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The Holocaust was one of the most horrific and important events in our history. What have rabbis said are lessons we should take from it?

I am looking for lessons that should apply to all Jews, particularly those that should apply to our lives and outlook. References to notable speeches or documents addressing this topic would be a welcome addition to any answers, as I'm looking more for consensus or "generally notable" answers (such as from rabbis of major influence), rather than individual opinions.

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Hello Beofett, and welcome to Judaism.SE! Is there a specific set of lessons you are looking for when you say "as a people"? Do you mean only those that apply to all Jews? Only those that have an effect on a national bur not individual scale? –  WAF Aug 25 '11 at 13:32
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@WAF I am looking for lessons that should apply to all Jews, particularly those that should apply to our lives and outlook. References to notable speeches or documents addressing this topic would be a welcome addition to any answers, as I'm looking more for consensus or "generally notable" answers (if that makes sense), rather than individual opinions. However, I wasn't sure how best to phrase that as part of the question. –  Beofett Aug 25 '11 at 13:42
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Thanks for clarifying. You could include all of those motes as helpful elaboration of the question. I look forward to reading the responses. –  WAF Aug 25 '11 at 13:44
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@WAF Updated. Thanks! –  Beofett Aug 25 '11 at 13:47
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I've edited the question to fit better into the format of this site. Note that questions are closed for the following reason, which pretty much applied to the question as formulated earlier: "This question is not a good fit to our Q&A format. We expect answers to generally involve facts, references, or specific expertise; this question will likely solicit opinion, debate, arguments, polling, or extended discussion." –  msh210 Aug 25 '11 at 17:54
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3 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

The Lubavitcher Rebbe said to many survivors that from the Holocaust we see that one cannot rely on human feelings of morality. Until the Holocaust, many thought that the more cultured one was, the more intellectual one was, the more moral one would be. With the Holocaust, the entire Modern Western culture was shown to false. Scientists and Musicians either watched or actively participated in mass murder.

http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/64888/jewish/The-Rebbe-on-the-Holocaust.htm

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Another great point from your link: 'If we allow the pain and despair to dishearten us from raising a new generation of Jews with a strong commitment to their Jewishness, then Hilter's "final solution" will be realized, G-d forbid. But if we rebuild, if we raise a generation proud of and committed to their Jewishness, we will have triumphed.' –  Beofett Aug 26 '11 at 18:04
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  • According to Rabbi Herschel Welcher, "the majority by numbers and structure [rov minyan urov binyan]" of great rabbis concluded, post-Holocaust, that the world is too dangerous a place without a Jewish state.
  • After several national calamities, there have been fervent Messianic hopes/expectations, which happened as well in the late twentieth century (mostly focused on the seventh rebbe of Lubavitch). The late Rabbi Schneurson is quoted as saying that any catastrophes called for before the coming of the Messiah were certainly fulfilled completely. Rabbi Benjamin Blech believes that our current period in history is between and then came the Angel of Death and and then along came G-d, as described in the song Chad Gadya.
  • Many customs that had been specific to particular eastern European towns no longer applied, as those towns were abandoned with no plans to return anytime soon. (As opposed to a discussion several centuries ago of a town in Alsace that evacuated temporarily due to some war between France and Germany; under the balance-of-power system at the time, everyone knew they'd be back in town again soon.)
  • Besides the above practical argument for the establishment of a Jewish State is a Talmudic one: the Talmud speaks of several "oaths" that would be the foundation of how the Jews whould live in the diaspora: one is that the other nations treat the exiled Jews with some semblance of decency; another is that the Jews not force their way back to Israel. Long before 1939 it was argued that the nations hadn't kept their part of the deal (first oath), so the Jews were exempted from theirs; that argument seemed even stronger post-1945.
  • Dr. Haym Soloveichik has famously argued that the value placed on mimetic tradition was broken, and instead, needing something to latch onto, people started following texts, even if in some cases they were far stricter than was the established practice. (For instance, the popularity of Mishna Brurah, written by a dean of a rabbinic academy and saying "the majority of texts say do X"; vs. Aruch HaShulchan, written by a town rabbi and saying "common practice is to do Y, this is supported by many texts.")
  • Questions were raised regarding a rabbi's authority or expertise on political matters. Many Eastern European rabbis had told their communities, c. 1939, that the war would blow over, and there was no need to flee. Those rabbis were working with their best understanding of several centuries of history, but the Holocaust was something far beyond that pattern. Some believe that G-d, for reasons we can't understand, let those rabbis be mistaken. A young Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveichik, pre-Holocaust, had spoken (in a eulogy for Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grozinski) about the authority of great rabbis on political matters; years after the Holocaust, his speech "Joseph and his Brothers" challenged this to some degree. While it's subject to interpretation by his students (for instance, Rabbi Mordechai Willig believes there is no conflict between Eulogy for Rabbi Chaim Ozer and Joseph and his Brothers), Soloveichik's student and biographer, Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, believes that Soloveichik's faith in rabbinic authority on political matters was shattered by the Holocaust.
  • I'm told there are theologians (non-Jewish, from what I understand) whose understanding of Hell was rethought after seeing Auschwitz.
  • While we have no right to claim that the obligations of Judaism ceased due to the Holocaust, there is a great deal of reluctance to pass judgement on a Jew who has given up observance (or even faith) after the Holocaust.
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See here for an article by Howard Shultz, chairman of Starbucks, describing his meeting with Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, in which the latter teaches him "the lesson of the Holocaust."

"Okay, gentlemen, let me tell you the essence of the human spirit.

"As you know, during the Holocaust, the people were transported in the worst possible, inhumane way by railcar. They thought they were going to a work camp. We all know they were going to a death camp.

"After hours and hours in this inhumane corral with no light, no bathroom, cold, they arrived at the camps. The doors were swung wide open, and they were blinded by the light. Men were separated from women, mothers from daughters, fathers from sons. They went off to the bunkers to sleep.

"As they went into the area to sleep, only one person was given a blanket for every six. The person who received the blanket, when he went to bed, had to decide, 'Am I going to push the blanket to the five other people who did not get one, or am I going to pull it toward myself to stay warm?'"

And Rabbi Finkel says, "It was during this defining moment that we learned the power of the human spirit, because we pushed the blanket to five others."

And with that, he stood up and said, "Take your blanket. Take it back to America and push it to five other people."

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