Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Where Were the Rescuers? A Message for International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Today is the wrong day for commemorating the Holocaust. The United Nations first adopted an International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27th in 2005; Silvan Shalom, then Israel’s Foreign Minister, championed this much overdue initiative.  The date of January 27th was chosen to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz, in order to honor the Allied efforts on behalf of the Jews. And that is precisely what’s wrong with this date; before the liberation, there was apathy, insensitivity and abject failure.

The Allies had multiple opportunities to do something - anything - to save the Jews of Europe, both before and during the war. The Evian Conference of 1938, the Karski Report of 1942 and the Bermuda Conference of 1943 all came and went, and the Allies continued to do nothing. The plight of the Jews of Europe was ignored.

Larry Weinberg, who was a past President of AIPAC, tells of his experience as an American GI during World War II. Larry was asked to meet with a Jewish member of the resistance who had been hiding in the forest. Larry proudly explained to the man that he was a Jewish soldier, and had come to liberate him. The man spit in Larry’s face and shouted: ‘You came too late!’.  The Allies did too little, too late, to help Jews in Nazi-controlled territories. If we are going to choose a date to mark the international response to the Holocaust, it should commemorate one of the conferences and meetings when the world refused to act, and chose to look on while Germany murdered Jew after Jew.

The genocide of six million required the complicity of the entire world. Even the Allies, who were fighting for the cause of freedom, did next to nothing to save the Jews. And this raises one of the most painful questions about the Holocaust: where was man?

During the Holocaust, humanity failed, 6 million times over. My mother didn't speak much about her experiences in  the Holocaust; but she would tell us about one episode that happened right after she arrived in Auschwitz, because it shocked her so deeply. A mother and daughter were talking to each other, and a Nazi, observing their obvious affection for each other, shot the daughter in front of her mother’s face. What shocked my mother was the complete lack of emotion the Nazi showed, as if he was taking target practice.

Eliezer Berkovits explains that before we wonder where God was during the Holocaust, we need to ask where was man. Why God allows bad things to happen to good people is a disturbing theological problem, but at the same time, we understand that our knowledge of God is limited. It is far more difficult to comprehend how our fellow man can be so cruel and bloodthirsty.  How could the Nazis perpetrate these indescribable crimes? How could the rest of the world look on? Neither a sophisticated culture, nor Christian values, nor the utopian ideals of the 20th century prevented Germany and her helpers from perpetrating the greatest genocide in history.

The Holocaust reminds us that our faith in man is misplaced; and this lesson is thousands of years old. This week’s Torah reading tells about the surprise attack by Amalek on the weak and wandering Jews in the dessert. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that Amalek despised the needy and held the spiritual in contempt; to Amalek, it is power alone that matters.

Our job is to struggle against the Amalek ideology, generation after generation. There is a tendency to underplay pronouncements of hatred as “mere rhetoric”; that is a mistake. As the Jewish people have learned, time and again, those who promise violence should be taken at their word.  And at the same time, we also must find more Jethros.

Right after the attack of Amalek, the Torah tells us about the visit of Jethro. He travels from Midian, and offers support to his son-in-law Moses and the freed slaves. The 12th century Rabbi, Abraham ibn Ezra explains that Jethro’s story is told immediately after Amalek, in order to show another side of humanity: there are those who are unconditionally helpful and good. Man is capable of inhumanity, but also capable of heroism. And we must remember the Jethros who stand up for what is right.

Yad Vashem has been recognizing the Righteous Among the Nations since 1963. There are 27,712 such people who are recognized, even though there certainly many more people who helped save the lives of Jews. These rescuers include people Oscar Schindler and Irina Sandler who saved thousands of lives. Personally, I am drawn to the less famous rescuers, uneducated rural peasants who saved lives without thinking twice.

Years ago, a friend of mine was visiting Yad Vashem while there was a ceremony inducting a rural Polish couple into the Righteous Among the Nations. The couple were being interviewed about what they had done, and they were asked why they risked their lives to rescue Jews. The answer was so moving in its simplicity:

They (the Jews) were running, and they needed a place to stay. So we took them in.

