The Khaliver Rebbe, Rabbi Menahem Mendel Taub (1923 – 2019), knew much about suffering. In 1944, he was deported to Auschwitz, where he was an experimental subject of the evil doctor Josef Mengele. As a result of the mis-treatment he was forced to endure, he could never father children and could not grow a beard – permanent scars of the horrors inflicted upon him. His experiences underlie his explanation of why Jews traditionally cover the eyes when reciting Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4), the central affirmation of Judaism. Rabbi Taub explains that the reason why we cover our eyes, blocking out the light as we say the opening line of the Shema is to affirm that even in the deepest darkness, we still proclaim our faith. Indeed, the recital of Shema has been documented as the last utterance of Jewish martyrs throughout history.
But as much as the Shema has been the martyr’s creed, it is more than that. The recital of Shema – like the performance of all mitzvot – is a declaration that Jews refuse to be consigned to the dustbin of history; that Judaism is not just worth dying for – Judaism is worth living for. Those who observe the mitzvot are not merely paying sentimental homage to the past but are committed to fostering a renascent future.
American emigrant to Israel, Rabbi David Hartman (1931-2013), keenly observed: “In Tel Aviv, [secular Jews] walk with their puppies. In Jerusalem, [religious Jews] walk with their children.” He went on to say: “American Jews build Holocaust memorials. Religious Jews have children. This way, religious Jews, have defeated Hitler. They have re-established every institution that existed in Eastern Europe before the war. That’s a powerful statement.”
We might add, that is the positive message behind reciting Shema. Judaism, argues Edward Rothstein, does not need more Jewish museums that are, in essence, “morgues,” but more Jews.