Last night I showed what I think is one of the most important films about the Holocaust to my Introduction to Judaism students. The Film is called “The Quarrel”. The setting is Montreal a few years after World War II and it involves a chance meeting between two former yeshiva students both of whom thought the other was murdered in the Holocaust. One of the men, Hersh Rasseyner, has become a rabbi and now lives in Montreal teaching in a yeshiva he founded. Most of his students are also survivors. The other, Chaim Kovler, is a secularist Jew, a Yiddish writer and is Montreal on a reading tour. Because it is Rosh haShanah, the two take the opportunity to spend the day talking and arguing with one another, picking up right where they left off before the war. Their argument is their prayer. Based on a novel by Chaim Grade, the film is marvelously crafted and the dialogue is a superb choreography of how their two perspectives on Judaism, God, and life intertwine, collide and stand in contradistinction to one another. As individuals, both Chaim and Hersh are damaged traumatized souls whose day-to-day lives are inhabited by the ghosts of their experiences whom they keep at bay through their dedication to their respective careers. Their coming together, releases those spirits, enabling each to feel both the force of his own emotions
Based on a novel by Chaim Grade, the film is marvelously crafted and the dialogue is a superb choreography of how their two perspectives on Judaism, God, and Life intertwine, collide and stand in contradistinction to one another. As individuals, both Chaim and Hersh are damaged, traumatized souls whose day-to-day lives are inhabited by the ghosts of their experiences whom they keep at bay through their dedication to their respective careers. Their coming together releases those spirits, enabling each to feel both the force of his own emotions and the impact of the other’s. Many times during their “quarrel” they were brought to the brink of tearing their long-lost relationship apart. Somehow, they are able to maintain their basic respect for one another as human beings and as Jews.
I told my students that Judaism, post-Holocaust Judaism, now lives squarely in the middle between the two perspectives of these study partners and their responses to the Holocaust, one a deepened commitment to traditional, Jewish observance and the other a secular-human brand of Judaism whose horizons have no limits. That tension is what animates Judaism in the post-Holocaust era and both extremities are essential to fueling that animation.
At this time in history, when the last eyewitnesses to the Holocaust are reaching the ends of their lives, it is incumbent on those of us who will become the survivors-of-the-survivors to keep this centuries-old philosophical tension alive. This will not be easy for us because we have become so dichotomized and we too often live in completely different worlds. Still, I truly believe that it is this dissonance, the disharmony of this “quarrel” and so many others like it within Judaism, that has kept us alive as a people. We really cannot afford to disengage from these quarrels. In a strange and beautiful way, the ability to so struggle is our gift to humanity. These wrestling matches, which have always been a vital part of Jewish life, are the paths to change, the paths to betterment, the paths to justice, the paths to respect and equity, the paths to peace. There’s even a term for such a struggle in Judaism, it is called a Machloket l’Sheym Shamayim, מחלקת לשם שמים, a “dispute for the sake of heaven”!
This Yom haShoah, this Holocaust Memorial Day and during the Shabbat that precedes it, may we dedicate ourselves to honor both the victims and the survivors of the Holocaust by becoming survivors ourselves. In their memories, and for the future, let us quarrel – for the preservation of Judaism and Jewishness, for the sake of humanity and the potential for a “heaven” that can be created among us, and for the sake of wholeness and peace.