That is the lesson for today. All of the well educated men in the U.S. Department of State had less heart and heroism than this simple couple. We need to learn from this couple that if people need help, we need to be there for them. In times of moral crisis, we need to think less, talk less, and do more.

And we need to get there on time.




Tuesday, January 26, 2021

You Never Move On, But You Must Move Forward

Thursday, January 21, 2021

I Don't Want the Coronavirus to Make Me into a Better Person


Rabbi Harold Kushner was a successful suburban rabbi when his three-year-old son, Aaron, was diagnosed with progeria syndrome, a disease that leads to premature aging. This meant that Aaron wouldn't live past his teens, and Aaron died in 1977 at age 14. Four years after Aaron’s death, Kushner published the international best seller When Bad Things Happen to Good People, and went on to become an author and lecturer whose wisdom touched millions of people around the world.

During an interview in 2012 he was asked to imagine what might have been had his son not gotten sick. Kushner rephrased the question:

Would I have rather had a normal child, and ended up being a mediocre rabbi who never had a book published in his life?…

Yes, I would go for that in a moment.

I want to reflect on this question for a moment. Let’s put aside the morally unthinkable suggestion of sacrificing a son for any form of success. But what about suffering?

Should we embrace it as beneficial to spiritual growth?

There is no question that our sorrows and hardships are a springboard for personal transformation. Professors Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun coined the term “post-traumatic growth” after observing that many of their trauma patients had reinvented themselves in the aftermath of a major tragedy. They had grown in terms of their strength of character, relationships with others, perspective on life, appreciation for life, and spirituality. When Rabbi Kushner made this remark, he was well aware that his son’s illness and death had made him into a better person and a better rabbi. And that is why he felt it important to make explicit the awful thought that sat at the back of everyone's mind: maybe this horrible tragedy had turned out to be a good thing for him.

We are, perhaps, too comfortable with suffering because of the role it plays in Jewish thought. The Talmud speaks of “afflictions of love” -- that God brings suffering upon innocent, righteous people to help them achieve greatness. And the concept of a nisayon, a trial and test of one’s spirit, is found in the Bible, and the test itself makes one into a better person. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that the Hebrew word for nisayon is the same as the Hebrew word for raise up (nissa), because a test raises you up. The bitterness of suffering is itself the silver lining that carries untold blessings.

There is a practice that we perform each year at the Seder that reflects the positive side of suffering. In our Torah reading we are introduced to the Seder rituals of the Korban Pesach (Passover Sacrifice), Matzah and Maror (bitter herbs). The Maror represents the bitterness of slavery, while the Matzah and Korban Pesach commemorate freedom and redemption. The Talmud tells us that Hillel would wrap the Pesach, Matzah and Maror together, something we call Korech. At first this seems extremely strange; why would we wrap the symbols of freedom and slavery together? The Sefat Emet explains that Korech offers recognition to the reality that the bitterness of slavery became foundation for a future Jewish identity. Seen this way, the Maror, the experience of slavery, is actually a positive and an important stage in the spiritual growth of the Jewish people.

But the other rabbis in the Talmud dispute Hillel’s view. Some medieval commentaries interpret the rabbis as saying that Matzah and Maror must always stay apart and remain distinct rituals.

I believe this second view carries with it an important message: we must never romanticize suffering. When we speak too easily about suffering being an agent of self-improvement, we forget that our priority is to prevent suffering in the first place. Our obligation is to see death and distress as our enemies, an irreconcilable evil that we can never accept. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik emphasizes the fact that mourners are required to tear one’s garments, sit on the floor, abjure all joy, and only focus on their grief. This makes clear what the Halakhic response to suffering is: we don’t accept it, don’t feel comfortable with it, and don’t see it as good in any way. Rabbi Soloveitchik writes that one must never acquiesce to evil, make peace with it, or condone its existence. This is the polar opposite of the Korech point of view; the bitter herbs of suffering should never take a place of honor, and belong far away from symbols of joy.

