Tuesday, January 22, 2008

No, They Weren’t Animals

A distraught mother, being shoved onto a train to the death camp Treblinka, leaves her baby on the ground, hoping a stranger will save her. Franciszek Zabeki, a Polish railway worker, describes what happened next:

“In no time, an SS man ran up…seized the child by its feet, and smashed its head against a wheel of the wagon. This took place in full view of the mother, who was howling with pain.”

How do you describe someone who takes joy in splitting open the heads of babies? The horrific actions of the Nazis defy comprehension. It would seem natural to call the inhumane perpetrators of these killings “animals”. But it would also be wrong.

By calling the Nazis animals, we’re actually letting them off the hook. Animals are instinctive beings without free will. Animals are unable to choose between right and wrong, and cannot be held responsible for their actions. While the brutal murderers of the death camps were inhumane, they were still as human as you and I. Unlike animals, the Nazis could have chosen otherwise, because they had free will.

Free will is an intimidating idea. The 12th century Jewish philosopher Maimonides sharply opposed astrology, (a respectable discipline at the time) because he understood that the belief in astrology negated free will. A future that is already decided devalues personal initiative. In actuality, this subversion of responsibility is precisely what makes astrology attractive; with the right lucky stars, there’s no need to worry about hard work and difficult choices. That is why multitudes of people, from ancient times until today, continue to follow the zodiac, sure it will predict the course of their day. It’s much easier to suppose that our destinies are in the stars than to accept the responsibility placed into our own hands.

Responsibility is an annoying burden. We’d prefer to imagine that our failures have been forced upon us against our will. In the 12th century, a person could blame the stars for his faults. And, as science has progressed, so has our ability to craft ever more sophisticated excuses for our own failings. Criminals have already claimed diminished capacity due to the psychotropic effects of eating Twinkies or MSG. In a short while, DNA tests and CAT scans will be used to “prove” that criminals were compelled to act the way they did.

No doubt, a clever defense attorney could have crafted similar arguments for the Nazis, explaining that really they were helpless animals who killed because they had no choice. But the Nazis were not animals, and we have the pictures to prove it.

A photo album assembled by Karl Hocker, the chief assistant to the Commandant of Auschwitz, catalogued the lives of the S.S. officers stationed there. Hocker’s pictures capture the Nazi’s gentler side. Here, they kick back at a country resort, where they socialize with the female auxiliary of the SS, conduct sing alongs, and sun themselves on the porch. Of course, in a moment of holiday spirituality, they painstakingly decorate the Christmas tree.

What struck me about these photos was their utter banality. Here are jovial, good spirited people enjoying life, eating blueberries and drinking schapps. While viewing photographs of Hocker playing with his dog, I felt a twinge of empathy for him; he didn’t very seem different from me at all. Of course, if a time machine had dropped me into that very same photograph, Hocker wouldn’t have hesitated to shoot me dead. This regular, dog loving guy was a genocidal murderer.

Yes, the Nazis were regular people like you and I. They cried at funerals, loved music, and laughed at jokes. They were not animals at all. Yet despite being normal human beings, they made horrific choices. These average Joes chose to be genocidal murderers.

The idea that all of us stand one bad choice away from being as evil as the Nazis is a sobering thought. But the burden of personal responsibility means that we have to be ever vigilant in our pursuit of virtue, and remember that we can’t blame our mistakes on the stars, or on the Twinkies.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Continuity vs. Unity

Maintaining continuity and unity are the two greatest challenges facing the Jewish community.

Jewish unity is slowly disintegrating. Post –Shoah feelings of Jewish solidarity are now gone. Divisions over matters of religion and political affiliation have even lead to violence. Books like A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America and Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry chronicle the growing tensions between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews in North America. In Israel, religion has been politicized, with religious and anti-religious parties stoking an atmosphere of mutual contempt. And of course there are the political tensions related to Israel’s foreign policy, which led to the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin. With the Jewish people seemingly breaking apart into warring tribes, Jewish unity is a serious problem indeed.

At the same time, Jewish continuity is perhaps a more serious danger. Simply put, North American Jews are disappearing into a fog of assimilation. Study after study deliver bad news about Jewish affiliation: a 50%+ intermarriage rate, a 50%+ rate of indifference to Israel, and an all around lack of interest in Judaism. But the news gets worse; every one of these studies show the rate of assimilation growing among younger Jews. If these trends keep up, soon there won’t be any Jews left to fight with each other.

A barrage of sermons has been aimed at the dual challenges of unity and continuity. For a Rabbi, speaking about continuity and unity is the rough equivalent of a politician talking about motherhood and apple pie. Indeed, for the last two decades I have shouted myself hoarse talking about these two problems. Yet, what I failed to reflect on all these years is that continuity and unity are often in direct conflict with each other.

Continuity and unity raise concerns that are as different from each other as homeless shelters and country clubs. On an instinctual level, the need for Jewish unity reflexively leads us to solve communal problems with acceptance and openness, while the concern for Jewish continuity instinctively leads us to emphasize standards and strengthen the core. (Of course I am well aware that openness and warmth help with outreach efforts to the unaffiliated; but fundamentally, continuity requires standards, and standards are inherently exclusionary.)

Conflict between the interests of Jewish continuity and Jewish unity arise over issues like intermarriage. On the one hand, Jewish unity demands that we treat all Jews like a member of the family. We would then want to reach out to any intermarried Jews, and make them feel welcome in Jewish institutions. At the same time, indiscriminate acceptance of interfaith families threatens Jewish continuity, because our communal embrace can be mistook for an acceptance, even an endorsement, of intermarriage as legitimate Jewish practice. Unity asks us to open our institutions, and even leadership roles, to intermarrieds; continuity demands we support the Jewish family and roundly condemn intermarriage.

This conflict shouldn’t be underestimated. Many of the debates in Jewish life, from what should be a day school’s acceptance policies to what sort of cultural and educational programs should be funded by our Federations, relate to the tension between unity and continuity.

The continuity vs. unity dilemma effects me, (an Orthodox Rabbi involved in the broader community), profoundly. I have a deep love for both Klal Yisrael, the Jewish people, and Torat Yisrael, the Jewish tradition. So what is the proper way for an Orthodox Rabbi to relate to a pluralistic, heterodox Jewish world? The unity vs. continuity dilemma is part of my daily life.

In actuality, the unity vs. continuity dilemma is an old one, and is actually enshrined in the Jewish calendar. Hanukkah is a holiday of Jewish continuity, celebrating the survival of the Jewish tradition in an era of assimilation. The Maccabees, the heroes of Hanukkah, ignore concerns about Jewish unity when they battle the Hellenistic Jews who supported the Seleucids. On the other hand, Purim is a holiday about Jewish unity. All Jews, without exception, are included in Haman’s decree of annihilation, and the heroine is a woman who uses her secular Persian name and marries a non-Jewish king. (Indeed, the Talmud records an opinion that Esther ate pork, the ultimate symbol of diminished Jewish identity). Unlike Hanukkah, Purim is a narrative about Jewish unity where all Jews work together, with a marginal Jew leading the way. Paradoxically, despite the enormous divergence in narrative, we celebrate both Hanukkah and Purim.

There is no simple formula for integrating continuity and unity. The easiest solution would be to pick one, either unity or continuity, and ignore the other. Indeed, some Jewish groups choose to do just that. However, those of us who remain absolutely committed to both Jewish continuity and Jewish unity are choosing a much more difficult course. We will be confronted by dilemmas, and at times be insecure in our decisions. Yet we can take heart in the fact that for generations Jews have celebrated both unity and continuity, and found the courage and ingenuity to preserve both.