The Holy Fire: The Teachings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto is a journey into the mind and spirit of a sublime hasidic master in his moments of joy and tranquillity, and later, in his time of personal and communal catastrophe. The reader takes a voyage into the rich and variegated world of twentieth-century Hasidism in Poland, a world destroyed by the Holocaust. This is a volume inspired by a deeply sensitive and poetic individual of faith who is grappling with an unfolding disaster.
While the Holocaust has engendered a voluminous body of religious and philosophical writings attempting to probe the issues this unfathomable period raises in all their enormity, virtually all were written after the war, when a modicum of distance and reflection is possible. Contemporaneous diaries and chronicles written as the events were happening concentrate on the descriptive accounts of the horrors. The Holy Fire, however, engages a sustained theological reflection and stands alone as an extended religious response from within the heart of darkness itself while the catastrophe takes place, and is, for this reason, an extraordinary document and an astonishing personal achievement.
In The Holy Fire, Rabbi Nehemia Polen analyzes the social and spiritual anguish of war-besieged Warsaw and of Eastern Europe's last hasidic master. Polen's research articulates Rabbi Shapira's realization that the theological garment, however holy and true, is acknowledged as inadequate for understanding the atrocities with which he is confronted.
Faith, the author suggests, involves a mystical, participatory relationship with God, leaving no room for a realm isolated from divinity. Human will, power, mind, and heart are all gifts from God and are all surrendered fully to Him. In this consciousness, one arrives at a view of the world beyond judgment, beyond evaluation, beyond criticism or the need for explanation. The world simply is; it is the way it must be. Such a vision is achieved by a surrender of every particle of autonomous ego, a total submergence of the self and the mind in the enveloping waters of divine being. While the world crumbles around him, disassembled piece by piece, and his soul is simultaneously cut to the marrow by the inexorable progression of events, Rabbi Shapira continues to inject his living, unyielding, and edifying presence and occasions the birth of a document among the falling ruins.
Nehemia Polen has written a book of major importance. The first detailed study of the teachings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, this work illuminates as few others have done the real issues of faith and doubt during the Shoah. Unlike most of the ruminations about the meaning of the Holocaust for Jewish belief that have been written after the event by those who were not there, the teachings of Rabbi Shapira emerged from, and were shaped by, the daily reality of ghetto life. Their power and authenticity are overwhelming. Polen has done a wonderful job of deciphering them and making them available to a contemporary audience. Everyone interested in Jewish thought during and after the Holocaust should read this book. -- Steven T. Katz, Cornell University This is not a book about the Holocaust or hasidism. Contrary to the subtitle, it is not even a book about the final writings of one of the gedolim, or great ones of our generation. The Holy Fire is primarily a manual on comprehending evil from within God. And that makes it an invaluable took for anyone interested in Jewish spiritual renewal. -- Lawrence Kushner Tikkun Written with fear and in anguish by an exceptionally promising young scholar, Rabbi Nehemia Polen's volume about one of the most inspired hasidic masters during the Holocaust deserves to be studies and shared by theologians and secular readers alike. -- Elie Wiesel