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Yaffa Eliach, Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. 266 pp. $15.95
PAUL TILLICH ARGUED that the theologian must occasionally step out of the circle of faith in order to explore the greater conceptual and intellectual universe, while dwelling for the most part within that circle where the life of faith is lived. A denizen of two worlds, the theologian may live at the margins, describing and analyzing, justifying and defending the inner world. In a sense, Jewish theology after the Holocaust has been written from the margins by those who dwell within at least two worlds and who acutely sense the dialectical tension of living at the margins. Richard Rubenstein, whose towering achievement was to raise the theological question of the Holocaust to primacy, stepped outside the circle of faith and found no way back.1 His respondent, Emil Fackenheim, writes in multiple voices as philosopher and believer, preacher and prophet.2 Elie Wiesel, as I have argued elsewhere, has affirmed tradition despite the void and challenged the parameters of religious language in order to remain faithful to his experience. Even when Wiesel reapproaches tradition-when he teaches the Biblical fathers, the Rabbinic masters, or the Hasidic rebbes-the dialectical anguish of living in a world in which continuity must leap over the abyss, in which meaning must be found despite emptiness, is never far from the surface. In fact, this sense of nothingness provides Wiesel with his characteristic poignancy.3 Irving Greenberg has transformed this tension into a theological principle with his articulation of the criteria for authentic theological language in the post-Holocaust world ("nothing can be said of God and of humanity which is not credible in the face of one million burning children"), and his concept of 11 moment faiths."4 Even Eliezer Berkovits, an orthodox theologian who reaffirms the tradition, merely defers the tension to a time that is not yet ours to know.5
There are three ways in which to approach Jewish belief (for the strict traditionalist, only two). Classically, one must look at the pronouncements and the teachings of halakhah, the vast compendium of Jewish law and teaching that has articulated the divine will for the believing Jew. Yet, if a person wants to know the inner core of the Holy One, blessed be He, the Midrash recommends that he turn to Agadah, to the stories that embody the teachings, that give them form, shape, and character. The third path is to approach what Solomon Schecter has termed "catholic" Israel (the behavior of the Jewish people collectively) or what Charles Liebman calls the folk religion of the people.
With the publication in English of Rosenbaum's The Holocaust and Halakhah (which brings to the English-speaking audience the halakhic decisions of Rabbi Ephraim Oshry) and Zimmels's The Echo of the Nazi Holocaust in Rabbinic Literature (which presents a diversity of legal pronouncements), the inner struggle of Halakhah to confront the Holocaust is now accessible to those not fluent in Hebrew.6 Yaffa Eliach's Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, a slim and elegant volume of much power, penetrates the world of Agadah through the tale told from within the circle of faith about the world that was Auschwitz.
Eliach's splendid book is a work of scholarship. Painfully, Eliach collected story after story. Who can read these tales of death and devastation, of confrontation with the abyss and the return to life, without pain and awe? Efforts have been made to verify the details of the stories; footnotes explain events, dates, and concepts, yet these notes are not intrusive, nor do they interfere with the narrative.
Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust is also a work of aesthetic quality. Each tale is beautifully written and has narrative vitality. Yid dish and many other foreign tongues are captured and transmitted in a literate English that carries a trace of the original language but does not read like an awkward translation.
Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust has much in common with the best aspects of Martin Buber's treatment of the Hasidic stories. Buber shunned the historical and scholarly task of investigation and reconstruction (which required objectivity and detachment, with the goal of advancing historical knowledge about a body of religious material). "The other, essentially different way of restoring a great heritage of faith," Buber argued, "is to recapture a sense of power that gave it the capacity to take hold of and vitalize a diverse class of people. Such an approach derives from the desire to convey to our own time the force of a former life of faith and to help our age renew its ruptured bond with the Absolute."7 Eliach is not writing of a former faith, but of a vibrant and vital faith lived by a contemporary community whose religious life is increasingly attracting attention and followers. Her work is also not without certain analytic and critical qualities. Eliach does not, as critics of Buber were wont to charge he did, detach the life of Hasidism from the community of believers and the bonds of Halakhah. She does not distance the experience from its roots but describes the life of faith without falsifying its inner core. Nevertheless, Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust is truly an attempt to capture a sense of the power inherent in the Hasidic tradition. One might have asked for a more "critical" introduction or for more extensive evaluation of the material, yet the analysis that is presented is subtle and sharp; it intensifies rather than neutralizes the impact of the material.
The content of Hasidic Tales is both moving and disturbing. We are told of miraculous rescues, of the triumph of faith and decency over adversity, of human solidarity, and of spiritual resistance. Jews dared to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, demonstrating to themselves, and perhaps even to God, that in the midst of darkness one can dare to hope. Children were taught Torah. Seders were held which told of redemption in a world where slavery was brought to its ultimate perversity. Heroism and courage rather than submissiveness or cowardice best describe the behavior of these extraordinary Jews. We are told of the continuity of faith and of individual survival in a world that consumed the masses and destroyed faith in humanity and justice, if not in God. The sum total of the tales that Eliach had gathered speak of faith and of miracles, of survival and of spiritual triumph. They allow the Hasid and the believing reader to view the Holocaust as the domain of the miraculous and as a world in which the Torah still reigned. As such, Eliach's work and the Hasidic responses are a continuation of the task that Terrence Des Pres set himself in The Survivor.8 They fall victim to the same critique. For Auschwitz was not a place of miracles; the victims far outnumbered the survivors, and many people with an ancestral lineage of magnificent distinction perished along with those of more common background. It may be too late for miracles, too late to believe in miracles, and certainly far too late to depend upon them. As Lawrence Langer correctly argued:
History assures us that man is superior to time when retrospectively he can explain the unexpected, account, in this instance, for the extermination of a people, uncover a system for surviving and thus reduce the event to a partial intellectual order that somehow theoretically balances the price in human lives paid for that order. But from the perspective of the victims, who of course far outnumbered the survivors, the disorder of meaningless death contradicts the ordering impulses of time. Those who died for nothing during the Holocaust left the living with the paralyzing dilemma of facing a perpetually present grief. To the puzzled inquiry why interest in the Holocaust seems to grow as the event recedes into the past, one answer may be that there is no inner space or time to bury it in. The fault lies not in our own deficient vision, but in the nature of the experience, which challenges our imagination with a nearly impossible task.9
My reservations about Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust have nothing to do with the work of the author. Eliach has compiled a beautiful collection of Hasidic tales, the first such collection in a century and the first to include the tales of women. She has chosen with exquisite taste and with a gentle touch. She has told a story that is powerful and moving, almost compelling. Yet when we step outside the circle of faith, we might recognize that the radical evil of the Holocaust must be blurred if non-dialectical faith is to survive. She may have also shown us the way in which many will look back on a past too painful to confront.