The Holocaust: A Case Study in Oral vs. Textual Judaism

As Pesach approaches, along with the stresses of cleaning and cooking come feelings of deep tradition and an excitement about performing millennia-old rituals in ways similar to how Jews have always celebrated this central biblical holiday. While attending or hosting a Pesach seder is one of the few yearly events that most Jews observe, and hence stands out as a ritual we have deep nostalgic ties to, we know (from e.g. Haym Soloveitchik’s Rupture and Reconstruction) that this is how Judaism as a lived, or oral religion, was always passed on. However, the combined forces of modernity and, especially, the Holocaust, led to a major break in this chain of tradition. Unable to recall a peaceful childhood full of the rituals, sights and smells of their Jewish upbringing, many Jews had little choice but to consult the central texts of our tradition to re-create the rich Judaism that their ancestors had lived mimetically. Much was lost, religiously, as a result, and when text replaced lived experience as the ultimate authority in Jewish life, many Jews were left with a more rigid understanding of Jewish law and how it had evolved and operated over history.

Fortunately, Jews wrote many things in the pre-modern world, not just legal codes, and many of these documents — especially the responsa literature — shed a much more nuanced light on how Jews lived out their Judaism. In addition, the field of Holocaust studies as a historical enterprise has unearthed countless records of pre-war Jewish life, and the ways in which it was differently shaped by text than contemporary Jewish life is.

One fascinating example of this dynamic was recently examined by Holly Huffnagle, in an article published in January, entitled “Peaceful Coexistence? Jewish and Muslim Neighbors on the Eve of the Holocaust.” In it, Huffnagle examines the relationship between the Jewish communities and the ethnic Tatar Muslim communities of Poland in the inter-war period. The mere fact that there was (and is) a native population of Muslims in Poland was a surprise to me — as it was to many Poles alive today, as the author found while researching this history.

In the article, Huffnagle examines various spheres of interaction between the two communities, and concludes that there was a (largely) positive relationship ranging from the intimate to the more mundane (e.g. business interactions). Viewing this article through the lens of mimetic transmission of Judaism, the vignettes describing the most intimate interactions stand out. Huffnagle describes Aron Derman, a Jew who lived in Slonim and shared his Pesach experiences with a Tatar Muslim family growing up:

“The only thing that was … different where I lived, we had one family who had lived there for many, many years, from generations before, [who were] Tatars – they were Muslims. For all the years, my [Tatar] friend was real friendly with me, and the whole family was almost like one family. We were very, very close together. And in fact, for years, [they lived] with us and they spoke Yiddish just as well as we did. And the same thing with the Jewish holidays … They used to like, almost like celebrate [our holidays] in their home. For example, on Passover, was the community baking of matzo … The neighbors got together and they baked their own matzo. So … the Tatar family – the Muslim family – her name was Hanifa … she used to come over with a bag of flour and contribute … and help to make the dough and bake the matzo … And then in the time of the holidays … her kids, used to eat matzo like we did …” (p. 11)

This is remarkable for at least a few reasons. First, it describes in detail a lived Judaism in which the boundaries between Jew and Other are malleable. Specifically, this occurred in Slonim, a town that is even today known as a great center of Jewish learning (we still study the teachings of the Slonimer Rebbe, 1911-2000), which lends credence to this type of interaction as regular and accepted. Further, this particular story was about preparing matzah for Pesach, an area of ritual life that is particularly rife with stress, as many Jews are experiencing right now. The idea that non-Jews would be embraced as part of that experience harkens back to a time when Judaism was lived fluidly with the neighbours that Jews found themselves living amongst.

When reflecting on life in 1930s Poland, and the ways in which the picture of Judaism there is different from contemporary Judaism, it is important to note that the world in which we live, one where text reigns supreme, was only brought about due to a genocidal attempt on the life of the Jewish people. Were it not for that unspeakable tragedy, we would still be living mimetically, and maybe in much closer partnership with our non-Jewish neighbours.

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