Holocaust Education in Yeshiva High Schools: a model for Teaching Using Kol Dodi Dofek

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Holocaust Education in Yeshiva High Schools:

A Model for Teaching Using Kol Dodi Dofek

Shoshanna Lockshin

Toronto, Canada


The purpose of this paper is to advance a model for a unit on Holocaust education in yeshiva high schools in North America. Using the Rav’s Kol Dodi Dofek as my central text, I suggest ways that yeshiva high schools might develop an integrated curriculum for Holocaust education, to offer students an safe outlet for asking and coping with difficult questions of good, evil and faith.

I interviewed approximately 50 yeshiva high school students for this project, some from Toronto and some from the New York-New Jersey area. I interviewed females and males from co-educational schools and from all-girls’ and all-boys’ schools. When asked, all of the students characterized themselves as either “A students” or “B students.”

About half of the students I spoke with claimed to know a lot about the Holocaust, and about half claimed to know very little about the Holocaust. Only a very few said that they know a moderate amount, but not a lot, about the Holocaust.

A small (almost negligible) number of the students I spoke to said that most of what they know about the Holocaust they learned at school. The majority said that they know about the Holocaust from their families, from books and movies that they read or saw out of school, or from camp. A number of students commented to me that “My teachers at school talk about the Holocaust all the time, in all sorts of contexts, usually when we go off topic. But we never really learn about it in class.” Or that “I think we don’t talk about the Holocaust at school because they assume we already know everything about the Holocaust.”

Although this survey is hardly comprehensive, it does indicate that most of the students I interviewed felt that their Holocaust education does not come from school, and that if their school does educate about the Holocaust, it does not present the Holocaust in a systematic way. If these findings are indicative of a wider trend, then yeshiva high school students are not being educated about the Holocaust in a systematic fashion. In this paper, I aim to design an approach to Holocaust education that is appropriate for yeshiva high schools. I use the philosophy of Rav Soloveitchik in Kol Dodi Dofek to create an integrated and interdisciplinary approach to teaching the Holocaust and the historical, ethical and theological questions it raises. The approach that I suggest in this paper also aims to equip students with tools to deal with tragedy in their own lives and in their more immediate world.

My basic assumptions are that Holocaust education is important, that Holocaust education belongs in yeshiva high schools, and that yeshiva high schools should aim to teach the Holocaust in the most effective way possible. In this paper I do not intend to defend these assumptions or to discuss in detail the reasons I believe Holocaust education is important. I will, however, explain in brief that:

1. I believe it is important for all people to learn about the Holocaust, whether they are Jewish or not. The Holocaust is a reminder of the potential for evil in this world and, when presented properly, it urges students of all backgrounds to develop a stronger social consciousness and a commitment to fighting for human rights and justice everywhere.

2. I believe it is particularly important for Jews, of all Jewish backgrounds, to learn about the Holocaust. The Holocaust has become a central defining characteristic of who we are as Jews, and it is an integral part of educating students to develop a sense of belonging to the Jewish people. It is popular today to criticize the centrality of the Holocaust in American Jewish identity, and in our sense of Jewish peoplehood. I believe that this criticism stems from a problem in how we teach the Holocaust. If the Holocaust is presented properly, it need not perpetuate a “victim” psychology in American Jewish identity. If, for example, teachers explore the various forms of resistance during the Holocaust (for some to resist was to maintain some semblance of cleanliness in the filth of the camps, for others to resist was to continue to dream of the future, etc.) then studying the Holocaust can contribute to a positive sense of belonging to the Jewish people.

