Dr. Michael Chigel on Torah from the Years of Wrath

My old friend Dr. Michael Chigel tagged me on Facebook this morning with his remarkably kind and generous unsolicited review of Torah from the Years of Wrath. I’m deeply moved and grateful to Mike for promoting the Torah of the Aish Kodesh, as well as for the undeserved praise he lavished on my small contribution, but also because he is an unusually sophisticated and erudite reader who deeply understands the subject. Many of you might know him for his remarkably entertaining Scroll Down series on the Jewish intellectual tradition–a must-watch–but don’t be fooled by the quirky sense of humor. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Toronto, awarded for an exceptionally deep dissertation on the Book of Job, speaks and reads about a dozen languages, and is especially au courant with twentieth-century thought on the Holocaust and Jewish philosophy.
Mike and I go back a long time. We’ve belonged to an exclusive mutual admiration society for over thirty years. His review should certainly be viewed within this context. Nevertheless, I’m so grateful for his unsolicited thoughts that a simple note of thank-you would not be quite sufficient, hence this post deconstructing his review. Let’s start with the picture:
Mike, the grey in your beard suits you, although it makes me just a bit uncomfortable–in my mind’s eye you are as young as I am (i.e. around sixteen or seventeen), confirmed by the joie de vivre that comes through in your videos. Looking a little deeper, however, I reflected on the composition–you, the reader, sandwiched between the hoary tradition of Midrash Rabbah and Gemara behind you and a paperback volume on the Holocaust. We, the viewers, see you as you negotiate the challenge of faith in extremis while the mesorah acts as your guide. Your eyes show concern and focus–and your mouth is hidden, as if you were silenced by the encounter.

This is the first time I’ve ever had occasion to be a bit sad to be Henry Abramson‘s friend because I’m afraid you might think I am exaggerating when I tell you how extraordinarily beautiful I find his new book to be, I mean, “Torah from the Years of Wrath.” It’s an historically-charged analysis of the Warsaw ghetto sermons of the Aish Kodesh. I picked it up at the bookstore on Friday and couldn’t put it down all Shabbos until I read it to the end.

I do think you are exaggerating, but I am flattered nonetheless, and would like to share your review with AS MANY PEOPLE AS POSSIBLE.

More than one person has told me that they read the book over Shabbos, and I feel a bit queasy about that. The first chapter, which outlines the Rebbe’s life and work before the war, is certainly valuable and appropriate, but I’m not sure how to react to the idea of reading chapters two, three and four, which deal with the war years 5700, 5701 and 5702 (1939-1943). One the one hand, the Aish Kodesh delivered these sermons on Shabbos, so his Torah–no matter how difficult–must be acceptable on the seventh day. On the other hand, my historical contextualization of the sermons are pretty disturbing, and I avoided researching them on Shabbos and Yom Tov. Many people have told me that they found the book uplifting, though, so perhaps there is room to be lenient. Seems like a question for LOR.

That the style is eloquent and as compelling as a novel, that the scholarship is impressive, that the voice manages to remain the voice of a pious hosid even amid an elegant English style and a scholarly sobriety — all this may go without saying. What makes the book extraordinary is the way it manages to do what very few biographies (if that’s the right word in this case) manage to do, namely to present the life and thought of a single individual in such a way that the entire epoch is put in focus through this one small lens. Henry will no doubt attribute this optic phenomenon to the Aish Kodesh himself, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira zt”l. But I don’t see how anyone who has read these 1939-1943 Warsaw ghetto sermons of the without Henry’s aspeklaria-type commentary would be able to see the actual epoch in question.

Rabbi Moshe Weinberger shlita mentioned similar thoughts in a private conversation, captured partially in his haskamah to the book: Aish Kodesh was composed with a distinct social purpose, and it is impossible to understand it fully without a grasp of the immediate historical circumstances. Most Hasidic works are less rooted in the specific circumstances of the events of the previous week–in the Warsaw Ghetto, however, the Rebbe’s Hasidim were desperate for a Torah perspective on how to understand the unfolding Holocaust, and his words were carefully crafted to meet their immediate, pressing needs. My role was very simple: I just studied the events of the week, as recorded in voluminous documentation, and then turned to the Aish Kodesh to learn his reaction. The hardest part was envisioning myself as a simple Hasid (or even freethinker) sitting in the Piaseczno Beis Medrash, seeking the Rebbe’s wisdom after suffering the devastating onslaught of Nazi persecution.

Although I’ve read a good number of books on the Holocaust, and more specifically on the philosophical question of “faith after the Holocaust,” this is the first text I have ever read that shows faith itself, emunah itself, in the fray, not as a philosophical problem found among the debris of Auschwitz but as a living torment and spiritual labour. Almost a terrifying vivisection of emunah.

A classic understatement. Mike, you’ve read more than a “good number” of books on this topic. I agree, however–the Aish Kodesh is not a work written in some quiet sanctum, composed with the sounds of a violin floating in the window with spring breezes. “Vivsection” is an interesting choice of vocabulary–not only does Aish Kodesh demonstrate faith in action, almost painfully slow-motion since we know the outcome–it remains alive even today, in the hearts of Piaseczno Hasidim and other students of the Rebbe around the world.

More. It’s perhaps the most terrifying and challenging example of the famous dictum of Rabbi Shneur Zalman: men bedarf lebn mit der tzayt, “We must live with a times,” a dictum that refers in paradoxical language to “time” as defined by the Hebrew calendar and the weekly sedras. The greatest Jewish souls, we know, have always lived inside the text of the Torah with more vitality than they lived inside their own livingrooms. What most people know as “time,” time as defined by the news or by history, is for them dreams and distractions; the only real “time” is that of the weekly parsha, textual time as defined by the Torah. But how many great Jewish souls have shown us what it means to continue living within this order of time, tenaciously, passionately, at all costs, even as the world of things — food, weather, bricks, health, human dignity — crumbles and putrifies all around them?

Powerful words, Mike, and absolutely on point. I wish I had thought to cite this passage in my book! Maybe in a future edition.

For those readers who are less familiar with Chabad chassidus, here’s the passage in full from Hayom yom,  2 Cheshvan: “From a sicha of my father, after the conclusion of Shabbat Lech L’cha 5651 (1890): In the early years of his leadership the Alter Rebbe declared publicly, “One must live with the time.” From his brother, R. Yehuda Leib, the elder chassidim discovered that the Rebbe meant one must live with the sedra of the week and the particular parsha of the day. One should not only learn the weekly parsha every day, but live with it.”

Anyone with a serious interest in his/her Jewish identity and station, especially those of us who remain vigilant to the way that the Holocaust still defines this identity and this station, really cannot afford to bypass this book. It’s mamash a revelation. I love Henry dearly. But this really has nothing to do with him. Well, maybe not nothing.

 Mutual, mon ami.


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