Tuesday, April 09, 2002
Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky - a liberal rabbi whom I am just getting to know but already greatly admire, has posted an interesting piece in the most recent bulletin of Congregation Ansche Chesed, where he serves as rabbi, on the subject of Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is today. I have been trying to get my own thoughts together on the subject, and his essay has provided me with a good opportunity to do so.
I have many of the same reservations as R. Kalmanofsky about Yom Ha-Shoah. I have never liked the Zionist allegory that its placement in the month of Nisan implies. I have never liked its proximity to Passover any more than its proximity to Yom Ha-Atzma'ut, Israeli Independence Day. But then, I have never been happy with any of the attempts to "make sense" of the Holocaust, and, without it making sense, how can it be memorialized?
There are, broadly, three ways that the Holocaust has been understood by Jews, all of which I reject. I will call them: the Agudah-nik (for Agudah, the political organization of strictly Orthodox Jews), the BJ-nik (for B'nai Jeshurun, an ultra-left-wing and very influential synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan), and the Betar-nik (for Betar, the Revisionist Zionist youth organization).
For the Agudah-nik, the Holocaust was just another disaster to befall the Jewish people. Like other disasters, it is caused by our sins, and if we repent of our sins we will not have such disasters befall us. Perhaps the sin was Reform Judaism and its repudiation of the Talmud. Perhaps it was atheism, or Communism, with their denial of God. Perhaps it was Zionism, with its determination to "ascend the wall." Or perhaps it was something less overtly political: lack of fellow-feeling between Jews, or malacious gossip, or the lapsing of kashrut observance. Really, there are so many sins, it's a wonder we haven't all been shoved into gas chambers.
I reject this view for three reasons. First, it makes God a monster. Who could worship a God who would murder one million children because some of their parents ate pork? Second, it is incoherent. If God wanted to punish sinners, why did he unleash his destruction particularly among the righteous? Why were the secular bastions of Israel and America saved while the yeshivah students and rabbis of Eastern Europe were burnt to ash? Third, it is presumptuous. The Agudah-nik view is precisely the view of Job's comforters - you must have done something to deserve all this punishment - and God himself repudiates that view as presumption, and says that the comforters spoke not rightly.
For the BJ-nik, the Holocaust is just the worst abuse of power in a long history of abuses of power. The meaning of the Holocaust is that power is evil, and the Jews, above all, must refuse power because of its potential for evil. There is a story from one of the death camps, that one day a guard forced a rabbi to pull him around on a horse cart, while the guard whipped him and cursed him and laughed at him. Asked how he could stand being abused in this way, the rabbi replied, in effect, far better that I should be pulling the cart than riding in it. This is the Ur-Holocaust story for the BJ-nik.
I reject this view for three reasons. First, it is dishonest. The people who hold this view have no intention of being martyrs to powerlessness. Rather, they are safe and secure within their bourgeois cocoons, and from this privileged vantage point they can refuse not power but the responsibilities of power. Second, it is unethical. There is no virtue in allowing evil to triumph. But once you talk about resisting evil you are talking about using power, and therefore about the responsibilities of using it rightly. Third, it is false. The horror of the Holocaust is not about how powerful the Nazis were and therefore how they were led into evil. It is about how evil they were, and how they were allowed to seize power.
For the Betar-nik, the Holocaust is just the most horrible of calamities to befall Israel in the Diaspora. The Betar-nik takes the exact opposite view of the BJ-nik: the Holocaust is a story about power, about what happens to you when you have no power. The meaning of the Holocaust is that Jews must never allow themselves to be slaughtered again - and, therefore, that they must never allow themselves to be powerless again.
This is the most palatable of the three understandings, and it is the one that has dominated over the past 50 years. But I reject it for three reasons. First, it is soulless. If the meaning of the Holocaust is that anyone powerless is in danger of being systematically murdered, then we truly live in Hobbes' world. There is no room in this world for good will between people, or for any values save survival. It is a view that would make sense to many survivors, because it describes the world inside the camp. But the world is not a death camp, and we should not view it as one. Second, it is Godless. Judaism is founded on a series of covenants between God and the Jewish people. If we have no one to rely on but ourselves, then we cannot rely on God. If God did not defend us in the Holocaust as He was bound to do, then God is dead or He has broken the covenant. Betar-ism, then, is the end of Judaism. Third, it is impossible. Zionism is viewed by the Betar-nik as the obviously necessary, though possibly insufficient, response to Jewish powerlessness: now, with our own state and our own army, we will be defended. But as we have seen, a mighty army does not mean an end to anti-Semitism, and does not mean an end to the murder of Jews. Moreover, there is no independence in this world. Israel has 5 million Jews among 6 billion people in the world. Does anyone imagine that Israel could stand against the world on the strength of her own arms alone?