3. It is important to present the Holocaust in different ways to different kinds of Jews. It is therefore important to develop an approach to Holocaust education that speaks to students in yeshiva high schools in the Orthodox world, and helps them to understand the Holocaust in their own terms.
Towards an Integrated Approach

The bulk of my work in this paper is to discuss the Rav’s response to the Holocaust in Kol Dodi Dofek, and how it can comprise a meaningful unit of study in yeshiva high school limmudei kodesh classes. I believe, however, that studying Jewish theological and philosophical responses to the Holocaust should be accompanied by a serious unit of study about the Holocaust in a limmudei hol class, such as history, literature or art. The coordinated effort of teachers in limmudei kodesh and in limmudei hol yields, I believe, a more honest approach to the Holocaust. The Holocaust was an assault on every area of life for European Jewry in the 1930s and 1940s. Even before the Holocaust became a physical attack, beginning with smaller acts of violence and culminating in mass murder, it eroded family structures and interpersonal relationships, affected people in school and in the workplace, and made every part of “normal” living—secular and religious—impossible. The Holocaust was an “interdisciplinary” event, and its wide-reaching effects can be best conveyed using an interdisciplinary approach.

Before I explain how the Holocaust can be integrated into different disciplines, I would like to highlight the importance of using authentic voices to tell the story of the Holocaust. If possible, invite a survivor to address students. Otherwise, be certain to incorporate survivors’ testimonies in other ways. The most ethical way to tell the story of the Holocaust, and also the most effective way to appreciate its lessons, is to listen to its survivors.

A school or team of teachers that chooses to adopt my interdisciplinary suggestions would coordinate a unit of study that would last between two and four weeks. During these weeks, students would be exposed to at least two different perspectives on the Holocaust, at least one in limmudei hol and at least one in limmudei kodesh. The most obvious place to introduce a unit on the Holocaust in limmudei hol is in history class. In history, I suggest that a teacher not attempt to teach a survey of the entire Holocaust in just a few weeks. Rather, by choosing one or two historical issues that pertain to the Holocaust and exploring and unpacking them with the class, a teacher can expose students to central issues in Holocaust scholarship and convey to students the serious questions that historians, and other thinkers, ask about the Holocaust. Some examples of topics a teacher might want to explore are: What was the nature of Nazi antisemitism and its relationship with traditional Christian antisemitism? How did National Socialism take hold in Germany? What were the different Jewish responses to revoked emancipation in Germany 1933-1938? What was the evolution of the Final Solution? Who were the murderers and what are different perpetrator theories? How do diaries from the Warsaw Ghetto (e.g.: Chaim Kaplan, Adam Czerniakow) convey different Jewish responses to ghettoization? What are the different theories of survival in the slave labour camps? What was the role of the Vatican during the Holocaust? Who in the United States/Canada knew what, when and how? Why was Auschwitz never bombed? How did Holocaust survivors experience liberation, life in DP camps, and emigration to begin new lives?

In a literature class, Elie Weisel’s Night can easily be studied in just a few weeks. Alternately, a teacher might choose to read a few of Primo Levi’s essays (from The Drowned and the Saved, for example), or stories by Aharon Appelfeld (for example, Badenheim 1939). There is an abundance of quality literary works that are appropriate for yeshiva high school students and can be studied in only a few weeks.

In an art class, students could be exposed to issues concerning representation of the Holocaust, and be urged to consider what (if any) are the limits of artistic representation of the Holocaust. This could be done by studying some controversial and experimental artistic representations of the Holocaust. For example, art classes would benefit from examining Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful and Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and the criticism and praise that works like these have received.

These are some of the many topics and approaches that can be systematically introduced as short units on the Holocaust in limmudei hol classes. I believe that students who are exposed to testimonies, ideas and questions in their history, literature, or art class will be better equipped to understand the religious, theological, and philosophical responses to the Holocaust that come up in their limmudei kodesh classes. Conversely, students who study the Holocaust from a Jewish religious perspective will be able to ask better and more sophisticated questions in their history, literature, and art classes.

Students who learn and think about the Holocaust are bound to raise a host of moral and ethical questions: How was it humanly possible for the perpetrators to do what they did? Why did the world not stop the Nazis? Why did not more people resist? In addition, religious students who are taught to believe in an involved and just God inevitably turn to theological questions: Where was God? How can I believe in God after the Holocaust?

Educators in yeshiva high schools have a responsibility to address these theological questions. Although educators will not be able to “solve” these questions, they still must help students gain tools to cope with living a religious life after asking these questions. Is it possible that part of the reason yeshiva high schools do not teach about the Holocaust in a systematic fashion is that they are afraid of tackling these difficult questions? This cannot be answered conclusively. What is certain to me, however, is that sooner or later thinking adults will ask these weighty questions. If we want to be responsible educators, it is crucial that we acknowledge and grapple with these issues together with our students.

