Cancel Simchas Torah !

by Rafael Medoff 

One of the most poignant anecdotes I have encountered in thirty-plus years of Holocaust research came out of an interview I conducted many years ago with the daughter of a Brooklyn rabbi.

She told me of a remarkable rule that her father, Rabbi Baruch David Weitzmann, imposed on his Brownsville congregation in 1942, after the first reports about the ongoing mass murder of Europe’s Jews were confirmed.

“He wanted us to feel the tsa’ar of the Jews who were being killed in Europe,” the rabbi’s daughter recalled. “So if somebody wanted to get married–and there were a lot of these situations, involving boys who were about to go into the army–they came to our house, there was a little chuppah, some cake and soda, nothing more. No celebrations, no dancing, just the chuppah. He explained to us that you cannot celebrate at a time when other Jews are dying.”

Consider, for a moment, how drastically this deviated from normative Jewish practice. The mitzvah of making a bride and groom happy at their wedding is considered so important that it is one of the few commandments which supersede the obligation to study Torah. Normally stoic rabbis set aside their books to take part in wild dancing and assorted ribaldry to entertain the newlyweds.

The Talmud (Tractate Brachot 6-b) declares that one who gladdens the hearts of the bride and groom at their wedding “merits to acquire the knowledge of the Torah.” One Talmudic sage compares making newlyweds happy at their wedding to bringing a sacrifice in the Temple in ancient Jerusalem; another says it is the equivalent of rebuilding some of the ruins of Jerusalem.

This is the mitzvah that Rabbi Weitzmann in effect temporarily suspended in 1942, in order to raise Jewish awareness of the mass murder in Europe and, hopefully, galvanize his congregants to action. The importance of feeling another Jew’s pain, he decided, took precedence over the obligation to celebrate at a wedding. There is a time for singing and dancing, but there is also a time for mourning–and mourning sometimes must extend beyond one’s immediate family.

The very existence of the American Jewish community, after all, is based on the premise that Jews should care about, connect with, and assist each other. We are not merely a haphazard mass of individuals who happen to practice similar religious rituals in our private lives. We join together–in prayer, in celebration, and in other activities of communal partnership. The classic United Jewish Appeal slogan, “We are one!,” resonated deeply precisely because it spoke to the essence of Jewish peoplehood.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, in his seminal book “Were We Our Brothers’ Keepers?,” confronted the painful fact that most American Jews in the 1940s failed to adopt an appropriate sense of urgency with regard to the plight of Europe’s Jews. “One looks in vain,” he writes, “for a sign that American Jews altered some aspect of their lifestyle to indicate their awareness of the plight of their European brothers [and] keep the matter at the forefront of their consciousness and to generate feelings of sympathy and solidarity….The Final Solution may have been unstoppable by American Jewry, but it should have been unbearable for them. And it wasn’t. This is important, not alone for our understanding of the past, but for our sense of responsibility in the future.”

One wonders how Rabbi Baruch David Weitzmann would have responded to this week’s brutal murders by Palestinian Arab terrorists in Israel. Two rabbis stabbed and shot to death in the streets of Jerusalem. A young couple gunned down in front of their four children. The latter attack hit particularly close to home for American Jews, as one of the victims, Rabbi Eitam Henkin, was the son of the renowned educator Rabbanit Chana Henkin, who has touched our lives through her writings, lectures, and her Nishmat school, where so many young women from our community have studied.

If he were alive today, maybe Rabbi Weitzmann would cancel the singing and dancing of this year’s Simchas Torah holiday. Maybe he would say this is a time to feel the tsa’ar of the Jews in Israel, not a time for celebrating.

But today’s Jewish community may not be ready for such a dramatic step. Perhaps something more modest would be in order. There are seven extended dances in the synagogue during the Simchas Torah celebrations. Why not cancel the seventh one? –and, of course, explain the reason for the cancelation.

Still too drastic? How about just shortening the last dance–and pausing to speak about the Henkins, about their orphaned children, and about what practical steps American Jews can take, in the realm of political action, to respond to the murders…? Is that too much to ask of American Jewry today?

October 2015