A friend of mine once described the Holocaust as "meta-rational" - that is to say, he had faith that these horrible events had a place in God's plan, but he could not possibly fathom what that could be. This is certainly humble, and that is a great virtue. But I think it is insufficient. If we believe that God is the Lord of Nations, as we do, and if we believe that God has a message for us in all events, as we do, then it is absurd to say, Ah, but no message can be gleaned from the Holocaust. It is darkness leading to darkness.
At the risk of presumption, I will outline my own, tentative thoughts on the meaning of the Holocaust.
There are proper historical comparisons for the Holocaust, the most obvious being the destruction of the Second Temple. Not only was the destruction of the Temple the destruction of the center of Judaism, but it took place in the context of a Jewish revolt which, along with its successor revolt, ended with the obliteration of Jewish national life and the murder of probably one-third of the Jewish population of the time. I have sympathy with the rabbis who wanted to make the fast of the 10th of Tevet into the Holocaust memorial, or with those who wished to incorporate it into the observance of Tisha b'Av, in that either would integrate the Holocaust into the fabric of the Jewish memorial calendar, and not view it as a rupture of Jewish history. In memorializing the destruction of the Temple, we do not debate the meaning of the event. We read the book of Lamentations, which is one long cry of sorrow. And we are forbidden to study Torah except for one section of rabbinic text dealing with the destruction. And this text is very peculiar, in that it recounts how a simple social snub escalated into the inexorable decree of destruction. The sense of disproportion is manifest, indeed, is part of the point of the text, and this sense of disproportion dominates our approach to making sense of the Holocaust as well. No explanation seems sufficient; any sin we might point to seems like this tiny social snub next to the immense evil unleashed. Nonetheless, we are told, that "in the face of our sins" we were exiled from the Land and from the sight of the destroyed Temple, and we are told what that sin was that we saw before us as we fled before the destruction: causeless hatred between Jews. If we are to hold a sin accountable for such enormity, let it be this one. For all transgressions, I believe, contain within them the seeds of their own punishment, and indeed, it is not hard to see how causeless hatred between Jews could contain within it the seeds of our utter destruction.
There is another important historical comparison for the Holocaust, and that is the oppression in Egypt. Recall that not only were the Jews oppressed with hard labor, but their children (male ones, anyhow) were murdered, and the intent of the oppression was to destroy Israel's existence as a people. And a primary reason that Israel was oppressed in Egypt was so that the Egyptians could be judged for the oppression, so that God could perform the miracles of the plagues in Egypt and be glorified before Pharaoh and Egypt on account of these miracles. Now this is very strange to hear, at first, because we think of the Torah as a book in which Israel is the protagonist, and this analysis presumes that Israel is but the instrument, and Pharaoh and Egypt are the objects of divine attention. But thew protagonist of the Torah is God, not Israel, and Israel's chosen mission is not the whole of God's concern, in the Torah or in the world. God chose Israel because of her character, and He shaped her character to her mission in the world. And part of that mission is to cause evil to fully realize itself in its efforts to destroy her, to destroy God's presence in the world by destroying Israel. That is what Pharaoh attempted and that is what Hitler attempted, and both alike had considerable success before their ultimate defeat and destruction. And perhaps the reason why such horrible events transpire is that, in the wake of such a defeat, perhaps the nations that did evil would return to God.
I believe that everything is foreknown and yet that we all have free will. Humans are free to do evil; if Nazis want to murder Jews, God will not soften their hearts for them. The word of God may soften it, but only if it is heard. Inasmuch as it is comprehensible at all, the ultimate meaning of the Holocaust to me is simply that the Jewish people must speak the truth with one voice for evil to be defeated. Causeless hatred between us will prevent that voice from being heard just as much as it will (pace the Betar-nik interpretation of history) undermine the collective self-defense that is our best mundane security. But mundane security will not ward off evil and will not defeat it. Evil will seek us out, for our audacious witness - that God has a hand in history - must be denied by all those who seek evil in the lands where we dwell. And to speak the truth we must (pace the Agudah-nik interpretation of history) cleanse our hearts to serve God in truth.