Over the next few pages, I propose a model for asking and addressing these questions. I begin with a section called “Kol Dodi Dofek,” in which I present a synopsis and analysis of the Rav’s philosophy of suffering and evil. In the next section, “Kol Dodi Dofek in the Classroom” I advance some practical suggestions for how to teach the Rav’s approach.

Kol Dodi Dofek

At the beginning of Kol Dodi Dofek* the Rav presents two modes of existence: existence according to fate, and existence according to destiny. The “I of fate” and the “I of destiny,” he explains, are two distinct types of individual. Each of these individuals approaches the problem of evil from a different perspective.

The I of fate is an object in history, “made and not a maker.” (p. 52) When faced with the problem of evil, the I of fate searches for answers. The I of fate imagines that metaphysical solutions will explain how it is that the righteous can suffer. He seeks to confirm his belief in a just world with an all-beneficent ruler. According to the Rav, the noble attempts of the I of fate are futile:

Judaism, with its realistic approach to man and his place in the world, understood that evil cannot be blurred or camouflaged and that any attempt to downplay the extent of the contradiction and fragmentation to be found in reality will neither endow man with tranquility nor enable him to grasp the essential mystery. (p. 53)
The Rav posits that it is impossible to deny the existence of evil in the world. No human being will ever succeed at rationalizing, and explaining away, the problem of evil. The Rav’s opinion (which he presents in the name of Judaism) is that God and the world are all-beneficent, but that this truth is beyond the human scope of perception. We do not experience the world as all-beneficent, because we have a limited perspective. Thus, the I of fate who searches for answers is doomed to fail at his quest.

Unlike the I of fate, the I of destiny asks no “theoretical-metaphysical” (p. 54) questions. Rather than asking “Why?” the I of destiny accepts that the problem of evil is unsolvable, and prefers to ask “What should I do?” This is appropriate for the active mode of existence that characterizes the I of destiny who lives “like a subject, like a creator, an innovator.” (p. 54) It is in the context of his description of existence according to destiny that the Rav presents his ideal response to evil: the “ethico-halakhic” response. (p. 55) The Rav words the “ethico-halakhic” question in a number of ways: “What must the sufferer do that he may live through his suffering?” (p. 55) “What obligation does suffering impose upon man?” (p. 56) “We ask neither about the cause of evil nor about its purpose but rather about how it might be mended and elevated.” (p. 56)

The Rav explains that these are not abstract questions. They have concrete and halakhic answers with practical implications: “Afflictions come to elevate a person, to purify and sanctify his spirit, to cleanse and purge it of the dross of superficiality and vulgarity, to refine his soul and broaden his horizons.” (p. 56) In a word, the appropriate response to evil and suffering is: teshuva. The Rav uses stirring language to illustrate the necessary link between suffering and repentance:

Woe unto the man whose suffering has not precipitated a spiritual crisis in the depths of his being, whose soul remains frozen and lacking forgiveness! Woe unto the sufferer if his heart is not inflamed by the fires of affliction, if his pangs do not kindle the lamp of the Lord that is within him! If a person allows his pains to wanted about the vast empty spaces of the cosmos like bling, purposeless forces, then a grave indictment is drawn up against him for having frittered away his suffering. (p. 57)

The I of destiny uses suffering as an opportunity for self-improvement. Interestingly, the Rav claims that the I of destiny also responds in this way to divine hesed (superabundant goodness). The experience of divine hesed motivates the I of destiny to “pay it forward” and act towards others with hesed. Thus, the experiences of good and evil both propel the I of destiny to become a better person.

One of the major benefits of the Rav’s analysis, especially when compared to other Jewish philosophies of evil, is that the Rav manages to minimize, as much as possible, the problem of the causes of suffering. In this way, the Rav’s theodicy is hardly a theodicy at all; the Rav makes no attempt to justify God. The Rav is aware of the major flaws in certain Jewish theodicies (reward and punishment, hester panim, etc.), and he is careful to stay far from the necessarily sticky and problematic questions of the causes of evil. Thus, the Rav manages to avoid the major problems that are inherent in most Jewish theodicies.

