Reviews and Endorsements for "Embracing Auschwitz"

About this book

The Judaism of Sinai and the Judaism of Auschwitz are merging, resulting in new visions of Judaism that are only beginning to take shape.

Each of the chapters of this book outlines an aspect of this work-in-progress, this Torah of Auschwitz, and we will see just how the ways of Sinai are being recast, the old wells re-dug.

Jewish survival will not be assured until the grandchildren of survivors and others of their generation can begin to take the darkness of the Shoah and turn it into a song, absorbing the absurdity of a silent God while loving life nonetheless.

Advance Praise for Embracing Auschwitz

“As the Holocaust shifts from living wound to fitful memory, the urgent question is not just how to remember but why. In Embracing Auschwitz, Rabbi Joshua Hammerman gives us a compelling and provocative answer. His ‘Torah of Auschwitz’ celebrates the life-affirming values of heroism, persistence, faith, Jewish unity and defense, and universal justice.  Embracing Auschwitz is an essential contribution to our understanding of what we as a people need to carry from the 20th into the 21st century.”
Yossi Klein Halevi,
Senior Fellow, Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem
author, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor

“I hate the title of this book and there are tens of passages which make me wince and grit my teeth in order to go on. Yet this is an important book and should be read by every Jew who cares about Judaism—because its central point is true and it offers wisdom to guide us into the Jewish future. Hammerman’s fundamental thesis is that the Holocaust must be incorporated into the fabric of Jewish religion. Our understanding of every tradition and ethical commandment must be reshaped by its light. This book shows how to do this. Thankfully, he makes clear that the correct application of this concept is not to magnify death and the feeling of victimization. Rather it is to respond with greater intensity of human responsibility and to savor life even more for its fragility and vulnerability. This is not to mention other exciting challenges in the book. Take his bold proposal—for the sake of creating an indissoluble bond—to grant every Jew in the world a vote in Israel. I don’t agree but this is a proposal that makes waves and is worth fighting over. In short, damn the torpedoes and wrecks along the way. Full speed ahead. Read this book. Criticize its faults. Absorb its truths. The life you inspire may well be your own.”
Rabbi Dr. Irving “Yitz” Greenberg,
founding director of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust,
Chair of the Holocaust Memorial Museum
founding President of the Jewish Life Network

“With immense insight and unstinting honesty, this work looks hard at the Holocaust’s enduring meaning for Jewish identity and the world. In examining the past in all its complexities, Rabbi Hammerman suggests a hopeful path for our complex Jewish community. Like many of Rabbi Hammerman’s sermons and other writings, it is eye opening and thought provoking. Embracing Auschwitz will make you think and feel—no walk in the park, but a journey well worth taking and embracing.”
—U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal

“A powerful meditation on what Judaism could be in this time.”
Peter Beinart, author, The Crisis of Zionism

“Starting with a jarring book title, Joshua Hammerman captures our imagination and re-pivots our approach to dealing with the horrors of the Holocaust. As a gifted journalist and spiritual leader, he makes his case with a clear voice and open heart, showing us that we can fulfill the biblical mandate to ‘choose life’ by doing so with new forms of joy and sanctity. Hammerman’s brave new vision challenges us and demands our attention.”
Gary Rosenblatt, Editor At Large, The Jewish Week

