English-language calendars translate Yom HaShoah as Holocaust Remembrance Day, but the Hebrew word shoah and the Greek-derived word holocaust don’t mean the same thing – not even close.
Shoah means a calamity or catastrophe, something devoid of God’s presence. It was this word, along with the Hebrew word churban (destruction), that was used by contemporary European Jews to describe what was happening all around them. Jewish documents and reports of that era also use the word shoah as did the pre-state Jewish Agency for Palestine. Shoah is the word used in Israel today, as well as among European Jews.
But the word holocaust means something very different.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, holocaust is derived from two Greek words – holos (whole) and kaustos (burnt). The first definition is “a sacrifice wholly consumed by fire; a whole burnt offering.” The Hebrew word for such a sacrifice is not shoah, but olah, a complete offering to God made by fire. And there are good reasons why we don’t call this day Yom HaOlah.
The earliest non-Jewish use of holocaust to describe the mass murder of the Jews of Europe goes back to the 1950s, although some sources can pinpoint such a use in the mid-1940s.
The key words for this discussion are sacrifice and offering, and that makes the word holocaust fraught with theological implications. In using it to describe the murder of millions of Jews the word holocaust implies three interrelated and very disturbing questions: who was sacrificed, for what reason, and to whom?
Should we infer from the use of the word holocaust that millions of Jews were sacrificed to God? Why was this sacrifice made and by whom? Did God accept the sacrifice?
If the answers to the first two questions are yes, we must then assume that the sacrifice had some purpose, as all sacrifices do. If the answers to the first two questions are no we are left to wonder why we are using the word holocaust.
Among Jews, for whom the end to the practice of human sacrifice was codified in the Book of Genesis when God provided Abraham with a ram in place of his son Isaac, the very notion of millions of lives given as an offering for any reason, and the acceptance by God of such an offering is not only abhorrent, it is theologically untenable. Yet for Christians, the idea of human sacrifice, or more accurately, one human’s (or divine human’s) sacrifice for a higher purpose, is at the core of their belief, as is redemption through sacrifice.
The word holocaust turns the murder of Jews during World War II into a Christian, not a Jewish event. Did the death of so many Jews have a higher purpose? Was it God’s plan that Jews should continue to be punished for the so-called crime of refusing to accept Jesus as the messiah?
Christians may be comfortable with the concept of rebirth following physical destruction. Indeed Christians may feel at ease with the premise that so many Jews were destroyed and then reborn, so to speak, in the form of the State of Israel. Not only does it absolve them of complicity in the Shoah and the centuries of persecution, murder, segregation, and forced conversions to Christianity that preceded it, but it serves as a means of fulfilling their prophecies.
The use of the word holocaust as it has become generally accepted to describe the murder of millions of Jews during World War II carries with it a constant replaying, whether intentional or not, of the basic Christian story – redemption or rebirth through a human sacrifice to God, and the rebirth of Jews into a new covenant with God, through the sacrifice of one of their own.
But this is most definitely not a Jewish concept. Indeed a lifetime of using the word holocaust notwithstanding, many Jews now reject it in favor of shoah once they are made aware of the theological implication.
Christians may find it difficult to accept their faith’s complicity in the vicious murder of millions of Jews, and in order to mitigate this they may take comfort in wresting something good from it i.e. Israel. By doing this Christianity attempts to impose the same theological agenda onto Jews that led to the Shoah in the first place…that a Jew can be murdered for the crime of being a Jew, but an entirely new life awaits after redemption through death. In reality it is just another form of forced conversion.
Parenthetically, it is no coincidence that some evangelical Christians, nominally some of Israel’s strongest supporters, also perpetuate this notion and their support for Israel on this basis is disingenuous: their sole purpose in supporting the modern sovereign Jewish state is the hope that all Jews will find their way there in fulfillment of Christian prophecy. They’re eager for a whole lot more Jews to be sacrificed so that the world can be redeemed. The recent Jews for Jesus (an oxymoron if there ever was one) YouTube video showing Jesus as “just another Jew” being sent to the gas chamber at a Nazi death camp only underscores the point.
The word holocaust is a theological affront to Jews, and an insult to the memory of those who were murdered, a shoah is what actually occurred.