Never has the sense that a great obituary can encapsulate a life in a few well-chosen sentences been more apt than in the recent New York Times obituary for Rabbi Ephraim Oshry.
He was a Lithuanian Talmudic scholar who, during the Holocaust wrote down his Jewish legal responsa on paper torn from cement sacks and buried them in cannisters to be removed after the War and subsequently published in several volumes.
I am not an Orthodox Jew. In fact, I often find myself in fierce disagreement with Orthodox practice and beliefs. But spirituality knows no denomination or affiliation. And Rabbi Oshry was a deeply spiritual and courageous man. After all, his secret life as a Talmudic scholar could have easily ended up with his neck at the end of a rope in the death camps.
The obituary cites several of Rabbi Oshry’s remarkable dicta defining how to live a good life during and after the Holocuast. One resists with a gun, another with his soul. There you have it…simple yet deeply powerful. Need anyone say more?
A young woman asked after the Holocaust if she could remove the Nazi tatoo from her arm. Rabbi Oshry answered, ‘No’ because it would erase a memory of the great crime, which was exactly what the evildoers wanted. The mark of a profound ethical teaching like this is that while it takes a clear, strong moral position; it does so in full knowledge of the inherent moral ambiguity in choosing the better of two horrible choices (leave the tatoo or remove it).
Unspoken in this passage is the woman’s position. Obviously, the tatoo causes her deep, psychic pain. She believes that removing it might eliminate at least one of her daily reminders of the horror of her past. Surely, that must count for something in weighing a halachic response? Yet, Rabbi Oshry comes down squarely on the side of the general over the paricular. Better to live one’s life thinking of the greater good of the Jewish people rather than the lesser good of one’s own individual existence. I admire the moral certainty of the Rabbi’s conclusion, while I do not share it myself. In this teshuva or responsum there is great moral tension and you do not feel that the woman’s predicament has gone unconsidered. Such was the profundity or Oshry’s spiritual outlook.