud) to rebuilding one of the ruins of Jerusalem, be compared to the horrific death of Rabbi Akiva, whose flesh was shredded with iron combs for studying Torah when Rome forbade it?

Without claiming a total answer, I think the Holocaust has much to do with it.


The Shadow of the Holocaust

There was no discussion of the Holocaust in yeshiva. I hardly recall hearing the word Shoah in the Yeshiva environment. There were only a few exceptions when a Rosh Yeshiva would speak to a small circle following Kinos on Tisha Be’Av. Although it was heard occasionally, the Holocaust was certainly not the subject of any speech I can recall, whether inside or outside the Yeshiva.

The Holocaust was undoubtedly on the minds of some of the great rabbinic figures under whom I studied. The Yeshiva’s Mashgiach, I later discovered, lost his entire family in the Holocaust. As a child, he immigrated from Europe to Israel, leaving no traces of his old life. None of this was openly reflected in his lectures or conversations. I only found out about these details after his death, despite my having enjoyed a close personal relationship and hearing many stories from him about his youth. The wife of one of the Roshei Yeshiva, Rabbi Farbestein, is a pioneer in Holocaust research in the Charedi world. Another Rosh Yeshiva hailed from the Radzin Chassidic community, almost entirely wiped out in the Holocaust (like virtually all Polish Chassidic communities). None of this was apparent during daily yeshiva life.

The deeper ideas so prevalent in Yeshiva, such as Torah study, service of Hashem, or faith and Providence, cannot be discussed without considering the Holocaust

Though there was no official mention of the Holocaust from an institutional perspective – a point that has been the subject of several articles on this platform – I believe that from a spiritual (or theological) perspective, its significance still shapes Jewish life today. The deeper ideas so prevalent in Yeshiva, such as Torah study, service of Hashem, or faith and Providence, cannot be discussed without considering the Holocaust.

The term most associated with the Holocaust amid Torah-observant society is “Kiddush Hashem.” Those who perished in the Holocaust “died for the sanctification of Hashem,” and Jews who went through the camps and ghettos are presented as those who sanctified His Name. One of the most gut-wrenching stories in this context is the halachic question addressed to a rabbi in one of the death camps: Which blessing should be recited before entering the gas chambers? A Jew is standing before the room where he will be suffocated to death, yet this is not a simple death but a supreme mitzvah: death for the sake of Kiddush Hashem. He thus asks the rabbi: What is the appropriate liturgical blessing to recite upon fulfilling this rare mitzvah?[1]

The term “Kiddush Hashem” gains a unique meaning within the context of the Holocaust. Generally speaking, it refers to situations in which a Jew is threatened by death if he does not renounce his covenant with Hashem. It is a Kiddush Hashem when a Jew keeps the covenant and remains faithful to Hashem even at the cost of his very life. His insistence on maintaining fidelity to the Torah and Judaism at any cost proclaims the glory of Hashem. However, in the context of the Holocaust, the killing of Jews was not specifically related to their faith. The Nazis killed us even if we accepted the Christian faith or the doctrine of the Nazi party. No act of conversion could have saved anyone born Jewish from Nazi persecution. Many reference the Nazi prohibition against keeping Torah and mitzvot, but there is little empirical evidence that the Jews were specifically persecuted for keeping them.

The Germans sought more to destroy the physical existence of the Jew than to destroy his spirit. For them, escaping from an extermination camp was a much more serious offense than praying in a minyan or laying Tefillin. As a result of the extreme conditions of the Holocaust, observing mitzvos was an unimaginable luxury. When all a person’s attention is focused on his most basic physical survival, having lost his closest family, his national pride, and his human dignity, how can he even think about keeping a mitzvah? In the Holocaust, Kiddush Hashem was our declaration that “despite everything, we never forsook You,” a symbol of our infinite devotion to Hashem. The heroic act of observing mitzvos despite such horrendous living conditions became known as “Kiddush Hashem.”


A Culture of Kiddush Hashem

In the year 5704 (1944), as the chimneys of Auschwitz continuously bellowed the smoke of all that remained from the great communities of Pressburg and Transylvania, the national conference of Agudath-Israel convened in the Land of Israel in the small town of Petach Tikvah.

Among the speakers at that conference was Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahneman, founder of various educational institutions in the Lithuanian city of Ponevezh. These included a yeshiva gedolah, a yeshiva ketana, a school and college for girls, as well as elementary schools. Later, Rabbi Kahneman became known as the founder of the famous Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak and the educational and charitable institutions associated with it.