The Rav’s presentation is also satisfying because it presents evil as the beginning, rather than the end, of a process. If evil and suffering are the end of a process, then there is no reason for us to respond to them in any particular way, other than despair. According to the Rav’s presentation, however, evil and suffering are only the beginning of a much longer teshuva process. This hopeful presentation points toward a better future.

The third major benefit of the Rav’s response to evil is its practicality. The Rav’s I of destiny reminds us that philosophy is not a sufficient response to tragedy. Instead, the Rav offers useful advice about how to cope with suffering on a day-to-day basis, providing the sufferer an outlet in teshuva, hesed and communal involvement. Anyone who has experienced tragedy knows the tremendous value of having “something to do” in the wake of suffering.

The Rav’s response to evil is effective and satisfying insofar as it is practical, it presents evil as the beginning of a process, and it avoids questions of the causes of suffering. The Rav’s refusal to discuss the causes of suffering is not, however, an entirely good thing. To entirely ignore questions about the cause and source of suffering works against the natural human tendency and desire to understand the world. Thus, the Rav’s presentation cannot satisfy our natural sense of justice, and can leave us angry, afraid and uncertain in the face of tragedy. Also, without any theory about what causes suffering, we are unable to learn from suffering in the past and prevent it in the future.

The other major drawback in the Rav’s presentation is that it is effective only in responding to certain types of evil and suffering. The Rav uses the examples of Job, and American Jews during the Holocaust, who suffered and then after they suffered made attempts to consider their experiences. But what about those who are unable to move past their suffering? Can the Rav offer any answers as to the meaning of the deaths of Job’s sons, and those who perished in the Holocaust? The Rav emphasizes that “Suffering occurs in the world in order to contribute something to man.” (p. 56) This explanation cannot give meaning to the suffering of those who die as a result of their suffering. Indeed, we could argue that this is not a flaw; there is no reason to explain suffering to the dead. But nonetheless, we who are alive and face the suffering of others, including those who die, desire to find some meaning in their suffering.

Kol Dodi Dofek in the Classroom

Rather than diving straight into Kol Dodi Dofek, I urge limmudei kodesh teachers to adopt a more graduated approach. The following is a basic outline:

1. Introduction to theodicy in general, traditional Jewish theodicies

2. Faith responses to the Holocaust during the Holocaust

3. Faith responses to the Holocaust after the Holocaust: focus on Kol Dodi Dofek

4. Faith responses to the Holocaust after the Holocaust: comparative analysis

1. Theodicy is the defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in light of the presence of evil in the world. In any high school classroom, it is likely that some students are already grappling with and are perturbed by the problem of evil, while others have never given it much thought. A teacher should begin by discussing: What is theodicy? What are traditional Jewish theodicies? Teachers should spend time discussing some traditional Jewish theodicies, such as reward and punishment, and hester panim. What are the benefits of these two explanations of evil in the world? What are their drawbacks? Depending on time, it could be valuable to study selections from Job as an introductory text to the subject.
2. Now we turn to the Holocaust. Before discussing faith responses to the Holocaust from after the Holocaust, I think it is most honest to expose students to faith responses to the Holocaust from during the Holocaust. One valuable resource for this is responsa from the Kovno Ghetto, collected in Shelot Uteshuvot Mimaamakim. As well, there is an excellent Hebrew book called B’Seter Ra’am (by Esther Farbstein, Mossad Harav Kook, Jerusalem, 2002), which discusses and offers a variety of texts and sources on faith responses to the Holocaust during and immediately after the Holocaust. In one particularly interesting section, Farbstein discusses faith responses to the Holocaust that were expressed by survivors shortly after their liberation, while they were living in DP camps. This could also be a valuable area to explore with students, and could serve to bridge the discussion of faith responses during the Holocaust and faith responses after the Holocaust.

