Encore Archive

Welcome to Encore, the place where you will find the latest thoughts and reflections by CLAL faculty and associates on topics of the moment. Each week you will find something new and (hopefully) engaging here!

To access the CLAL Encore Archive, click here.
To join the conversation at CLAL Encore Talk, click here.

The Holocaust as Temptation

Arnold Jacob Wolf (Sh'ma 9/180, November 2, 1979)

Almost twenty years ago Congregation Solel in Illinois, where I was a rabbi, began a yearly weekend of Holocaust commemoration. We read the names of the martyrs, studied the work of Hilberg and Poliakov, debated Arendt and Bettelheim, dramatized Elie Wiesel and Anne Frank, made replicas of the camps and charts of the six million, wept, agonized, reflected, pondered. I have no regrets about having been among the first and the most persistent teachers of the Holocaust, there and later at Yale, but I do have serious doubts about what has happened to our study in those twenty years.

Holocaust Now Overshadows All Else

I recently attended a session led by children of survivors who told the story of how they had been raised with secrecy, shame and silence about what had been done to their parents and how they slowly, painfully recovered their own heritage and have since become active and involved,Jews. But they were, unfortunately, not telling the truth. They are not, in fact, active Jews. They are victims of false consciousness who, like many of us, simply because we feel the tragedy and talk about it, believe ourselves to be "good" Jews. The Shoah (holocaust) became a surrogate instead of a reminder.

In the several years since New Haven has had (the first anywhere in the United States) a public edifice commemorating the European tragedy, most Jewish community events have taken place around the Memorial statue. No matter the nature of the convocation (defense of Soviet Jewry, anti-Palestinian, fund-raising) the Memorial became the normal place for Jews to get together. Needless to say, that gave a rather strong negative slant to the nature of Jewish unity and made it more charged than it need otherwise have been. The Holocaust is, in more than one sense, the center of our Jewish self-consciousness. One wonders, inevitably, what that kind of centrality signifies to our younger children who, living in apparent freedom and affluence, sense their community's growing preoccupation (if not monomania) with Hitler's Europe.

Overemphasis Blurs Vision

Inevitably, enemies of the Jews, or even normal rivals, become assimilated to the Nazi image. Arafat is Hitler; Brezhnev is Hitler; even Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael turn into Eichmann or Himmler. The danger in this kind of thinking is that we blind ourselves to real and rational dangers by equating them with a presently unreal and/or different one. We have come to think of the PLO as nothing more or less than the S.S. and cannot understand why most others see it as a rather fanatical but quite typical "liberation" movement, not much different from the Algerian rebels or, for that matter, from Begin's Irgun (who also murdered innocent people). We are not seeing Palestinian nationalism, but Nazi genocide and therefore, meet a serious challenge with blind and hysterical misperception.

Judaism is More Than Holocaust Studies

If we are led to think that the Shoah is incomparably the most decisive and instructive event in the four millenial history of the Jews, it will necessarily color and contaminate all of our views. The Book of Deuteronomy, Rabbi Akiba, the Kibbutz must all pale into relative insignificance in the attention of the Jewish school or synagogue. One does not now learn about God or the Midrash or Zionism nearly as carefully as one learns about the Holocaust and one surely does not care nearly as much.

Several of our best theologians have become concerned about the Shoah to the virtual exclusion of any other kind of problem. Richard Rubenstein has drawn the logical conclusion that Judaism as a religion is finished and that only a neo-paganism, freed from the pretensions of heilsgeschichte (sacred history) can now save the Jews. In a kind of Nietzschean super-Zionism, he turns the tables of the Torah over and substitutes a religion of terrified blood solidarity for one of the covenant and Messianism. If the Holocaust is absolutely decisive, as it is not only for Professor Rubenstein, how could we possibly still wait for Redemption or obey the Commandments? The purpose of Judaism is to teach Jews how to survive their enemies, in the process of which we shall, of course, have to become more like them than we have ever been. The Jewish religion is a survival kit for Rubenstein's traumatized survivors; who of us feel no need of that?

Can Survival Be Our First Commandement?

Emil Fackenheim, once our most subtle and learned philosopher of Judaism, has given up speaking about anything but the threat to Jewish existence, as a crusade which came to seem necessary to him, especially after the Six Day War. What that event taught him is not that the State of Israel is relatively safe and powerful, but that our people remains as alone and undefended as it was in the days of Hitler. We must, accordingly, forget our trivial differences of theology and practice, which are no longer really worth debating, and merge into one single self-defense unit against our enemy, the whole non-Jewish world. We are commanded to give Hitler no posthumous victories, and, while it is not entirely clear nor obvious precisely what these might be, it is most apparent that we must strengthen Israel's military position and the political viability of world Jewry. To remember the Holocaust means to expend our best efforts in trying to prevent its recurrence (with no certainty of success). Jews are not only all survivors now, but also all potential victims, into the endless future. How could anything else (like Kantian and Jewish ethics or the philosophy of the Midrash, about which Fackenheim had written exquisitely) be mentioned in the same breath with the eternal war against the eternal Amalekite, a perpetual conflict with a whole world that, in Cynthia Ozick's phrase, wants the Jews dead.