It is our ethical responsibility to battle the Angel of Death, and stop the spread of death and destruction. This can be done even in the aftermath of a tragedy. When Rabbi Kushner looked back on his book years later, he explained that he wrote it to redeem the memory of his son. In a preface he added to the second edition, Kushner writes that he was proud of the fact that I have told the world the story of Aaron's life and death…... it is apparently the fear of many terminally ill children that when they die, they will be forgotten because their lives were too short... to be worth remembering. We had to reassure Aaron that his life was too precious for us ever to forget. I wrote this book in part to keep a promise to my son. Writing When Bad Things Happen to Good People was part of his battle with the Angel of Death.

Occasionally, a sermon or an article gets sent to me about the virtues of coronavirus and the concomitant post-traumatic growth, as if the coronavirus was a sort of spiritual cosmetic surgery, painful, but worthwhile. These sermons often have authors who've never experienced suffering themselves; people who have suffered don’t talk this way. I find these articles to be disturbing. Yes, there is post-traumatic growth.  Yes, there is an obligation to respond to evil with goodness, but one must never, ever, make believe that Maror tastes sweet.

In the Talmudic passage about “afflictions of love,” it tells how the third century sage, Rabbi Yochanan, was suffering from an illness. His colleague, Rabbi Chanina, visited and offered to miraculously heal Rabbi Yochanan. But first, Rabbi Chanina asked: “Is your suffering dear to you?” Perhaps Rabbi Yochanan appreciated the spiritual glory of suffering, and wanted to continue with his afflictions. Rabbi Yochanan offered a terse response: “Neither the sufferings nor their reward.” We never seek the reward of suffering. We never glorify suffering. We never accept suffering.  Maror is always bitter, and may it stay far away from us, always.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Between Karl S. and Pharaoh: A Meditation on the Limits of Grace


Can one forgive the unforgivable? This is a question posed by Simon Wiesenthal in his book The Sunflower. During the Holocaust, he was interned in a small concentration camp near his hometown of Lemberg. One day, he and the other prisoners were brought in to clean out the medical waste from a makeshift hospital; the hospital was actually housed in the technical high school that Wiesenthal had attended. A nurse pulls him away from the other prisoners and brings him to Karl, a 21-year-old SS officer who had been injured in battle and was on his deathbed. A year earlier, Karl had taken part in an atrocity in the Ukraine. Hundreds of Jews were crammed into a house, and then he and his comrades threw grenades into the house until everyone inside was dead. Karl describes the anguish of his victims; guilt ridden by the mental images of the torture he inflicted, he turns to Wiesenthal and asks him for forgiveness on behalf of the Jewish people.

Wiesenthal is uncertain how to respond to Karl, and remains silent. He returns to his fellow concentration camp inmates, and that night they debate what he should have done. The Sunflower, which was published in 1969, is Wiesenthal’s account of his experience, along with responses from multiple theologians and intellectuals.

The responses sift through a variety of questions. Can you ever bestow forgiveness on behalf of others? Who has the right to offer forgiveness on behalf of the victims of murder? Was Karl actually contrite? Does offering forgiveness to Nazis undermine our vow of “Never Again”?

Many of the responses disagree, and at the heart of the disagreement is a simple question: Can this mass murderer ever be forgiven? Some argue emphatically for the importance of forgiveness. Cardinal Franz Koenig, the Archbishop of Vienna, writes that "This was an opportunity to put forward an act of almost superhuman goodness in the midst of a sub-human and bestial world of atrocities." Father Edward A. Flannery, a Rhode Island Priest who was a leader in Catholic-Jewish dialogue, went much further. In the 1976 edition of the book he wrote: "While conscious of the vast differences in the respective situations and culpabilities involved, we may ask whether Wiesenthal and his advisers did not themselves participate in Karl's sin." Yes, Flannery is saying that Wiesenthal’s refusal to forgive Karl is a sin! (He omitted this sentence in a revised essay for the 1998 edition.) On the other side is the view of those who see forgiving a horrific crime as a crime in itself, something that perverts the concept of justice. One proponent of this view is the author Cynthia Ozick, who ends her essay with the following words:

"Let that SS man die unshriven.

