It’s funny how easily one conversation with a rabbi can span a thousand years and three continents.
Rabbi Shai Finkelstein was born and grew up in Israel, spent 16 years leading the Baron Hirsch Synagogue, the premiere Orthodox shul in Memphis, Tennessee, and now leads a synagogue, Kehillat Nitzanim, in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Baka. And when he speaks in Teaneck on Sunday (see box), he will be talking about the Jews victimized by the Crusades in Europe in 1096.
Rabbi Finkelstein will focus on the sacrifices the Jews of the Rhineland — today’s Germany and France — made in the face of gentile oppression. “It’s an interesting subject matter, especially before Tisha B’Av,” he said. The fast day’s liturgy includes elegies written following the attacks that devastated Jewish communities in Speyer, Worms, and Mainz.
Rabbi Finkelstein will look at how the term term “Kiddush Hashem,” meaning sanctifying the Divine name, shifted in meaning over the millennia. He’ll start by looking at its use in biblical and talmudic texts, but it was during the mass slaughter of Jews in Western Europe during the Crusades that the phrase took on its most haunting meaning of martyrdom, and that’s the period he’ll concentrate on.
That was when Jewish families chose death by sword over conversion, both for themselves and for their children, seeing themselves as carrying out Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of Isaac.
“Some were passive,” he said. “Some were very active. One of the testimonies from the 12th century talks about parents killing their children so they would not fall into the hands of the crusaders.
“That shocked me as a person and halachically,” he said. Because how can Jewish law justify murder? “It’s one thing to choose death passively, but not to kill one’s own children,” he said.
What the martyrs saw as a clear commandment was not so clear to later halachic authorities discussing the matter after the fact. “Even in the 13th century, they did not feel comfortable with it, but until the 14th century they tried to justify it and find different sources for it,” Rabbi Finkelstein said. “In the 16th century we see criticism of it,” he added.
Rabbi Solomon Luria, known as Maharshal, was one of the rabbis who discussed the question in the 16th century. “It was very delicate for him,” Rabbi Finkelstein said. “He had a high esteem for chasidei Ashkenaz — the pious people. But we can see he is very surprised by what they did. He cannot find a way to justify them. When you read between the lines, he’s really not happy.”
Nearly a thousand years after the Crusades, in the 20th century, the meaning of “Kiddush Hashem” changed again.
“When you move to the Shoah, the Kiddush Hashem was not to be killed, to stay alive,” he said. “It was a tremendous change.”
Rabbi Ephraim Oshry was the rabbi of the Kovno ghetto. He survived the war, and beginning in 1959 published the halachic responsa he had written in the ghetto.
“He brings a terrible question, where someone asked to be allowed to commit suicide” in the face of oppression. “He says that in the end, only three people committed suicide. Kiddush Hashem is to stay alive as much as possible.”
Rabbi Finkelstein first came to America when he was 23. “I was a young rabbi,” he said. Before that, “I was tutoring Americans in Yeshiva Sha’alavim. They were very serious in learning and I enjoyed teaching them.” That made him curious about their backgrounds. “I thought it was important to see a different kind of religious community. I also wanted to reach out to my brothers” — in the figurative sense, that is — “to try to help them and learn from them as well.
“We decided we’d go for two years. Two years became four. Four became 16. We left with great memories.”
He and his wife also left with four children, most of them born in the United States.
He recently spoke to a group of rabbis who are considering shlichut — going to teach, preach, and demonstrate being Israeli outside Israel. He told them “it will enrich their rabbinic skills, their people skills, their understanding, their creativity. I really think it helps tremendously.”
In America — or more accurately, in Memphis — Rabbi Finkelstein found himself “impressed by the sense of kehillah,” community. In contrast to Israel, where synagogues are government institutions maintained by government workers, “People were putting effort and time and money and thinking into building a community. The idea is that if you don’t take care of the kehillah, there is no one else.”
“It’s very impressive. I want to try to bring this idea to Israel.”
He was also surprised and impressed by how much his community loved Israel.
“In Memphis, there was an unwavering commitment to Israel. I knew there was support, but I don’t know if I appreciated it before. As an Israeli, it was a heartwarming phenomenon.”
And then there were the small differences between the United States and Israel.
“It’s very comfortable to drive in Memphis. You have parking everywhere you want. No one is honking. There’s a different atmosphere. Everyone is nice. They say, ‘Hello, how are you, how are you doing?’”
One thing Rabbi Finkelstein picked up in Memphis is a business degree.
As a rabbi, he found it useful professionally. That was particularly true in Memphis, but it’s also true in his Israeli synagogue now.
“The rabbi is different things for different people,” he said. “You really need to know a lot about many things. You need to know the language of management and leadership, and you need to have some of the tools. It helps in the planning, in the leadership and management skills, the fundraising skills.
“Baruch Hashem I earned this degree. Having that is really a tremendous help.”
What: “Kiddush Hashem or Suicide? A Halachic and Historical Analysis of Jewish Martyrdom”
Who: Rabbi Shai Finkelstein, rabbi of Kehilat Nitzanim in Baka, Jerusalem
When: Sunday, July 28, 8:30 p.m.
Where: Congregation Rinat Yisrael, 389 West Englewood Ave., Teaneck
How much: Free