Reflections for Yom HaShoah

Tomorrow is Yom HaShoah, 27 Nissan – many Shuls across the British Jewish community are marking it today with Yom HaShoah Shabbat.  We said a special memorial prayer earlier and I‘d like to devote my remarks today to reflecting on Yom HaShoah.

I’d like to briefly address three very large and important topics.  Perforce I can’t do any of them justice, but I hope to provide food for thought.  I) How can we respond to the Shoah from the perspective of Jewish faith?  II) The issue of antisemitism in the light of the Shoah  III) What place should the Shoah have in contemporary Jewish consciousness?

How can we respond to the Shoah from the perspective of Jewish faith?

It took some time after the Holocaust – almost twenty years – for theological responses to emerge.  Energies were needed for helping survivors, for creating refuge in Israel; the horror was overwhelming, it was hard to fashion meaning; and there was the difficulty of speaking authoritatively and without adding insult to the unimaginable injury of the victims.  Initially the response of world Jewry to the Shoah was encapsulated by two famous and resonant words in our Sidra.  After the tragic death of his two sons Nadav and Avihu – “vayidom Aharon”.  Aaron was silent in the face of disaster.  There were no adequate words. But he heroically continued his mission as High Priest.  That was the initial response of Jewry as a whole after the Shoah – theological silence about the Holocaust, but an almost superhuman determination to continue the Jewish journey.   In subsequent decades theological responses emerged. I’m not sure that ultimately any convincing theological response to Shoah is possible, but it’s worth mentioning two important ones that were suggested by significant 20th century Jewish thinkers.

Emil Fackenheim argued that the enormity of the Shoah means the inadequacy of all the classical explanations of suffering and evil.  None of the responses given in Jewish tradition to previous disasters could work for the Holocaust.  Yet Fackhenheim insisted that we must accept that G-d was present at Auschwitz.  We do not and cannot understand what He was doing there or why He allowed it, but He was there.

Following Martin Buber, Fackenheim says that G-d reveals Himself in history through personal encounters with Jews and the Jewish people.  Revelation, understood as the encounter of G-d and man, happens everywhere and at all times – even Auschwitz is revelation. The command that Fackenheim hears from Auschwitz is: “Jews are forbidden to hand Hitler posthumous victories”.  This is Fackenheim’s famous 614th commandment.   After the Shoah, Jews are under a sacred obligation to survive; Jewish existence itself is a holy act.  To become cynical about the world and humanityis to abdicate responsibility for the world and to deliver it into the evil hands of Nazism. Jews are “forbidden to despair of the G-d of Israel, lest Judaism perish”.  Since Hitler’s goal was to eradicate Jews and Judaism, for the Jew to despair of the G-d of Israel because of Hitler’s actions would ironically be to do Hitler’s work and help in the accomplishment of his goal.  This isn’t just a natural will for survival, it has transcendental significance– Jews are commanded to resist annihilation.

But G-d is not only a commanding G-d, He is also, as we marked at Pesach, a G-d of deliverance, the G-d of the Exodus.  Fackenheim therefore argues that the continued existence of the Jewish people, and especially the establishment of the State of Israel, allows us to speak of hope and the possibility of redemption.  For Fackenheim, the state of Israel is living testimony to G-d’s continued presence in history.

A second Jewish theological response to the Shoah was offered by Eliezer Berkovits. Martyrdom and suffering are unfortunately not new phenomena in Judaism, and Berkovits explores biblical and rabbinic tradition to see if anything can be mined from them in responding to the Shoah.

Berkovits urges that in Jewish historical terms the Shoah is unique in the magnitude of its horror, but not in the problem it poses for religious faith.  The Shoah for Berkovits raises the same ancient question as previous horrors:  how could an omnipotent and morally perfect G-d let it happen?  The theological dilemma, he argues, is the same whether one Jew or 6 million are slaughtered.

Berkovits draws on the Torah’s notion of hester panim, the idea that sometimes G-d inexplicably turns His face away from human beings.  Berkovits argues that this is necessary in order for the human being to be a moral creature, since by “absenting Himself” from history, G-d allows space for the human freedom which is necessary for moral behaviour.  For human beings to be moral creatures, G-d has to respect human decisions and as it were be bound by them, to refrain from reacting immediately to evil deeds.  Freedom is always open to abuse and so evil happens. This is what philosophers call the “free will defence” to the problem of evil.