Let him go to hell.

Sooner the fly to God than he."

Wiesenthal's dilemma engenders intense debate because it sits at the fault line of two theological concepts: justice and repentance. To extend forgiveness to a mass murderer is an injustice; by offering him your grace, you disrespect his victims. At the same time, it is impossible for us to turn our backs on repentance. Ezekiel reminds us that this is what God wants of sinners: “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” The value of repentance is intuitive; all humans make mistakes, and all of us must overcome our failures. Without a second chance, we would sink into the abyss of moral failure.

Justice and repentance both make sense. Justice represents our way of restoring moral order to the world, and the criminal must be punished even if they are apprehended years later. But repentance is also part of the moral order. Rav Soloveitchik explains that the forgiveness bestowed upon a Baal Teshuvah, a penitent, is more than an act of divine grace. The Baal Teshuva has transformed his identity, and deserves to be judged according to his new reality.

It is precisely for this reason that justice and repentance are at a tension with each other. Repentance looks at a snapshot of the person’s soul, and who they are today. Justice looks at the totality of a life, and all actions, past and present, are judged equally. Both lay claim to our sense of right and wrong; the Baal Teshuvah deserves our respect for what they have become, yet the criminal deserves to be punished for what they have done. We can overlook this contradiction in ordinary lives, with ordinary transgressions. But when a mass murderer decides to change his ways, the contradiction looms large, and that is why Wiesenthal is stymied by Karl’s request.

Perhaps the best response to Wiesenthal's dilemma was written 750 years before the Holocaust. Our Torah reading tells us that during the ten plagues, God hardened Pharaoh's heart and didn’t allow him to change his ways. Maimonides struggles with this narrative. Free will is a foundation of Judaism; if so, how could God take away Pharaoh's free will? Maimonides answers that Pharaoh and others like him are so evil that God punishes them by preventing them from repenting.  There is a limit to how far repentance extends, and Pharaoh, Karl, and their ilk are undeserving of repentance.

When I first read The Sunflower, my intuitive reaction was that Simon must not forgive Karl; I feel the same way now. The horror of the Holocaust is so overwhelming that the thought of extending forgiveness for any of its perpetrators is impossible. This is very much in line with Maimonides, who reminds us that easy forgiveness will ultimately undermine the cause of justice.

However, this simple answer is not so simple. Maimonides is not the final word on this question. Many other commentaries, such as Seforno, defend free will, and assert that Pharaoh could have repented. To assert justice unequivocally has costs as well, because we would then lose our own sense of forgiveness and generosity, and with it, our humanity. In the end, the dilemma of Pharaoh’s heart remains without a satisfactory solution, because we cannot live in a world without justice, and we cannot live life without repentance.


Thursday, January 07, 2021

Blaming Other Jews for Anti-Semitism

 Was Pharaoh an anti-Semite? It depends on how one defines anti-Semitism. Hating Jews in the way you would hate other foreigners simply wouldn't be anti-Semitism; it would be ordinary xenophobia directed at Jews. For this reason, anti-Semitism is defined as something uniquely extreme: either a hatred based on fantasies that have no grounding in reality, or a singling out of the Jews for extreme hatred, more than any other similar group. There is a bitterly biting Jewish quip that "anti-Semitism is hating Jews more than absolutely necessary," because what defines anti-Semitism is not the hatred, but the irrationality of the hatred. For this reason, the Canadian academic Gavin Langmuir defines anti-Semitism as "chimerical assertions, with no kernel of truth."

Would the first Pharaoh who initiated slavery have been an anti-Semite? At first, he seems like an ordinary xenophobe, hoping to abuse and enslave a group of immigrants. But then a different type of hatred sets in; the Egyptians are “sickened” by the Jews. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch argues this goes beyond even ordinary anti-Semitism. The Egyptians didn’t only hate the Jews, they couldn't tolerate their very existence; if an Egyptian saw a Jew, it would ruin their entire day. Anti-semitism begins here.