I cannot say how much Rabbi Kahneman knew at that time of the Holocaust. He must have known of the destruction of large parts of European Jewry, even if the extent of the decimation was not clear to him. He certainly already knew that by Sivan 5701 (June 1941), his wife and three sons had been murdered by the Nazis, along with approximately one thousand students in the educational institutions he founded. The truth of the matter was that no Jews continued to live in Ponevezh, one of the largest cities in Lithuania and a center of vibrant Jewish life, and a Jewish existence of hundreds of years had disappeared from the face of the earth without any trace. Did he know this? Did he know that a similar fate had met Vilna and Telz, Radin and Minsk, Shavel and Brisk? Some rumors may have reached him, but who could absorb such difficult news yet continue functioning?

At that unspeakable in our national history, Rabbi Kahneman did not despair but instead sought hope, and optimism. He told his audience that it was a time of strife for Yaakov, quoting the words of the Pasuk, but they will be saved. He chose to see the light at the end of the tunnel, the deliverance that emerges from the suffering. He explained an absolute trust in Divine salvation promises a future thriving upon the Land of Israel.

But how would salvation look? Rabbi Kahneman had an answer to this: “The Divine revelation in our generation is the revelation of Hashem’s holiness through acts of Kiddush Hashem.” And what is the nature of this sanctification of Hashem? Rabbi Kahneman continued and interwove the Kiddush Hashem of Rabbi Akiva with the Kiddush Hashem of Rabbi Mendeli, the brother of the Rebbe of Gur:

1,900 years ago, the Leader of the Jewish People, Rabbi Akiva, was jailed and sentenced to death. While locked up in prison, he asked for water to wash his hands and said: “My physical body should die before I transgress the words of the sages.” Now, in Treblinka, the brother of the Rebbe of Gur, the holy Gaon Rabbi Mendeli, marches to the death camp and calls out: “Jews, soon we will sanctify the Name of Heaven, it is our duty to prepare ourselves for this great mitzvah. Bring me water to wash my hands.” One of those present jumps up and says: “Rabbi! I will risk my life on the condition that you guarantee me your share in the world to come.” The holy rabbi gives up his share in the next world and receives, in return, a cup of water to wash his hands.

Kiddush Hashem thus became the central trope of Jewish existence. Rather than the traditional meaning of sacrificing one’s life for the sake of mitzvah observance, it came to define how mitzvos are fulfilled. When faced with the absolute emptiness of death, total despair in which there is no hope, yet still chooses to perform the mitzvah, the mitzvah takes on the highest and most complete meaning. At this point, the mitzvah reaches its fullest glory by achieving the elevated level of Kiddush Hashem.

Continuing this theme to a non-life-threatening situation, a Jew must aim to study Torah and observe mitzvos as an utterly altruistic act with no connection to his interests. Keeping mitzvos requires self-sacrifice – even that of the World to Come. One can only achieve the highest levels of Torah observance by denying personal ambitions and keeping mitzvos in a framing of Kiddush Hashem.

Those who physically died in the Holocaust furnaces enjoin us, the living, to metaphorically die by the self-mortification of Torah study

This is the terrible sentiment expressed by a survivor of Lodz who longed (!) for the ghetto life due to the lofty spiritual level he attained:

I am often ashamed of myself. How did I fall from the heights of that time to the depths of today’s comfortable and trivial life? I have become so far removed even from the lofty ideals of that time. […] How do we view the ghetto today? Hell! A graveyard! A deep, dark, black abyss! However, our tight-knit group saw it as a furnace of sheer self-sacrifice and pure devotion unsurpassed in its kind![2]

Rabbi Kahneman regards this devotion as the greatest religious ideal. “We are all chalukah Jews,” he said, referring to the long-established institution of charity funds dedicated to Jewish inhabitants of the Holy Land. In the same way that Jews of Eretz Yisrael received funding from diaspora Jews for their physical sustenance, so we receive our spiritual sustenance by following the path of Kiddush Hashem. Those who physically died in the Holocaust furnaces enjoin us, the living, to metaphorically die by the self-mortification of Torah study. The renowned “Ohel Kedoshim” (“Tent of the Holy”), which is today the Ponevezh Kollel carries the engraved words, chosen by Rabbi Kahneman: “Of every remnant that will be in Zion and every remaining one in Jerusalem, ‘holy’ will be said of him” (Yeshayahu 4:3). The Kedoshim (martyrs) are not only those who perish: they are those who survive. Those who study in the “Ohel Kedoshim” building are indeed Kedoshim. They are the “Chalukah Jews” who preserve the legacy of Kiddush Hashem.

In line with these sentiments, Yitzchak Meir Levin, head of the Agudath-Israel movement in Israel after the Holocaust, stated at the founding conference of the Charedi school system:

We are all being called upon to make great sacrifices. Considering that six million brothers, including one and a half million children and youth, sanctified Hashem’s Name by passing from this world, we who remain must also sanctify His Name through education […]. This may be the last trial before Mashiach’s coming, and passing the trial depends only on us. We must first sacrifice our sons for a Torah education.”[3]

Torah is kept alive only in those who possess the supreme virtue of self-sacrifice.


Can We Choose Life?

