Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
In 1939 I was a Hasidic youth of 16, deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition and confident in my beliefs. In 1945, after six years in the ghetto and in concentration camps, I was in a state of physical and emotional exhaustion and spiritual numbness. Along with the loss of my family and my people, I had also lost two important sources of stability and comfort: the belief in divine providence and the belief in the goodness of human beings. The destruction of the largest and most devout Jewish community in modern history undermined my belief in divine justice, and my experiences in concentration camps led me to conclude that human beings are potentially the most dangerous creatures on earth.
The process of going from religious commitment to religious confusion began when I was still in the ghetto. I remember a particular event that made prayer difficult for me. In the spring of 1941 we were living in a ghetto and were periodically harassed or beaten. One day a rumor spread that the Germans were planning an “action” against Communists (“action” was a euphemism for murder). In the middle of the night we heard shots, and my father and I went into hiding. There was a tile factory in the courtyard of our apartment building that belonged to the Kozlowsky family, who were Poles. With their knowledge we hid in a large, empty oven where tiles were fired. In the morning, after the shooting had stopped, we returned home.
My father and I were getting ready to recite the morning prayers when there was a knock on the door. It was the sister of Itche Glikler. Her brother had been murdered, and she came to ask my father, who was a member of the Jewish Help Committee, to help them get Itche a grave of his own. Itche was a young man whom we all admired for his learning, piety, and sensitivity. I was particularly fond of him, and the idea that he had been shot in the gutter as a Communist was shattering.
After his sister left I returned to the morning prayers, but as I recited the opening verse, Hodu La’adonai, kir’u vishmo hodiu va’amim ali’lotav (“Give thanks to the Lord, call upon His name; make known His deeds among the nations”), the words stuck in my throat. Until this experience my problem with prayer was my tendency to daydream; at times I failed to focus on what I was saying. This time I couldn’t pray because I understood what I was saying. I repeated the verse several times, but I couldn’t go on. I took off the tefillin and sat there stunned. Several hours later, just when the appointed time for morning prayers was about to end, I put the tefillin on again and recited the prayers quickly, the way one runs through a minefield. I need not tell you that my subsequent experiences in the concentration camps didn’t improve my ability to pray.
For several years after my liberation, even when I was already in the United States, I was still in a state of confusion. I didn’t know how to think about God, what to do about prayer. At the same time, I continued to have a strong attachment to the Jewish way of life: its traditions, its holidays and festivals, its rituals, and its literature. It was my culture, but under the radically altered circumstances of my life I didn’t know how to give expression to it. In college one of my professors, also a Jew, once asked me, “Mr. Gold, I know that you are not observant, so why don’t you come to class on Saturdays and on Jewish holidays?” I replied, “What I do with my tradition privately is a personal matter, but violating it publicly would be a declaration that it did not matter.” I was in the odd situation of being in exile from God but at home with the Jewish tradition, and not knowing what to do about it. I was then a Hebrew teacher, and I taught the children Jewish traditions with warmth and conviction, but at Shabbat services I read Midrash instead of praying.
Several things impeded the healing of my alienation. One was that I had an unrealistic sense of the Judaism that we practiced in Poland before the war. Celebrations of Shabbat and holidays in the United States paled by comparison with my memories of the way our family had observed them. I had exaggerated their beauty and meaningfulness to the point that no observance in the present could match them. Then there was my thinking about Judaism in the simplistic terms of my childhood. After the terrible tragedy I was looking for the certainty of a Hasidic youth in Poland.
I was teaching Hebrew at a Conservative congregation, but having grown up in an Orthodox home precluded the possibility of becoming a Conservative Jew. How could I take seriously what I had been raised to view as compromised? At the same time, when I tried an Orthodox synagogue I didn’t feel like I belonged there either. I was comparing an idealized past with a prejudged present.
I had learned English rather quickly, and I seemed to be a regular fellow. Few people knew—and I’m not sure that even I realized—what was going on inside me. In Poland my education was strictly within the Jewish tradition. In heder I had learned a little Polish, history, and arithmetic. In the yeshiva we viewed all secular education as contaminating. We actually believed that we had nothing to learn from the goyim. It was in the United States that I first became acquainted with Western literature. I read the works of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Voltaire and was impressed by them. I also read the classics of modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature, and their critique of the life I had lived before the war was not lost on me. All of these factors affected me deeply. I was a battleground of conflicting ideas that contended for my allegiance and were shaping my new self.