Alternately, or in addition, a teacher might choose to explore one survivors’ description of his/her faith responses to the Holocaust. Perhaps the most famous faith responses are in Elie Weisel’s Night. For example, from page 308:

For believing Jews the conviction that their sacrifice was required as a testimony to the Almighty God was more comforting than the supposition that He had abandoned them altogether. To be sure, God’s design was concealed from them, but they would remain steadfast in their faith. Morale was sustained by rabbis and pious Jews who, by their own resolute and exalted stance, provided a model of how Jews should encounter death.
From page 32:

Never shall I forget that night, that first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live.

These and other passages (for a particularly powerful rejection of faith see Night pages 64-65) provide an excellent introduction to one honest young man’s radical questioning during the Holocaust. Of course, in unpacking these texts a teacher’s main responsibility is to encourage students to try to understand and sympathize with the author’s perspective, without passing judgment.
3. Now we turn to our central discussion: faith after the Holocaust. Our focus text, as I have indicated, is Kol Dodi Dofek. It is worthwhile for a teacher to spend a number of sessions reading the first section of Kol Dodi Dofek with his/her students, and ensuring that the concepts the Rav introduces are clear: How does the Rav characterize the I of fate? How does the Rav characterize the I of destiny? How does each of these types respond to the problem of evil? Why is the I of fate doomed to fail, according to the Rav? What is the Rav’s ethico-halakhic response?

Once students are sufficiently comfortable with the Rav’s terminology and ideas, they can analyze the Rav’s presentation. I think the central question for the class is whether the Rav advances a new Jewish theodicy. In my opinion, as I have indicated previously, the answer to this question is no. In Kol Dodi Dofek, the Rav does not try to justify God. Instead, he advances practical solutions for how to live life, in a halakhic fashion, given the limits of theodicy. The class must then consider what are the benefits and what are the drawbacks of the Rav’s avoidance of theodicy (see my comments on benefits and drawbacks in the previous section).

Rather than presenting Kol Dodi Dofek as the ultimate Jewish answer to the problem of evil, I think it is valuable to encourage students to evaluate critically the Rav’s presentation. The conclusion of this evaluation could be as tentative as: “There are problems with Kol Dodi Dofek, but it might be the best we can do.” Based on his own writings in Kol Dodi Dofek, it does not seem that the Rav believed that we can provide one satisfying answer to all of the questions that arise among thinking and believing Jews after the Holocaust.
4. Finally, depending on the amount of time a school dedicates to this unit, students could be given the task of comparing the Rav’s faith response to the Holocaust in Kol Dodi Dofek to other Jewish thinkers’ theological responses to the Holocaust, such as Eliezer Berkovits’ Faith After the Holocaust or Irving Greenberg’s “Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity and Modernity after the Holocaust.” Depending on the school, it could be appropriate to compare and contrast with Emil Fackenheim’s To Mend the World and Richard Rubenstein’s After Auschwitz.
Conclusion: High School and Crises of Faith

Anyone who has taught in high school or who has attended high school, knows that high school is a time for crises of faith. A personal or communal tragedy hits, and immediately students begin to ask about God, and question their beliefs. In my view, this is a very good thing, provided that educators are prepared to support their students and help them gain the resources to grapple with such crises.

My objective in this paper has been to suggest an approach to teaching the Holocaust that is tailored for the specific needs of yeshiva high schools. One of my several goals was to sensitize yeshiva high school students to the challenges that face thinking Jews who live halakhic lives in a post-Holocaust world. It is my hope that students who grapple with the Holocaust in a protective environment will find a language according to which their religious lives can be in consonance with their awareness of the atrocities of history. This will make them well-equipped to face the challenges that inevitably arise in their own lives. On a more basic level, the approaches to evil that have been suggested by the Rav and other Jewish thinkers comfort students; these approaches help to alleviate their loneliness, making students aware that they are not the only ones who have faced or who face profound trials that have challenged their set of beliefs and way of life.

* The edition of Kol Dodi Dofek is from Theological and Halakhic Reflections on the Holocaust, edited by Bernhard H. Rosenberg and Fred Heuman, 1992.

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