What does all this mean for us survivors growing up with a sense of pride, strength, and security in a period of Jewish flourishing?

All my life, I have been struggling spiritually, conceptually, and mentally with the idea that dedication to Torah implies separation from life. Why is the Torah ideal taught in yeshiva so remote from life? I could not deny the spiritual force of this ideal, but neither could I accept it. I tried to understand its nature and its conceptual roots. My thoughts first turned to the “Torah and life” questions raised by Jewish of Enlightenment Europe. I pondered the distance between Torah and life with the same tools as those employed to consider the tension between this world and the next, the confinement of Torah to the limited scope of halachic praxis, and the like.

I do not rule out these considerations; they are certainly relevant, and the tension between Torah and worldly life hardly began with the Holocaust. Yet, I believe the Holocaust intensified this tension significantly. It made self-sacrifice a religious duty.

In his “With God in Hell,” which focuses on the religious experience in the ghettos and camps, Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz recounts the Holocaust narrative as “the war of the body against the soul.” Nazi ideology, he claims, was an ideology of a world lacking all spirituality so that it could not bear the Jews, who represent the endurance of the spirit. The climax of this war, the confrontation of “ultimate truth,” is depicted by a young Jewish boy from an assimilated Vienna family who joined, while in the Ghetto, a group of Chassidim to organize groups of heroic Torah study in the face of Nazi oppression. According to Rabbi Berkowitz, the boy’s slogan was “All the world deems beautiful, you shall deeply despise.”[4]

This narrative permeated deep into the yeshiva education I received. Fundamentally, the deepest experience of the yeshiva is self-sacrifice. It is precisely when yeshiva students feel alone in the Beis Midrash after everybody else has left and the buzz has quietened that they become spiritually enlightened. The moment when life is taking place outside, such as during a Purim party or some vacation period, and one finds oneself sitting alone in the study hall in sacrifice for Torah – this is the spiritual zenith of yeshiva life. It is the moment when a student touches the highest educational ethos that guides the yeshiva: the ideal of self-sacrifice.

We are all victims of the Holocaust. The terrible destruction of European Jewry hovers over our consciousness and, together with it, the extreme interpretation allotted to Divine service in times of tragedy

When the heart years for pleasure and satisfaction, such as during the Friday Night yeshiva meal, yet this desire is overcome by the drive for Torah study – this is how true fulfillment is found. The Torah can only thrive amid those who sacrifice themselves for its study, only – to quote again from the Talmud, a statement codified by Maimonides – among those who are prepared to kill themselves in the Torah tent.

We are all victims of the Holocaust. The terrible destruction of European Jewry hovers over our consciousness and, together with it, the extreme interpretation allotted to Divine service in times of tragedy. We find it difficult to free ourselves from the thought that the highest expression of spirituality and Divine service is to turn these ideas into an ethos in deep conflict with human flourishing in all its expressions. It often seems as though deep down, we wish to be rejected and abandoned, miserable and poor, to sacrifice our lives, our honor, our glory, and our communal and personal cultivation for a taste of spiritual devotion. All is worth abandoning just for a taste of true self-sacrifice, a taste of Kiddush Hashem.

Perhaps the time has come that instead of putting the “man who dies in the Torah tent” on the yeshiva pedestal, we begin to emphasize the Torah imperative of life: “Live by them, and do not die by them.” The mitzvos of the Torah are imperatives of life. The dignity of Jewish life destroyed in Europe will be truly restored when we discover that the same Torah can be a Torah of life and joy rather than a Torah personified in the most wretched human moments as souls depart their tormented bodies.

“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. As I command you today to love Hashem your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments, that you may live and multiply; and Hashem your God will bless you the land which you go to possess. […] You shall choose life!” (Devarim 30, 15-19).

[1] Shut Ma’amakim, Volume 2, Siman 2.

[2] Cited in Moshe Prager, Those Who Never Yielded (2013).

[3] See Michal Shaul, “The Rehabilitation of Haredi Society in the Shadow of the Holocaust [Hebrew],” Iyunim Bitkumat Yisrael, Vol. 20, p. 376.

[4] In the seventh chapter of the book Rabbi Berkowitz tries to soften the negation of life latent in such statements, yet but I am unconvinced that he succeeds in doing so. In the end, I think he simply changes the meaning of the term “life” by conferring it with meaning beyond actual existence in this world (by interchange of “life” with “survival”).


Photo by yiftah-s, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

One thought on “Choosing Life: Self-Sacrifice in the Shadow of the Holocaust

  • one technical point – i think if you check the 5th perek of hilchot yrsodei hatora the rambam defines kiddush hashem as a voluntary act of giving up one’s life. This doesn’t take away from the sacrifices you discuss.
    On the more general point, there are those that are more motivated by the joy and those by the fear of not living up to the standards of self-sacrifice. Apparently the leadership feels that only one message can work for the broader community and continues the latter

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