Holocaust Teacher Resource Center

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Goals and Phases of the Unit

Pages 1 – 3

Goals of the Unit

To describe the lives of the Jews in the Kovno Ghetto as reflected in Rabbi Ephraim Oshry’s responsa.

To illuminate several fateful issues that Orthodox Jews confronted in their struggle for Jewish survival in the ghetto, at a time when escape still seemed possible and hope for deliverance still flickered.

To engage students in discussion of these issues, so they may arrive at their own answers.

The main problem treated in this unit:

How did Orthodox Jews contend with existential questions in the ghetto with the assistance and encouragement of Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, as reflected in his halakhic rulings?

Phases of the Unit

  1. Introduction: The teacher describes the nature of response literature and shows how it may be used as a historical source — generally and in the specific context of Holocaust studies.
  2. The students are divided into three groups, each assigned one of the halakhic problems taken up by Rabbi Oshry. A uniform eleven-item “worksheet” is given to all the groups. The items provide a foundation for analysis of the historical dimension of the issue. Each student is also given a “source sheet” that helps him or her deal with the issue at hand (a sheet with sources upon which R. Oshry based his halakhic decisions.)
  3. Each group fills in each section of the worksheet and attempts to formulate a response to the question that it was given.
  4. The students regroup in class to report on their work. A discussion is held on possible answers to the three major issues. The discussion of possible answers to the questions at hand may be summarized in table form:
    May One Place Oneself in Possible Danger in Order to Save
    Someone Else from Certain Danger?
    "Do not stand upon the blood of your fellow."The injunction "Better to die than to transgress" applies only to three situations: incest, murder, and idolatry. "Is one person's blood redder than another's?" "The commandments are to live by, not to die by "
    Saving Oneself by Purchasing a Certificate of Baptism
    Saving Oneself by Purchasing a Certificate of Baptism
    "The commandments are to live by, not to die by.""Better to die than to "transgress" -- incest, murder, and idolatry Only -- The commandment of sanctifying God's name (martyrdom
    May One Endanger Oneself for the Sake of Public Worship?
    According to Maimonides, when" threatened with mass annihilation, one must be willing to die for both positive and negative commandments.
    -- When threatened with mass annihilation, one must be willing to die for something as trivial as a shoelace.

    -- "The virtue of piety" -- to set an example for one's contemporaries
    And live by them" -- and not die by them
    "Better to die than to transgress" only with respect to negative commandments, not positive ones (religious study, public worship)

    One can pray without a quorum and in secret!
  5. The teacher reviews Rabbi Oshry’s responses to each of the questions with the students and explains the rationale of each.
  6. The teacher summarizes the main issues that came up in the discussion of each major problem presented in the unit.