From Reform Judaism

Book Review: Embracing Auschwitz


I have a cynical friend who claims that there have been more books written about the Holocaust than there were people who perished in it. That is, no doubt, an exaggeration, but it is true that most of the books on this subject sound very much alike. Joshua Hammerman’s Embracing Auschwitz (Ben Yehuda Press) deserves our attention because it is by far the most original book on this subject that has come along in a great many years.
It acknowledges right up front that this was the darkest time in all of human history, but it affirms that this generation can achieve new visions of faith and strength – and even joy – out of a confrontation with it. And I don’t know of anyone who has said anything like that before.
He tells what he learned the first time that he was on a bus with a group of teenagers on the way to the hell-on-earth that was Auschwitz. He expected them to be feeling an overwhelming sense of dread, but when he looked around, he saw that these kids were trading their school pins and their sweatshirts and displaying an astonishing amount of teenage hormones… and he realized that they were the ultimate repudiation of the Nazis’ intentions.
Right there, right on the way to the center of the valley of the shadow of death, these kids were expressing the excitement of life, and they were thereby demonstrating that the Final Solution was not so final after all.
And it is here that Hammerman offers his boldest idea, an idea that offends us when we first hear it, an idea to which our first reaction is that this is something that goes beyond the boundary of what a Jew can say. He proposes that there are now two Torahs that we must learn how to live with: the Torah of Sinai and the Torah of Auschwitz, and that each has validity, and each has lessons to teach us.
A Torah of Auschwitz? Is that phrase not the ultimate oxymoron? Surely, we can take pride and give honor to those who wrote poetry and composed songs even in the bowels of Hell without using a phrase like this one.
Surely we can stand in awe of those who shared their scraps of food, and those who held seders in secret, and those who escaped by crawling through sewers, and those who somehow preserved a bit of their humanity in that most inhuman of all places, without calling that world a place of Torah.
How can we talk of a Torah of Auschwitz? Is not such a phrase a desecration and a perversion of the whole Jewish tradition, which stands on the Torah of Sinai?
And yet, Hammerman declares that our perception of God, of ourselves, and of our purpose in the world will be transformed when we begin to see them through the prism of Auschwitz. The Torah of Sinai has not been abrogated, but we will understand it differently in confrontation with one that is sometimes much harsher and sometimes much gentler: the Torah of Auschwitz.
The rest of this book is a description of some of the ways in which these two Torahs differ and yet are intertwined. Hammerman tells us how he and his traveling companions found once-abandoned synagogues all over Eastern Europe now rebuilt with the names of every single person in their community who was killed by their Nazis inscribed upon their walls.
In some cemeteries, they found tombstones that had been overturned and desecrated with swastikas, but in others they saw tombstones that have been restored and repaired so that the names that are inscribed on them will not be lost.
They remembered the words of Simon Wiesenthal, who said that he envied those who were fortunate enough to have graves instead of just being thrown into rivers or into ditches. And he envied even more those that had sunflowers planted on their graves, because the sunflower is known in European folklore as the flower that remembers.
Hammerman recounts that the young people on this trip came away from this experience with the determination to be sunflowers to the next generation. He says that when you listen to a witness, you become a witness. 
And so these young people resolved that when they came to Yad Vashem they would look up the names of these people in the archives, so that, when they got home, they could tell their congregations the stories of their lives, and not just their deaths.
Hammerman finishes this account of all the different collections of names that they saw wherever they went with this turnabout on one of the mitzvahs that is found in the Torah of Sinai. When they came to Berlin, they saw bricks on the sidewalks that you could stumble over, and therefore could not help but notice. These bricks are called stolpersteine, which literally means, “stumbling stones.” Each one is inscribed with the name of the person who once lived here, who was taken away to his death from here, a name that must not be forgotten.
The Torah of Sinai says that you must not put a stumbling block before the blind, for if you do, you may cause him to fall. The Torah of Auschwitz says the very opposite: that stumbling blocks make people look down and see the names of those whose names they would rather not see.
The Torah of Auschwitz says that you must put a stumbling block before those who want to pretend they are blind so that they will have to come to terms with what happened here. And then it goes one step further, saying that it is a mitzvah to put a stumbling block before those who want to pretend that they are blind to suffering – not only then and there but here and now as well.
You will not be the same after you have read this disturbing book. It will force you to see God as the One who was with us in Auschwitz, who suffers with us, and who needs us.
Brace yourself to read a book that is sometimes painful, sometimes funny, and often inspiring. Brace yourself so that you can acquire a whole new perspective on who we are and what our purpose is. Brace yourself, even though you will put this book down many times along the way and wish that it were wrong. Brace yourself because you will learn that we are all survivors and that perhaps God is too.