Berkovits goes on to argue that the Shoah is not the only or even ultimate Jewish experience.  As well as Auschwitz, Berkovits stresses that contemporary Jews have witnessed the establishment of the State of Israel and the ingathering of the exiles.  For Berkovits, the rebirth of the State of Israel is contemporary revelation, the voice of G-d speaking from history.  If Auschwitz and previous persecutions signified G-d’s Hidden Face, the rebirth of the State of Israel means that “we have seen a smile on the face of G-d”.

Those are, in brief, two of the best-known Jewish theological responses to the Holocaust and they illustrate how Jewish philosophers have tried to grapple with the problems the Shoah raises for Jewish faith.  But the Shoah also raises more concrete issues, which brings me to the second topic for this morning:

The question of anti-semitism in the light of the Shoah.

I’ve mentioned before that there is a striking parallel between the persecution of the Jews leading to the Shoah and the Egyptian experience we’ve just recalled at Pesach.

Nahmanides pointed out in the thirteenth century that Pharaoh was a bit worried about public opinion. His predecessor had invited the Jews to Egypt.  Also the Israelites were numerous and strong, and all-out attack  on the Jews would be dangerous. So Pharaoh proceeds in stages.  First he imposes a tax on the Israelites – a tax not of money but of labour.  Next, he secretly orders the midwives to kill the male children on the birthstools without their mothers knowing – the mothers would be told it had been a still birth.  Then, he entices his people to throw every male child into the river, but at their own risk – if the Israelite parents could prove that this had been done to their child, the Egyptian who had done it would be punished.  This was not an official royal edict:  the Torah says that Pharaoh commanded “all his people” rather than “his princes and servants” who would usually disseminate a royal command.  The government gave no explicit orders to the people but rather looked away while the Egyptian masses “spontaneously” vented their frustration on the immigrants.  Finally, the situation became openly murderous – the Egyptians would search Jewish homes and forcibly take Jewish children.
One cannot help being reminded of the staged assault on the Jewish people three and a half millennia later in Nazi Germany:

Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany in January 1933.
Anti-Jewish riots take place in Berlin on 9 March 1933.
Later that year, all Jewish shops in Berlin are boycotted; books by Jewish authors are publicly burned and Berlin hospitals are declared “free” of Jewish doctors.
In September 1935 the Nuremberg Laws come into force.
In November 1938 Kristallnacht takes place. Only after that the systematic murder of the Jews begins.

Antisemitism is doomed to ultimate failure.  As we recited in the Haggadah: shebechol dorvador omdim aleinu lechaloteinu veHakadosh Baruch Hu matzileinu miyadam.  But it can do huge damage on the way to its eventual defeat.  What we learn from Shoah and Egypt and all of Jewish history is to remain ever vigilant, because from apparently small beginnings frightening consequences can G-d forbid ensue.  Of course we should not be paranoid, overreacting to every perceived manifestation of anti-Jewish bias.  At the same time, we know from our history that anti-Semitism possesses a sinister internal dynamic. It tends to develop perniciously, snowballing from modest beginnings to monstrous proportions.
The final issue I want to address, very briefly, is:

The place of the Shoah in contemporary Jewish consciousness.

Here there is a difficult balance to be struck.  It is hardly necessary to say that remembering the Shoah is essential, indeed all the more essential as time goes on and an increasing number of those who survived the Shoah are sadly no longer with us.  Yet we must never allow the Shoah or any persecution to define the nature of Judaism.  Professor Deborah Lipstadt reminded us of this after the Irving trial.  Jewish identity, she said, must be defined by the joy of our faith, not by the suffering of the Holocaust.  How true.  When a sympathetic non-Jew looks at our people, we must make sure that he or she is able to say not only “that’s the people who have endured such terrible suffering” but also, and primarily, what the Torah says our behaviour should prompt non-Jews to say when they look at us: umi goy gadol asher lo chukim umishpatim tzadikim kechol hatortah hazot. What righteous laws that people lives by.

Yes, we were victims of terrible persecution and we must never forget it.  But our main task as Jews is to exemplify to the world the values of justice and compassion.  And when it comes to the education of children, while we must give them a sound knowledge of our sadly bloodstained history, we dare not let them get the impression that that is the essence of Judaism.  More important than them visiting the darkness of Auschwitz is that they bask in the light of our reborn State of Israel.  We need to bequeath to them a Jewish vision of depth, beauty and above all joy – in the words of Psalm 100, ivdu et Hashem besimcha.  And then one day, please G-d, though they will faithfully pass on the history of our suffering to their own children, they will convey to them first and foremost the simcha of our Jewish heritage, and they will teach them that despite everything, am yisrael chai, the Jewish people and its faith live.

For further reading

Emil Fackhenheim, God’s Presence in History (New York, 1970)
Eliezer Berkovits, Faith After the Holocaust (New York, 1973)