Dear Rabbi Fried,
I was outraged to hear the video containing the comments of the Orthodox Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi who maintained that only some 1 million actual Jews were killed in the Holocaust, since the assimilation rate was so high, 80 percent of the so-called Jews killed weren’t really Jewish(!)
Besides clearly being totally off with regard to the assimilation rate (i.e., the 3 million Jews of Poland were barely assimilated), does he mean to say that an assimilated Jew is not a Jew? Is that what Orthodox Jews believe?
I agree that the comments you mention were infuriating, besides being incorrect. This rabbi’s words are also being taken out of context and what you question about his statement was not actually ever said, so let us clarify what was indeed said, and what is incorrect about that, and also what was not said.
Rabbi Mizrachi somehow came up with a miscalculated intermarriage rate of 80 percent throughout Europe for some 50 years before the Holocaust, and extrapolated that to come to a grossly mistaken conclusion that 80 percent of Europe’s Jews were, in fact, not halachically Jewish, as that percentage were born to non-Jewish mothers. How he managed to make such a gross error and to promulgate that huge mistake by relating it on air is beyond anyone’s understanding, as he is well-known as a scholar who normally relates only well-researched material.
Mizrachi himself has issued a public apology to all Holocaust survivors and to the entire Jewish world for having made such a foolish statement (meant, in context, to show the danger of intermarriage in today’s world). In fact, only some 5 percent of those murdered as Jews may have not been halachically Jewish, a number which is totally irrelevant in the bigger scheme of things.
One leading Holocaust scholar and survivor has issued his own statement that the survivors of the world do not accept his apology, because his statement, albeit admittedly a mistake, has opened up a Pandora’s box to be relished by all the Holocaust deniers of the world who are always seeking to minimize the claim of 6 million murdered.
To whatever extent that is true, it is incumbent upon Mizrachi to do his part to rectify the ripple effect of his statement, which he began by issuing a public apology.
For the sake of precision, one thing which Mizrachi did not say, and is perhaps being falsely attributed to him, is that a secular Jew is not a Jew. He did not attempt to contravene an explicit ruling in the Talmud which states unequivocally that “a Jew, although he has strayed away, is still a Jew” (Talmud, Sanhedrin 44a). This applies even for a Jew who has rejected Judaism completely, and, for example, has become a practicing Christian.
In that sense, traditional Judaism is actually on the more lenient side of the definition of a Jew than that of many Reform and Conservative thinkers who would consider an apostate to have lost his or her Judaism, now regarded as a Christian and no longer part of the Jewish people.
A leading Orthodox sage at the time of the Holocaust, R’ Aharon Kotler, was criticized by Reform leaders for investing his efforts in rescuing a community of apostate Jews from the Nazis; his response: They are still Jews! The renowned 18th-century sage, R’ Eliyahu of Vilna, once had an apostate Jew performing some repairs in his home, and invited this Jew to wash his hands and recite a blessing before eating bread. The apostate laughed at the rabbi, exclaiming that he was now a Christian and those laws no longer applied to him.
The rabbi replied, with great conviction, that he considered him a complete Jew, and washing and reciting a blessing applied to him as to any other Jew!
Upon hearing these words uttered by this holy man, the apostate repented and fully rejoined the Jewish people.
Dear Rabbi Fried,