A Visit To Germany Reawakens Fears of an Ultra-Orthodox Childhood

The Price of Obedience


By Leah Vincent

Published March 30, 2014, issue of April 04, 2014.
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I was crushed to learn of the choices these leaders made, that they hadn’t been more courageous or more aware of what was going on, that they couldn’t and didn’t find a way to lead their followers, who were so fervently attached to their every command, to escape from the gruesome deaths that awaited most of them. Perhaps it is harsh to assign too much responsibility to mere men, who could do little in the face of a swift and secretive Nazi machine, but these were not mere men — these were godly leaders, believed, by their followers, by me in my childhood, to possess a “Holy Spirit” that gave them access to more information than the average mortal.

If they did not have at least as much foresight as sentinels like Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski, who reported to the Polish government in exile about the concentration camps, and Shaul Avigur, a founder of the Israeli intelligence community, the rabbis’ political position, if not their spiritual position, should still leave them accountable for their miscalculations.

Walking through the cobblestone streets of Germany, the language of my childhood nightmares assaulting me at every turn, I felt dizzy grappling with the historical atrocity that had again come to life for me. How could the leaders I revered in my youth have been so mistaken? How had it come to pass that my relatives who had perished in the Holocaust were slaughtered like helpless chickens?

But what would I do, I wondered, if time suddenly slipped back 70 years and I found myself, a Jew, in Germany? Where would I go, with my curly hair and my almond-shaped eyes?

My people had no guns, I realized. My ancestors had no army. They had no inkling of the horrors that were coming before they arrived, and once they did, it was too late to flee.

But I also wondered if our religion played a part in our tragedy. I wondered if our faith had been less focused on the incorporeal body and more on the physical self, less on fear and more on assertiveness, perhaps more would have survived. I wondered if these qualities of Judaism were inherent to our tradition, or if they were a mutation, due to centuries of humiliating anti-Semitism, that infiltrated our culture with a kind of Stockholm Syndrome where weakness imposed on us was renamed piety, and laws that forbade us from defending our physical well-being spawned a love of spiritual defense. I wondered if the rabbis had internalized the abuse their communities suffered to shape a philosophy and code of law of fear and introversion and complete obedience, at any cost.

I know the Judaism of fear well. If prewar Judaism was hampered by anxiety and a legacy of pain, ultra-Orthodoxy has taken that relationship to a new extreme. In my childhood, fear of God’s punishment, delivered through mortal messengers, was ever-present. The threats were not idle, as I found out as a teenager — when I was pushed out of my family and left to fend for myself in New York City because I had violated the rules of modesty. I spent years reeling from that abandonment, struggling to survive, desperately trying to rebuild my life.


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