Despite their very real differences, these two most influential constructions of the Holocaust share a basic conclusion. We must turn Judaism into what it has never been before; an instrument of war fare against our enemies. What was always a way for Jews to serve God must now become a self-interested use of faith to insure that we are not undone by our enemies. Hitler has bequeathed us the newly preeminent commandment to survive.

Humanity Not God Poses Ultimate Problem

Many Christian theologians have become preoccupied with the Holocaust with very mixed results. Instead of confronting the basic issue of Christian complicity, as Rosemary Reuther has done, most of them prefer to work out some complex, obscurantist theodicy, with the consequence that the dilemmas and passion of their work is transferred to extra-terrestial realms. I do not believe the alleged silence of God is early so pressing an issue as the all-too active deeds of men. God gives us freedom, Judaism insists consistently. He permits evil, even the most dreadful evil. Suffering of the kind that Auschwitz symbolizes is not an accusation against God; it is a warning about human sin. In one sense, the Holocaust is a trivial issue, easier to "understand" than cancer or a typhoon. God could not prevent Auschwitz and still leave man free to do good. In another, anthropological sense, it is the supreme question of history. Not why did God let it happen. Rather, why did people make it happen? The hard question for Christianity and for all of us is not the death of God, but the relentless, continuing cruelty of mankind.

Perpetuating Victim Mentality Has Dangers

The personal consequences to Jewry and to other people of what we have made of the Shoah are dangerous indeed. If we seem to ourselves and to others as victims more than anything else, or, in order not to be victims, as oppressors, then we dangerously construe our future in the light of a one-sided view of our past. A Jewish child, bombarded by images of dying children, with no clear message of the life Jews live, did live even in Hitler's Europe, might well opt out. No healthy person chooses to be a perpetual victim; no good person would willingly spend a lifetime fighting against others who might someday be, though they are not yet, our enemies. A Christian world that sees Jews as perennial sufferers and nothing else, will not see much wrong with going on doing us in.

Shoah Can't justify Our Own Abuse of Power

There is a strong neo-assimilationism in our midst. It takes the Shoah as the model for Jewish destiny and, in struggling against it, takes arms against all humanity. It accepts all the worst accusations of the anti-Semites and builds upon these canards a new, angry and militaristic pseudo-Zionism. In order to survive, we shall assume power in the only ways power can be achieved - at the end of a gun-barrel or by Machiavellian manipulation of other groups for our own interests. There is no shame in proclaiming ourselves to be our ultimate concern. "Never again" means nothing more or less than. "Jews first - and the devil take the hindmost."

Sensitive and religious Jews are appalled by this option, and often drive deeper into a hermetically sealed privatism in which they are protected against choosing to be either victims or persecutors. They see that politics can be murderous, so they choose to be apolitical. They fear that Israel must either colonize a million Arabs, support Somoza, the Shah and South Africa, or be destroyed, so they create islands of soft-hearted non-Zionism in the belly of Jewish America. They fear the holocaust is always now so they surrender a terrifying present for a timeless and a historical mysticism.

Politically, the consequences of our Holocaust-centered life are even more dangerous. Every small dissent is built into a life-threatening danger. We believe no one has suffered as we have (but where are the gypsies and the Armenians now? Or the millions of dead in Cambodia and Indonesia), and therefore our claim on the conscience of mankind is limitless. Chauvinism is the preferred alternative to acquiescence and no third way is even imaginable. American Jews are asked to choose, once and for all, between abject assimilation and the blanket endorsement of intolerable reaction.

Can We Survive Our Remembrances?

The reticence of our greatest minds to write about the Holocaust is, I believe, emblematic. Heschel, Agnon, Buber - all survivors - wrote about the Shoah almost only by indirection. Their silence speaks volumes of tact and agony and love. So, too, does the patient historical work of Raul Hilberg, Yehudah Bauer and the new generation of scholars at Yad Vashem. They resolutely demythologize the Hitler period. Thoughtful Orthodox rabbis in the Agudat Yisrael, forbid even the use of the term, "Shoah, " preferring hurban Europa which firmly sets the terrible events of our century within an authentic and millenial Jewish framework. Insisting on the utter incomprehensibility and uniqueness of Auschwitz, as Elie Wiesel does, makes it impossible ever to deal with or to transcend. There are many ways to avoid a painful issue; one of them is to be tempted by it into triumphalism paralysis, hysteria or suicide.

A new Jewish educational group with which I have much sympathy on other grounds, has now produced a simulation game called "Gestapo: A Learning Experience about the Holocaust." The educators tell us we can "experience the events of 1933 to 1945. As during the shaoh, only those who are clever, wise or lucky will survive."

I am not sure that we will be clever or lucky enough to survive this kind of assault. The Holocaust comes back, not tragedy this time but diabolical force. God did not bring us to Aushwitz; He cannot or will not save us from ourselves.

To join the conversation at CLAL Encore Talk, click here.
To access the CLAL Encore Archive, click here.