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Harsh punishment was communal as well as personal. My great uncle, Rabbi Avigdor Miller, a widely respected yeshivish rabbi, wrote: “Hitler was not only sent by Heaven, but was sent as a kindness from Heaven…. Because assimilation and intermarriage are worse than death.”
When we rebelled against God, we could expect calamity.
The only way to survive was for men to delve ever more fervently into religious texts, for women to adhere ever more stringently to laws of modesty, and for us all to reject the distractions of secular life and surrender our will to an ever more demanding God who spoke only through male rabbis and whose hand was always raised, poised to destroy us via the mighty gentile. In the ultra-Orthodox attempt to make sense of the Holocaust, suffering has become God. And now God is suffering, and suffering must be endless to ensure that God sticks around.
Those of the ultra-Orthodox community defend this perspective, claiming that their views are the most authentically Jewish. They call their way of life “Torah” Judaism. But visiting the birthplace of the trauma that lead to the creation of contemporary ultra-Orthodoxy, I realized that ultra-Orthodoxy has little to do with Torah.
The Jews of the Torah are Miriam, who was Moses’ sister and led the people in dance and song; Tamar, who was rewarded for dressing as a prostitute and seducing her father-in-law with a child who became King David’s ancestor; Samson, who, in between falling in love with gentile women, fought his enemies with foxes, a donkey’s jawbone and a suicide attack in a temple; Yael, who pounded a nail through the enemy general’s brain, and Devorah, who was judge, military strategist and poet. Not fearful individuals who hid from the world, but archetypes of verve and power who lived fully in it.
They are our true history and values. Judaism should not be shaped by the Nazis or by the failure, on too many parties’ accounts, to stave off tragedy. Judaism should celebrate, as our Torah ancestors did, values of engagement with the world, brash empowerment of the physical self and responsibility for practical defense.
On the last day of my trip to Germany, I wondered what the Jewish ghosts who seemed to roll down from the hills in white fog would say in response to my criticisms of the world I was raised in and to my attempts to re-engage with the very ancient past of our people.
I wondered if these ghosts would cry out in shame or cry out with pride, and if it mattered. If the only way I could honor the tragedy was by listening to the victims crying, Or if there was something to be said for having the chutzpah of our forefather Moses — interrupting, contradicting and trying to promote a different way to encounter life, with spine and power, offering a blasphemous disrespect that might ensure Jews today don’t have to suffer the same fate as the Jews of yesterday who are gone.
Leah Vincent is an activist working for reform within ultra-Orthodoxy and for the empowerment of former ultra-Orthodox Jews. She is the author of “Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood.” Find her on Twitter @EhyehLeah and at www.leahvincent.com