Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The Iron Curtain

On March 5, 1946, barely one year after the end of World War II, recently-defeated British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, delivered a speech entitled, “Sinews of Peace” at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, in the presence of U.S. President Harry S. Truman. The speech laid down the gauntlet in the early years of what would be called “The Cold War,” describing the need for the West to contain the Soviet spread of Communism. The Cold War would be the main feature of US and British relations with the USSR from the mid-40s through the USSR’s dissolution in 1991.

In his “Sinews of Peace” speech, Churchill declared: "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an ‘iron curtain’ has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow."

While Churchill was many things, a Talmudic scholar he was not. His world-famous phrase “Iron Curtain” became analogous with the Soviet autocracy around Eastern Europe. He had no idea that the Talmud used the term ‘chomah shel barzel,’ literally, an iron barrier or wall, in several places.

A passage in the Talmud (Brachot 32b) teaches, “Rabbi Elazar stated, from the day the Temple was destroyed, an iron wall separated the Children of Israel from their Father in heaven, as it states “And take an iron pan, and set it for a wall of iron between you and the city…” (Ezekiel 4:3).” Rabbi Elazar laments that animal sacrifice no longer provides atonement for sin, and the Children of Israel’s ability to communicate with God and repent is also challenged. He claims that although the Temple’s destruction brought with it the sealing of the gates of prayer, the gates of tears will forever be available and open to us. The “iron curtain” will forever represent the diaspora Jew, knocking on heaven’s door, but unable to enter.

Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” spoke about spheres of influence that would take direction from the autocratic regime in Moscow. The rabbis’ description of a metal barrier has far greater consequences. Although Churchill did not live to see it, the Iron Curtain fell pretty easily. The barrier between humankind and God, however, can only be penetrated by heartfelt petition and supplication.

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