This is an essay that was written for a Sinai Scholars class. In the essay, I take a look at Jewish History and a few examples of how Jews have not only withstood tremendous hardship, but thrived under adversity through dedication to Torah and our people. -Andrew
Torah in the Trenches:
Jews, Persecution, and the Torah that Sustains Us
By Andrew Hutz
Diamonds are interesting things. They are the hardest, most resilient objects found in nature, but are also among the most lovely. Diamonds can only be formed from the element Carbon under very specific conditions. They require extremely high temperatures, and immense pressure. These conditions can only occur naturally dozens of miles under the Earths surface. That scorching heat and crushing pressure, somehow turns basic Carbon into one of the most beautiful objects found in nature. The Jewish people in many ways, are like diamonds. Our history is fraught with some of the most horrific and extreme persecution that humanity has ever seen. This persecution has taken the form of exclusion, blood libels, ethnic cleansing, violence, torture, and at its worst, industrialized genocide. Somehow, even after thousands of years of struggle and suffering, in modern times the Jewish people are not only still here, but thriving. Like Carbon, the Jewish people have come through pressure. We have come through pressure from the tyranny of Romans, the blood libels of the Christian church, the pogroms of Czarist and Soviet Russia and even the genocide of Hitler’s Holocaust as something wonderful and holy. The Jewish people are like a beautiful diamond. Unlike the diamond, however, which requires Carbon only, with no other elements involved, the Jewish people have had one additional and unique element.
We have had our Torah. The Torah that Hashem gave to Moshe Rabbeinu and the children of Israel at Sinai has been our shield, our solace and our inspiration. No matter how dire the circumstances, brave Jews have refused to surrender the light of Torah, even in the face of horrific torture and death. A love of Hashem, and an unwavering belief that He is the one and only God has inspired some of the most astounding examples of defiance and devotion ever seen in human history. As a result of the courage of our ancestors, we are not only afforded the ability to keep Hashem’s commandments today, but we are able to do it in our ancestral homeland, the Land of Israel. In order to truly appreciate the wonderful gift they have given us though, it is vital that we remember their stories and understand what it is about our unbreakable spirit that makes us so unique among all the nations of the world.
The reality of Jewish life has never been easy. The obligations that we as a people have taken on to serve Hashem require dedication and sacrifice, and that has had an interesting effect on our character as a people. Our people have, for thousands of years, placed the utmost value on learning and study. What we want is to be left in peace to learn Torah and keep the commandments within. However, at times, we have also been required to stand up and fight. One of the earliest examples in our history of this type of resistance is found in the story of Chanukah.
The basic story is that the mighty Greeks led by King Antiochus tried to oppress the Jews in the land of Israel and force them to abandon the Torah. The Maccabees chose to rise up and fight rather than give in. They fought the Greeks and retook Jerusalem and the Temple. There was only enough oil for the menorah to burn for one day, yet it lasted for eight. It is a story that every Jew knows, however, it is a simplified version. There is a great deal more to the story than I was raised to believe, and when the full story is told, and the rebellion is viewed in the context of what the world was like at the time, it takes on a very different level of inspiration. To call our enemies in this story “Greek” is a bit of a misnomer. The people that attempted to subjugate the Jews at this time were known as the Seleucids. The Seleucid Empire was Greek in the sense that it was founded by Greeks, but it was a completely different entity than the ones that we often think of when we think of Greece. The Seleucid Empire consisted of a large swath of land that had been conquered by Alexander the Great. He died suddenly at the age of 32, and his empire was broken up into smaller parts, led by his generals and confidants. Alexander the Great is remembered as arguably the greatest military commander of all time, and the empire he left behind after his death was massive and powerful. The Seleucids were a super power of their time. The recapture of Jerusalem by the Jewish people only took three years, however, the war actually went on for more than two decades. A modern analogy for the disproportionate nature of the conflict would be the modern state of Israel going to war with the United States, fighting for twenty years and winning. It is a perfect example of a David and Goliath story. The Maccabees and their followers risked certain death and the potential annihilation of the entire Jewish people in order to ensure that they could continue to be Jews and continue our traditions.
Jewish resistance to oppression and tyranny doesn’t only take the form of armed resistance. The Jewish people have also been emboldened and empowered off the battlefield as well. Uplifting the positive aspects of Jewish life, culture and faith has been just as important to our survival as fighting our enemies. Few people have done more in this regard than the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (Of Righteous Memory). He was born in 1880 in Czarist Russia, and by age fifteen, was already a rabbi and a holy man. Russia at the time was a hotbed of anti-semitism and persecution. Anti-Jewish laws, exclusionary policies and violent pogroms were rampant, and from a young age, R’ Schneersohn was at the forefront of the opposition, campaigning tirelessly to the Russian government to put an end to the oppression. In doing so, he put a target on himself, but protecting his people was more important to him than his own safety. This was only the first time that he would face down Jew hatred, bolstered by a love of Torah and of the Jewish people.
Czar Nicholas II of Russia was deposed in 1917 following the Communist uprising led by Vladimir Lenin. This ushered in a period in Russia that was even worse for the Jews than it was under the Czar. The old Russia that had been home to many Jews for hundreds of years became the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union not only didn’t have a state religion, they actively tried to stamp out the practice of religion altogether. No people were more targeted by this than the Jews. Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn became the sixth Rebbe in 1920, and immediately turned his attention and holy work towards preserving and protecting Jews and the Torah. According to chabad.com, “He dispatched teachers and rabbis to the farthest reaches of the Soviet Empire, establishing a vast underground network of schools, mikvaos, and lifelines of material and spiritual support”. This incredible effort certainly did not earn him any favor with Soviet leader Josef Stalin, and in 1927, the Rebbe was arrested and sentenced to death for his work. Fortunately, the international community spoke out very strongly against this sentence, and the Rebbe had his death sentence commuted. He was exiled from the Soviet Union, but the incredible underground Jewish network he established continued and was able to come out of hiding following the collapse of the country in the late 1980s.
R’ Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn left the Soviet Union and after a short time in Latvia, ended up in Warsaw, Poland. From 1934 until 1939, he lived in Warsaw, serving the Jewish people and spreading the light of Torah. However, in 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. Against the urgings of the Chabad community in the United States, he remained in Warsaw during the invasion and worked to help get as many Jews out of harms way as possible. The United States government had not yet gotten involved in the war, and so they used their diplomatic power to convince the Nazi’s to allow him to leave for America. Upon arriving in America, he turned his efforts towards sharing Torah and the joys of Judaism with a Jewish community that had become extremely secularized. He spent his life uplifting the Jewish people with no regard for his own safety.
There are countless other examples of Jewish heroes working, fighting and sacrificing in the name of preserving our people. Rabbi Akiva refused to obey Roman law, and was executed for teaching Torah in secret. His final words are said to have been the Shema. Nearly two thousand years later, IDF Major Roi Klein chose to throw himself onto a grenade in order to save the lives of his Jewish soldiers. His final words were also the Shema. The type of pressure and hardships that Jews have endured in history have lead to great suffering, but also to great acts of heroism, both on the battlefield, and in the field of Torah learning. The fact that Jewish people are still here on Earth, and thriving is a testament to the unbreakable spirit instilled in us by Hashem.
Through a love of Hashem, and our Torah, we have come through the very worst horrors that humanity has ever perpetrated as the robust and beautiful people that we are today. I believe that is the greatest miracle of all.
Katz, Yossi. A Voice Called: Stories of Jewish Heroism. Jerusalem: Gefen, 2010. Print.