As we enter Holocaust Remembrance Day 5772, we’ve now passed the 70th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference, where the Final Solution was designed, and with it, we’ve reached a crucial milestone in the history of our remembering the Shoah. In the Talmud, 70 years is considered a full life-span, as in the story of Honi, who planted a tree and then slept for 70 years to see that tree bear fruit. We’ve now reached the point where very few survivors remain to tell the story firsthand. The events are now history, and the question before us is how to keep the anguish immediate while a new layer of moss covers the bloodied, sacred ground. We have, for lack of a better term, a Holocaust continuity problem.
We also have, for lack of a better term, a Jewish continuity problem (we discarded the term years ago without managing to solve the problem). Over the past few decades, Jews in this country have been mobilized to the task of ensuring that there will be Jews around in a few generations, so that, among other things, the Holocaust will be remembered. In a real sense the two continuity problems are intertwined. The one should be aided by the resolution of the other. That’s how it appears in theory, and that’s also what I believe.
But that’s not what everyone believes. We are now in the midst of a serious tug of war within the Jewish community, one that has caused great anguish to survivors and their descendants, and one that has serious implications for the future. Simply put, there are many American Jews who think that our preoccupation with Holocaust education has completely overshadowed other elements of Judaism that we must convey to the next generation. As monuments for the Shoah spring up in many American cities, with vast museums having opened over the past two decades in Washington, Los Angeles and elsewhere, with Steven Spielberg having gathered testimony of 50,000 survivors for his high-tech oral history project, as award winning films and scholarly works about the Holocaust continue to dominate our American Jewish agenda, and as enemies at home and abroad continue to deny that the Holocaust ever happened, do we risk losing everything else in the process? There is no doubt that Holocaust education has been a smashing success when compared other aspects of Jewish education; and that has led some to question our communal priorities.
In the words of Ruth Wisse, a professor of Jewish literature:
If there were to be museums for Jewish civilization, I would have no problem, but to have major Jewish museums consecrated to the destruction of Jewry seems to me exceedingly perverse. What does it communicate to American Jews? What person of dignity, what person of noble Jewish spirit, what person who believes in the eternity of Israel, wants to be presented to his fellow Americans primarily, if not exclusively, through the prism of the destruction of a third of his people?
Sociologist Jack Wertheimer adds:
The focus is on the destruction of Jews. There’s a lot more American Jewry can learn from European Jewry prior to the Holocaust than from the destruction of Jews. I don’t know what of a positive nature can be learned from all that.
And Jewish leader Malcolm Hoenlein states:
We have to give young Jews positive experiences, not just tsuris. We have to share with them the excitement, the joy.”
This is an issue that hits the most sensitive of nerves, especially among survivors, who have dedicated their lives to nothing less than the goal of keeping the memory alive, of not letting the Shoah become a footnote of Jewish history. For these are the statements of committed Jews, some of our brightest scholars and greatest leaders. In a world of limited funds the debate it is bound to rage, and it tends to divide along generational lines, only increasing the pain of those who have suffered the most, the ones who have made the greatest sacrifices, who have dedicated their lives to bearing witness.
Sinai Judaism and Holocaust Judaism
Jacob Neusner, the prolific historian, explains that there are now two Judaisms for the American Jew — yes there are endless varieties, but basically two strains, which are, on the surface, irreconcilable. On the one hand, there is the Judaism of Sinai, and on the other, the Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption. As Neusner describes it, the Judaism of Sinai, with its Adam and Eve, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, slaves in Egypt, Moses on the mountain, sanctification in the here and now and salvation at the end of time, flourishes alongside the Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption, of Auschwitz and Israel.
The Judaism of Sinai plumbs the depths of our being human in God’s image, and the other, as he puts it, reaches into that sore surface of Jewish life. One speaks of a universal redemption with the Jewish people being agents and catalysts; the other speaks of the Jewish people being redeemed from the clutches of the outside world. One worldview is based on a God who hears us and saves us from Egyptian bondage; the other is based on a silent God, who either chose not to help us or was incapable of doing so. It is hard to reconcile the two. But that is exactly what we must do.
Let’s begin that process by saying clearly that any Judaism to emerge out of this era of total destruction must place the Holocaust experience directly at its core, or it will not be authentic; it will fail to speak to our need to confront this black hole in our history. But just as it cannot ignore or deny the abyss, it must also speak to our religious need to affirm joy, beauty, renewed life and at least the possibility of a responsive divinity, or it will not survive.
We’ve got to find a way to bring our children to the museum in Washington, and they all must go there, and take them out of it and dance a hora on the National Mall — not defiantly, not out of spite, not to deny Hitler an posthumous triumph, but because they love being Jews, for all the positive reasons, as well as the responsibility to bear witness. Let’s make the task even more difficult: Our goal should be nothing less than for the next generation to see bearing witness not as a burden, but as a privilege, an honor, and yet another source of pride in who they are.
It won’t not be easy, but I believe it can be done. I believe, now that we are 70 years beyond the initial shock, that the Holocaust can motivate our children to a positive Jewish identity — not one based on shame, on hatred, on revenge and on despair. And the Holocaust can therefore be a prime positive factor in Jewish continuity.