The turning point came when I had to decide what I was going to do with my life. At college I had studied education and anthropology. At the same time I was also working on a doctorate in Hebrew literature at the College of Jewish Studies. When I asked myself what was really important to me, I got a clear answer. Three things were important to me: Jews, Judaica (that is, Jewish learning), and Judaism (the practice of the Jewish tradition). After the Holocaust, as far as I was concerned, the only cultural and religious tradition that was unsullied was Judaism. It didn’t take me long to realize that these three interests could be fulfilled only in the rabbinate.
This finding presented me with a new dilemma. Feeling alienated from God and unable to accept the traditional doctrine of reward and punishment, how could I think of becoming a rabbi? True, I had an attachment to the traditional way of life, but I had lived without it long enough to make me wonder whether it was nostalgic or real. While I couldn’t resolve this dilemma, I was sure of one thing: I had a longing for the study of Talmud, I suppose because this was the link to my prewar self. On the strength of this realization I applied for admission to the Jewish Theological Seminary. I am grateful to the leaders of the seminary, particularly to Professors Louis Finkelstein, Simon Greenberg, and Abraham Joshua Heschel, who interviewed me. They saw my perplexities and my inability to commit to becoming a rabbi, but nonetheless they accepted me to the seminary.
In retrospect, I’m glad I had the courage to make that decision, because it led to wrestling with my doubts while I was engaged in the study of traditional Jewish sources. Without my immersion in them, I might have ended up like many Jews who started where I was. Like them, I would have become an exile from my tradition with periodic surges of nostalgia, particularly during the High Holidays and Passover. On entering the seminary I took upon myself the whole regimen of traditional Jewish practice, and I was pleased to discover that it was a freeing experience; I had the feeling of having returned home. There were still dark moments when I almost gave up the rabbinate, but without that commitment I might never have found my way back to a living Judaism.
With my prewar certainties gone, I searched the traditional sources for new understanding and in the process discovered that I didn’t really understand much of what I already knew. From my studies in Poland I had retained knowledge of many texts, both biblical and Talmudic, but my understanding of them was clouded by the literalism that had dominated my education. In the yeshiva, history, philosophy, and even Hebrew grammar were not part of the curriculum; it was assumed that they would lead to heresy. My reeducation, which began at the university, took a positive turn at the seminary, where I approached the Jewish tradition with a minimum of preconceptions. The study of Jewish history introduced me to the varieties of Judaism that were practiced in different eras and places, as well as to its unifying themes, an experience that was both liberating and perplexing.
Eventually, I succeeded in freeing myself from the all-or-nothing thinking that characterized traditionalist polemics in prewar Poland and still does now. I realized that the either–or propositions about God and about Jewish observance were a trap, that the slippery slope is only for those who want to slide down. Most importantly, I learned that true religion is and always was complex, with faith and doubt intermingled. In this quest I found inspiration and support in the Bible itself. When Jeremiah turns to God and asks, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are the workers of treachery at ease?” (Jer. 12:1), he is asking the same question raised by all of us who are perplexed about the ways of God that are ultimately hidden from us.
As you would expect, the Book of Job played an important role in my reeducation. Here is a book that is part of sacred scripture, arguing against the accepted belief in divine reward and punishment. Job’s friends, who represent the conventional view, try hard to persuade him that if he suffered he must have sinned, thus adding insult to injury. But Job, convinced that he is innocent, refuses to accept guilt. To this day I cringe when I hear that the Holocaust was a punishment for our sins. There is nothing more demeaning to Judaism than this crude and insensitive justification of the ways of God. The important lesson of Job is that despite what the Bible tells us about God, ultimately we do not know His ways. That is the significance of the questions that come at the end of the book. It is a sobering and humbling lesson, but one that befits human beings at all times.
Once the certainty of knowing the ways of God was gone, I had to learn to live with imponderables and paradoxes, with more questions than answers. Eventually I came to understand that questions, no matter how many and how cogent, are only questions. It is our impatience that turns them into answers. At the same time, I discovered that while the Bible and the Talmud generally speak about God in positive and human terms, alongside them there are qualifications to warn us that we are dealing with metaphors. When the Bible tells us Ki lo yirani ha’adam vahai (“A person cannot see Me and live,” Exod. 33:20), it is in effect telling us about the uniqueness and radical otherness of God.