Pharaoh remains an inspiration for later anti-Semites. The Egyptian priest, Manetho, who lived in the 3rd century BCE, depicts the Jews as savage, treasonous lepers who were ejected from Egypt because of the harm they did. This slander is repeated by others in the Greco-Roman world, including the historian, Tacitus. One can safely say that Pharaoh was an anti-Semite if he inspires other anti-Semites.


Jews have never forgotten the hatred of Pharaoh. In the Survivor’s Haggadah, which was written in a Munich displaced person’s camp by Yosef Dov Sheinson, and illustrated by him and Miklos Adler, the horrors of slavery in Egypt and the Holocaust are merged. One page of the Haggadah features the line, “We were slaves to Hitler in Germany.” Illustrations of a child being torn away from his mother, the smoke of the crematoria, and the slave labor all retell the Exodus story through the eyes of survivors. Each time the story of anti-Semitism adds a chapter, we remember where the world’s longest hatred began.


If Egypt is the beginning of anti-Semitism, it is also where an ugly aspect of Jewish history begins: Jews blaming other Jews for anti-Semitism.


The Talmud (Nedarim 64b) connects a series of episodes in Moses's life to two renegades, Datan and Aviram. They inform Pharaoh that Moshe killed an Egyptian taskmaster, and they bitterly rebuke Moses after his initial mission fails. They say to Moshe:


May the LORD look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers—putting a sword in their hands to slay us.


In short, Datan and Aviram blame Moshe for Pharaoh’s reaction and preach loyalty to their Egyptian taskmasters. Moshe is blamed for Pharaoh's anti-Semitism.


The accusations of Datan and Aviram foreshadow some of the ugliest debates within the Jewish community throughout the years: Is the behavior of Jews responsible for anti-Semitism? In Germany in the late 1800s, multiple authors, including Hermann Cohen, argued that the Orthodox Jews, with their commitment to the Talmud, Jewish law, and Jewish nationalism, stoked the flames of anti-Semitism. They felt that the anti-Semites hated Jews because they were different, and that the “Jewish Problem” would be resolved once Jews let go of these “moldy” and unpleasant beliefs and practices. Some Orthodox Jews had a response of their own. They argued that the non-observance of the reformers actually caused anti-Semitism, both because it threatened the religious beliefs of other Germans, and because it caused religious Germans to lose respect for Reform Jews. Marcus Lehman, the editor of the Orthodox newspaper The Israelit, wrote in 1880:


These anti-Jewish movements should finally open the eyes of our Reform heroes and convince them that by seeking to imitate others and by casting off religious duties and ordinances we by no means gain the respect and love of the other peoples. On the contrary, they respect us only when, even under assured freedom, we cling to the Judaism that demands numerous sacrifices and imposes many an abstinence; and when, under full emancipation, we preserve the old well-known modesty. If we tread this path, the entire anti-Jewish movement will certainly cease and, undisturbed, we shall enjoy the blessings of a liberal age.


In short, members of both the Reform and Orthodox factions blamed each other for anti-Semitism. These assertions are built on the assumption that if only Jews could change, anti-Semites would stop hating us. But this loses sight of what the phenomenon of anti-Semitism is at its core: an incoherent, irrational, unconditional hatred. Pharaoh, despite enduring plague after plague, refuses to free the Jews. Millennia later, Hitler will divert sorely needed resources from his war effort, so he can continue to murder the Jews. Anti-Semitism is a hatred without reason, a fury without cause.


Datan and Aviram think Moshe is provoking Pharaoh’s hate. Sadly, Pharaoh’s hate continues unabated through the generations, no matter what Jews do or don’t do. Of course, Jews can criticize Jews; and there are many times when we must do so. Jews can and should debate with other Jews. But we must never rationalize anti-Semitism or protect anti-Semites, and we must never, ever blame Jews for anti-Semitism.