How can one not burst with pride at the poetry composed by those living in the midst of hell, at their dignity, at the small deeds of heroism, the scraps of food shared, the secret Seders, the fact that people could actually accomplish the most human things in the most inhuman conditions, like falling in love, and even giving birth. What makes Anne Frank so eternally appealing is her very ordinariness, her capacity to remain a child under the most sinister of conditions. How can this not be but a source of great pride?
That very heroism is what motivates us to appreciate the gift of our lives, and that reverence for life is at the foundation of the covenant of Sinai.
Two years ago I had the honor of being on the March of the Living. The March has become one of the most successful instruments in instilling Jewish identity in our youth, as thousands march through the streets of Poland, through the gates of Auschwitz on Holocaust Remembrance Day, and ultimately, on to Israel to celebrate Independence Day in Jerusalem. It is the literal reenacting of the route from darkness to light, much as we do at our Seders, regarding the original Exodus.
As exciting as this is for the participants, and as successful as it is, we must ask ourselves: What is the message that these students bring home? We know what message we bring from the Seder, for it is the basic message of the Judaism of Sinai: love the stranger, for we were slaves in the land of Egypt. It is a message of outreach and love. Yes, there is vengeance and hate in the Haggadah too, but that is not the primary thrust; otherwise it wouldn’t have lasted all these years.
And what is the message that comes from the March of the Living? “Am Yisrael chai!” Now that’s very reassuring to us, and seems to bode well for continuity to see teens so defiant, so assured, with heads bowed and fists raised. But if the message is survival for its own sake, it is not a survival that is well-rooted. Ultimately, that message won’t be enough, unless it is accompanied by the joyous refrain, “Shiru l’Adonai shir hadash,” “Sing unto the Lord a New Song.”
And that is why “Never again” is also not enough. And that is why I do not recommend March of the Living without a complementary experience that reflects the other dimensions of Judaism, whether it be through Torah study, an extended teen tour of Israel, or other youth involvement. The Holocaust can be a spark of Jewish identity and even Jewish pride, but it is not enough to ensure another generation of Jews.
When I see the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been raised for scores of Holocaust memorials and research centers in America, it doesn’t bother me at all. The memory must remain fresh. The world needs to know; our children need to know and take pride in their heritage, even as regarding Auschwitz.
But there must be a matching grant. The same amount of money must be poured into Jewish education, synagogues and day schools, into making affiliation affordable for every young family, and into programs that emphasize joy rather than victimization. It should not and cannot be one or the other; it must be one and the other.
And while we painstakingly record and teach of our tragic past, we must put down vigorously any effort to portray Jews as victims in the present. All the old stereotypes must be fought. If we devoted an eighth of the resources that we spend combating anti-Semitism from the outside to fighting self-hatred from within, the Jewish future would be bright indeed.
The Holocaust will be reinterpreted
It is not Auschwitz that keeps Jews from wanting to remain Jewish; it’s the fact that young Jews think of other Jews as shallow and materialistic. When they run away from their heritage, it’s not the Holocaust they’re running from; it’s the image of Jews that our society presents. It’s not just that we haven’t given them enough of the joy and the enrichment of Torah; it’s that we’ve given them too much of our own neuroses, our guilt, our anger, our own shallowness. It is not the Nazis who threaten Jewish continuity; the enemy is us. We’ve got to get out of our collective mood of self-deprecation, and that has less to do with Auschwitz than with our previously uncertain status on the fringes of American society.
Auschwitz will reside at the core of the next generation’s Judaism, but we must understand this — the Holocaust will be reinterpreted. The facts will remain the same — they must — but the lessons will change. Just as the exodus from Egypt must be reinterpreted “b’hol dor v’dor” (in every generation) so will the Shoah. It is hard to imagine discussing these events with fewer tears, but they will. It is hard to imagine the bitterness dissipating, but it will. It is hard to imagine anyone coming to reaffirm the joy of Judaism through these darkened binoculars, but they will.
At some point, in a generation or two, the Judaism of Sinai and the Judaism of Auschwitz will merge, and the result will be a new Judaism that we cannot yet imagine. Our perceptions of God will likely be transformed in the process. As will Passover, Yom Kippur and kashrut; as will Jewish peoplehood and tzedakkah, as will Israel and our notion of social action.
It is up to us to give our children all the tools that they will need to do the job; not to worry that they will blow it — even if they can’t possibly feel our pain the way we feel it. And when the tears cease to fall, we can’t shock them artificially; we can only allow the magnificent monuments, museums and collected survivor testimony speak for themselves. We’ve got to let them work it out with God for themselves.
Just as the Torah instructs us to “proclaim liberty throughout the land” during the year of jubilee, as we pass that 70-year milestone separating us from the Shoah, it is now time to proclaim joy, proclaim life, and lay claim to the future. If you are a Jew, it is OK to smile again, it is OK to celebrate life, but it is not OK to forget. We must enable our descendants to do what Elie Wiesel says he has spent his entire adult life trying to do: turn “No” into “Yes.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel said:
There are three ways in which we respond to sorrow. On the first level we cry; on the second level, we are silent; on the highest level, we take sorrow and turn it into song.
Jewish peoplehood will not be assured until our great-grandchildren begin to take the darkness of the Shoah and turn it into a song. That would be the most fitting memorial to our martyrs — and a guarantee that their precious memory will be preserved.