After I had sufficiently freed myself from the literalism of my previous education, I realized that my conception of God was derived from a simplistic reading of traditional Jewish sources. It then occurred to me that my quarrels were not with God but with a particular conception of Him. Here I should say that what I had gained in understanding came at the cost of losing the comfort of a personal deity.
The next formidable task was dealing with the authority of the Torah. The sages of the Mishnah state that “Moses received the Torah from Sinai” (Avot 1:1). Here the word Torah includes the Bible and the oral tradition that was later committed to writing in the Talmud. Until modern times Jews believed that both were divinely revealed. However, the application of literary, historical, philological, and archaeological tools to the study of the Bible showed that the biblical text is not uniform; that parts of it were from earlier and parts from later times; and that some biblical laws, narratives, and poetry were influenced by the literature of neighboring peoples. This raised the following question: if the Torah is not the word of God revealed to Moses, then what is its authority? Or, as an Orthodox Jew once asked me, “If you don’t believe that the commandments were ordained by God, why would you bother to observe them?” My immediate response was, “Do you mean to say that unless God commanded our whole cultural-religious tradition, it’s garbage?” Essentially what I was saying to this man was that the “either/or” approach to deciding the worth of a millennial cultural-religious tradition that inspired the creation of an extensive literature of law, philosophy, and mysticism and that sustained Jewish life in all parts of the globe is too simplistic to be taken seriously.
Eventually I came to understand that questions, no matter how many and how cogent, are only questions. It is our impatience that turns them into answers.
After wrestling with this problem, I concluded that there is something wrong with a religious belief that requires us to ignore the accumulated evidence of learning that was acquired not for the purpose of challenging God or the truth of Scripture but in an effort to understand it. The idea of rejecting the findings of modern biblical scholarship to protect religious conceptions of the past is highly problematic.
Despite the persuasive arguments of modern scholarship, it wasn’t easy for me to change my literalist belief about the Bible. But when this change finally occurred, it opened up new vistas. Whereas before I came to the Bible and the Talmud with a set of beliefs that limited their meaning, now, with the help of modern scholarship, I began to see their variety and richness. Believing that God verbally communicated the whole Torah to Moses certainly gives it authority, but such a belief requires seeing the Torah as a uniform text, which scholarship has shown that it is not. It leads to explaining away differing versions of laws and stories instead of accepting the fact that they derive from different periods and different sources. More to the point, it leads to the notion of a “Judaism eternal,” a Judaism that has been the same ever since Sinai, whereas the Bible reports reforms that took place in the seventh century B.C.E. under King Josaiah, and the greatest reform of biblical religion was instituted by the rabbis of the Talmud. That reform resulted in the creation of Judaism, by which we have lived ever since.
Finally, the belief that the whole Torah was verbally revealed denies the cultural interplay between Jews and their neighbors that modern scholarship has recovered for us, an interplay that testifies to a creative Jewish religious civilization that was engaged in a give-and-take relationship with the surrounding nations. This fact, which is important in itself, also challenges the belief that Jews are a people apart from all other nations—an attitude that runs counter to historical facts. If the Jewish people had actually been insular and resistant to the ideas and beliefs of other cultures, we never would have had the flowering of medieval Jewish philosophy, poetry, ethics, and mysticism, much of it written in Arabic and influenced by the best thinking of the surrounding cultures, especially Islam.
In my wish to return to Jewish learning and living I wasn’t concerned with the ultimate authority of the Torah, nor was I looking for an insurance policy on life in the world to come. What I was looking for was a way to return to my tradition. In my search I discovered that studying the Bible and the Talmud and other traditional Jewish works was in itself an experience that led to practice, like the observance of Shabbat and holidays.
The knowledge that in the Holocaust human beings murdered other human beings whom they had never met before has not left me. Its frightening implication that “we” are potentially “they” is always with me. The antidote to this possibility is my reflection on the name Israel, which was given to the patriarch Jacob, “because he had striven with God and with people and had prevailed” (Gen. 32:29). Wrestling with God and with ourselves is an essential part of Jewish religious piety. This is particularly important in our time, when some Jews, in their zeal for God, are prepared to suspend the ethical. As against that, what characterizes Judaism is the integration of the ritual and the ethical, the concern for both the holy and the human.
Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold is director emeritus of Harvard Hillel. His essay is drawn from his memior The Life of Jews in Poland before the Holocaust (2007) by permission of the University of Nebraska Press.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.
Support us with a donation this giving season.