The philosophical, religious lessons of Auschwitz

Fred Reiss, Ed.D

WINCHESTER, California – The title of Joshua Hammerman’s book Embracing Auschwitz is incredulous. How can a rabbi, a pulpit rabbi charged with comforting his congregation, in light of the continental genocide and devastation inflicted on so many families, known as the Holocaust, and understanding the Jewish nation has a God-given obligation to obliterate the Amalekites, the biblical archetype of evil, ask us to accept and welcome this malevolence? The conundrum is resolved before one begins to read a single chapter. Hammerman, stressing there is nothing positive about the Holocaust, invokes his interpretation of the word “embrace” by quoting Abraham Joshua Heschel: “There are three ways we respond to sorrow. On the first level, we cry; on the second level, we are silent; on the highest level, we take sorrow and turn it into song.”

Embracing Auschwitz is the story of two competing Torahs—the Torah of Mt. Sinai and the Torah of Auschwitz. The Torah of Sinai demands Jews become a holy people by following its commandments, thereby possessing a true moral and ethical compass, and standing as a source of righteousness to the nations of the world. The Torah of Auschwitz reinterprets biblical dicta, particularly Deuteronomy 30:19, “I have set before you this day life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” Through dozens of stories, tales, and vignettes, Embracing Auschwitz proclaims the Torah of Auschwitz’s message: “The ultimate goal of Judaism is to defeat death and enable life to emerge triumphant.”

The Torah of Sinai demands that Jews live, meaning remain alive, through its laws and ordinances (Leviticus 18:5). The Torah of Auschwitz perceives this decree differently, it’s not about living. Hammerman tells the story that during a Cholera epidemic in 1848, Rabbi Israel Salanter, directed his followers to disregard the fast of Yom Kippur to preserve their health, and “famously, ate in front of them.” According to Hammerman, Hitler believed Darwinism meant the strongest survive. He was in error. Darwinism says the adaptable survive, and so does the Torah of Auschwitz. ”

Sean Spicer, first press secretary in the Trump administration, in January, 2017, at the very beginning of that administration, stressing the depravity of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people said, “We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II. You know, you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink into using chemical weapons,” which of course he did—Zyklon B—against civilian, particularly the Jews in Auschwitz. The Torah of Sinai, through rabbinic commentary, argues there are seven types of thieves, the worst is one who deceives people. The Torah of Auschwitz, saying Holocaust denial is the worst—it is the “canary in the coal mine”—demands the commandment to eradicate Amalek is really “about keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust.”

One more illustration. The Torah of Sinai requires separation, whether the little known commandment not to blend wool and linen in the same garment (Leviticus 19:19), or the profound segregation of people into “the chosen” and “not chosen.” Hammerman writes, “The Torah of Auschwitz compels us to eradicate those boundaries. I believe we have entered a world of connection rather than separation and distinction.” He calls it moving on from kosher (separation) to kesher (bridge); from the old and the new.

The Appendix, presenting a digest, a summary, of forty-five “mitzvot” gleaned from the Torah of Auschwitz, insists, as Hammerman adeptly notes, that because the history we call the Holocaust is at the heart of being Jewish, the first obligation of Jews is embracing the role to be “surrogate witnesses as the last of the actual witnesses, the survivors, depart. Embracing Auschwitz is a skillfully-crafted argument to do more than “never forget,” it demands we actively “Remember”.

Fred Reiss, Ed.D. is a retired public and Hebrew school teacher and administrator. His works include: The Comprehensive Jewish and Civil Calendars: 2001 to 2240; The Jewish Calendar: History and Inner Workings, Third Edition; and Sepher Yetzirah: The Book That Started Kabbalah, Revised Edition. He may be contacted via

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